By Marilyn Ferdinand
Over the last couple of months, I was involved in a battle on a message board frequented by a relatively small group of people who have been posting together for as many as nine years. The battle seemed to be about turf–whose idea of the community’s culture should predominate. As with many turf battles, some people tried to negotiate, others bullied, others fired a few shots and then ducked, and the largest number just stayed out of it. This was one of countless skirmishes over the years; the fur flies and then settles into an unsightly dustball under the sofa until one of the members starts pawing at it again and tosses it into the middle of the room. A kind of equilibrium is always attained in which everything is pretty much the same as it was before. Because this was an endgame engagement for me, the merry-go-round will spin in future without me, but I have no doubt that it will spin to the same old song.
I mention this dynamic situation because it plays out on larger stages all over the world every day. One of the most fractious of those stages is in the Balkans. Bulgarian director Adela Peeva likely had no idea what kind of a snake pit she was jumping into when she formulated the seemingly innocent idea for “Whose Song Is This?” and then went about shooting in an impromptu fashion spontaneous reactions to her film’s title question. I’m sure, however, that this experience—like Barbara Kopple’s of being shot at by a mine company employee while making Harlan County, U.S.A—will stay with her for a long, long time.
Peeva got the idea for the film one night when she was having dinner at a restaurant in Istanbul with some friends, all of whom hailed from different Balkan countries. The band in the restaurant started playing a song, and Peeva and everyone at her table knew it from as far back as they could remember and claimed that the song was from their country. How could this be? Peeva became intrigued with the idea of tracking down the origins of the song and perhaps using it to start building ties that bind between these painfully divided countries by demonstrating that there is a foundation for a common cultural heritage.
She travels to Turkey, Greece, Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia, Macedonia, and Bulgaria. In each location, she hears people play the song and claim that it originated in whatever country is playing host to her at the time. In most of the countries, it is a love song. In Bosnia, a folk singer says she only sings authentic music of Bosnia. The song she sings includes the line, “if I were a bird, I would fly all over Bosnia.” Of course it must be Bosnian! In Turkey and Serbia, the song inspired films, the former’s reminiscent of The Student Prince, the latter’s a peepshow cross between the story of Carmen and a Bollywood musical. A number of people say they knew the woman who inspired the song, even claiming to be related to her. Other versions of the song carry religious lyrics with jihad written all over them. A few people Peeva interviews know a fair amount about music. One says he believes the song to be a centuries-old folk song that probably is Turkish.
Peeva plays the song for a group of Serbians. She picks the wrong version (Bosnian), however, and they threaten her and walk out on her. The film ends with Peeva talking to some fellow Bulgarians who are celebrating an historic battle against the Ottoman Turks. She mentions that the song might be Turkish. She is threatened with lynching. The film ends with night shots of fireworks that set a field on fire. Silhouettes of people beating back the flames with tree branches can be seen, intercut with drunken revellers apparently oblivious to the dangerous situation behind them. I don’t think there could be a better metaphor for the Balkans.
Adela Peeva, in a very homely exercise, paints an indelible and tragic portrait of what I have come to believe is a hopeless region. Perhaps for peoples so vanquished and vanquishing as those of the Balkans have been, some kind of psychic survival depends upon clinging vigorously to national identity and pride. I have to wonder, however, whether the price of mental equilibrium has to be paid with so much blood. Peeva has not found the answer, only the depth of the schism. When these and other ethnic combatants will decide that pride is an empty prize is anyone’s guess.