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Stone Speakers

There’s a shot that appears twice in Igor Drljača’s documentary, The Stone Speakers. From a low angle, we gaze at the steel throne of King Tvrtko of Bosnia; framed by sky, the statue’s fixed expression surveys an unseen landscape below. The scene bookends the film, first situating Drljača’s exploration of cultural mythology in history, and then challenging the historical narratives on which all those stories are built. By the end of the film, something as fixed and permanent as a statue is revealed as fluid.

In The Stone Speakers, culture and identity are negotiated through tourism. Across Bosnia-Herzegovina, a growing tourism industry is introducing new international visitors. But being a destination means having a story to tell – and a history to market. In Bosnia, this is a complicated feat. From the Romans to the Austrian-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, the region has long been shaped by a mix of cultures. Then came the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, dismantling a narrative of a harmoniously multi-ethnic society united under socialism. After all that, which kind of story do Bosnians tell to the world – and to themselves?

A religious festival in Bosnia, The Stone Speakers

Presented in a series of voiceover interviews, the film’s narratives unfold landscape and architecture. Alongside a sequence depicting a contemporary tourist pilgrimage, a priest’s voiceover describes a childhood attempt to witness the Virgin Mary in 1981 – when the government of Yugoslavia discouraged organized religion – and the subsequent post-socialist efforts to have the site recognized as a holy place.

Nearby, the disputed Bosnian “pyramid complex” is a more outlandish bit of myth-making. Dismissed as a pseudo-archeological hoax by the global scientific community, a cluster of natural hills in central Bosnia is touted as the largest collection of human-made pyramids on earth. A devoted narrator compels us to recognize the faith – if not the scientific basis – as genuine.

The film’s titular speakers are an eclectic mix of locals, but we rarely actually see them speak. Drljača introduces each speaker standing still and silent, as if part of the landscape around them. When we hear them speak, they are almost never shown. In this way, Drljača’s use of voiceovers teases out a relationship between the spoken word and the environment. Depending on who’s talking, a mountain can be a holy and otherworldly site – or just a pile of earth.

A view of Andrićgrad from the Drina.

In the film’s opening moments, the camera surveys the derelict site of a factory, as we listen to a former employee lament its decline. “I see [the factory] as a living being,” she says, reflecting on the generations of families “clothed and fed” by its wages. Like the hill of the Virgin Mary and the pyramids, it transcends its physical presence. The act of narration reshapes all that rusted steel and concrete into something greater.

As for the statue of King Tvrtko? In the film’s early scenes, a voiceover lionizes the revival of national pride represented by its completion in 2014. When the shot recurs, however, it’s accompanied by a rousing socialist address that implicitly frames the statue as a symptom of misguided ethnic nationalism. So what to make of it all?

The Stone Speakers is neither didactic nor judgemental. The film is foremost a work of historiographic metafiction, interrogating how cultural mythology is made and unmade – and how it shapes perceptions of the natural and built environment. Inevitably, we inscribe ourselves onto our surroundings.

It all culminates on the banks of the Drina river. Here, in the city of Višegrad, an audacious construction project was led by filmmaker (and two-time Palme D’Or winner) Emir Kusturica. Named Andrićgrad, the stone village was built as an homage to the author Ivo Andrić, whose Nobel Prize-winning 1961 novel The Bridge on the Drina explored the rich multi-cultural history of the region.

Kusturica’s newly constructed tourist town attempts to express the scope of Andrić’s work through a rich variety of architectural styles – including ones completely foreign to the region and time period. There’s even a mural featuring Kusturica himself, joined by tennis star Novak Djokovic. The place is historically inspired, yet its existence tells us more about the 21st century than the past. As a village based on a novel, Andrićgrad is less a reflection of history than story-telling.

In The Stone Speakers, mountains, cities, buildings and statues are never really still. The landscape is always in the process of being imagined, whether through physical intervention or cultural mythos. Even a stretch of the Drina river is revealed to now be a lake, closed off by the construction of hydroelectric dams. One way or another, Drljača suggests that we cannot step into the same river – or see the same shot of film – twice.

The Stone Speakers opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on July 26. Get tickets here.

A New Documentary Explores Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Mythologized Landscapes

Directed by Igor Drljača, The Stone Speakers interrogates architecture and landscape through the combined lens of collective memory and modern tourism.

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