Ana Grgić: Early Cinema, Modernity and Visual Culture. The Imaginary of the Balkans

Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2021, ISBN 9789463728300, 278 p.

Delia Enyedi
early cinema, silent cinema, modernity, Balkans, Balkanisation, orientalism, exoticism, modernisation, travelling cinemas, film heritage, imperialism, self-exoticism.

According to Maria Todorova, a prolific researcher of the Balkan imaginary, the term ‘Balkanisation’ exceeds socio-political boundaries, signaling “a reversion to the tribal, the backward, the primitive, the barbarian” (Todorova 2009: 3). From her standpoint, academia has made use of this shift in meaning in a decontextualised manner, applying it to a variety of subjects. Having originated as early as at the end of World War I, it primarily identified the Balkans as a geographical concept, albeit describing this ‘other’ European territory as exhibiting a plurality of political, ideological, and cultural negative traits. In her new book Early Cinema, Modernity and Visual Culture. The Imaginary of the Balkans, Ana Grgić defines the region rather as a cultural entity captured at the turn of the twentieth century – a period marked by the culture of modernity sweeping Europe and the emergence of the moving pictures. This methodological approach contributes to breaking a longstanding tradition in the field of early and silent cinema studies focused on the ‘national.’

In this respect, recent studies by Canan Balan on early Turkish cinema and by Zhang Zhen on the beginnings of Shanghai cinema complement already established conceptual frameworks, most notably that of Yuri Tsivian in his Early Cinema in Russia and Its Cultural Reception. Addressing early Russian cinema, Tsivian identified and described the “train effect” as the viewer’s response to films of approaching vehicles (Tsivian 1994: 116). One of the most enduring myths at the foundation of cinema has since become a seminal instrument in exploring the reception of early films, regardless of national boundaries. By contrast, Grgić’s transnational approach to Balkan early cinema expands on the works of researchers such as Dina Iordanova and Marian Țuțui who operate in a similar paradigm. Iordanova’s research laid the foundation of approaching cinema from a meta-national perspective by drawing a connection between the Balkan wars and the cinema and media culture of the broad region. Țuțui, for example, has opted to examine the history of Romanian cinema in direct relation to that of other Balkan cinemas or to focus on the Manakia brothers as transnational film pioneers. For Grgić, the borders of the Balkan region extend from present-day Slovenia in the northwest to Turkey in the southeast and enclose present-day Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, and Turkey. She sets the temporal framework for her study from the 1890’s to the onset of World War I. It is driven by the proliferation of moving image shows in the region during the last decade of the nineteenth century and the disruption in cinema activities in Europe caused by the conflagration.

Mapping the vast territory of visual culture in the Balkans at the crossroads of modernity and the advent of moving images determines the five-chapter structure of the book. Its aim is to move beyond the string of “firsts”, “pioneers”, “lacks,” and “absences” (Grgić 2021: 24) that have been traditionally used to explain the intercultural and cross-cultural dynamics of Balkan early cinema. Thus, names of filmmakers, film entries, and missing reels are here replaced by a multi-faceted perspective. Grgić draws on the fields of art history, phenomenological epistemology, reception studies, and anthropology, and utilises defining concepts of history and aesthetics of early cinema.

The first chapter compares two experiences relating to early films separated by more than a century: that of the author herself watching them in the archives against that of the early manufacturers of the cinematic medium. A twenty-first century spectator of early cinema is often confronted with fragmentation or decay of film strips that enable haptic vision. Scratches or faded image frames activate more than the sense of sight – they allow the viewer to develop a bodily relation with the images on the screen. In Laura Marks’s terms, who coined the term ‘haptic visuality,’ this relation could be described as “touching the film with one’s eye” (Marks 2000: 162). The affective nature of this encounter is shared by artisanal early film production processes that required an intimate, tactile handling of the celluloid material.

This first chapter transports the reader back in time as they further embark on a journey through the urban spaces of early film projections, at a time when “contemplation of everyday life was being reproduced by contemplation at the cinema” (Grgić 2021: 61). As turn-of-the century urban landscapes flourished in most European capitals, their residents found themselves living through an intensified everyday experience, with cinema visits at the center of leisure extensions. Citing advertisements for cinema shows in the press of such cities as Belgrade, Sarajevo, and Shkodra, the author portrays Balkan audiences as having heterogenous traits. If the travelling cinemas programs were educational, the screenings often gathered very specific target audiences such as school children or even Muslim women. But aside from investing cinema with an entertainment or educational role, Grgić argues that cinema itself played an integral part in the process of modernisation, as it echoed the realities of urban life. For example, a coffeehouse became a social space commonly used for early film projection sites and became a key element to the plot of at least one play.

The narrative of the German three-act comedy Hans Huckebein or the Cinematograph (1897) by Oscar Blumenthal and Gustav Kadelburg revolves around a male protagonist whose love affair is recorded by the movie camera and is revealed during a projection that he is unlucky to attend with his wife and mother-in-law. Performed in various cities, including Vienna, Prague, Zagreb, and Split, the play gives an account of the role of early cinema in erasing borders, whether physical or conceptual. By retracing the trajectories of travelling cinemas, Grgić places mobility at the core of early Balkan cinema, alongside some of its most intriguing figures. One of them is Hungarian-born Louis Pitrof de Beéry, associated with the Pathé Frères company, whose early film exhibition itineraries from Vienna to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, and Bulgaria signal a paradox: the number of well-known pioneers is disproportionate to the early cinema ventures they managed. His name stands alongside the pioneering Vlach/Aromanian brothers Ienache and Milton Manakia, whose impressive photography and early film heritage preserved everyday life of various ethnic communities of the Balkans, as well as instances in the lives of historical figures.

The penultimate chapter continues exploring the Balkan imaginary in depth and delineates the self-exoticism of the region and the Western gaze upon it, as recorded on film. The author observes that the most prolific early cinema output belonged to the imperialist countries of the time (France, Germany, United Kingdom, and the US). This aspect helps explain why, despite the semi-colonial status of the Balkans, early Balkan films appealed to the sensationalist expectations of Western audiences and delivered “images of Exoticism” (ibid.: 155). For example, they often depicted various ethnic groups in folk costumes or performing traditional dances. Although lost, Charles Urban’s travelogue film series Across the Balkans is emblematic, as the press material dedicated to one of its films, Herzegovina, Bosnia and Dalmatia (1907, United Kingdom), described it as consisting of “street and bazaar scenes, the habits and the customs of the people […] illustrated in the views of typical characters” (ibid.: 166). Thus, Exoticism is the operative concept, as it is multidirectional, as opposed to Orientalism, which is geographically determined. The author also discusses self-exoticism and self-Balkanisation in relation to the images created by less known artists like the Italian exile Pietro Marubbi and the works he created in the photography studio he founded in the Albanian city of Shkodra. In this context, the fine line separating arranged actualities from reconstructed actualities takes on renewed significance given the rise of nationalism in the Balkans and the ensuing wars. As two films engaged in the nation-making discourses of Serbia and Romania, namely Karađorđe / The Life and Deeds of the Immortal Duke Karadjordje (Ilija Stanojević, Serbia, 1912) and Independența României / The Independence War (Aristide Demetriade, Grigore Brezeanu, Romania, 1912), have been preserved, the final chapter is devoted to their case studies. The similarities between the two films begin and end in their consistent efforts to consolidate national identities by recreating on screen historical moments deemed as ‘defining’. The author sums up these underlying efforts as a “desire for <our> view” (ibid.: 201).

Following Ana Grgić’s trajectory for the history of early Balkan cinema requires accepting her research premise that borders of all types must be effaced in order to best locate places, artists, or films. She works with archival materials and also uses secondary sources of reduced language accessibility, written by scholars investigating and publishing on the history of early cinema in Serbian or Romanian. They all give account of an ‘on the move’ history of cinema, whose roots are said to go as far back as the Byzantine and Islamic art and the longstanding tradition of the shadow plays and the shadow puppet theatre in the Balkans, and whose construct of the imaginary is shaped by socio-political circumstances. Among the many artists whose voices are invoked in developing the argument of Early Cinema, Modernity and Visual Culture. The Imaginary of the Balkans, that of Bulgarian cultural personality Ivan Stojanov Andreichin reflecting on the modern experience of cinema-going eloquently describes Ana Grgić’s fulfilled aim: “Seated, you are able to visit unknown places, to see races, animals, plants, monuments […] of which you have just heard. This is able to […] create out of you a dreamy drifter who longs stepping onto the unexplored land” (ibid.:100). For the book’s readers, the unexplored land becomes the multi-ethnic and multicultural Balkans that the author investigates with the goal of advocating for a culturally convergent academic approach to Balkan early cinema.

Delia Enyedi
Babeș-Bolyai University


Delia Enyedi is an assistant professor in the Department of Film and Media of the Faculty of Theatre and Television, Babeș-Bolyai University, Romania. She is the author of Janovics. Filmmaker in the Generation 1900 (in Romanian, Cluj University Press, 2022) as well as articles on early and silent cinema, film narratology, and digital cinema. Her most recent is “Janovics’ Menace: Inquiries into a Duplicated Silent Film Script”, Studies in Eastern European Cinema 12.2 (2021).


Balan, Canan. 2010. Changing Pleasures of Spectatorship. Early and Silent Cinema in Istanbul. PhD dissertation. University of Saint Andrews.

Grgić, Ana. 2021. Early Cinema, Modernity and Visual Culture. The Imaginary of the Balkans. Amsterdam.

Iordanova, Dina. 2001. Cinema of Flames: Balkan Film, Culture and the Media. London.

Marks U., Laura. The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.

Todorova, Maria. 2009 [1997]. Imagining the Balkans. Updated Edition. Oxford.

Tsivian, Yuri. 1994 [1991]. Early Cinema in Russia and Its Cultural Reception. Translated by Alan Bodger with a foreword by Tom Gunning. Edited by Richard Taylor. London and New York.

Țuțui, Marian. 2005. Manakia Bros or the Moving Balkans. Bucharest.

Zhen, Zhang. 2005. An Amorous History of the Silver Screen: Shanghai Cinema, 1896-1937. Chicago.

Suggested Citation

Enyedi, Delia. 2022. Review: “Ana Grgić: Early Cinema, Modernity and Visual Culture. The Imaginary of the Balkans.” Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 15. DOI:


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