Ivo Trajkov: The Great Water (Golemata voda, 2004)
reviewed by Biljana Belamaric Wilsey© 2015
The drama The Great Water, released in 2004, is based on the eponymous novel by Zhivko Chingo (1935–1987), published in 1971. The film depicts the deathbed memories of a Macedonian politician, specifically his childhood in an orphanage for the children of “fallen enemies” of the state, where he encountered abuse and indoctrination with communist propaganda.
The movie was filmed in Macedonia as an international co-production, with the participation of production companies from the Czech Republic, Germany, Macedonia and the U.S.A., and supported by the Ministries of Culture of the Republic of Macedonia and of the Slovak Republic, as well as the State Fund for Support and Development of Czech Cinematography. The screenplay was written by the director himself, Ivo Trajkov, a Macedonian who studied and currently resides in Prague, Czech Republic. The motion picture won international accolades, including audience awards at the Dubrovnik Film Festival and the Black Sea Film Festival, a jury award at the Dětský filmový a televizní festival Ostrov, and best cinematography at the Mostra de Valencia Cinema del Mediterrani festival in 2005. The cinematographer, Suki Medencevic, a U.S.-based DoP of Disney shorts, television films and documentaries, was born and raised in Bosnia but also spent part of his childhood in Macedonia with his mother’s family. Like Trajkov, Medencevic also studied in Prague and is one of the producers of the film. The international composition of the team undoubtedly contributed to the film’s image as a product of the successful marriage of characters and storytelling in a European cinematographic style but in the spirit of a contemporary Hollywood production, as stated by producer Brian Rogers (Harry Potter and Green Lantern) in a letter to Medencevic (N.D. 2004).
It must first be pointed out that the film is not a straightforward adaptation of the novel for the big screen. Instead, it is a sociopolitical reimagining of Chingo’s themes, such as political influences on the individual and the collective, and dichotomies, such as confinement vs. freedom, through an artistic lens. The story is presented from the viewpoint of an independent Macedonian state, a critical viewpoint that captures some of the complexities that have shaped present-day Macedonian national identity.
The entire movie takes place in the instant between the end of life and the beginning of death: starting with the opening of the eye of the main character on his deathbed, progressing with his ghost revisiting the orphanage of his youth where he watches as the events of his life unfold, and closing with the return of a religious relic that transports him back to his deathbed, where he finally passes on, damned for eternity.
The poetic nature of the film is evident immediately as the main character, Lem Nikodinoski, introduces himself at the beginning of the film by admitting to leaving out the letter “L” at the beginning of his name because it reminded him of something bad (the word “bad” (“losh”) in Macedonian starts with the letter “l”). The scars from his childhood experiences run so deep that they impact his identity and the name he gave himself. The characters in the film can be divided into two groups: the orphans, including the beautiful girl named Lenche, all of whom are confined to the space between the walls of the orphanage and are labeled by society as “bad,” and the orderlies or “caretakers” who are supposedly “good:” the manager of the orphanage, “Pop” Ariton Jakovlevski, the guards, and the teachers, including the cruel headmistress, comrade Olivera Strezoska. The protagonist who drives the action in the film is another orphan named Isaac, who is introduced as coming from a devil’s seed and who “radiated a strange light” that made it impossible for some of the guards to even look him in the eye, presumably ashamed of their non-humane actions against the orphans. Isaac, whose androgynous appearance is partially due to the choice of an actress for his role, represents mysticism and spirituality and he often performs secret rituals with Lem. In fact, the day that Isaac is brought into the orphanage, his hands bound with rope, it rains.
Throughout the film, rain is a symbol of forgiveness and cleansing. After Lenche dies, Isaac performs a ritual that brings about rain, seemingly to forgive the head of the orphanage, “Pop,” who could have stopped her death but chose not to. In one of the more dramatic series of scenes, occurring three-quarters through the movie, the mentally retarded bellman, gagged and bound Jesus-like because he was bothering people, dies in one of the cellars while up above everyone is celebrating the visit from an unnamed Soviet national hero. The death precipitates a long hot drought as punishment and many orphans, including Lem, are near death themselves. Isaac takes pity on Lem and performs a magic ritual that ends the drought with cleansing rain. Water and rain, in particular, as the title suggests, are important concepts in the film and a symbol of the end of suffering and of escape from the dreadful prison that is the orphanage. In one scene foreshadowing Lem’s departure from the orphanage, Lem and Isaac stare longingly at the lake near the orphanage, as a bird flies over—a visual allusion to freedom.
The movie is infused with scenes of nature, such as the great water of the opening credits i.e. the lake near the orphanage, the fields where Lem gets caught, the brown soil of the orphanage’s courtyard, and the blue sky interspersed between various scenes, the moon, a barren tree, and forces of nature, such as drought and rain. All these images exude symbolism and are reminiscent of humans explaining the unknown through the supernatural, much like a child might. Further symbolism is exemplified in Isaac’s name, which brings to mind the Biblical story of Isaac, who was to be sacrificed by his father Abraham as a sign of faith (“The Binding of Isaac”, Genesis 22:2–8). Thus, the episode when Isaac is brought to the orphanage with his hands bound reinforces the Biblical interpretation of sacrifice of innocents as a testament of belief, but in this case, a belief in socialist ideology. The Biblical Isaac’s laughter is captured in the orphan Isaac’s hint of a smile, and the hint of a smile he brings to others. But Isaac’s last name, Kejten, as we are told in the movie, is similar to the Turkish word for “devil” (“sheitan”), insinuating that Isaac’s “magic” could also be perceived as evil, and that even religious ideas, when institutionalized, could lead to evil deeds. “Ideas are good, ideology is bad,” Trajkov stated in an interview about the film (Kostova 2002).
The opposition of good and evil brings to the forefront one of the main themes in the film - symbolic dichotomies. Some of these include children vs. adults, those who challenge order vs. those who maintain it, innocence vs. experience, individual vs. collective, the wall that separates the orphanage from the rest of the world vs. the outside world, old tradition vs. new practices, Stalinism and communism vs. religion and spirituality, conformism vs. rebellion, friendship vs. betrayal, drought vs. rain, light vs. dark, real vs. unreal. These dichotomies are often turned upside down in the film. For example, the children are labeled as “bad” by society and need to be rehabilitated, whereas the adults carrying out the rehabilitation are “good” members of society, but the audience is certainly led to sympathize with the children and their innocence rather than with the adults’ cruel actions of discipline and abuse of power, resulting in death. Moreover, as the children are “reformed” and join the collective, they lose their empathy for their friends and become order-maintainers themselves. Because the adults’ actions are sanctioned by society, their abuses are announced and often carried out by the light of day, whereas the cover of darkness is mostly reserved for Isaac’s rituals of friendship and mysticism, which are intended to counteract the adults’ destructive daylight actions. Despite or, perhaps, because of this connection with physical darkness, Isaac is a symbol of spiritual light, and the film closes with Lem’s concluding statement that after leaving the orphanage he was never again as close to the “light” as when he was close to Isaac.
Three prominent and mutually connected themes are idolization, ritual, and sacrifice. In portraying the idolization of communist leaders, such as the use of their portraits as icons, the film reveals socialism to be a “false” religion, but one that uses Church practices to promote its own ideology. This is illustrated in the episode where the headmistress of the orphanage loses her “most holy possession,” a pair of red sports shorts she had won at a cross-country competition on the occasion of Stalin’s birthday. The announcement about this theft is imbued with reverence towards these sports shorts to the point of sounding comical and absurd. But this comic relief leads to tragedy, which in this particular situation results in the death of the beautiful and innocent orphan Lenche, who is the object of Isaac’s affection. In addition, just like a church would have wall murals depicting saints, banners referencing communist creeds decorate the walls of the orphanage; just as the religious teachings are memorized and followed for one to be moral, so communist creeds and letters of self-criticism have to be memorized and followed for one to be a good citizen; just as art has been created to express reverence to God, the headmistress sculpts a bust in the likeness of Stalin.
A parallel could be drawn between the daily routines at the orphanage and the rituals observed at a monastery: both take place regularly, in a pre-specified order, and in expectation of certain end results. Furthermore, the film depicts spiritual rituals, mostly performed by Isaac, such as to swear Lem to secrecy, to allow him to tell a lie, to punish others for their evil deeds, and to bring rain after a long period of drought. But it is the last ritual in the film that is perhaps the most memorable, because it is performed by the orphanage’s director when he shaves and cleans himself, puts on his military dress uniform, and is about to commit suicide. In the final moments of his life, his wife, a figure embodying kindness and pure love, implores him not to do it because God will not forgive suicide. She then sacrifices her own immortal soul by shooting him, as he stares into the eyes of an icon of a saint. The audience gets a glimpse of the ultimate paradox: the person in charge of maintaining secularism in the miniature world of the orphanage has religious paraphernalia in his own home because of his wife’s beliefs.
The theme of sacrifice runs throughout the movie, from the idea that one sacrifices one’s own individuality to join the collective (willingly or not), to sacrificing others as punishment, as in the case of the misplaced shorts and Lenche’s death, to sacrificing one’s own morality to save a loved one’s soul as the director’s wife did, to Isaac’s final sacrifice that allows Lem to escape the orphanage. It is Lem’s acceptance of that sacrifice that, in his mind, makes him damned for eternity. Lem gave up his morality to become “rehabilitated,” to be able to depart from the orphanage, and become a “good citizen.” He is rescued from life at the orphanage but sentenced to spend the rest of his life, and afterlife, in damnation for betraying his loyalty to Isaac.
The stunning cinematography reflects the dichotomies in the movie by coloring the backdrops for the events that unfold. The sepia tones of the orphanage, orphans’ uniforms, and earth are contrasted with the dimly lit grayness of the room where the orphans sleep and the blue hues of the water. Hovering over Isaac’s candle-light rituals, the close-ups of the materials he uses and the occasional slow motion gives the rituals an intimately magical feel. This realistic yet dream-like quality, envisioned and brought to fruition by the visual team through the “digital intermediate” postproduction process at Copenhagen’s “Digital film lab” (parts of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider), was undoubtedly the reason for the film’s cinematography award at the Valencia festival.
Another important element of capturing the ideas in the movie is the music by the young Macedonian composer Kiril Dzajkovski. As the movie portrays floating, longing, builds up to the crux, so the music ebbs and flows carried by string instruments. As the themes marry the past and present, so the music marries traditional instruments and musical themes with contemporary ones through powerful, driving, beats. Even the sounds of a music box, associated with the appearance of the director’s wife and her healing love, are eerie because of minor chords and lack of a satisfactory musical resolution. The spiritual undertones of the movie are also emphasized in the leitmotifs reminiscent of Christian chants. The music was recorded in Skopje and London, whereas the editing took place in Prague.
The Great Water is not merely the narrative of a Macedonian Oliver Twist, but a story about the complex sociohistorical events that have contributed to shaping the contemporary Macedonian national identity in each individual. The insinuation is not that we, as contemporary Macedonians, are damned like Lem, but, rather, that we should not forsake the morals that run deeper than political ideology, deeper even than religion—our loyalty to each other, which is ultimately what defines us and preserves our integrity. But the message of the movie is not limited to Macedonian soil or the time after WWII. To the contrary, it is a generalizable message to anyone anywhere at any time. As Ivo Trajkov himself stated in an interview for the Macedonian newspaper Vest: “The story is valid even today – instead of an orphanage, it could be a refugee camp. It operates with basic human things: the battle for friendship, love, betrayal, as well as the influence of the unreal and magical in our lives” (Kostova 2002).
N. D. 2004. “’Golemata voda’ na Ivo Trajkov moze da konkurira i za Oskar.” Vest 4.1147 (29 April).
Kostova, M. 2002. “Sakam da snimam filmovi za autsajderi oti gi razbiram.” Vest 3:655 (14 September).
The Great Water, Republic of Macedonia, 2004
Color, 93 min
Director: Ivo Traikov
Script: Zhivko Chingo (novel), Ivo Traikov, Vladimir Blazevski, Aleksander Kolevski
Music: Kiril Dzajkovski
Cinematography: Suki Medencevic
Cast: Mitko Apostolovski, Rade Serbedzija, Nikolina Kujaca Saso Kekenovski, Maja Stankovska, Verica Nedeska, Risto Gogovski, Meto Jovanovski
Ivo Trajkov: The Great Water (Golemata voda, 2004)
reviewed by Biljana Belamaric Wilsey© 2015