Author: Sanjin Pejković
The formal frame appears already in the first scene of the film Homelands. Homelands deals with an exploration of transnational memory in the Balkans. A young woman discovers her grandmother’s mountain village, from which she escaped during the Greek civil war. The protagonist returns to the same place in different seasons, talking to people about their lives, careers, views. Her own perspective appears in glimpses throughout, until it finally grows into a spectacularly choreographed monologue. The film begins with a scene of a woman in a car. The woman wipes away a tear as Bajaga sings Zažmuri. She’s on the road towards a hamlet nestled in the mountains. It’s winter and an icy wind is blowing. From the car, the camera switches to the hilltop. We follow the car as it fights through the snow-leaden hillside. Other cars make their descent, turn, pass the young woman’s car. Everyone with their songs, in their moving boxes and their memories, everyone in their own fight through life, the snow, the ice.
Borders shift and countries change. This is something that Lenka – Jelena Angelovski – the protagonist and also the film’s producer, is aware of. Born in former Yugoslavia, she still remembers her grandmother who was forced to leave her hometown due to the civil war in Greece. The grandmother never returned to her birthplace, but she told the little girl about it. The mountain village has since been turned into a ski resort. At first glance, it doesn’t offer any testimony to the bloody, violent past that forced the grandmother into exile, and the partisan forces into defeat. But while Maksimović doesn’t hold back from grand gestures, she also doesn’t strive to identify with the one-sided image of Yugo-nostalgia. In a particular segment, she speaks about how grandma spent her life in the Yugoslavian patriarchy, which only presented itself as better than other patriarchies, and one which not even leftist ideals could ruin.
The first part of the film familiarises us with the place and the people living there, who are usually the employees of the local ski resort, while Lenka tries to learn to snowboard and goes to the ruins. The survey of the surroundings continues into the spring, showing a slower life focused more on agriculture and farming The end is reserved for Lenka’s monologue about the crimes of the past and the challenges of the future, and the themes which still link her and her grandmother. These are capitalism, the patriarchy, and the exploitation of natural resources. Besides images of the present, the film presents fragments of landscape, archive images, songs of resistance, and scenes stripped of context which meld together, making the film an experimental collection of disjointed elements. This is done intending to construct a contrasting and heterogeneous image of a country in which traces of the past and its conflicts are erased.
I found an interview with the director Jelena Maksimović where she talks about her personal history and that grandmother from northern Greece, and how she could never return to her country because she was politically compromised. The grandmother’s father was a communist, her mother Macedonian, and in the time of the civil war, they had to escape from the village. But the grandmother told her granddaughter about social equality, justice, and socialist ideals. Later, the director says she felt she had to make a film that connects her own feelings to a country that no longer exists – Yugoslavia – and her grandmother’s Greece, which she could no longer enter. The physical exile of the older generation translates to the director’s spiritual one. Images of Zemun just a few years before the war of the 90s testifies about the distant image of a country, a most likely unrepeatable idea in the time of the national divisions that have been at hand for the last 30 years. While the grandmother’s village still exists despite its ruins, the director’s Yugoslavia is no more, and proof of it ever existing is ever rapidly fading.
About 15 years ago, Andreas Huyssen wrote about the nostalgia for ruins. There he, if I remember correctly, deals with the rejection of arranging time in a fictional chronology and the frames of various narratives. Ruins are often fetishised, but can also be used to survey time that encompasses the past and the present in parallel. These two temporal determinants exist simultaneously, which at once debunks the simplistic view of temporality. I revisited Huyssen as I was watching Homelands. In passing through our factual ruins we factually relieve others’ memories, and so this time exists in parallel to ours. The filmic phenomenology of the unending world.
The film proposes an essay about the impassibility of time, about the coexistence of the past and present, the wrecks which become ruins, and ourselves as we directly or indirectly remind ourselves that it could have been different. All transcendence of memory is condensed in the intimacy of a dialogue with the past. Memory as a potentially transformative moment of imagination. A though-out, imagined, fictional past as a platform for future memories, for a necessary change, for revolutionary awakenings?
The film constantly questions the fine line between fact and fiction. It also often erases it. The director’s filmic hermeneutics directly rests upon the transnational gender and class identification – and the assumption of others’ memories. Michael Rothberg’s theory of multidirectional collective memory gets a filmic equivalent. Identifying with people from a different time is a moral act, proof that the fight persists. Proof that borders are collective and individual constructs but that the fight for freedom is universal. Unlike nationalist dogma and populist musing about collective memories, which are tied closely and exclusively to specific ethnic groups, the director proves that it’s possible to identify with and “take on” the memory of others as an act of humanity.
Homelands presents an interesting view of our ever so similar yet delimited histories. A handful of common elements and experiences which are ever further fragmenting, Balkanising. The abstraction of borders, sometimes entirely needlessly drawn, is evident in the individual rethinking of the concept of home. The film poses several questions and as every piece worthy of praise, doesn’t answer all of them. How many homelands can one have, and do they really have to be tied to our nationally determined identities? What is it that makes us the sum of our ancestors, and according to what criteria can the ruins of the past serve as platforms for the disorderly yet crucial ideals of the future?
The final scene represents a formal interruption of the observational mode. The survey of the quotidian in the little Greek village is interrupted when Lenka breaks down the illusion of a distant and invisible camera. Lenka suddenly turns to us, addresses us, we become her accomplices. She paces in a wide circle and recites the monologue as the camera follows her. The observations of the past are replaced by the reflexivity of a potential future. One in which the archival excerpts of another Greece and another Yugoslavia exist in a parallel system of possibility and desires. The impressive circle of thoughts and themes closes with a filmic rumination on, not necessarily something that’s gone, but something that, from the ashes, and the ruins, may appear.