When you think of Egypt, one thing that must immediately come to mind is the pyramids. They're part of the national image, and no matter what else happens to the country, historically, politically or otherwise, they will always be at the forefront of Egypt's identity. Now, when you think of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the first if not only thing that comes to mind is likely war and genocide. And that's a pretty terrible identity to have. Especially given that it's been 15 years since the end of the Bosnian War.
But what if Bosnia also had pyramids, and they were larger and older than the Great Pyramids of Egypt? This question was brought up five years ago with the globally spread story that three pyramid-shaped hills in the town of Visoko might have been man-made as early as 14,000 years ago. Now a controversial and potentially worsening matter in terms of Bosnia's image, given that there's still no proof to this idea, the real-life archaeological project and tourist destination is at the center of Steven Eastwood and Geoffrey Alan Rhodes' film Buried Land.
Reflexively a mix of narrative and documentary elements, the mainly fictional movie follows a two-man film crew as they learn about and prepare to document the story of the town and its grasp at significance. Adam (Rhodes) is the American director, a total outsider who seems more than a bit skeptical and lacks seriousness necessary for Visoko's residents to trust he won't do for Bosnia what Borat did for Kazakhstan (Eastwood and Rhodes were met with the same concern when they arrived). With him is Emir (Emir Z. Kapetanovic), a native Bosnian who's been living the diaspora life in Italy and Germany since his family fled during the early '90s. With his Brazil football jersey and little direct cultural connection to the people who remained to experience the war, he's nearly as much a foreigner as his collaborator.
At least he speaks the language, though, and he's therefore ultimately able to get a better feel for the place than Adam, who unsatisfactorily literally disappears from the plot by the third act. A beautiful young tour guide named Avdija (real-life tour guide, Avdija Buhic) assists Emir in his reconnection with Bosnia and his understanding of why these pyramids are so "important to the country." Yet it's a difficult task to communicate what it was like to then hear bombs every day as if they were a part of nature, like birds chirping in the morning, and to now comprehend how much the people need to at least believe in something else with which to represent themselves to the world.
Unfortunately, as the film notes, the world doesn't want there to be a civilization in Bosnia older than the Romans, because that messes with centuries worth of world history and knowledge. I wish that Buried Land explored this idea more, as it's a subversively titillating topic akin to what's being examined in art world documentaries like Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollack and the recent Exit Through the Gift Shop. In general, Buried Land could have used more of the documentary format to tell its story. The idea to mix fiction with non-fiction fits appropriately to the subject matter, which involves the line between truth and faith and incorporates many real-life characters, such as original Bosnian pyramid claimant and investigator Semir Osmanagic. But ultimately there's too little non-fiction format to accept the film as a real hybrid.
And that's not to say the straight "mockumentary" approach isn't overdone and would do a disservice to the story by associating it with mockery (documentary-styled fiction films really do need another classification that doesn't fit only comedies). Meanwhile a strict documentary on the subject would exclude some of the dramatic layers dealing with the characterizations of resident and diasporic national identity that initially make the narrative of Buried Land so interesting.
Not a whole lot happens in the film's plot to elevate the story above its ideas, however. Emir and Avdija don't become as involved as you'd expect (maybe because she's a "real" person and he's fiction?), and a highly staged production for the film planned out by Emir does more to show his confusion over what would make a good film than to indicate his misjudgment in how to cinematically represent the people of Visoko. In the end, there's some ambiguity to the status of the film within a film, and not in a way that seems intentional or at all satisfying.
I will recommend Buried Land as a minor jumping off point for a larger discussion of national image and identity, particularly for Bosnians, and especially as such is created through cinema. Also, the visual introduction to Visoko's pyramids is fascinating enough to possibly inspire more tourism -- I find the phenomenon worth visiting in person regardless of whether nature or man created it. Aside from their lack of legend and medieval ruins, there's no reason the pyramids couldn't have the same appeal as, say, the Glastonbury Tor in England.
Films like this are of course already a kind of tourism themselves, and if you never did get around to traveling to Bosnia for an up close look, there's great value to Buried Land's ability to bring Visoko and the pyramids -- or some positive representation of them -- to you. If you want to "visit" the region and its story without leaving home, you can do so with the Tribeca Virtual streaming version of the film, available through the end of the festival.