Imagined Cityscapes and Material Landscapes: The Urban and Rural of Barbarian

What happens when Detroit is reproduced in Bulgaria for a horror film? Slaveya Minkova examines the abandoned set of Barbarian and unpacks the complex connections and displacements between American cityscape and Bulgarian landscape created by globalized media production.
[This article is part of a dossier on Media In-Between.]

This piece is an exercise in theorizing the “in-between” of media production, focusing on the horror film Barbarian (Zach Cregger, 2022). I contextualize this film within the specific conditions of globalized runaway production within the Bulgarian film industry, and consider how the case study illuminates different forms of interstice: in between Bulgaria and Detroit, in between parallel histories of economic turbulence, in between global screen cultures and local production, in between media scholarship and practice. I should clarify that my object of study is not exactly the film itself, but rather its production context. As such this article has a somewhat experimental approach: it does not use a horror studies framework, nor does it extensively rely on a narrative analysis, but instead it focuses almost entirely on the location choice for the film and the process of constructing its main set, located in Bulgaria. In a way, the spatial residue of the film is my text for analysis. In taking this approach my aim is to shed light on the conceptual impossibility of the overlay of urban Detroit onto an agricultural Bulgarian landscape — two seemingly irreconcilable -scapes (both city- and land-) — made possible by opaque industrial logics. Embodying a type of multi-modal methodology of the “in-between”, I end this theoretical exercise with a short video piece in order to visually address how the hypervisibility of imagined space produced by Barbarian conceals a kind of invisibility of place.

By examining the production context of Barbarian, I raise questions about different ways we may read the film not just as a comment on ideas of the urban in a US context, but also as a revelation of the global significance of the South East European rural within media industries. While the film indirectly deals with the Detroit housing crisis through its narrative — Tess (Georgina Campbell) visits Detroit for a job interview, stays in a rented Airbnb, and horror ensues — the film was shot almost in its entirety in Bulgaria. The Detroit street block, where the majority of the narrative takes place, was constructed from scratch on agricultural land outside the small Bulgarian village of Negovan. This process in turn functions to displace mythologies associated with the American city and interweaves them with dynamics of production overseas. Given this production context, I aim to excavate how Detroit, one of the US cities most associated with the mythology of the “urban,” became superimposed onto a rural Bulgarian landscape.

Screen grab from Barbarian, showing Tess (Georgina Campbell) surveying the neighborhood in daylight
View of the set in 2023. Photograph: the author.

The plot of Barbarian coupled with entrenched imaginaries of Eastern Europe create a spatio-temporal displacement of Detroit onto Bulgaria. Both the narrative of the film as well as its production context evoke a phenomenon of future-pastness – a moment in which the memories of past violence haunt the present. This is exemplified in the revelation of the film’s origin of patriarchal horror, the “barbarian” after whom the film was named, who violently transformed a woman into a “monster” condemned for decades to haunt the underworld of a house in Detroit. The film merges legacies of violence against women with horrific histories of racial discrimination, gesturing toward the past’s haunting of the present-day spatial dynamics of gentrification in Detroit, exemplified by the house’s Airbnb function.

With the decaying set now engulfed by bordering agricultural fields, I propose a reconsideration of the ecosystem created by Barbarian, both in terms of the new physical dynamics introduced in the surrounding landscape, as well as the larger production implications of the film to Bulgaria’s mediascape. Bulgarian agricultural land and a Detroit street block create an unlikely ecosystem of media production, wherein the horror of the narrative becomes entangled with the particular horrors of its production environment. The irony of constructing a Detroit city block in the middle of a field in Bulgaria, and subsequently leaving it to decay among tall grasses, flowers, and crops, gestures toward Hollywood’s modern-day “offshoring” practices in the region. In this context, histories of postsocialism enmesh with histories and implications of gentrification. The monstrous within the film takes different shapes, on the one hand embodying the narrative of generational trauma and gender violence portrayed in the context of Detroit, and on the other hand manifesting as ecological decay and mimicking apocalyptic abandonment in Bulgaria.

As a result, the production context of Barbarian illuminates ways in which studio walls become permeable membranes, stretching and contracting to incorporate both urban and rural locations in proximity to Bulgaria’s major studio, Nu Boyana. Perhaps in unexpected ways, the film’s production speaks to a different kind of spatial displacement in tandem with the narrative. Ironically, the history of spatial displacement which Barbarian ostensibly aims to critique in an American context, is reenacted by the production and transposed onto this Eastern European landscape. Thus, what Barbarian illuminates via its production dynamics is the way the Hollywood gaze positions the incompatibility of space and temporality as part of its generic tropes.

Decaying set in tall grasses, 2023. Photograph: the author.
Detroit (in Bulgaria)

Nowhere is this gaze more complicated and apparent than when displacing a highly mythologized “urban” Detroit onto Bulgaria. Examining the production context of the film Barbarian (2022) raises questions about how the film may be read not just as a comment on ideas of the urban in a US context, but also as a revelation of the global significance of the South East European rural within globalized media industries. But what common thread binds the futurities of postsocialism (as the context of production), gentrification (per the underlying film narrative), and ecological decay (given the afterlife of the film’s set)?

Perhaps contrary to expectations, mythologies surrounding Detroit and Bulgaria have more commonalities than differences. Rebecca Kinney has written about ways in which Detroit is associated with narratives of ruin, pastness, economic collapse, and horror, as well as neoliberal fantasies of “rebirth.”1Rebecca J. Kinney, Beautiful Wasteland: The Rise of Detroit as America’s Postindustrial Frontier (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016). She discusses the particular stereotypes with which the image of Detroit is associated, both in media as well as colloquial contexts, describing neoliberalism’s function of obscuring the relationship between race, gender, citizenship and capitalism:

In less than a decade both the city’s signature industry and the city itself have become a living symbol of financial crisis: Detroit is not only a broke city but a broken city. Yet even as these awful events unfolded, they also provided fertile ground for yet another narrative. Detroit has fallen so hard, and so far, that it can now become a ‘comeback city’; the poster city of economic crisis (and many other kinds of crisis) is now a space of possibility, or as I describe it – a beautiful wasteland.2Rebecca J. Kinney, Beautiful Wasteland: The Rise of Detroit as America’s Postindustrial Frontier (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), xi.

Kinney’s examination of the portrayal and conception of Detroit resonates with post-privatization (and post-economic collapse) narratives of East European cities, and clearly illustrates the implications of neoliberalism’s rampant fantasies globally.

Neoliberal impulses are also at the core of the production histories I seek to illuminate here. Presumably it was more advantageous for the producers of Barbarian to fly talent overseas and construct a Detroit street block from scratch on agricultural land than to film on location in the city. There are multiple layers of displacement here worth noting: a) displacing place/location and history in the context of Detroit; which leads to b) displacing labor, and c) displacing agricultural land use in the context of Bulgaria. Detroit, a city so heavily (mis)represented in media, as Kinney illustrates, doesn’t represent itself in a horror film that portends to speak about the economic, gender, and racial violence with which it has been associated. Instead, these complex dynamics are overlayed onto Bulgaria’s agricultural landscapes. There is a sense of vacancy in this process, which applies to both imaginaries of Detroit and Bulgaria. Kinney writes, “what emerges in the twenty-first-century depiction of Detroit is the city’s perceived emptiness and the idea of Detroit’s ruin as beautiful.”3Rebecca J. Kinney, Beautiful Wasteland: The Rise of Detroit as America’s Postindustrial Frontier (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), xv. This idea of beauty is undoubtedly rooted in the same neoliberal impulse of redemption underlying a particular kind of economic push and mode of displacement, which Kinney critiques as ultimately obscuring the legacies of racism in the city.

Connected to contemporary attempts of expanding ideas of the urban to move beyond a simple synonym for the built environment, landscape urbanism may offer a theoretical bridge linking the seemingly disparate contexts of Bulgaria and Detroit in the production of Barbarian.  The concept of landscape and/as urbanism, or “landscape urbanism,” has been deployed in various ways, especially gaining popularity in the last two decades.4See, for example, work by Charles Waldheim, Ian Thompson, Jeannette Sordi, Mohsen Mostafavi, and James Corner. Charles Waldheim, for example, defined the term as a “disciplinary re-alignment” within the fields of architecture and urbanism.5Charles Waldheim, Landscape as Urbanism: A General Theory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 13. Generally understood in terms of landscape architecture and largely pertaining to issues of design and urban planning, landscape urbanism has often been presented as a type of solution to the spatial void left by collapsing industry, an answer to post-urban abandonment, though it seldom engages with the social aspects of these forms of city transformation, and, in the American context, rarely addresses red-lining practices and other urbanism initiatives premised on racial and economic violence and segregation.6See, for instance: Charles Waldheim, “Detroit-Motor City,” in Shaping the City: Studies in History, Theory and Urban Design, ed. Rodolphe El-Khoury, 2nd ed. (Routledge, 2015), 77–97, https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315662152. In Detroit, for example, there is often emphasis on the kind of vacancy produced by the rapid disappearance of entire street blocks of houses. Of these spaces, Mohsen Mostafavi writes, “new agricultural sites and farmlands have appeared in the middle of the city, where an enormous number of houses were demolished. These potent and somewhat surreal landscapes await further transformation.”7Mohsen Mostafavi and Ciro Najle, eds., Landscape Urbanism: A Manual for the Machinic Landscape (London: Architectural Association, 2003), 6–7. While serving as a reconfiguration of ways in which the notion of the urban is approached from a design perspective, landscape urbanism also risks concealing the more problematic histories embedded in the city fabric.8For example, Vera Vincenzotti presents the critique that the conceptions of landscape in landscape urbanism may “accommodate de-politicizing or post-political tendencies present in planning and design.” Vera Vicenzotti, “The Landscape of Landscape Urbanism,” Landscape Journal 36, no. 1 (January 2017): 75–86, https://doi.org/10.3368/lj.36.1.75 Mostafavi also writes of the “dissolution of the distinction between city and countryside,”9Mostafavi and Najle, 6. and this is where I locate the relevance of landscape urbanism to the case study examined in this article. Thus, I propose an alternative definition of landscape urbanism — which has already variously been described as a method, an intervention in urban planning, or even an ethos — as a conceptualization of the spectrum between urban and non-urban. When considered in this way, landscape urbanism can provide a new way to consider the permeable borders of cities, and a lens through which to critique urbanist expansionism through infrastructures of production in rural or agricultural spaces surrounding cities. How do we delineate the urban from that which is not urban? In a neoliberal economic order, what is not defined by its proximity to urbanism?

One need only look at the satellite images captured by Google Earth of Barbarian’s set in Bulgaria to get a sense of the concept of vacancy present. Upon visiting the set in 2023, the overlaying of these two places gained even further meaning when I discovered that the lot had been abandoned, left to decay in the fields next to what remains of a communist-era Institute of Decorative and Medicinal Plants. At that moment, ruin took on more meanings than I could conceptualize. Kinney’s discussion of Detroit’s “postapocalyptic emptiness”, so emblematic of mythologies surrounding that city, was relocated to the Bulgarian rural via Barbarian’s set, evoking a sense of a postsocialist, postapocalyptic media ecosystem. Here, of course, I feel compelled to clarify that Detroit and Bulgaria differ widely in cultural and historical contexts. Though they each have experienced forms of economic crisis, as well as challenges to the way the “urban” has been structured and re-structured in relation to identity, the underlying conditions, both social and political, for these difficult histories have been entirely distinct. My analysis of the film and the imagined Detroit constructed by its production logistics should not be taken as a direct comparison between these two places. Instead, I aim to illustrate the kinds of irreconcilable moments of in-between occupied by so-called runaway production. The conceptual ruptures elicited by the spatial overlay, or performativity of place, produced by a Bulgarian “Detroit” are the in-between cracks toward which I wish to point attention.

Google Earth Screen Grab (data dated before 7/2021)
Google Earth Screen Grab (data dated 7/24/2022)

I found an unlikely “informant” to the behind-the-scenes spaces of Barbarian in the online presence of the cinematographer Zach Kuperstein, who has frequently posted public material on his Instagram page following the release of the film.10I am borrowing John Caldwell’s term “informant” here, which refers to the production cultures approach of gaining insight about the industry from film professionals. John Thornton Caldwell, Production Culture: Industrial Reflexivity and Critical Practice in Film and Television (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008). One of his posts, dated January 5, 2023 (four months after the film’s release), is captioned “It’s finally time to pull back the curtains on Barbarian with some BTS! Here’s how we turned a field in Bulgaria into a Detroit neighborhood.” The images included show the entire process of set construction in detail, from initial plans to the finished street block. This inside look provided by Kuperstein is invaluable, as it serves as a document of the transformation of this agricultural field. The process of spatial myth-making is unveiled layer by layer and a new history of this place is created. When visiting the location, it was unclear whether the Institute was given stewardship of this lot post-factum. The possibility of Nu Boyana acquiring the set for their assortment of built lots also seemed hazy. In fact, the extent of Nu Boyana’s involvement with the film itself seems to have been surprisingly minimal, per Kuperstein’s account:

We only ended up shooting one day there. That studio was originally proposed, and they were offering an area called American Villas, which is a backlot suburban neighborhood. It looked cool at first, but as we looked at videos of it and maps to try to figure out if it would work for us we slowly realized that it wasn’t ideal for a lot of the angles we had planned…They also proved to be pretty inflexible about any kind of construction or alterations to the buildings, even painting. So, our line producer suggested we build the set from scratch in a field. They found this agricultural laboratory where I think they do research on tomatoes. There was a road that was already paved for one section and a brick building on the property, but we were able to cover it with facades…We did shoot one day at Nu Boyana…We used it for a neighborhood and also for the exterior grocery store and parking lot.11Zach Kuperstein quoted in Matt Mulcahey, “Fincher Upstairs, Raimi Downstairs: DP Zach Kuperstein on Barbarian”, Filmmaker Magazine, September 22, 2022. https://filmmakermagazine.com/116651-interview-cinematographer-zach-kuperstein-barbarian/

Regardless of the extent of Nu Boyana’s association with Barbarian, the production logistics on display here are emblematic of a mode of filming in the country pioneered by the studio. In fact, one of the ways Nu Boyana markets shooting on location in Bulgaria is through a narrative of smallness – everything is close by providing short distances between locations, thus more efficient use of time and resources. This is a paradox of so called “runaway” production, as the smallness and peripherality are touted in one marketing context yet concealed in another. Smallness is, then, both horrific and convenient.

Haunting Decay

Barbarian is a horror film through and through. It is a body genre film – a truly horror-inducing, nightmarish, jump-out-of-your-seat type of experience. For me these are the most challenging films, and I mean challenging in an embodied sense, not just psychologically. Of this kind of spectatorial experience, Vivian Sobchack writes, “What really interests me here are the dark, off-screen, and imageless spaces my vision seeks when I am confronted by such on-screen terror and gore.”12Vivian Sobchack, “‘Peekaboo’: Thoughts on (Maybe Not) Seeing Two Horror Films,” in Unwatchable, ed. Nicholas Baer et al. (Rutgers University Press, 2019), 202. In a true Sobchack fashion, I watched this film through the gaps in my hands clasping my face. Perhaps exactly due to my obstructed visual approach to this film, I was led to think of it in spatial rather than strictly visual terms. As I retreat into off-screen space much like Sobchack, I am left with the chance to reflect on the moments of stillness – the exteriors, wide and establishing shots, the scenes that give that extra information yet may not be the most action-packed segments of the film.13Sobchack, 203. The image of the house absorbs my concentration and becomes synonymous with the image of the monster. The house as an entity comes alive, very much haunted by past histories of racial and economic violence in the context of Detroit (as hinted within the film), and, at the same time, haunted by its production context in Bulgaria. Indeed, the house can be identified with Jack Halberstam’s idea of the totalizing monster, if we think of monstrosity and haunting in spatial terms.14Jack Halberstam, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (Duke University Press, 1995), https://doi.org/10.1515/9780822398073. “The ‘totalizing monster’, a modern invention”, Halberstam writes, “threatens community from all sides and from its very core rather than from a simple outside.”15Halberstam, 29. Barbarian’s monstrous “Mother” character, in many ways identifiable with the entity of the house, haunts from the inside out. The film’s production logics in the context of postsocialism similarly haunt from an inward direction. Though an empty shell, the symbolically “urban” house remains after the production’s conclusion, now a permanent fixture in the previously largely agricultural landscape comprised of fields encircling highly urban Sofia. It sits as a reminder of the offshoring practices that define contemporary film production logistics in the region, its physical decay mirroring the type of metaphorical haunting it performed in the film.

Conclusion

With this article I hope to highlight a link between spatial dynamics of media production and the notion of the “in-between” as understood in relation to two vastly different contexts – Detroit and Bulgaria. I have used the entry point of genre to offer an examination of horror as a framework to read not just the text of Barbarian, but the circumstances of its production as well. Key to this approach are the often-apparent conceptual impossibilities produced by runaway production in South East Europe. The overlay of Detroit onto a Bulgarian agricultural landscape in some ways perfectly illustrates the merging of a postsocialist future-pastness with dynamics of runaway film production in the region. The seeming incompatibility of both the spatial displacement enacted by the film, as well as its temporal shifts (exemplified by the narrative weaving in and out of past and present in the context of Detroit, and the production utilizing spaces very much marked by the “post-”16I am drawing from Erin Y. Huang’s work on post-socialism. She writes, “Rather than describing a new era to come, the post- conjoins a suspended future with a reimagined past. The result is a new mode of temporality characterized by infinite deferment and a prolonged anticipation of a future that may never come.” Erin Y Huang, Urban Horror: Neoliberal Post-socialism and the Limits of Visibility (Duke University Press, 2020), 15. in the context of Bulgaria), speaks to the emergence of a complex global mediascape. I argue that a full image of the ecosystems of media production created by this phenomenon can only be attained through multi-modal scholarship, which takes into account the spatial residues left behind.

For this reason, I find visual and spatial approaches to media scholarship generative, as they offer a much-needed methodological intervention in the discipline of cinema and media studies. Considering the spaces and landscapes of media production reveals deeper tensions and hierarchies of hypervisibility and invisibility within globalized media industries. Throughout this article I have used a mix of images taken by me and images captured by GIS technology (in this case Google Earth) as illustrative sources aiming to peel back some of the layers of pro-filmic and extra-diegetic residue left by Barbarian. I take this approach in order to show ways the cityscapes and landscapes of Detroit and Bulgaria are visualized and imagined within the film, while keeping in mind some of the more troubling implications of GIS imagery,17Lawrence Bird, for example, has discussed both the generative and problematic aspects of incorporating GIS technology in city design and research practices, writing, “The new imaging technologies can be powerful tools of documentation, research and visualization. But their power harbours a danger also: like the tools of city-making, the tools of city-imag(in)ing imply an engagement in massive and immensely-scaled technological networks that commodify the image even as they make it available to us.” See Lawrence Bird, “Theories of Image: Disposition and Disorientation in Google Earth,” in Imaging the City: Art, Creative Practices and Media Speculations, ed. Steve Hawley, Edward Montgomery Clift, and Kevin O’Brien (Bristol Chicago: Intellect, 2016), 13. with my aim ultimately being to take apart some of the resulting fantasies of place through a multi-modal visuality bridging filmic reconstruction with the materiality of location. I end this article with a short audio-visual interpretation of the film set, as a further meditation on the interstitial in spatial and methodological terms.

Notes

Notes
1 Rebecca J. Kinney, Beautiful Wasteland: The Rise of Detroit as America’s Postindustrial Frontier (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016).
2 Rebecca J. Kinney, Beautiful Wasteland: The Rise of Detroit as America’s Postindustrial Frontier (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), xi.
3 Rebecca J. Kinney, Beautiful Wasteland: The Rise of Detroit as America’s Postindustrial Frontier (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), xv.
4 See, for example, work by Charles Waldheim, Ian Thompson, Jeannette Sordi, Mohsen Mostafavi, and James Corner.
5 Charles Waldheim, Landscape as Urbanism: A General Theory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 13.
6 See, for instance: Charles Waldheim, “Detroit-Motor City,” in Shaping the City: Studies in History, Theory and Urban Design, ed. Rodolphe El-Khoury, 2nd ed. (Routledge, 2015), 77–97, https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315662152.
7 Mohsen Mostafavi and Ciro Najle, eds., Landscape Urbanism: A Manual for the Machinic Landscape (London: Architectural Association, 2003), 6–7.
8 For example, Vera Vincenzotti presents the critique that the conceptions of landscape in landscape urbanism may “accommodate de-politicizing or post-political tendencies present in planning and design.” Vera Vicenzotti, “The Landscape of Landscape Urbanism,” Landscape Journal 36, no. 1 (January 2017): 75–86, https://doi.org/10.3368/lj.36.1.75
9 Mostafavi and Najle, 6.
10 I am borrowing John Caldwell’s term “informant” here, which refers to the production cultures approach of gaining insight about the industry from film professionals. John Thornton Caldwell, Production Culture: Industrial Reflexivity and Critical Practice in Film and Television (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).
11 Zach Kuperstein quoted in Matt Mulcahey, “Fincher Upstairs, Raimi Downstairs: DP Zach Kuperstein on Barbarian”, Filmmaker Magazine, September 22, 2022. https://filmmakermagazine.com/116651-interview-cinematographer-zach-kuperstein-barbarian/
12 Vivian Sobchack, “‘Peekaboo’: Thoughts on (Maybe Not) Seeing Two Horror Films,” in Unwatchable, ed. Nicholas Baer et al. (Rutgers University Press, 2019), 202.
13 Sobchack, 203.
14 Jack Halberstam, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (Duke University Press, 1995), https://doi.org/10.1515/9780822398073.
15 Halberstam, 29.
16 I am drawing from Erin Y. Huang’s work on post-socialism. She writes, “Rather than describing a new era to come, the post- conjoins a suspended future with a reimagined past. The result is a new mode of temporality characterized by infinite deferment and a prolonged anticipation of a future that may never come.” Erin Y Huang, Urban Horror: Neoliberal Post-socialism and the Limits of Visibility (Duke University Press, 2020), 15.
17 Lawrence Bird, for example, has discussed both the generative and problematic aspects of incorporating GIS technology in city design and research practices, writing, “The new imaging technologies can be powerful tools of documentation, research and visualization. But their power harbours a danger also: like the tools of city-making, the tools of city-imag(in)ing imply an engagement in massive and immensely-scaled technological networks that commodify the image even as they make it available to us.” See Lawrence Bird, “Theories of Image: Disposition and Disorientation in Google Earth,” in Imaging the City: Art, Creative Practices and Media Speculations, ed. Steve Hawley, Edward Montgomery Clift, and Kevin O’Brien (Bristol Chicago: Intellect, 2016), 13.
Minkova, Slaveya. "Imagined Cityscapes and Material Landscapes: The Urban and Rural of Barbarian." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 9, no. 2 (June 2024)
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