Issue 66 (2019)

Andrei Volgin: The Balkan Line (Balkanskii rubezh, Russia/Serbia, 2019)

reviewed by Elise Thorsen © 2019

balkan line Andrei Volgin’s The Balkan Line is a 2019 Russian-Serbian co-production released for the 20-year anniversary of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia during the Kosovo War. The war film orients toward the June 1999 capture of the Slatina airport near Pristina, elaborating on a story related by Iunus-Bek Evkurov, then stationed with the Stabilization Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina (SFOR), the head of the Ingushetia Republic from 2008-2019, and recently appointed a Deputy Defense Minister in Russia. Evkurov led a special GRU task force that took the airport ahead of NATO troops, assuring a Russian presence in Kosovo following the war. The film dramatizes this event without attachment to historical accuracy, instead using it as an outline to give structure to an assemblage of relatable characters (including a cameo blessing on the film by noted filmmaker and Serb nationalist Emir Kusturica) who explore the symbolic landscape of Serbia’s Kosovo War mythology.

balkan lineThe film begins in Bosnia in 1995, introducing a Russian special ops team in media res with a radio roll-call interspersed with flashforwards to an action sequence as the team extricates from a kidnapping operation gone bad. Brief introductions present Andrei Shatalov (Andrei Pampushnyi) as leader; the sniper Vera (Ravshana Kurkova), who keeps running voyeuristic commentary on her teammates’ behavior and who is wounded before being able to shoot; Slashch (Sergei Marin), whose poor impulse control is reflected in his constant temptations to start smoking after quitting and his attempt to kill the target out of order; Kiria, a young man who loves his family and dies preventing Slashch from killing the fighter; Girei (Nodari Dzhanelidze), a Tatar who finally takes the target down; and Baria (Kirill Polukhin), an explosives expert who gives the team its chance to leave the situation. When it becomes clear that the Albanian fighter who was taken prisoner at the price of Kiria’s life will be released due to arcane negotiations within the NATO-led peacekeeping force, Shatalov throws the prisoner from the helicopter that has extricated the team. This action condemns the team to exile in Yugoslavia, as they would be held accountable in Russia beyond reasonable limits.

balkan lineIn addition to the main cast of characters, this beginning section also introduces a motif tying it to the end: the menace of NATO airpower and the need to neutralize it. An initial establishing aerial shot of the Bosnian forest appears benign and even features a beautiful CGI eagle to draw the eye to a clearing below. However, it is almost unique in showing no people or human activity in the shot, in a sense making the aerial perspective one that dangerously disconnects the viewer from human suffering. The U.S. helicopter that “controls” the Bosnian sky and, therefore, the territory in 1995 creates a direct line to the bombing campaign in 1999. In the first scene of the main body of the film, which jumps forward four years, B-52 bombers appear out of the mist above Belgrade and drop bombs, one of which the camera follows to impact. The capture of the Slatina airport becomes key to neutralizing the inhuman airpower of NATO—the team’s success is realized as UK helicopters, a visual throwback to the beginning of the film, are blocked from landing at Slatina airport.

balkan lineThe main plot of the film reassembles the team, which has coped variously in wartime Yugoslavia, for a final showdown at the airport. Commander Aslan-Bek Etkhoev (Gosha Kutsenko), a stand-in for Deputy Defense Minister Evkurov, is tasked with taking the Slatina airport from the hands of the Kosovo Liberation Army and occupying it until regular Russian peacekeeping forces can arrive. Etkhoev negotiates the team’s exoneration if they carry out the mission. While Etkhoev recruits most of the original team directly to this mission, Shatalov takes a more circuitous path to the airport. Caught in a police raid on a fencer while he is trying to obtain a Yugoslav passport, Shatalov reveals his situation to the police chief (Gojko Mitić, a Yugoslav actor lauded for his action work in GDR film), who works up a new identity for him and integrates him into the force, where he works closely with Serbian Vuk (Miloš Biković) and Albanian Fadilj (Aleksandar Radojičić). Shatalov’s more regular status offers the opportunity to explore the suffering of Serbs in Kosovo and Metohija at the hands of Albanian warlords and their Western abettors in detail, before he and his police colleagues converge independently on the airport and meet Etkhoev’s team, already there.

balkan lineWere this film primarily about the capture of the Slatina airport, its runtime would be an hour shorter. However, an apparent goal of the film is to support key elements of contemporary Serbian nationalist narratives about the Kosovo war. The NATO bombing campaign is portrayed as indiscriminate, going out of its way to bomb a maternity hospital that is visually framed as isolated in a forest and far from any legitimate targets. Violence against civilians is exclusively directed at Serbs: Vuk the policeman nearly loses control after the massacre of his home village on a holiday but overcomes his desires for righteous vengeance on all Albanians. When an intercity bus with Shatalov on it is pulled over by the Kosovo Liberation Army, the villain and warlord Smuk (Aleksandar Srečković) takes sadistic pleasure in attempting to force an Orthodox priest to declare that there is no God but Allah and shoots him when he will not. Shatalov’s love interest Jasna (Milena Radulović), a doctor who was present at the maternity hospital when it was bombed, is nearly raped by Smuk’s gang. The gang guns down dozens of Serb hostages. A Swiss doctor collaborates with Smuk for the sake of illicit organ trade preying on Serbs at the hospital. The prominence of children and pregnant women as targets of violence resonates strongly with present-day pro-natalist ideology and creates the sense that the Serb ethnicity’s future is endangered. Every digression on the way to the airport is an opportunity to explore a story that is—if not wholly made up—then dishonestly one-sided about the nature of violence during the Kosovo War.

balkan lineThe co-productive nature of this film suggests that it is a vehicle of cultural diplomacy; certainly, the film conveys positive messages about Russia to a Serbian audience. The final section of the film, the showdown at the airport, reflects a pan-Slavic microcosm explaining effective interethnic, inter-confessional relations. While the swarthy Kosovo Liberation Army members are easy to visually type as the enemy, the film is at pains to disavow that it is anti-Albanian or anti-Muslim. The film frames interethnic violence as “terrorist” by noting that the Kosovo Liberation Army is acknowledged by the UN as a terrorist organization, separating these perpetrators of violence from ordinary citizens. A scene where Girei, a Tatar, prays alongside Fadilj, an Albanian, quite explicitly offers an example of how Russian identity successfully mediates ethnic and religious difference. The scene suggests the same could be accomplished for Albanians in Serbia as for Tatars in Russia. Similarly, Vuk and Fadilj struggle with the ethnic dimension of violence in their homeland and ultimately model what ethnic reconciliation could look like, although they die at the airport before they can export this idea.

The filmmakers do not only sell a Russian Idea of multiethnic peace to a Serbian audience painted as extremely receptive and grateful to Russians in the film. The film clearly also advertises Russian military hardware. A random race, accompanied by rock music, between BTR-80 type armored vehicles assigned to the SFOR is otherwise difficult to explain, as armored vehicle acrobatics play no role elsewhere in the film.

Elise Thorsen
Independent Scholar

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The Balkan Line, Russia/Serbia, 2018
Color, 150 minutes
Director: Andrei Volgin
Scriptwriter: Ivan Naumov, Natal’ia Nazarova, Andrei Anaikin
DoP: Viacheslav Lisnevskii
Music: Mikhail Afanas’ev
Production Design: Zhanna Pakhomova, Vladislav Travinskii
Editing: Andrei Anaikin
Cast: Anton Pampushnyi, Gosha Kutsenko, Miloš Biković, Milena Radulović, Gojko Mitić, Ravshana Kurkova, Kirill Polukhin, Nodari Dzhanelidze, Sergei Marin, Aleksandar Srečković, Aleksandar Srečković,
Producers: Gosha Kutsenko, Vadim Byrkin, Vasil Ševc, Tat′iana Kuranova
Production: Upgrade Vision, Bless Film, Archangel Studios

Andrei Volgin: The Balkan Line (Balkanskii rubezh, Russia/Serbia, 2019)

reviewed by Elise Thorsen © 2019

Updated: 2019