Brett Pardy reviews Igor Drljača’s documentary The Stone Speakers, which questions what selective presentations of history for tourist consumption mean for the country’s current identity.
“My goal is to make one of the ugliest cities [Tuzla, a city of stereotypical Eastern European brutalist concrete buildings] into the most beautiful city in Bosnia-Herzegovina… Our new development strategy is tourism,” intones a man in the opening minutes of Igor Drljača’s The Stone Speakers (people are not identified by names in the film). His statement about tourism applies not just to Tuzla, but to all four Bosnian-Herzegovinan towns featured in the film: Međugorje, Andrićgrad, Visoko.
The collapse of the authoritarian Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1945-1992) into seven countries was followed by a civil war among the countries’ three different ethnic groups: the largest population being the Muslim Bosniaks, followed by Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croats. 65% of the over 100,000 casualties in the civil war were Bosniaks and an additional two million people were displaced during the war. Today, Bosnia is 51% Muslim, but The Stone Speakers suggests there is still widespread xenophobia directed toward the Muslim population. The war and its aftermath, which involved an uneven transition to capitalism, left the country with a poor economy and negative international reputation. For the entrepreneurs featured in the film, tourism offers a potential fix.
The Stone Speakers is not journalistic; it neither provides historical background nor aims to assess the specific truth of each tourism promotional strategy. Instead, the film depends a lot upon a viewer’s familiarity with the Bosnian context; it plays on implicit knowledge of the country’s history and people.
Drljača structures the film as a travelogue, visiting each town and capturing the tourist attractions in deep-focus wide shots, which often linger for several minutes. Such an approach creates a familiarity with the landscapes, giving our eyes something to do while Drljača’s interviewees, unspecified locals who promoting the towns, talk.
Each of the four towns employ different, and sometimes contradictory, approaches to drawing in tourism: Tuzla uses monuments and festivals emphasizing a legacy of resistance to fascism during World War II; Međugorje invites Catholics to visit the site of an alleged visitation to children by Mary, Mother of Jesus; Andrićgrad is a fictional town constructed for the set of a never-made film by Emir Kusturica that aims to represent the various eras of Bosnia in the mid-16th to the early 20th century; and Visoko is the home to supposed ancient pyramids where new age travelers can tap into the “positive energies”.
The juxtaposition of all four tourism strategies leaves an uneasy sense that beneath the promotion of each site’s claim to historical authenticity, something significant is being left out: Bosniak history. While the film never makes the absence of the Bosniaks an explicit theme, three of the four towns present a mythic history that presents Bosniaks as outsiders from authentic historical Bosnia. Međugorje’s appearance of Mary makes claim to an authentic Catholic identity. Andrićgrad is an idealized pre-industrial European town — albeit one done in gleaming white paint and fresh stone, emphasizing how it is a recently constructed ideal rather than a city that has weathered time. And most significantly, Andrićgrad presents a Serbian identity as the town has an Orthodox cathedral devoted to Tsar Lazar, the last Serbian emperor (died 1389). The man offering the tour of Visoko’s pyramids speaks of opposition from local Imams to the pyramid’s “energy” and the Ottomans as invaders even though Muslims have been living in the region since the 15th century.
Only in Tuzla does anyone speak of the need for unity, and the importance of accepting a multitude of ethnic groups — but this, too, is linked to a selective memory of all groups banding together to defeat the Nazis, but ignores their own nationalist war.
The Stone Speakers raises concerns that this widespread promotion of various mythic Bosnian histories in the name of tourism is causing the country to retreat into fractured, but soothing, half-truths about the country. These half-truths circumvent healing the wounds of the past, and may actually be keeping past conflict’s roots alive.