Current Trends in Macedonian Film: Nature and Identity in The Woman Who Brushed Off Her Tears, The Third Half, and Mothers

By Maria Hristova

© Maria Hristova, 2015

Any discussion of Macedonian film begins and often ends with Milcho Manchevski’s Before the Rain (1996), which placed the newly emerged independent Macedonian cinema on the international map and brought an Oscar nomination to its director. Almost two decades have passed since then; however, for a variety of reasons, very little else has been said on the topic of Macedonian film, especially in English. The aim of this special issue is to begin to rectify the current situation by offering several articles on and reviews of some of the best-known directors, such as Manchevski, albeit with an innovative focus (Crnković and Mazaj), as well as a score of less known films and directors (Petreski and Belamarić-Wilsey). In addition, the article by Dijana Jelača offers a brief sketch of Macedonian film history, positioning the Macedonian film production within the former Yugoslav film industry, as well as an in-depth examination of the 1960s period in Macedonian cinema. The current article aims at a brief and broad overview of several recurring themes in three recent Macedonian features that have received the widest international coverage in the past five years: The Woman Who Brushed Off Her Tears (Zhenata koj gi izbrisha svoite solzi, 2012), The Third Half (Treto poluvreme, 2012), and Mothers (Majki, 2010).

Macedonian cinema is a small, but developing field, which merits attention not only for the quality of the films it produces, but also the unique vision of local, Macedonian, and more global, Balkan and European, concerns that it presents. Within the context of KinoKultura, dedicated to cinema in post-socialist countries, Macedonia holds a special place. Let me point out a few specific characteristics, which bring the Macedonian situation into a socio-historical perspective. First, of course, is the consideration that Macedonia was an independent republic within the former Yugoslavia, but linguistically it is outside the West South Slavic group. Like in Slovenia and Kosovo, prior to 1991-1992 language would not have been a major issue, since the official Serbo-Croatian or Croato-Serbian language would have been accessible to everyone, at least in theory. As mentioned in other articles in this issue, cooperation between the various film studios within Yugoslavia was frequent and fruitful. The situation, however, is irrevocably changing with the passage of time and the rapidly growing generational gap between those who grew up and were educated in the former Yugoslavia, and those for whom Bosnian/Croatian/Montenegrin/Serbian is a foreign language. In terms of contemporary film production, this translates into Macedonian-language films that are a financial challenge and whose circulation and distribution outside the national borders is not guaranteed and can be extremely limited.

This brings me to a second distinguishing feature of contemporary Macedonian film. The three most internationally acclaimed directors at present, Milcho Mancevski, Theona Strugar Mitevska, and Darko Mitrevski, are all based abroad or spend significant time outside of Macedonia and work with foreign actors, producers, etc. This is not to say that such a situation is somehow exclusive to Macedonia, since after the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia many intellectuals, artists, and filmmakers found themselves abroad at least for a period of time. The more lax nature of Yugoslav borders compared to other socialist states in Eastern Europe also allowed for foreign exchanges even prior to 1990. What is unusual for Macedonia is that the three strongest directors are not only exposed to foreign influences abroad, but in a way can be considered émigré filmmakers, with Manchevski and Mitrevski based out of NY and LA, respectively, and Mitevska—out of Europe. The scope and reach of the Macedonian diaspora offer a different narrative, marking the Republic not as an isolated state in the heart of the Balkans, but as a country within Europe with ties to America, Australia, and Asia. As a result, it is possible to located local themes and preoccupations within a broader context: an examination of global trends as manifested on the micro level and framed by a distinctive socio-historical context.

One such manifestation recurring in a number of recent Macedonian films is the highly visible link between identity and landscape, or to be more precise, the mountains. As Pierre Nora has attested in his work on “lieux de mémoire” in France, national identity is mapped onto specific spaces (Nora 1989). In the Balkans, in particular, this is a strongly resonant idea, especially in relation to mountains. Seen as the locus of resistance and conceptualization of the nation, mountains have long been the keystone of identity in the region. In popular imagination, they have served as the protectors of the local Christian culture during the Ottoman period. Nature and mountains, thus, are juxtaposed to the city—a product of modernization, Western influences, and socialist urbanization. As a result, mountains are additionally mythologized as the traditional, pre-modern, “pure” symbol of an ethnic identity, which is at present perceived as endangered by the forces of globalization.

The Woman Who Brushed Off Her Tears

A very different take on violence, nature, and women’s life is presented in Teona Mitevska’s feature, The Woman Who Brushed Off Her Tears. It is a hauntingly beautiful picture about grief, guilt, pain and the desire for love and personal freedom.

trendsThe beginning is set in France, depicting the life of a Frenchwoman, Helena, a parole officer, married to a Macedonian émigré. Her life is presented as extremely structured, regulated, and sterile through depiction of interior spaces. The oppressive, suffocating feeling, compounded by her grief, is illustrated through a striking image. While at her office, it seems like someone is strangling her, but in reality those are her own hands—she is her own torturer. In fact, we rarely see Helena outside, except when dealing with death: first, when she finds the body of someone who has fallen or jumped off a building, and then at the cemetery when she retrieves the urn with her son’s ashes.

The “civilized” regularity of ultra-urbanized life in a Western country, however, is shown to be simply a thin veneer over the more animalistic irrational impulses that govern people independently from their country of origin. The very first scene in the film depicts Noah, the Frenchwoman’s son, attempting to make love to his own mother. He then climbs on the balcony railing, accuses his father of molesting him when he had been young, and jumps off.

trendsOne of her parole prisoners is Lucian, a Macedonian Muslim who came to France to earn money in order to buy his bride, according to the custom of their village, but was caught trafficking drugs and ended up in prison. His bride, Ajsun, still lives with her despotic father and their illegitimate son in her native village, waiting for Lucian to come back. She is completely disenfranchised, to the extent that she cannot even read and write. Despite her father’s disapproval of her love and attempts to marry her off to someone else, Ajsun’s life is depicted through vibrant colors and surrounded by breathtaking scenery—a stark contrast to the subdued colors and regulated lines of Western life.

In an attempt to redeem her guilt in front of her son, the Frenchwoman comes up with the plan to go on a hunting trip to Macedonia with her husband and to simultaneously smuggle Lucian back to his home country. During the hunt, which takes place at the very end of the film, she ends up killing both Ajsun’s father, thus clearing the way for the young couple with violence and death, and her own husband as an offering to her son’s ashes.

trendsThe two parts of the film—the first set in France, the second in Macedonia, are personified by the two women—a sophisticated Frenchwoman and an uneducated village girl. The events, which at first seem entirely disconnected, are shown to be related on a fundamental level. On one hand, the French and the Macedonian parts are continuously contrasted on all levels—the French part is entirely shot inside, or in places with limited visibility, like narrow streets or narrows alleys. The Macedonian part, in contrast is extremely poetic, with long shots of beautiful scenery, accompanied by Avro Part’s haunting music.

trendsCommenting on the visual dichotomy of the film, the director claims, “From the beginning I knew that the two stories would be completely opposite in all possible ways: visually, but even more importantly in philosophy, in the way the two women view the world. In a way, I am referring to myself, these two parts of me: a Macedonian woman now living in the West.” In other words, this is a film about the ambiguity in the established views of the opposition between the West and the East, but it is also about the hidden relations between the two. This deeper connection is revealed at the very beginning even if it does not become apparent until the very end. When Helena escapes Noah’s protestations of love, she turns the TV on and pretends to watch a documentary on wolves. When she finds herself in Macedonia, she is faced with a real wolf right before she commits the two murders. In South Slavic folklore, the wolf is often seen as a messenger or representative of the Beyond. This would fit with its appearance in the film in the two instances where Helena’s actions in some way lead to death. The she-wolf is also a symbol of fierceness and protectiveness. Having failed in safeguarding her own son, Helena fulfills her goal by both finding vengeance and liberating Ajsun from the patriarchal expectations that prevent her family’s reunion.

trendsThe connection between the human world and the animal one is further developed when, during one of her interviews with Lucian, he tells Helena a story of looking at a shop window and instead of his face seeing a lamb’s head in sauce. He is also reduced to working at a slaughterhouse amongst blood and entrails in a clinical setting which only offsets the violence leading to the neatly packaged meat sold at supermarkets. The link between the natural world and urban society has been lost in the West, but in the Macedonian village the family oversees the process from beginning to end.

What these images suggest is that the feral or emotional side of the human nature has been suppressed and concealed in the more “civilized” societies, while it is still visible in a place like the Macedonian mountains. In other words, the way seeing a documentary about wolves is merely a substitute for encountering one in real life; Helena’s existence proves to only be a copy of the perfect life envisioned by Western society. Taking this analogy a step further, it seems that French society is clearly not as civilized or unproblematic as it is constructed in the Macedonian imagination. The opposite is also true, the violence associated with the Balkans in Western media is completely absent in the way Ajsun endures in silence and finds way to transcend her unhappiness through her love for her son, the beauty of her surroundings, and the stories she tells. In fact, it is the Western visitor who brings violence into her life and symbolically kills the traditional way of life by shooting the patriarchal figure. Even if for Ajsun this even is ultimately liberating, it nevertheless represents the irreversible change in local life brought about by the intrusion of foreign values and influences.

The Third Half

The Third Half, referring to the way soccer games are divided into four parts, is undeniably a crowd-pleaser, touching on the universally popular topic of European football, and combining it with a straightforward narrative of standing up to Nazi Germany. Darko Mitrevski’s film is a Hollywood take on a turbulent and troubled moment of history. Where the two films discussed so far bear all the distinguishing features of independent auteur films, Mitrevski presents a historical WWII drama.

trendsIt also examines a topic that has long been neglected in Balkan film in general—the Holocaust. Most films dealing with minorities address the present minorities, usually the Muslim ones. The film explores both a deeply personal theme of love and a national one of standing up to injustice. It depicts the true story of Rebecca, a young girl from a rich Jewish family. She falls in love with Kosta, a small time criminal and soccer player. Rebecca elopes with her lover, against the wishes of her father, thus fortuitously evading the deportation of the Jews from Macedonia. The love story, while offering a unifying narrative for the film, is more in the nature of a microscope that allows an in-depth look at the atmosphere and historical events taking place in occupied Macedonia. A microcosm of the larger events taking place in Macedonian society, the love story between a Christina and a Jew is fundamentally intertwined with the fate of the football club Macedonia. Coached by a German Jew, the club follows the traditional storyline of the underdog—from an incompetent team they become star players who win a soccer game against the Bulgarian club Levski. And once having found their pride as Macedonian representatives, the players decide to leave Macedonia, rather than forfeit a friendly game against a German team.

trendsAs Dina Iordanova’s seminal work on Balkan cinema has suggested, there is a tendency for self-exoticization (Iordanova 2001, 216). In The Third Half we can see a willing engagement in this process as means to add local color and situate the narrative in the transitional space between the Orient and Occident. This is achieved through the first historical scenes set in Skopje at the eve of WWII. Signs of the lingering oriental influence include headwear, the side of the walls where colorful strings of peppers and hanging pieces of cloth are unmistakably Middle Eastern or Levantine.

trendsWhile most of the film is set in the city, the resolution—the focal part, takes place against the backdrop of breath-taking mountain vistas. At first, the football team manager takes the German Jewish coach deep into the mountains, presumably to kill him. In the last moment the manager shoots the soldier who is accompanying them and frees the coach. The mountains are thus transformed into the setting of Macedonian identity, which is equated with personal bravery and resistance to fascism. The manager proceeds to shoot himself, surrounded by the quiet and vast open spaces of the mountains, thus freeing himself from the need to live and collaborate with the occupying forces, which would entail the betrayal of his compatriots and of his own Macedonian identity.

trendsThe soccer team “Macedonia,” a metonym for the entire nation, also escapes through the mountains, which renders them into a safe haven and a stronghold of “Macedonianness.” Thus, the film’s aim at bringing up and reassessing the past in what has been perceived as a hostile and inaccurate manner by a number of Bulgarian critics (Kanzurov 2012), is closely related to the contemporary project of reestablishing and reconceptualizing a Macedonian identity. This, in turn, is innately connected to the geography of the country, as signified by the central role played by the mountainous setting in offering a way of resisting the foreign invasion and control.

trendsThe film ends with the return of Rebecca to Macedonia for the opening of the Holocaust museum. She is once again reunited with those who were sent to the camps and died there. She is surrounded by the photographs of the dead the way she had been surrounded by the soccer team members while they fled into the wilderness. The escape into the mountains has brought her back, more than half a century later.

Mothers

trendsThe feature Mothers is the subject of a detailed discussion of another article in this issue, so I will not linger on it. Let me just underscore some of the main themes that Manchevski explores in his latest work as a way to outline some general trends in Macedonian film overall. Mothers is both a characteristic Manchevski film and an innovative work. It contains many themes from his previous films, Before the Rain, Dust, Shadows, such as the cyclicality of time, the inevitable presence of history and tradition in contemporary life, the human connection to the landscape and especially the mountains, the patriarchal way of life preserved in contemporary society, which remains in many ways hostile to women. In Mothers, however, all these topicsare treated in an innovative way—through the combining of documentary with fiction.

trendsThe second part of the film, which tells of a team who is filming a documentary about the disappearing way of life in Macedonian villages, is also the most idyllic and poetic one in the triptych that is Mothers. It is like a stand-alone story that is in stark contrast to the first and third parts that take place in urban or at least urban-like settings of the city and the provincial town and are characterized by a chaotic rhythm of life or by a grim overtone. The physical motion of the action is clearly vertical, denoting a positive connotation to the escape from the city to a mountain village. The ascent also symbolizes a transition to a different time-space, where the flow of history seems to have frozen. Socialist-style music plays from the radio, the old woman lives in the twenty-first century the way she has lived in her youth. The rapid-paced city life is unimaginable in the quiet of the mountains. The landscape itself is characterized by wide vistas and open empty skies, without human presence, a very different situation from the cramped and overpopulated streets of Skopje or sense of a close-knit community in Kicevo.

trendsThis second part is also the “happiest” in that it depicts a love story with a happy end (while at first the director and the camerawoman are involved in a passionate affair, it is clear that the third team member has feelings for her. He is able to convey his feelings and we later see a scene of domestic bliss where the two of them are living happily together back in Skopje. We are given to understand that the third member feels things deeply, he is the most quiet of the three, but also knows how to listen and connect to his surroundings. He finds a way to escape his unrequited love through a communion with nature by recording natural sounds: birds and insects. His expression reveals the rapture he experiences when all everyday concerns fall away in the face of such peace and beauty. He even attempts to capture the sound of the stars at night when the couple’s lovemaking becomes too loud for him to remain indifferent. Finally, it is outdoors and without any human words that he finds a way to communicate his love to the young woman. Thus, nature is both solace and a place of reaching a deeper connection with others.

Conclusion

In fact, geography and identity are the themes that bring all three films together. In all these films, the sense of identity is always brought back to the geography of Macedonia. In Mothers, the sense of identity was highlighted with the sense of an imagined community, which experiences the sense of simultaneity within the borders of one state. In The Woman Who Brushed Off Her Tears, the native, Macedonian is opposed to the Other, foreign, but also shown to not be quite so different or at least to be fundamentally linked to it. And finally, Mitrevski anchors identity in the sense of history and place united in the image of the mountains, albeit as a backdrop.

The mountains, the definitive feature of the Macedonian landscape, in these films are not simply a beautiful setting—they become an escape from the city, a sanctuary, a safe hold of the disappearing past. They are depicted as a possible alternative space, a place in opposition to the hierarchy that is in place in the city and within the state as a whole. The city, in turn, a microcosm of society, is emblematic of the problems defining most post-socialist states: violence, vice, family disintegration, lack of opportunities for young people, lack of direction, and lack of meaning. It is no longer the center of industrialization and modernization, and holds little hope for the people who come from the countryside. The city represents the post-socialist disillusionment and the contemporary crisis, the mountains, in opposition, are a timeless symbol and a mythologized anchor of identity in a period of permanent transition and turbulence.


Works Cited

Iordanova, Dina (2001). Cinema of Flames Balkan Film, Culture and the Media. London: British Film Institute.

Kanzurov, Viktor (2012). “Treto poluvreme ili sniat na razuma” [The Third Half or the Reason’s Dream]. De Zorata 13 October.

Nora, Pierre (1989). “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire,” Representations 26, 7–25.

 

Updated: 02 Aug 15