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23 Jun 11

An Orthodox Shot of the Balkans

As Europe gets ever more secular, films about religion, ironically, seem to be gaining popularity. The latest offering from Serbia, about the Orthodox Church in neighbouring Bulgaria, is a welcome addition.

Marcus Tanner

To most people not from the Balkans, Orthodoxy is summed up by stock images: Russian churches with their cup-cake-coloured domes, the sight of a bearded Greek pop, swishing through a whitewashed village in black soutane – a background figure in a film of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Icons, of course, and clouds of incense.

More recently, Orthodoxy has gained other, less pleasing, associations – in Serbia as the handmaiden to a particularly intolerant strain of nationalism.

Russia, Greece, Serbia, and Greek Cyprus for that matter, are frontline Orthodox states, self-consciously manning the ramparts against the invading hordes of the Pope or the Prophet.

But what is the raison d’etre of the Orthodox churches in countries like Bulgaria that lie behind the confessional front line? True, Bulgaria has a small frontier with Turkey and a substantial Turkish minority - but overall its Church does not seem have quite the same nationalistic vocation as its sister churches in some other countries.

In a new film, Balkan Diaries: Bulgaria, Serbian journalist Goran Gocic takes an intriguing peek behind the veil of an ancient organisation that seems to be struggling to find its mission in a thoroughly modern secular society - where banging the nationalist drum just isn’t enough to gain a following.

Rather than covering the mainstream life of the hierarchy or what the Patriarch is up to, Gocic closes in on some oddball characters that have opted out of the mainstream to make the church the centre of their lives: a priest in the Rhodope mountains who specializes in converting Muslims; a Roma priest who has brought his community’s musical gifts into a new arena; a young woman from Latvia who specializes in youth ministry, some theologians and, finally, a winning-looking priest with a 24-carat smile who has transferred his former hypochondria into a vocation to care for the very sick.

Gocic’s approach is impressionistic and non-judgmental. Bulgaria’s rampant secularism is only hinted at. At one point, we overhear a snatch of a TV show in which the evening’s entertainment is a competition to judge “Bulgaria’s best ass”.

Similarly, Gocic gives us no real indication of whether the church is making much of a comeback in Bulgarian society with its youth outreach schemes, drugs rehabilitation programmes and newfound interest in the caring for the ill.

It’s a pity that this film goes under the rather bland name of Balkan Diaries: Bulgaria – the legacy of its original intention, which was to be just one part of a much wider project.

It makes it sound like a rather clunky road movie - not a delicate, sidelong take on a world of which most of us know little.

Balkan Diaries: Bulgaria on Belgrade’s Beldocs Film Festival

Watch the film

This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.

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