When the word companion comes to mind, people mostly think of a partner, a friend, a pet. Their true companion, however, is their own self as there’s no other voice escorting them everywhere all the time. Connecting to one’s self has become crucial – how else can a person be content? That said, the Balkans Beyond Borders Film Festival’s closing curtain is that journey taken by many answering to the name of self-exploration.
It all begins with Mira Yankova’s Butterfly & Mouse (2019), a lively animation following a male character trying to get a grasp of his identity from adolescence to adulthood. Yankova has drawn a charismatic animated universe on her own that takes advantage of its medium to the very last drop. Flowing from one context to the next, years passing by, the short is full of swirling energy. Sometimes ominous, others playful, there’s no moment it stays still, as the protagonist runs from one life experience to the next, but essentially from himself. It is only when he’s brave enough to face the jazzy music (beautifully composed by Mihail Iossifov) that he realizes being something different from the stereotypical male archetype is more than okay; it has a distinct strength with its own merits.
The fluidity of thoughts and how that connects to one’s self-exploration is also depicted in Alkistis Kafetsi’s experimental short I Can’t Smell the Soil in my Head (2021). Breathtakingly beautiful cinematography gliding through mostly natural black and white shots of trees and branches. Covered in snow, there are no leaves to color anything as far as the (cinematic) eye can see. Zoomed in and out, the images on screen dance to a ruminating voice-over in Russian by Pampushny Anton and the performance of Aristoteles Chaitidis whose face is shown to spectators only twice, in intimidating close-ups forcing them to confront the intensity of his stare. Perhaps in facing him, they’re also facing themselves.
Not everyone is running away from whatever is residing within them – on the contrary, they’ve achieved self-discovery through effort and in the case of Enis Manaz’s short documentary Le Périple d’Abélla (2020) through physical pain. With an inspiring soundtrack blasting through one’s speakers throughout its 5-minute runtime, the camera follows a young woman, who having turned 25, tradition calls on her to offer her mother a hand-made gift. As the woman does not live in the small fishing town of Toubab Dialaw in Senegal, she has to travel across the country by walking, and through the water by boat to keep a promise. Motherhood is not only about giving birth, Manaz argues; it’s about finding the strength to love someone who needs you just as much as you need them.
Sometimes that very physical pain has no explanation – not one immediately understood anyway. Hyejin Kim’s Cefalea (2021) follows a teenage girl, Elira (Alba Borici), living with her father (Spartak Salihaj) and grandmother (Ateme Ruzhdia), in Patos-Marinza, Albania. It’s clear not only from Borici’s performance, but also from the short’s film score that she’s going through an uncomfortable physical strain. Adding to the equation the film’s title, Cefalea, and the definition given to the audience in the beginning, one comes to realize that she’s suffering from a chronic migraine that emerged after her mother’s death. It’s unclear whether this is a psychosomatic disorder or just a side effect from the water and soil pollution the ending refers to or maybe even both. Perhaps, Elira will have to find out on her own at some point.
It’s tough beginning a journey when it’s an undeniable truth it will have no end destination. The Self is ever evolving, so it can never be fully grasped. Some level of self-knowledge, however, is a genuine virtue that’s meant to lighten the burden of everyday life.