This morning as I drove to work, I heard a recording of Paul Robeson singing during his triumphal return to Carnegie Hall in 1958. He took on the second movement of Dvorak's "New World Symphony," set to words. The song was called "Goin' Home," and had a gospel feel (going home to the Lord). I bring this up because the song moved me near to tears (possibly some hormonal involvement) and because this adaptation of a well-known piece of music to a personal expression and experience reminded me of the film I saw last night, "Whose Song Is This?"
The director, Adela Peeva, got the idea for the film one night when she was having dinner with some friends, all from different Balkan countries. The band in the restaurant started playing a song, and everyone at Peeva's table 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 traveled to Turkey, Greece, Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia, Macedonia, and back to Bulgaria. In each location, she heard the song and claims that the song was Bosnian, Greek, etc etc. In most of the countries, it was a love song. In Turkey and Serbia, it inspired films, the first reminiscent of "The Student Prince," the second a peepshow cross between the story of Carmen and a Bollywood film. A number of people claimed to know the women who inspired the songs, even claiming to be related. Other versions of the song carried religious lyrics with jihad written all over them. A few people Peeva interviewed knew a fair amount about music. One said he believed the song to be a centuries old folk song that was probably Turkish.
Peeva played the song for a group of Serbians. She picked the wrong version (Bosnian), however, and they walked out on her and threatened her. The film ends with Peeva talking to her Bulgarian countrymen celebrating an historical battle against the Ottoman Turks. She mentioned that the song might be Turkish. She was threatened with lynching. The film ends with night shots of fireworks, which set a field on fire. Silhouettes of people beating back the flames with tree branches can be see, 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. Ms. Peeva, in a very simple exercise, painted an indelible and tragic portrait of a hopeless region.
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