Michael Palin’s New Europe (Episode One: War and Peace)

Discuss and analyse Michael Palin’s New Europe (Episode One: War and Peace) into theoretical accounts of how messages are produced and dispersed, referring particularly to Stuart Hall’s ‘encoding/decoding’ theory and Robert Barthes’ ‘Myths’theory.

Dr Fatmir Terziu


Michael Palin’sNew Europeis a story from the perspective of democratic openness in Europe, and in terms of the reshaping of cultural assimilation and development.Palin’s narrative in the documentary is a clear message to this point: “now East and West have drawn closer. Countries once suspicious of visitors now welcome them with open arms” (Palin, 2007:24). An example is Albania, who as a result of its culture and communist society closed itself to other countries. The communist past was disdained for its backwardness, particularly its mentality. The new Albanian state initiated a series of drastic reforms, intended to erase and nullify the historical legacy, even though for Michael Palin’s narrative it is a question mark. Continuing his journey on a bike, Palin meets the socialist, opposition leader of Albania, also the mayor of Albanian capital Tirana, Edi Rama, who shows how his country is struggling to escape from its past communist legacy. One of the mayor's innovations was to paint the city's buildings in bright colours and to turn the city into a giant art gallery which resembles Fiske’s definition as an idea: “space is a practical place, and space is produced by the creativity of the people using the resources of the other” (Fiske, 1992:160). Palin called the painting of the city “politics with colours”, which signifies that politicians in Albania are trying to use many modern ideas to attract the West (Palin, 2007:54). This paper aims to discuss and analyse Michael Palin’sNew Europe(Episode One: War and Peace) into theoretical accounts of how messages are produced and dispersed, referring particularly to Stuart Hall’s ‘encoding/decoding’ theory and Robert Barthes’ ‘Myths’theory.

2. The Message

2.1 Myth as a system of communication

For Barthes “myth is a system of communication that … is a message” (Barthes, 1972:109). In the actual social existence, that Michael Palin’sNew Europe goes on to explore, messages have a “whole social order embedded in them as a set of meanings, practices and beliefs”, because at each step they are “the everyday knowledge of social structures, of “how things work for all practical purposes in this culture” ‘imprinted’ by institutional power relations (Hall, 1980:136; 138). In the first episode, Palin becomes familiar with Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and Albania. He travels near the Dalmatian coast and journeys across Croatia, stopping at the ancient port of Split, which causes him to explore interesting and fascinating facts about the culture of the country. This becomes “the signal of an individual history”, encoding the facts to the British audience (Barthes, 2000:125). His pilgrimage to Medjugoree, a town in Bosnia, where Mirjana Dragicevic states her feelings of her visitation from the Virgin Mary, which happened to her and her friends 25 years ago, makes another clear point about the documentary’s message overall. When Michael asks her: "Do you still see the Blessed Mary?" She answered: "Yes, every 18thof March". For Palin “the fact that Mirjana appears to be no wild-eyed prophetess, but an ordinary mother and housewife”, leaves viewers feeling somehow cheated (Palin, 2007:30). Michael Palin’s jokes and gestures during this dialogue and his provocative questions create certain stereotypes and humour that will appeal more to a British audience than anyone else; certainly the sequence is designed to appeal to a UK audience and the sense of humour will too.As Barthes clarifies: “Myth is a value, truth is not guarantee for it” (Barthes, 2000:123). More than that, it demands that Palin recognises it to be the very essence of the story. The story appeals to him directly, through perception and “distinctive moments-production, circulation… reproduction” (Hall, 1980:28). The Catholic belief in the Balkan’s past seems a political issue in the documentary.

2.2 Visual Relation; ‘historical and intentional’

As the chiaroscuro of the streets in Sarajevo ends under visual correction in Michael Palin’sNew Europe,the rest of the images mirror the complexity of the past with the problems that this society has today. For Barthes “it is at once historical and intentional; it is the motivation which causes the myth to be uttered” (Barthes, 2000:118). The sound from the mosque and the voice of the Muslim clergyman accompanied with the images of the past and the present, give a clear meaning that a message can only be received at a particular stage if it is recognisable or appropriate, though there is a space for a message to be used or understood at least somewhat against the grain. For Hall “the event must become a ‘story’ before it can become a communicative event” (Hall, 1980:129). Furthermore Barthes argues that “myth is not defined by the object of its image, but by the way in which it utters this message” (Barthes, 2000:109). Alternatively, it could already have started with another message in Mostar, a city divided by an Ottoman bridge separating Bosnian Serbs on one side and Bosnian Muslims on the other. Michael takes in the stunning rebuilt bridge in this city, which was destroyed during the war in the 1990s. The bridge shows the distinction between the past and future. The Mostar Bridge and the viewer are the pre-separated state of the situation itself. There is the sense of dominant reconstruction in the viewers’ visual relation and connection in time and space to the natural world. However there is simple notification of nostalgia from whatever point and it is difficult not to think about it in terms of significations. Palin visits mine-clearance workers across Sarajevo and meets clubbers in Serbia’s capital city, Belgrade. He gains a new perspective on the wars that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia and hears of the hope that reconstruction is bringing. For Bhabha “narratives of historical reconstruction may reject such myths of social transformation … that negotiate the recurrence of the image of the past, while keeping open the question of the future” (Bhabha, 1996:59).

3. The Politics

3.1 Myth’s Deprivation

As for Hall “dominant definitions connect events”; the resolution is achieved discursively, alleging a larger, tactical and political perspective on the issue, by pointing to the actual socio-sublation in existing material conditions (Hall, 1980:137). For instance a Serbian opera-singing captain takes Palin down the coast of the Adriatic Sea, to Albania. Michael Palin’s intellectual selection of the Serbian opera singer provokes the fact that these two nations, Serbia and Albania, have historical problems, and that they still have no sympathy for each other. The fact that he travelled in a private ship in the Adriatic Sea, gives a clear understanding that he avoided Kosovo. The first images of the Albanian coast in Durres show bunkers. Even though the bunkers are not the symbols of the Albanian government they represent the past, when the dictator, Enver Hoxha, built more than 40,000 bunkers to protect Albania from imperialist invaders. The bunkers are the signifier of an incredible period in Albanian history, surrounded with isolation from the rest of the world, which brought the country in the 1990’s to chaos and anarchy. They have a greater signification, which goes beyond what it denotes. They signify that the past of Albania was a turbulent time, full of fear from imperialism. According to Bignell “The message always involves … forgetting of alternative messages, so that myth appears to be simply true” (Bignell, 1997:21). Seen in this way the bunkers are nationalised objects. They are now national property, and part of its heritage. As Barthes reveals “myth deprives the object of which it speaks of all History. In it, history evaporates” (Barthes, 2000:151). The bunkers are now transformed and reconstructed for different use by people. The documentary shows bunkers as a new object, “in passing from the meaning to the form, the image loses some knowledge” and is changed into a mere ‘gestures’ (Barthes, 2000:119-122).

3.2 Myth; Meaning and Form

According to Hall, “the choices of images [and] the staging of debates are selected and combined through the operation of the professional code” (Hall, 1980:136). In his journey to New Europe,Palin associates Bektashi pilgrims to a Kruja Mountain-top Monastery in Albania; a sheep sacrifice motivates a celebration with music, food and hospitality in typical Albanian style.The camera pans from left to right, aiming to focus on the details, and acting in such a way as to reproduce “the hegemonic signification of events” (Hall, 1980:136). The sheep’s blood on the street, the Islamic clergyman and the alcoholic beverage that Palin is drinking in the monastery fulfil the idea that “the form of myth is not a symbol” (Barthes, 2000:118). In the walls of the monastery are framed pictures of holy men, the largest of which depicts an illustration convert to Bektashian, Pasha Tepelena, builder statesman, friend of Lord Byron, and one of the most enlightened of Albania’s Ottoman rulers. This shows that this country had links with the West, which were severed by communism. Furthermore, Palin’s dialogue with one of the pilgrims from Kruja revealed the economical situation of the country, as the man describes that most pilgrims went on the pilgrimage to pray for the wellbeing of relatives who have emigrated from the country. Barthes pointed out that “myth plays on the analogy between meaning and form, there is no myth without motivated form” (Barthes, 2000:126).

3.3 Memory in Function of Myth

Significantly, the documentary aims to bring “past and present into an ever-greater alignment” (Silverman, 1983:65). All Palin’s characters express a number of expressions calculated to revive the feelings of the communist years. In Bosnia, Palin asked his guide Kenovic whether he had found it "frustrating" to live in the troubled city for three years. "I understand you, being British, using the mild words like 'frustrated'," Kenovic told him, "It was more than outrageous. Nobody could believe what was wrong with all these people letting all these idiots, maniacs and that system, to destroy the people and all that is good about this place." While talking to Zvanovic, a restaurant owner who is obsessed with former Yugoslavian dictator Tito, and has many clocks in his restaurant stopped at 3.04 to commemorate his death, Palin discovered that, in Igor’s opinion, Tito was "the biggest hedonist in the history of modern civilisation”. As Silverman says “they duplicate the sensory qualities of certain memories and in the process revitalise the effect attached to them” (Silverman, 1983:76). From this point of view Palin’s question about the future of these countries reveals that even though these countries are now open to the West, they are still dominated by their past.

4. Language, Rituals and Culture

In their everyday life the language, rituals and culture inherited from the past, like symbols, reveal the history of these countries. Palin on his travel down the Balkans was eager to try the local beverages. In Croatia he drank the white wine of the region. In Sarajevo he drank boza, a fermented corn drink that has been a tradition in Bosnia since the days when the Ottoman Empire ruled over them. Then in the mountain top monastery in Albania he drinks Raki, the alcoholic drink that has also remained a tradition in Albania since 1925, when after the revolution of Ataturk and the Bektashi's expulsion from Turkey; the country became the world centre of Bektashism. From the mere drink of the region, let’s take for example Raki from Albania, we can tell that the country was once part of the Ottoman Empire, since the drink was derived from them; we can also realise that it has been a part of this country’s culture since the Bektashi were expulsed from Turkey and arrived in Albania. According to Barthes, “that which is a sign in the first system becomes a mere signifier in the second” (Barthes, 2000:114). Therefore, in this documentary the drink of the region becomes a symbol of the country’s past. Palin considers that the decoding/encoding of these messages could potentially go even farther in connecting to British tradition, making in effect, British audiences note-taking on the Balkan’s traditions. Palin investigates part of a growing interest of newcomers to New Europe that would not only allow British audience to discuss Britain’s own tradition, but to explore shared interpretive traditions. It is clear that Palin’s text presentation makes radically different ways of understanding possible.

4.1 Language as source for ‘meaning’ and ‘consumption’

Stuart Hall’s argument “if no ‘meaning’ is taken, there can be no ‘consumption’” (Hall, 1980:128) leads to the fact that in Michael Palin’s New Europethe object is already distorted by ideology: what Palin is after is to provoke the audience to want to change the social reality that goes on producing distorted objects, including persons. In the former Yugoslavia a place so recently battered, Palin asks the right questions to get an idea of how war impacted on the people. This technique allows a true picture of the hardship and pointlessness of war to emerge. Furthermore to Hall’s theory “once accomplished, the discourse must then be translated … into social practices if the circuit is to be both completed and effective” (Hall, 1980:128). In Mostar, while drinking tea with his guide in a hillside cafe, Palin asked if, during the war, he had ever thought that he would be leading a normal life in the wounded city ever again. "I was 14 then," said the guide. "I was more like: 'OK - how to survive?' Afraid for my future because we could not see an end to this bloodshed we had here." Palin, after asking a man clearing mines from the countryside around Sarajevo how long it was going to take to restore the area to safety, found out that in truth it would take a few generations for life to be back to pre-war years. Alternatively at this point “the relationship between the sign and its referent becomes less clear-cut, the meaning begins to slip and slide away from us into uncertainty” (Hall, 1997:20). There, visual images reproduced and crafted carefully fulfilling the meaning of the story in this part of the documentary by taking the leading role to the words. As for Hall “visual signs are what are called iconic signs” (1997:20). So this obvious relationship of the visual images with the words refers due to further information from the dialogue in the documentary. Palin’s aim is encoding this as a message to the viewers.

4.2 Everyday Life; ‘the presence and circulation of a representation’

Furthermore, there persists ‘the presence and circulation of a representation’ that allows Palin to draw on ethnic traditions of culture used to promote the message (Hall, 1997:20). For instance, the ambiguity that subverted from within the Soviet Union communism in imposing their ideology and culture on the Balkans is well known and is made clear on this documentary. A specific and important place in the documentary takes the Balkan religious issue.Although, Palin’s questions are always trying to explore essential elements surrounding all daily life practices of people in his journey, he emphasises that many changes have happened in these areas, but the reforms still proceed very slowly and changes are mainly cosmetic. As de Certeau says “the investigation of everyday practices was first delimited negatively” (de Certeau, 1994:484). So, many places in Palin’s journey are in the road to recovery, and are improving from their past. Thus this reflects on Palin’s title for the series, New Europe. For Palin, “compared to relatively settled Western Europe, the realignment of the Eastern half was hurtling along. A new Europe was taking shape” (Palin, Daily Mail online: 1st September, 2007).

5. The image and socio-political connotation

Finally, the denoted images are selective and miscellaneous, rather than natural. The nature is amazing and inspirational and people are mostly ordinary people on camera. The caption and the narrative show us the fact that these countries are in the Balkan Peninsula, and they belong to Europe. Ideological meanings are coded in the messages of the documentary. The images do not actually explore these countries’ hope to join New Europe, but they are connoted by the way the ordinary people tell their stories and desires for their countries past, present and future. At this time, these countries are struggling to be part of the EU and to escape from their totalitarian communist past. The images argue that nevertheless European interests are loyal to these countries, which may be economically diverse nations, but are nonetheless in the same speed of development as the EU. Thus the images are a sign that act as a signifier of meaning about capitalism, freedom and Europe’s future. Barthes argued that images like these in the documentary are a part of ‘mythologisation’; by which he meant similar to naturalisation (Barthes, 1972:109-159). This is in fact a convention, a socio-political connotation, partial information of these countries and explores their situations.

6. Conclusion

In the outlining of the problems of messages inMichael Palin’s New Europe(Episode One: War and Peace), this case study has been concerned with the main object that has been to supply a straightforward account of the theoretical and methodological approaches that evolved and developed in the academic study of the media culture. My intent has been to discuss how these messages developed in the documentary, raising the problems that surround the circuit of culture: media, identity and difference. In the particular paragraphs that are devoted to learning theory I have dwelt primarily on the theories of Hall and Barthes, though something has been said about these theories. In this paper I have consistently recognised the inseparability of encoding and decoding, and myth. Indeed it is clear that Michael Palin’s New Europe(Episode One: War and Peace) can be perceived in terms of what we have learned, and from it we can learn what we have perceived. Barthes underlined the evidence of myth, and while the evidence, though clear, was complicated, there are no difficulties to be analysed. Finally, let it be said that this case study has tried to analyse some of the fairly well established facts of theoretical and methodological approaches of media culture, ranging from examples to encoding, decoding; to myth; and to present examples and facts that associated Palin’s arguments in the documentary. These different approaches must have an integrating framework, and this, the theoretically minded academics must be encouraged to supply.


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