© Gordana P. Crnkovic, 2015
… When no ripples pass
over watery trees; like painted glass
lying beneath a quiet lake;
would you think the real forest lay
only in the reflected
trees, which are protected
by non-existence from the air of the day?
John Wheelwright, Would You Think?
(Wheelwright 2000, 142)
Before the Rain: A Man Killed and the Mother of God
The environment of man-made images and the many ways in which it affects our lives make a prominent thread in Milcho Manchevski’s feature film Mothers (Majki 2010). The interaction between the world of images and the world of human dealings was already a prominent thematic motive of Manchevski’s first feature, Before the Rain (1994). There, one of the film’s main characters, Aleksandar Kirkov (Rade Šerbedžija), a Macedonian by birth and an internationally known war photographer, leaves his profession because of an event in which his “camera killed the man,” as he himself puts it. During the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992-1995), the photographer had visited a prison camp where captured Bosniak men were held; he remarked to the guard that nothing was happening and therefore he had nothing to photograph; the guard grabbed a random prisoner and shot him in front of Aleksandar, who took pictures of the killing. A photographer’s professional desire to “shoot a photograph” literally caused a man to be shot. This connection between death and the making of images is echoed and confirmed in another scene, where a young Macedonian village boy—holding the camera of the dead Aleksandar—turns away from taking the pictures of a double funeral and notices Kiril (Grégoire Colin), a young Macedonian monk, as he runs down the hill as fast as he can. The boy with the camera could have concluded from this strange occurrence that something unusual was happening with Kiril, and could possibly suspect that Zamira (Labina Mitevska), the runaway Albanian girl, might be hiding in Kiril’s monastery: we know that it is the “children [who] tell that she is hiding” there. The voracious camera that made Aleksandar cause a death is the same one that, now in the hands of a child, gets visually related to yet another death, that of Zamira.
The making of images is seen in connection to the taking of lives, and conversely, the cessation of image-making is seen in connection with the saving of lives. Aleksandar quits his work as a war photographer and returns from London to his birth village in Macedonia, now afflicted with serious tensions between its Macedonian and Albanian residents. Hana (Silvija Stojanovska), Zamira’s mother and Aleksandar’s past love, asks him if he is watching what is happening “to our people,” referring with this term to all the villagers regardless of their ethnicity. When he replies in the positive (“I watch”), she curtly responds with: “It is not for watching.” Now that he stopped his “watching” in the form of his professional image-making, Aleksandar acts: he rescues Hana’s daughter Zamira and sacrifices his life to save her. While taking photographs leads to death, the cessation of image-making allows the saving of a life. The relationship between image-making—or more broadly any practice focused on images—on the one hand, and death, on the other, is a productive and intriguing one.
Another kind of man-made images, however, is also prominently featured in Before the Rain, and these latter ones have the opposite, life-saving effect. The Medieval Orthodox frescoes on the walls of the thirteenth-century Church of Saint Mother of God the Wisest in Ohrid make up much of the visual environment surrounding the young monk Kiril. I have written elsewhere about the ways in which the monastery’s silencing of general urban and industrial noise, alongside its silencing of the ubiquitous verbal noise, as well as Kiril’s own absence of speech, due to his vow of silence, all create the necessary quietness that enables Kiril’s true “hearing” of the Albanian girl Zamira whose life he saves (at least for a while), and whose language he cannot understand (Crnković 2011 discusses Kiril’s deeper listening with the help of Heidegger’s, Gadamer’s, and Corradi Fiumara’s illuminating thinking about “proper listening;” see also Crnković 2012). However, there is yet another realm that facilitates Kiril’s “proper listening,” and that realm lies in the visual environment created by the frescoes that surround him. These frescoes feature most prominently the images of Mary, and also of the Apostles, Jesus, the Last Supper, and so on. Kiril looks at these frescoes over and over again and takes them in, his complete lack of speech allowing a heightened receptiveness of one who does not have to think of his own conceptual or verbal response, even if un-uttered, and can fully calm oneself into allowing these images to break out of the realm of the objects of perception or even contemplation, and into the live force that makes a decisive, deep impact. Although he has lived in the monastery for a few years, Kiril still looks at these frescoes with a sense of marvel. He still sees these images as if for the first time and he learns from them, accepting their life-abetting, metaphorical charge: Zamira is chased by and persecuted by the local militia just like Jesus had been. Kiril’s face itself is somewhat archaic in its strange doe-eyed beauty, its silence shared with that of the figures on the walls. Their images affect and strengthen him in the cause of good: he sees the faces on the frescoes as they look at him—Mary being the first one he glances at—as he chooses not to betray the girl Zamira. In that moment, the quick montage inter-cuts the shots of three figures on the frescoes, looking at Kiril, with the shots of Kiril’s own face.
Mothers’ Look into the Obsessive Iconophilia
A striking long take and sequence of images opens the first section of Before the Rain, titled “Words.” We first see a medieval fresco of Madonna with Child, for about five seconds, and then the camera slowly pans down the fresco to look through the doorway below and into a chapel interior, where the monks hold a service. Such a sequence of images, starting with a still image or images present in the environment, and then moving to a live person, is also employed in Mothers, Milcho Manchevski’s latest feature. At one point in the first segment of the film, for instance, the camera lingers for a while on a large still, a billboard of Hollywood star Scarlett Johansson, which fills the entire frame. It is only after a few seconds that the shot incorporates two young girls who walk by this billboard. An interesting dynamics is set between a still image and the live people moving in its orbit, and this dynamics is made more apparent soon after, when the still of a famous basketball player, mounted up on a wall of a shoe store, again serves as the starting point of another shot. The camera moves down from that poster to focus on the saleswoman and the same two girls, the main characters of this segment, now ordering shoes.
If monastery frescoes affected Kiril and helped him claim both his compassion and his courage, a similar image-driven impact, though eventually rather negative, seems to be implied here with the two girls caught in the realm of these mass culture images. And in Mothers, it may not be the specific images that matter, but rather the whole fanatically image-oriented way of being. The two girls, Bea (Emilija Stojkovska) and Kjara (Milijana Bogdanoska), heard from another schoolmate that she had seen a “flasher.” They go to the police station and claim that they themselves saw him, that he exposed himself to them, and that they can clearly describe and identify him. At the station, the two girls start checking their cell phones and snapping pictures. Once fully engrossed in that activity, the smaller girl Kjara, the follower, stops putting up any more resistance to the demands of the other girl, the commanding Bea, that Kjara tell the complete fabrication as a fact. Kjara also ceases to show any discomfort with or even awareness of her own lying, having reached an apparently Orwellian perfection of actually believing that something she never saw actually took place in front of her eyes. All aglow, she keeps snapping pictures with her cell phone, and when the instigator Bea asks her what she told to the police inspector, Kjara simply replies: “That he was old, ugly, and bald… just as it happened.”
The omnipresent billboards with larger-than-life images of global entertainment celebrities do not only facilitate a smooth replacement of factual with fabricated, whereby invented figures have more of a visual, social, and often even internalized presence than the scores of live people walking past those still images. These pictures also metonymically stand for and enforce a general practice of mindless devotion to the ceaseless making and consumption of images. This state of hypnotic and extreme iconophilia leads to the de-materialization of reality and of live people, which in turn displaces empathy and facilitates the victimization of innocents. The dedication to images is vastly stronger than any commitment to truth, and endless production of oneself as an image—the two girls keep snapping multiple “selfies”—is more important than any self-creation through ethical behavior, basic truthfulness, or mere lack of cruelty towards others. These latter concerns become unimportant and, in a way, unreal, as they largely exist as a permanent task, one’s own future practice still to be made, a potential and not an actualization. One’s practices and behavior do not exist as finished, produced and polished images that can be seen instantaneously, that are already here and are thus undoubtedly part of the real—the reality of unchangeable immortality and omnipresence, beaming from any of the billions of the world’s web-connected screens. Live people (including oneself), as well as any personal responsibility towards them, dissolve under the flood of image-consumption and image-making. What is more, snapping and looking at pictures is understood as the expression of free will, rather than necessity, and as a site of creativity and playfulness. The sound used in much of this first segment of the film strengthens the sense of a light and immaterial game, with the upbeat, playful non-diegetic background music mixed with busy street and construction sounds.
One of a number of Mothers’ engaging features lies in its dealing with and responding to the increasing “semioticization” of the world. What follows is a short explanation of this concept as developed by Jean Baudrillard and interpreted by William Merrin. The power of images and their dangerous potential had been recognized since the ancient past. As William Merrin writes:
The simulacrum is an ancient concept […] discoverable within the philosophical, theological and aesthetic traditions of every culture, centering on the concept of the image and its efficacy. The image has always been conceived of as powerful, as possessing a remarkable hold on our hearts and minds and as having the power to assume for us, in that moment, the force of that which it represents, to become the reality and erase therein the distinction of original and image. In the west this power has long been interpreted as a moral threat to the real and as a demonic force (Merrin 2005, 29–30).
In his essay “The Precession of Simulacra,” Jean Baudrillard writes about “the murderous power of images,” which are the “murderers of the real, murderers of their own model” (Baudrillard 1994, 5). In other words, images strive to destroy their model, the reality itself, in order to assert their own supreme existence. According to Baudrillard, the ancient iconoclasts understood this power and the process whereby the images of divine did not strengthen the divine but, on the contrary, replaced it, putting seductive, material images in place of a spiritual, internalized and un-representable being; thus the iconoclasts’ destruction of these images.
Baudrillard traces “‘the successive phases of the image’ from a reflection of reality [“good,” reflective image], to masking reality [“evil” image], to masking its absence [“sorcery”], and finally to having no relation to reality whatsoever as ‘its own pure simulacrum’ … [where] the image [moves] beyond appearances to enter simulation.” What happens in this last stage is the “process of ‘simulation’”, “the transformation of the lived, symbolic reality into signs which are combined to create a culturally constructed ‘neo-reality’[…] in which the real is eclipsed and replaced for us by its simulacrum” (Merrin 2005, 31). At this point, “the ‘reality’ the sign points to […] is not, however, external but is a product of the sign and its prior reduction of the complex, experiential symbolic relationship” (Merrin 2005, 31).
Building on the work of Durkheim, Mauss, Caillois and Bataille, Baudrillard’s concept of this good, experiential “symbolic” relationship actually relates to material, contested, real-life and real-time human practices and relationships, contingent on their unique contexts and real human actions. Importantly, the symbolic also includes the “heightened” realms of human practice: “[i]n ‘symbolic exchange’ [Baudrillard] unifies the festival, the gift and sacrifice” (Merrin 2005, 15). Baudrillard’s festival creates a special community-oriented human relationship that is not utilitarian or everyday, and that enables one’s transcendence of need-based existence. A gift-based economy, found in both traditional societies and on the margins of modern ones, directly opposes the market and acquirement-driven modern capitalist economy with its distribution and giving away of material goods. And a sacrifice acts as a destructive force within the symbolic realm, being a sacrifice of others but also a self-sacrifice—even to the point of the ultimate sacrifice of one’s own life—into the life and world that are larger than one’s own life, and whose health and fullness guarantee the health and fullness of one’s own individual life made of the same threads. “Baudrillard’s symbolic is best understood as a dramatic and engaged scene: an immediate, active, reciprocal relationship with its own transformative mood and charge” (Merrin 2005, 18).
In his early work, Baudrillard traces a historical process in the West whereby the “symbolic” world is progressively transformed into a “semiotic” one—a process termed “semioticization.” Here, real-life and real-time practices or relationships (for instance, a young woman painting her room with a few friends, chatting and joking while doing so), are replaced with the person’s watching the sign of such a moment, say in an episode of a popular sitcom. Instead of living friendships, chance meetings, communal practice, artistic work, urban life, athletic pursuits, love, and so on, we increasingly just watch these, and we watch them as transformed, reduced, and simplified into a sign. For Baudrillard, “the most important effect of the electronic media is the transformation of the symbolic into the semiotic” (Merrin 2005, 19–20). We live in a world “whose proliferating digital technologies simultaneously represent a much vaunted […] increase in communication and the simultaneous systematic destruction, reduction, simplification and replacement of human relations. Our refusal to even see this paradox indicates the extent to which the technologies have penetrated our lives, placing themselves and their effects beyond question” (Merrin 2005, 23).
Mothers’ Burning Photographs
Mothers senses and responds to the increasing hollowing and “semioticization” of our lives and worlds, as well as to the “demonic power” of images that enables this process. The film opens by destroying images, as it were, in a shot of burning photographs, one of young women and another of a girl, the photos burning in close-up and disappearing in flames. A woman’s voice is singing with no lyrics, and then the appearance of the title—МАЈКИ [Mothers]—on a black screen is accompanied with the sound of a baby’s crying. Thus, it is not only mothers that are set as the film’s focus, including the girls on the photographs as present or future mothers, Bea and Kjara as potential future mothers, the second segment’s pregnant woman filmmaker and old “grandma,” or the third segment’s aged and victimized mothers. Rather, the film revolves around the relationship of “mothers” to images, and, indirectly, the relationship between all humanity born and to-be-born of these mothers (so the aspect of future) on the one hand, and the images, on the other.
The film, however, is not didactic. Made in an uncommon format and without an easily graspable meaning, Mothers does not ingratiate itself to viewers. But the film is truly rewarding, as it gently helps us learn not to look for the things we usually get out of and are conditioned to see in films, but instead sense and appreciate what this film actually does. Among other things, the film displays instances of semioticization and foregrounds their dangerous methods on the one hand, while doing it in a way that opposes or stands outside of this semioticization on the other hand. In this manner, one feature of this unorthodox film lies in its being that very elusive and rare “enchanted form [that] employs simulation to expose and reverse this process.”
The very structure of the film already prevents it from becoming a reality-replacing simulacrum. The feature is not a unified hypnotic whole, but instead is composed of three unrelated parts named after the sites in Macedonia where they take place: Skopje, Mariovo, and Kičevo. In addition, Mothers mixes genres: the first two parts are fictional, while the third one is a documentary. This structure produces the effect of “estrangement,” as the Russian Formalists would put it – the artwork’s own revelation of its constructed character, its not being a simple representation of reality. However, it is mostly the film’s meta-narrative thrust—its use of images to show the ways and effects of contemporary image-making itself—that makes apparent the destructive consequences of “semioticization.” In the film’s first segment, the girls occupied with or distracted by images construct a sign that fully replaces reality, and a real person gets hurt as a result. The second segment takes as one of its themes filmmaking itself (of the documentary, “most realistic” kind), and looks into how this practice and the sign it produces relate to the life they are supposed to depict. The third and last segment, an actual short documentary, tells the story of a factual serial murder case by juxtaposing “found matter” (TV and print media or archival family footage) to interviews with the victims’ relatives and others involved in the case, and makes apparent the ways in which the representational signs that were produced for this case left out the most important things. By its meta-narrative foregrounding of the annihilating potential of images and signs, Mothers,then, also activates a strong and potentially liberating agency of images. Namely, it is the film itself that reveals the ways in which the world is reduced and forged by its extreme exposure to images and signs, and that shows what lies outside of such limiting frames.
Mothers’ first chapter “states” the problem, a connection between image-obsession and the ease of replacing reality with a sign entirely unrelated to it. This segment focuses on children and, thus, outlines a potential trajectory for the future as the two girls grow to become mothers themselves. The other two parts of the film focus on progressively older generations with different ways of involvement with the simulacra. In the second segment, a film crew from the capital of Skopje, consisting of three young people: the camera operator Ana (Ana Stojanovska) and two men, Simon (Dimitar Gjorgjievski) and Kole (Vladimir Jačev), journeys to Mariovo, a stunningly beautiful but drastically under-populated region in southern Macedonia, to make a documentary about village life and its disappearing ways. Approaching the village, they meet an old man, “grandpa” (Salaetin Bilal), who shouts: “Don’t film me!” at the precise moment in which they start doing just that. Later on he is seen burning photographs. The crew films mostly the old woman, “grandma” (Ratka Radmanović), who willingly hosts them, talks to and performs her own “life” for the camera, making bread, putting on a traditional costume, firing a spirited racy reply to the crew’s question about the sexual mores of the old times. But both the old man and old woman often seem besieged by the crew when it actually films them. A number of scenes show the three young, strong and tall filmmakers looming over the stooped villagers—each of them always alone—from different sides, holding their camera and a boom microphone like weapons, with Ana looking down into the image being captured by her camera and only infrequently up to the old woman or the old man.
Echoing Before the Rain, this segment of Mothers seems to indicate that it is the cessation of image-making that enables meaningful interaction and helpful actions. The segment gradually transitions into its new main focus, the increasing closeness between the old village woman and Ana. The young, now pregnant, camera operator continues to visit the grandmother even after finishing the film and despite it being increasingly difficult to reach the deserted village, as the summer turns into a muddy fall and a snowy winter. She brings things from the city and helps the old woman, and she even asks her to move in with Ana to help with the baby. There is no camera present nor is any filming going on. Instead, the old woman stops her own viewing (on Ana’s laptop computer) of a finished documentary about the “village ways” only a few seconds into it, after seeing the footage of the old man, and asks Ana to help her burry him, as he just recently passed away. Instead of filming and holding a camera, Ana now takes a shovel. Forsaking image-making, and its related process of transforming reality into signs, allows for a return to a more symbolic way of being (to use Baudrillard’s terminology). While Bea’s gift of shoes to Kjara functioned as an indirect bribe and not a real gift, Ana’s post-film attachment to the old woman is marked by real gifts, including the most precious ones - those of time and labor. Even more, Ana’s visits to the village bear an element of sacrifice given that they entail undertaking a considerable hardship to make them happen.
The rural and natural setting of this segment echoes the move away from image-making and the images themselves. Aside from its exquisite natural beauty, arresting vistas, rustic interiors, and uncommon characters, the most striking aspect of this setting is the absence of man-made pictures that aim to represent reality, a sharp contrast to the urban obsession with images. The old woman does not have a television in her home, and the few small pictures present there seem to have been put on her shelves and walls ages ago—a few photographs and several small icons with a candle burning in front of them. The old village man not only rejects being filmed, but also actively destroys images. He burns photographs, muttering “Go to hell” while doing so.
The third segment of Mothers, the most bewildering and radical one, broadens the thematic focus from the image-making onto any representational practice, in this case a journalistic one. Unlike the two preceding fictional parts, this is a documentary segment that revolves around the serial murders of elderly women in the Macedonian town of Kičevo. It eventually turns out that the journalist who distinguished himself by reporting exclusive and detailed stories about these cases, V. T., was apparently himself the murderer. Writing a newspaper article—a “verbal image,” an attractive sign—about the victimized women is here most literally shown as connected to their murders. The segment takes as its theme not so much the criminal case itself, but rather the ways in which the media representations of this case, and the criminal investigation’s constructions of it, relate to it as signs that completely misrepresent reality (as when the police gets the false confession by beating the first suspect), or do not reach the “deeper truthfulness” of the case.
“The Truth in a Broken Mirror”
The process of replacing reality with signs is related to the replacement of factual realms with fictional ones. In this vein, the critical work on Mothers and Manchevski’s own texts or interviews focus on the fluid and treacherous relationship between fiction and truth, in which what seems truthful and factual can easily end up being revealed as fictional, and vice versa. “[These stories] are about the nature of truth. All three stories deal with the truth seen in a broken mirror. We learn something, and then we later learn that what we know may not be the real truth,” Manchevski says (“An Interview…,” 8). This dynamic is echoed in the absence of genre purism, also often discussed in the critical works on Mothers, whereby the film’s combination of feature with documentary destroys the conventional genre divisions that normally delineate cinematic truthfulness from fiction.
All three parts explore the “nature of truth,” as the director puts it. In the first part, two nine-year-old girls, Bea and Kjara, identify an innocent man as a “flasher” whom they came to report to the police. Even though they originally described the man as old, ugly, and bald, they now affirm that the man the police brings before them—young and with dense dark hair—is indeed the flasher in question because “he’s got the rain coat” which the alleged flasher wore. A policeman takes the young man aside and starts beating him up, while we see a close-up of the tight-lipped face of a beautiful young girl who helped cause this violence. While confirming this incongruous sign, grotesquely different from the reality it is supposed to mark, the two girls hold their cell phones in their hands, reminding us of the previous connection between the cell phone image-making and the replacement of reality with made-up signs—or the replacement of truth with fiction. In the second segment, what ends up being in the documentary on villages and their vanishing ways of life are the realms of the past (e.g., the old village woman’s recounting of past customs or donning of a traditional costume, which she no longer wears) that are fascinating and worthy of being discovered and recorded, but that are not a part of the villagers’ living present. There is only a trace of “live” color in a racy joke told by the old woman, or in the old man’s refusal to be filmed. What stays out of this documentary is what matters the most: the years-old feud between the old man and the old woman, actually brother and sister, and the only remaining residents in the village; the fact that the old man is destroying all his photographs; the old woman’s question: “Oh, my daughter, how shall we die?” to which the young woman has no answer. What matters most to the old village woman and man, and who they really are now, and what the whole village is about, stays outside of the “documentary” film’s frame.
This absence of truly vital content in the documentary on village life echoes the first story, where the allegedly factual account by the two girls is shown to be entirely fictional, a fabrication bizarrely inconsistent within itself. A young girl who snaps pictures and falsely accuses an innocent man is echoed by a young woman’s filming of “village life” in an attempt to make a “successful” documentary (“we’ll send it to the festival in Germany”). While not purposefully false, the film includes chiefly past customs conjured back from oblivion as a performance for the viewers and leaves out most of the real lives of the village inhabitants. The direct connection between the first segment’s girl, Kjara, and the second segment’s filmmaker, Ana, is made in a brief scene in the first part, where Bea and Kjara cross the street and Kjara stops for a moment to look at Ana, who, in turn, sees her through the windshield of the crew’s stopped car: the two smile at each other.
Revolving around an actual serial killer case in Kičevo in 2008, the third segment is a documentary largely constructed of interviews with people involved with the case: the police, judiciary and medical professionals, and with the grieving adult children, grandchildren, and other relatives and friends of three raped and murdered women. Each case is introduced by a black screen with the name of one of the victims—Mitra, Ljubica, Živana. The daughters and sons speak to the camera about the circumstances of their mothers’ disappearance and about finding their bodies. The case is followed and closed by the presentation of DNA evidence that identifies a certain V. T. as a killer, a prominent local journalist who broke the first stories about these crimes, who knew the killed women personally, and who became a suspect on account of his knowledge of the details of the crimes not released to the public. But then this revelation is made much less certain by the montage in which a shot of the Kičevo chief of police, confidently stating to the camera that “for us, the case is closed,” is followed by a bit of archival news informing that the same “Kičevo chief of police was arrested for bribery.” The uncertainty is strengthened by documentary footage of what seems a contradictory or incompetent judge in the case, and by material about the strange death of V. T. himself in a prison a few days after his arrest, apparently of a rather improbable self-induced drowning in a bucket of water. The behavior of the police in the first segment, where a clearly innocent man is beaten up, is brought to mind, and the viewer is invited to wonder whether this closed case may potentially point to a similar blunder, only on a larger and factual scale, and whether anyone will ever really know what happened.
The three segments foreground the incompatibility between a sign and the reality it “represents”: this sign is either simply false (the first segment), or largely irrelevant in regard to the present reality and, thus, misleading (the second segment), or altogether shifting and inadequate (the third segment). Commenting on truth and reality, Manchevski talks about the limiting and exclusionary focus of “truth finding,” or of the many customary signs with which we label reality (Azeski 2014). In response to that, Mothers’ third part, for instance, gradually takes the emphasis away from the conventional criminal case focus of “who did it?” to what matters more and is often lost in the search for the culprits, causal chains, and narrative chronology of what happened in the serial murder case. This commonly overlooked realm of different truthfulness includes life’s own infinitely varied responses of grief, love, and memory, the “emotional truth of this living person. The facts are important, but in the end, love and suffering are more important than facts” (Azeski 2014). One of the victim’s adult son plays soccer with his own young son, and says: “I have pushed the sadness into a corner. It doesn’t rule over me anymore. If a man is presented with unhappiness, he should also be presented with happiness.” Another victim’s daughter recalls how her mother opposed her early marriage, yet brought a table and chairs as a wedding gift when the daughter refused to listen, and another woman and her family eat food off the stone covering the grave of a victim, in accordance with observed tradition. These bits of reality do not usually make a serial killer story, a conventional sign of horror even when “authentic,” preferably filled with images of young victims, hyper-intelligent murderers, and charismatic investigators. However, it is precisely these many seemingly unimportant and irrelevant moments of the “emotional truth,” revealed in Mothers, which deserve to be at the forefront of the film’s commitment to the real.
Those who mourn lost mothers grow into impressive figures, shaped by the strength of their emotions and the integrity of their response to tragedy. The lives of the killed women, under the radar of conventional filmmaking or image-capturing in their apparent lack of noteworthiness, also become significant through the survivors’ memories. “She would take me—‘cause we were poor, five kids—and she’d say, ‘Sit down,’ and she’d give us food, beans,” says the man who found the body of one of the murdered women. Almost never shown in films, older women with no conventional distinction get to actually be seen as crucial “salt of the earth,” as the creators and helpers of that billions-wide humanity, the generic “mothers.” The film, thus, includes and gradually gives its greatest attention to the vast and usually invisible terrain “outside” of the commonly filmed realms, made images and signs, the terrain of village life eluding a documentary film that is allegedly about them, or the realms outside of the conventions of the serial murders’ representations, all of them concerning the “nature of the truth itself.”
The Actual Footage: Old Age, Ordinariness, and the Beginnings
Aside from making apparent the destructive effects of semioticization, Mothers pushes against this process by revealing some of the parts of the manifold reality that are commonly disregarded as the subjects of image- or sign-making. These include, for example, barely populated rural areas or a woman’s straightforward acting on her sexual desire, in the mostly cheerful and persistent manner in which Ana does it, that are not the material of standard images. But it is especially the inclusion of visual “untouchables” such as the old women and the ordinary, drab spaces and interiors, as well as unaestheticized ugliness, that grant a rare authenticity to the film. The second segment complements the images of a beautiful young woman with those of a village woman so ancient (or made to look so), that her ample presence, made stronger by her words and actions, achieves an impact all on its own. From being seen as a part of an inferior, pre-technological past, a somewhat comical and embarrassing relic with a fantastically wrinkled face and stale cookies, a creature out of a museum exhibit (the way she is seen by Kole), she evolves into a wise and generous person who would be an addition to any family (the way Ana sees her).
Similarly, it is hard to imagine that much of the matter actually present in the third segment, despite its factual constructing of a crime, would be taken as an object of image-making. The victims are older and unexceptional, the people talking about them seem ordinary too, and the environment that gets in the shots as a mise-en-scene, neither emphasized nor edited out, is drab and commonplace. The crime story itself is horrible and fantastic—with the murderer being found to be the very journalist who wrote the stories about the crimes—so some smaller portion of this matter would be put into a standard documentary film about it. But the difference from the predictable treatment lies in the Mothers’ employment of unusual time dynamics: well after all the conventionally important information gets revealed, the filming goes on and, most noticeably, the people keep talking. This added time given to “ordinary” people’s stories about things not directly related to the case, about the past of their lost mothers or themselves, or their thoughts and memories, allows these people to develop themselves from simple one-dimensional signs (“a mourning daughter”), into multi-dimensional and remarkable characters, a fragment of reality itself.
My favorite parts intimating the reality not yet reduced into a sign are the beginnings of all three segments. These openings function as a gradual “zooming in” or as an increasingly magnified view, as if through a microscope, that, paradoxically, foregrounds all that will be left out of the rest of the segment, and out of any conventional image- or sign-making. The segments start with the white outline of the territory of Macedonia on a black background with only place names (“Skopje,” “Mariovo,” “Kičevo”) in large letters, which quickly turn into a small sign and a white dot as the designation finds its correct place on the map. The film continues the process of zooming in, making us aware of the vast scope of material, geographical, physical and spiritual, that cannot be reduced to signs.
The first segment opens with a panorama of Skopje’s roofs and buildings, with each of the apartment buildings, for instance, signaling the existence of hundreds of human destinies moving in myriad ways that are impossible to capture and convey in images. The music picks up and we hear sirens, then we see a young man answering a cell phone call, followed by a chaotic scene on a school playground. Successive cuts give fast glances into various points of this universe—a close-up of legs in a game, or backpacks being thrown in a pile, or boys watching a girl recorded on a cell phone, or girls hanging upside-down on a jungle gym. The lively sequence of different kinds of shots recreates the high energy of this space, and the space itself is layered, with the action often in the background of a deep focus, and the front plane out of focus and blurry but still there. The shots taken from various viewpoints shape this three-dimensional space and its voluminous multi-directional proceedings. All of this “abundance” has to be kept outside of the film if it is to focus on its own image-making. Mothers makes us aware of both the practices of focusing by exclusion on the one hand, and the plethora of material that escapes the image-making and semioticization processes on the other hand.
The fast change of scenes, shots, and camera angles goes on for a full minute-and-a-half before the introduction of the first element of a story, the girl yelling “Flasher! Flasher!” A similar sequence showing the density of unrecorded (and un-recordable) life is shown again while Bea and Kjara are walking through the streets to the police station. Most of the shots’ space is occupied by environment densely populated by objects and pedestrians through which the girls are slowly making their way. We are shown the street’s chaotic life: a dog chasing a car or a man having problems getting into his vehicle, for instance. We see these moments long enough to acknowledge them as parts of that reality of lives and movements that is on the outside of the images and signs. The beginnings of the other two segments echo the first one. We pause again on the seemingly chance sights including, in the second segment, a long take of an older woman with a walker crossing the street and stopping to check her pockets.
While such apparently unrelated elements enrich the three segments’ thematic concerns in indirect ways and provide the sense of a setting, the main effect of the opening scenes of the three segments is to emphasize the difference between this capacious reality and the limiting images. This difference is highlighted by the close juxtaposition of still photographs to life outside of images. In the first segment, the burning photos of two women are followed soon after by the explosion of the activity of life on the playground from which the two girls, Bea and Kjara, emerge. The second segment opens with a shot of newspapers, to be covered by the snacks taken by Ana’s hands, and followed by the crew’s drive through the busy city. The third segment begins with a shot of a few images on a cupboard—several photos, a larger image of Jesus with a small clock in it—and the title page (“Mitra”), followed by a seemingly unrelated succession of sounds and scenes from the life of a town and ending with a string of shots capturing chance passers-by: an old man with a white hat trying to read a note, a girl standing in front of a billboard, another girl walking sideways and into a house, a man with a big moustache, and a middle-aged woman feeding her chickens. This sequence goes on for well over a minute, and, with the exception of children playing basketball, none of it is to be seen again.
These segment beginnings contribute to a certain openness of form, the “breathing” reminiscent of Makavejev’s films and unlike the hermetically sealed works of Polanski or Kubrick. This openness of form allows the “seeping through,” into the sphere of the film, of the moments of reality still existing outside of, and different from, the signs and made images. Such “unrelated” material is the reality that escapes image-making, the reality of time and of the worlds’ live complexity and depth, which is absent from our all-pervasive images and films simply because it cannot be contained or accessed by them—because it is not an image and it is not a sign. This realm, always on the outside of our images, can be rediscovered and reclaimed through live, symbolic, non-semiotic practices.
The ending of Mothers presents a clear and ominous warning. The film ends with a quick sequence that closes, in reverse, all three segments, starting with the “closing” of the third and last segment. A young boy, the grandson of one of the murdered women, is playing soccer with his dad, flushed with exertion. This life-affirming sight is followed by archival footage of the journalist V.T. at a house party, and with a close-up of his face ending with a freeze shot of it. The still of his face, then, is followed by the scene from the second segment, where the old village man commands “don’t film me!” and documentarian Kole replies that they are filming so that the children would see how people lived in the past. We then see a close-up of the hands of one of these children, holding a cell phone and about to press the photo button with her thumb. The camera moves back to reveal that the child in question is the girl Bea from the first segment. She lies on a desk at the police station and looks backwards towards us, and the extreme close-up shot of her upside-down face ends again in a still shot. This is then followed by the upside-down shot—as it would be seen from Bea’s perspective—of Kjara with her cell phone, looking at it and about to take a picture herself. The sound of that snapshot abruptly ends the film and stops the non-diegetic woman’s song in mid-verse. The film’s ending, thus, creates a sequence starting with the joy of physical exertion and the sense of closeness (father and son playing soccer), followed by the desire not to be filmed, the still shots (that on the basic visual level display the capacity of images to “stop” life), and, at the very end, the two girls whose “togetherness” consists of making images in the same space, with the upside down image of a young girl who is herself taking a picture.
This ending can be seen as an acknowledgment of our inescapable drive towards increasing image-making, the transformation of our living worlds into lacking and dead images, all wrong and upside-down as in a camera lens. But it could also make us feel that the only way out is, if not in the iconoclastic destruction of the image, then in a radical withdrawal from the “bad infinity” of contemporary production and consumption of images (and the semioticization it engenders), into the creation of a much less image dominated life.
The Icons and the Beautiful
But what becomes of divinity when it reveals itself in icons, when it is multiplied in simulacra? Does it remain the supreme power that is simply incarnated in images as a visible theology? Or does it volatize itself in the simulacra that, alone, deploy their power […] the visible machinery of icons substituted for the pure and intelligible Idea of God? This was precisely what was feared by Iconoclasts, whose millennial quarrel is still with us today (Baudrillard 1994, 4).
Ancient iconoclasts saw the danger of images replacing the divinity, and the modern iconoclasts might wonder about the ways in which the incessant proliferation of semiotic images replaces the sacredness of the real, of a person, youth, a moment, all disappearing in the flames of shots burning through our lives. The old village man consigns many photos to fire, including two of the Kičevo journalist V. T. (one of him as an adult and one as a child), a man who destroyed live women and created his own signs and images out of that destruction. The old man’s burning of photos, however, is complemented by the old woman’s honoring of her own triptych of small home icons, in front of which she keeps a lit candle. The icons appear in the third segment of the film as well, as part of the domestic millieu and in relation to the murdered women. Squeezed but not fully erased by modern hyper-realistic simulacra, these abstract, non-mimetic images do not function as threats to the divine but, on the contrary, as a reminder of the divine and sacred in the “ordinary,” un-remarkable lives. Like the icons themselves, this film acts as a “good” simulacra that affects us very differently from the “bad,” pervasive, and semiotic one. Mothers, thus, does not aim to “exterminate the real by its double.” On the contrary, the genuine art of its images—the dog that stays by its master’s grave, the landscapes, the faces of sadness and their words, the documentarian Ana and “grandma” inside the old woman’s house—discloses the beauty and mystery of the everyday world, and makes us experience this world with revived senses.
1] Of course, contemporary politics is itself largely image-based, and Walter Benjamin’s by now classic insight about the “aestheticization of politics” applies to much of this politics as well. See also Berman 1989.
2] The film is complex and also includes the different effects of war photographs; for instance, Aleksandar’s British lover Anne, a photo editor, gets physically sick while looking at some images from the Bosnian war, and this visceral reaction may lead or has indeed led to some positive action on the part of the actual viewers of these authentic photographs at the time. The audience of Before the Rain, too, is subjected along with Anne to a sudden exposure to horrific authentic images of that war, and, thus, is prevented from forgetting about this war and its victims.
3] In other words, while a more recognizable and conventional approach would be, for instance, to connect the aestheticized female or athletic body images to the two girls’ actions, this is not the case here.
4] Mothers here echoes Manchevski’s short film Thursday (2013), a minute-and-a-half-long look into the masses of people so dominated and consumed by their mobile gadgets, and the constant attention demanded by these devices’ endless flow of images and other content, that they fail to notice or react in any human way to the material realities right at their feet.
5] I am using this theoretical concept exclusively as a convenient short cut for discussing one of the features of Mothers. Given that Baudrillard’s work and the work on him is abundant, I employ William Merrin’s excellent study Baudrillard and the Media as a guide. In addition, a summary of Merrin’s main thesis by William Pawlett, and Pawlett’s own emphasis on the distinction between Baudrillard’s terms “simulacra” and “simulation”, both referring to images, may be of use: “A clear and coherent thesis is raised [in Merrin’s book]: that Baudrillard is not (and never has been) a postmodernist nihilist, and that in contrast he offers ‘a radical Durkheimian critique’ of the commodification and ‘semioticization’ of everyday life brought about, in part, by the development of electronic media […] At key points in his second chapter Merrin seems to use the terms simulacra and simulation as if they are interchangeable […] However there are benefits in demarcating these terms. Both refer to image(s) but simulation is distinct in Baudrillard’s vocabulary as it is used to theorise contemporary, post-industrial societies where images are generated from pre-existing, preconceived models and codes. Simulacrum – meaning “a material image” is used to refer to the general condition or principle of representation and is applied across many cultures and historical periods. Thus, many features of symbolic cultures, feudal and industrial societies are simulacral but not, strictly, simulatory” (Pawlett 2006).
10] In other words, it is not the case that interactive technologies enact “the extension of man,” but instead “they reverse themselves to implode into, penetrate and assimilate man and end their relations.” (Merrin 2005, 24). Merrin here elaborates on Baudrillard’s segment from Cool Memories 4 (Baudrillard 2003, 82).
11] The film does not, for example, give in all of its three segments a strong story about extraordinary events, a recognizable “must” element of most features that would confirm the words of the man talking to us right after the film’s title: “Things like that happen in movies. It’s different in real life. No real-life story can surpass a film story.” While the third segment revolves around the story of a serial killer, a morbid “one-in-a-million” case that is actually real, the first two segments (and especially the second one) work with a minimal plot. The life in these film’s segments, paradoxically, and opposite to the man’s words, looks much more like the everyday one than the film-shaped one. The story in the second part is so gently shaped that it hardly stands out from its background of “ordinary” life with its sounds, vistas and days whose main characteristic is not their extra-ordinariness (a plot where something very unusual happens), but rather their quiet life, usually unnoticed by our infatuation with dense hyper-charged contents, shaped by new technologies.
12] “Baudrillard’s later work” posits that, “in contrast to the disenchanted simulacrum which works towards […] the ‘extermination of the real by its double’ […] the enchanted form employs simulation to expose and reverse this process” (Merrin 2005, 40).
13] This future is intimated by the final scene, in which Bea and Kjara leave the police station accompanied by Bea’s mother pushing her toddler in a carriage, with different generations marking each other as transitional stages from birth to becoming a mother.
14] Jasna Bogdanovska (2010) writes: “Each story is very different from the next, but they all are connected in the exploration of truth: Who is telling the truth? Who writes the truth and the history? Who gives birth to the truth? And is there a truth at all?” The jury of “Europe out of Europe” competition of the 39th Belgrade Fest awarded Mothers the first prize for its “subtle exploration of truth and fiction in three distinctly heterogeneous episodes, and [for] how boldly its shifts the borders between fiction and documentary, to depict the powerful sensations of an ever-present matriarchy in Macedonian society” (Senjanovic 2011). In the open-endedness of the third segment and its absence of a final truth, Blagoja Kunovski-Dore (n.d.) finds the “essence of the authorial power” of Mothers. See also the press reviews on Manchevski’s web page, with the titles (or subtitles) such as “Compelling Mothers Mixes Truth and Fiction,” “Falsehood and Certainty” (“Falsedad y certeza”), or “Mothers: the Truthful Lies of the Cinéma Vérité” (“Majke: Istinite laži ‘cinema veritea’”). Manchevski’s own text, “Truth and Fiction, Art and Faith,” addresses this theme as well.
15] The not too flattering depiction of the police, the judiciary, and the prison system in this segment, if nothing else, may have played a part in the Macedonian authorities’ refusal to nominate Mothers for the Academy Awards, on top of their clear boycotting of this film in other ways as well. For more on this see Azeski 2014.
16] With regard to the absence and invisibility of the Macedonian village in the contemporarily promoted (by the official powers-to-be) Macedonian cultural context itself, Manchevski talks about a “vulgar petit bourgeois who is […] ashamed of his own genuine rich tradition because it is rural,” a certain “self-hate” (Azeski 2014).
17] One could dispute the claim about the absence of old people in mainstream cinema by noting that, for instance, a few well-known and relatively recent films, such as Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012) or Mike Leigh’s Another Year (2010), focus on or prominently include elderly characters and their lives. Amour, for instance, focuses on the trauma of old age, with a woman in her eighties going through a severe physical decline. But the film’s actors, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, are actors who are radiant and magnetic in their old age, and who make us recall their younger selves and the golden age of French cinema associated with it. Another Year revolves around the life of an older couple, but it also uses known actors who impersonate remarkable fictional characters, the most excellent of the “ordinary people.” And even with these various modifications bringing them closer to convention, these films are notable exceptions to the pervasive norm.
18] For instance, unrelated moments in the first segment sketch the setting and also reinforce the dynamics of the story itself: a young man (who will be wrongly accused and beat up at the end) is talking on a cell phone when we first see him; a score of the school boys is looking at a video of a girl on a cell phone, obviously preferring this voyeuristic activity to actually interacting with the girls present at the playground in “real” life.
19] Walter Benjamin, among others, valued such an “open” form of an artwork because of his own “iconoclastic distrust of aesthetic form” and of “the closed order of the organic work of art” (Berman 1989, 38). Benjamin’s own esteem of the open form lead to “his preference for fragmentary, open genres […] as well as the avant-gardist valorization of montage” (Berman 1989, 38).
20] Merrin elaborates on Baudrillard’s claim: “Discussing the fate of divinity in its reproduction, Baudrillard argues that it was the iconoclasts, the breakers of images, who actually recognized the image’s ‘true value’ and power. They saw that, incarnated and multiplied, God did not remain God but was volatized in images […] they realized ‘the omnipotence of simulacra,’ their faculty ‘of erasing God from the conscience of man’” (Merrin 2005, 32).
21] It is not by chance that the police, accused of beating a confession out of the first suspects, are metonymically shown in the figure of a policeman having his back turned to the reproduction of an icon on the office wall, with a camera move that goes from that icon to his back and then to the truncheons placed under his desk.
22] I am using Baudrillard’s distinction from his later work between, as Merrin puts it, “good” symbolic and “bad” semiotic simulacra. “This idea of resistance is developed in Baudrillard’s later work, where he argues that, in contrast to the disenchanted simulacrum which works towards ‘the perfection of reproduction’ and the ‘extermination of the real by its double […] the enchanted form employs simulation to expose and reverse this process” (Merrin 2005, 40).
“An Interview with the Director Milcho Manchevski,” Press Book Mothers, Milcho Manchevski website.
Azeski, Dejan. 2014. “Interview: Milcho.” Kapital 769/770 (25 July): 26-30.
Baudrillard, Jean. 1994. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Baudrillard, Jean. 2003. Cool Memories 4. London: Verso.
Berman, Russell A. 1989. Modern Culture and Critical Theory: Art, Politics, and the Legacy of the Frankfurt School. Madison, WI: the University of Wisconsin Press.
Bogdanovska Jasna. 2010. “Review of the film Mothers after the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival.” Democrat & Chronicle. 16 November.
Crnković, Gordana P. 2011. “Milcho Manchevski’s Before the Rain and the Ethics of Listening.” Slavic Review 70.1: 116-136.
Crnković, Gordana P. 2012. Post-Yugoslav Literature and Film: Fires, Foundations, Flourishes. Continuum, Bloomsbury: Oxford and New York.
Kunovski-Dore, Blagoja. N.d. “Majki.” Milcho Manchevski website.
Manchevski, Milcho. Website.
Merrin, William. 2005. Baudrillard and the Media. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Pawlett, William. 2006. “Book Review: Symbolic Exchange As A Form Of Communication (William Merrin. Baudrillard and the Media. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005). International Journal of Baudrillard Studies 3:2.
Senjanovic, Natasha. 2011. “Manchevski’s ‘Mothers’ Rules Belgrade Fest.” The Hollywood Reporter 7 March.
Wheelwright, John. 2000. “Would You Think?” American Poetry: the Twentieth Century 2. New York: The Library of America.