Peripheral Vision: Yugoslav Film the Macedonian Way

By Dijana Jelača

© Dijana Jelača, 2015

This essay discusses Macedonian cinema during the Yugoslav period, an oft-neglected branch of Yugoslavia’s prolific film industry. It would not be an understatement to argue that within Yugoslav film culture, as well as in the context of the critical attention it received, the Macedonian film industry was a fairly marginal (and marginalized) cinema. While it is not my project in the limited space of an essay to offer a comprehensive overview of the history of Macedonian film, that effort is past due. Petar Volk’s impressive History of Yugoslav Cinema (Istorija jugoslovenskog filma, 1986) contains a chapter “The Black Seed” (“Crno seme”), which chronicles Macedonian film in the Socialist period, but also deems it a fairly “modest” cinema in the context of Yugoslav film history. The Cinematheque of Macedonia published in 1996 a special issue of Kino that offers a brief but insightful English-language overview of Macedonian cinema from 1905 to 1996, written by Ronald Holloway. This volume covers many major filmmakers and film workers who were originally from and who worked in Macedonia, from the early film enthusiasts, brothers Milton and Yanaki Manaki, known as the “first pioneers and first cameramen of the Balkans” (Kino 1996: 15), to Milcho Manchevski, who was at the time of the volume’s publication fresh off his victory in Venice for Before the Rain (Pred doždot, 1994). On the other hand, Daniel Goulding’s essential history of Yugoslav cinema, Liberated Cinema (2002), contains only a handful of references to Macedonian films in the Yugoslav period. Moreover, Macedonia does not warrant a mention in Liehm and Liehm’s discussion of the post-1961 proliferation of Yugoslav cinema, organized by republic in The Most Important Art (1980: 413).

It is safe to say that the existing historical overviews of the larger context of Yugoslav cinema treated Macedonian film as a minor cinema, perhaps justifiably so when the infrastructure of the industry, or the lack thereof, is taken into consideration. Yet, the role of Macedonian cinema in the Yugoslav period should be rethought beyond the assumption that quantity is proportional to quality. At the same time, by turning my focus to films made in Macedonia, or to Macedonian filmmakers during the Yugoslav period, I do not wish to extrapolate Macedonian film from its place within the larger context of Yugoslav film history. Quite the contrary, I aim to embed Macedonian cinema back into Yugoslav film history as such, specifically with a reconsideration of its artistic merit and cinematic innovation in mind. My starting point is the assumption that Yugoslav film history should not be parsed into separate ethno-national parts—a framework that has been insisted on by some film scholars in light of Yugoslavia’s demise. I side here with film scholars such as Nebojša Jovanović, and his claim that Yugoslavia’s (film) legacy needs to be maintained and fought for (2012a; 2012b). How that legacy is constructed and maintained from the peripheries of its film industry is the question here, rather than an extrapolation of Macedonian cinema into a separate film history away from its Yugoslav context.

While it was undoubtedly a “minor cinema” with respect to its industry’s infrastructure (particularly in the early Socialist period), it was also increasingly prolific and featured prominent “guest directors” from other republics. For instance, the first Macedonian feature film Frosina (1952) was directed by the Belgrade-based, Skopje-born filmmaker Vojislav Nanović. Petar Volk notes that the production of this film recruited almost all Macedonian film workers and actors (Volk 1984: 337). Other notable Macedonian films directed by “guest directors” include titles such as Night of the Wolves (Volča nok, 1955), directed by Slovenia’s France Štiglic, Miss Stone (Mis Ston, 1958), The Salonika Terrorists (Solunski atentatori, 1961) and To the Victory and Beyond (Do pobedata i po nea,1966), directed by Žika Mitrović, a prolific Serbian director, who made partisan epics sometimes known as “red westerns.” Croatian directors Branko Bauer and Vatroslav Mimica also directed Macedonian films: Bauer’s Three Annas (Tri Ane, 1959); Mimica’s The Macedonian Part of Hell (Makedonskiot del od pekolot, 1971), and so on. The cast and crew on many of these films also included a mix of pan-Yugoslav film workers. Volk notes that directors from other Yugoslav republics were recruited to direct films in Macedonia in the post-WWII period because it was decided that more experienced directors would get the local film industry off the ground more efficiently (Volk 1984: 338). At the same time, it was not an uncommon occurrence in Yugoslav film industry for directors to work outside of their republics of origin, a fact that further strengthens the argument that the contemporary ethno-national historiographies are often inadequate to account for local film histories or cultural exchanges as a whole.

A Sketch of History: From Center to Periphery

The famed Manaki Brothers are film pioneers that have been claimed by at least six different Balkan countries. According to Marian Tutui, Romania, Yugoslavia (while it existed), Greece, Macedonia, Turkey and Albania have all adopted the brothers as their own.[1] In many ways, the contention over their ethno-national belonging, and the impossibility of resolving it, neatly reflects two dialectical tendencies: the pervasive attempts to separate regional histories into neatly divided ethno-national trajectories, and the inherent impossibility of doing so because the classifications that such divisions are based on are rarely rooted in historical facts. Regardless of their “real” or “imagined” ethno-national identity, the Manaki Brothers’ cinema art studio in Bitola, southwestern Macedonia, was one of the undisputed centers of Balkan cinematic activity in the first half of the twentieth century. The brothers diligently documented with a film camera many important historical events, from Macedonia’s liberation from the Ottoman Empire, to the Balkan wars, to World War I, and so on. They also created a more intimate cinema of attractions that chronicled the everyday life around them, from café openings to women doing manual work. The Manaki Brothers’ pioneering work has recently been digitally restored and published in DVD format by the Cinematheque of Macedonia.[2]

Moving, then, from being one of the centers of Balkan film activity in the first half of the twentieth century, with the Manaki Brothers’ cinema art studio, Macedonia became, in the Socialist Yugoslav period, a minor, peripheral cinema with a less developed film industry than the other republics (with the exception of Montenegro). While Ron Holloway’s anthology marks three feature films from the 1950s and early 1960s as Macedonian cinema’s early classics (Frosina, dir. Vojislav Nanović, 1952; Miss Stone, dir. Žika Mitrović, 1958; A Quiet Summer, dir. Dimitre Osmanli, 1961), he notes that Macedonian cinema is generally considered to have come of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s with films such as Brako Gapo’s Times Without War (Vreme bez vojna 1969) and Kiril Cenevski’s first feature The Black Seed (Crno seme, 1971), based on Taško Georgievski's eponymous novel (Holloway 1996: 10). Cenevski was awarded a directing award at Yugoslavia’s most important film festival in Pula in 1971, and the film was Yugoslavia’s official Oscar entry. The film’s story centers on the Greek Civil War and the plight of Aegean Macedonians who were being sent to Greek prison camps. A decade later, Stole Popov directed a sequel of sorts to The Black Seed, titled The Red Horse (1981), and these two films, according to Holloway, “form the backbone of Macedonian cinema” (Holloway 1996: 10). Similarly to Holloway, Petar Volk claims that three Macedonian filmmakers are central to the industry’s development: Branko Gapo, Kiril Cenevski and Stole Popov. According to Volk, they are the directors who illustrated the highest level of authorial individuality when it comes to setting their work apart from others (Volk 1984: 350).

Even though it appears that the 1970s might have been a turning point for Macedonian cinema in its bid for a greater recognition both regionally and internationally, in the remainder of this essay I wish to focus on two Macedonian films from the 1960s, as an exercise of inscribing Macedonian cinema differently into Yugoslav film history, away from its standard classification as a less developed cinema, at least when it comes to artistic achievement and cinematic innovation. I aim to do so by arguing that the two films discussed below neatly reflect some prominent tendencies of Yugoslav New Film (1961–1972), on par with their more lauded Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian contemporaries. As I illustrate through close analysis, these films could, and should, be written into the history of the critically acclaimed Yugoslav New Film, to which they belong because of their aesthetic, thematic and formal characteristics.

The most celebrated era of Yugoslav cinema, New Film, emerged in the early 1960s and brought about a radical shift in filmmaking, away from unquestionably celebrating Socialist collectivism and towards a more intimate cinema that was often highly critical of state authority. New Film’s most radical streak is typically referred to as “the Black Wave.” Goulding describes New Film as embodying the “modernist spirit,” and argues that its filmmakers claimed “the right to reflect critically on contemporary themes (savremene teme) and to express sometimes somber images of society’s disruptions, dislocations, and social ironies” (Goulding 2002: 111). Perhaps more a dedication to formal, stylistic, thematic and aesthetic innovations in filmmaking than a coherent movement with unified politics, New Film nevertheless challenged the officially propagated truths about the Yugoslav Socialist collectivity as such, and frequently called attention to those who occupied the margins of society, rather than its center. Even though Macedonian film is virtually never discussed in the context of Yugoslav New Film, I stipulate that the two features discussed below, as different as they are from one another, effectively illustrate some major tendencies of New Film in the context of Macedonian cinema. It could be argued that it is precisely the extent to which they differ from one another that neatly points out the breadth of scope that prevents critics from classifying Yugoslav New Film as a coherent movement beyond general features, such as formal innovation and a challenge to received truths.

In what follows, I discuss Branko Gapo’s Times Without War and Dimitre Osmanli’s Memento (1967) to illustrate how they represent radical shifts in focus towards a critical examination of identity, history, memory and the concept of collectivity. By highlighting them here I also aim to bring to attention the margins of Yugoslav film industry of which they were an important and, arguably, radical part.

A War Without War

Branko Gapo (1931–2008) was one of the most prolific Macedonian filmmakers, who made about forty documentaries and seven feature films over several decades. Gapo’s second feature, Times Without War is considered to be “one of the key feature films in Macedonian cinema,” and is characterized as “an uncompromising account of failed collective farming” (Holloway 1996: 9). The film won Gapo a directing award at the Pula Film Festival, and marked Macedonia’s arrival of sorts on the Yugoslav film scene, at least when it comes to critical recognition. Filmed in the mode of “documentary realism” (Holloway 1996: 28), the film paints a gloomy image of Socialism’s failed economic policies, and with this formally innovative and thematically critical approach falls firmly in line with the general trends of New Film. Moreover, like its many other New Film counterparts, the film is set in the social and geographical margins of Yugoslavia—a rural, poor, and somewhat backwards area of Macedonia that is further impoverished by collectivization. The story is structured around minimal exposition and with several key flashbacks that position the narrative within the context of Yugoslavia’s troubled economic reforms. Frequently, the events in Times Without War are set against the backdrop of dilapidated buildings and a devastated landscape, as if to visually convey the idea that Socialism is in decline, simply a shell of what could have been.

Early on in the film a telling misunderstanding takes place and sets the tone for the rest of the story. When the film’s protagonist, Fidan, returns to his native village to bury his father, the village church bells toll to announce his arrival. Several villagers, however, misunderstand the church bells as announcing an imminent danger and run around frantically yelling: “War! War!” And even though the film’s story takes place away from any apparent war—as indicated in its very title—war looms large over the everyday life of the village, as the recent historical traumas still deeply mark the way in which the villagers make sense of their surroundings. The homecoming of Fidan is more complicated than the initial story of returning to bury his father would suggest. We discover that he has become disillusioned with city life, and particularly with the state of workers’ rights.

After his return to the village, Fidan quickly falls for Blagunja (a young Neda Arnerić, Serbian actress, who was a frequent fixture in Macedonian cinema). The situation is complicated by the fact that Blagunja is the daughter of Lazar, Fidan’s father’s nemesis. Fidan finds that life in the village is ripe with many difficulties and disparity—many villagers complain of “bad times,” and we witness a flashback of forced collectivization, an event that had served as the main stumbling block in the relationship between Dićo (Fidan’s father), and Lazar (Blagunja’s father). Fidan learns from the priest that Dićo, Lazar and Lazar’s brother Jakov were war veterans and close friends until Dićo and Jakov decided to cooperate with the authorities and enforce collectivization on other villagers, including an uncooperative Lazar. Later on, Dićo himself became disillusioned with this economic policy, when he discovered that Jakov and others were corrupt and manipulated the system to their own advantage. Dićo, therefore, left the village because of a disappointment similar to the one that now drives Fidan away from the city. The tension between those for and against collectivization in the village echoes Fidan’s own tension with the workers’ union back in the city. In this way the film offers critical commentary on the failed economic policies, both urban and rural, of Socialist Yugoslavia. These policies were designed to incite a redistribution of political power and goods through collectivization, with only the wealthy landowners to be affected. However, these measures simultaneously prevented an amassing of any kind of agricultural capital, often leaving farmers with barely enough to get by. The results of the state’s aggressive collectivization policy included an overall decrease in agricultural production, due to the farmers’ loss of motivation to work on their land (Gudac-Dodić 2008). At the heart of collectivization was the struggle over private and public property, as was the case with the industrial self-management implemented in the cities. Under the workers’ self-management, public property was supposed to be, somewhat paradoxically, “both no one’s and everyone’s, both shared and private” (Kardelj 1977: 19). As Nada Novaković (2014) argues, the democratic potential of an authentic system of self-management of the working class was lost when its idea was replaced by an institutionalized model of top-down self-management in which state interests (and centralized political power) still held primacy over the workers’ interests. That top-down model served only to further marginalize those who were already on the periphery of the Yugoslav collectivity, both economically and politically. Times Without War reflects the tensions around these economic policies and draws overt links between them – they are depicted as producing similar effects: the impossibility to invest oneself in contributing to “the common good” when the political and economic power is unwaveringly centralized instead of being equally redistributed.

Interestingly, the line between war and peace is frequently blurred in Times Without War, as social struggle is presented to be a kind of war in and of itself. In one scene, Blagunja and Fidan “play war” as they run around the ruins of a destroyed house. When Blagunja mentions that her father often says that there will be another war soon, “even worse than the previous one,” Fidan answers with a jaded: “There are wars and you don’t know it. A war without war. Or worse—a strike.” That phrase, “a war without war,” is a play on the film’s own title, which seemingly refers to peace, yet what the film’s critical social commentary suggests is that peace itself is replete with many forms of struggle that could be considered wars in their own right. The workers’ struggle is, for Fidan, a form of war.

Incidentally, this commentary on war as a form of social struggle is similarly reflected in another New Film staple, Živojin Pavlović’s The Enemy (Neprijatelj, 1965), where the main protagonist, Antić, talks to his boss, who says: “You are not in uniform anymore, this is not a war,” and Antić responds with: “You are wrong. There will always be war as long as there are people like you.” In both cases, comparisons to war are deployed to mark the disillusionment with socialist labor practices, and the exploitation of the working class (class war, as it were), and to highlight the unfair hierarchies that perpetually privilege those on top. But Fidan himself is torn about the workers’ strike, particularly when it descends into destructive unrest. We see a flashback that shows him undecided on whether he should support the strike, while in the superimposed narration he ponders the absurdity of workers destroying the products they create with their own hard work. Later on, in another flashback, Fidan is scolded by the factory’s director for being involved with the workers’ struggle when he is in a higher position than the workers are. The socialist policy of self-management thus reveals its inherent weakness: the contradiction between the vertical sociopolitical hierarchy and the local collective whose immediate interests do not align with the “greater good.”

Fidan’s dilemma echoes his father’s initial siding with the authorities and against those most precariously affected by their policies of collectivization and/or self-management. Socialism, by extension, is depicted as a state of perpetual (class) warfare that benefits some but harms many. For Fidan, participating in that kind of Socialism becomes a moral dilemma, which he attempts to resolve by settling back in the village, marrying Blagunja and becoming a farmer. Yet, when he is faced with more difficulties as a farmer, Fidan sets the farm on fire in a drunken rage, as his defiant father-in-law Lazar looks on and says: “Burn it down. If you don’t know your own truth, burn it down.” This provocative invitation could be extended to Socialism and its economic policies that further deepen social divisions, as the film explores how those policies negatively affect both the city and the village.

The backstory of the relationship between Lazar, Dićo and Jakov proves to be central to understanding the film, as it looms over the depicted events as a ghost, emphasized by the old picture of the three men—in military uniforms – hanging in the background as a form of reminder of both war and complicated personal histories. When Blagunja tells Fidan about the picture, the film cuts to the moment when the picture of the three men in uniforms was being taken, as they are smiling and preparing to pose for the camera. Times Without War calls attention to the formal devices of representation, particularly to photography, and challenges the notion that its truth-value can be taken for granted. The relationship between a film camera and a photographic camera is again explored in the scene of Fidan and Blagunja’s wedding: as the wedding party poses for pictures, they face the film camera and we hear clicking noises that mimic those of photographs being taken. The frozen moment of the photograph is thus emphasized by the film, bookended by a film camera’s depiction of what came both before and after, as if to give film greater authenticity over photography. 

In one scene, Blagunja and Fidan visit what appears to be a decrepit and deserted building replete with Socialist relics. The deserted building seems to stand in for Socialism gone awry—it is decorated with Yugoslav flags and pictures of Socialist leaders, as a speech lauding Socialism plays from the radio they turn on, thus creating a stark juxtaposition between the imposed message of optimism and the building’s state of disarray. In a fit of cynicism, Fidan happily looks around, nods and says: “This is more like it.” It appears that the site of the dilapidated building that holds the relics of Socialism represents for the disillusioned Fidan the most accurate depiction of the state of Socialism in general. The photo of Lazar, Dićo and Jakov in uniform resurfaces when Blagunja finds another copy in the building, and as Blagunja and Fidan look at it, we again cut to the laughing men preparing to pose for the photo – the frozen moment of photography is once more emphasized by the movie camera. The same picture is prominently displayed in both Lazar’s home and later Fidan’s, a stubborn recurrence that perhaps serves as a reminder that the process of building Socialism has frozen in time, and become a reductive moment not representative of the complexities of its reality.

jelacaThe film’s overarching theme seems, then, to be that of the self-implosion of Socialism, as the system is shown to perpetually trample on those in weaker social positions. That self-implosion is juxtaposed, by formal cinematic devices, to the more official narrative of Socialism as a time without war. The resolution offered in the film is only conditional and not very hopeful. A defeated Fidan and crying Blagunja return to their farm house as we yet again see on their wall the picture of three men in uniform – the men who fought a seemingly more straightforward war, and whose struggle looms over the present day, as well as over the future of Socialism. The film’s uncertain end—a close up of Blagunja’s immobile, crying face, resembling a photograph—is effectively unnerving, as it suggests that the future is dire and gloomy, frozen in hopelessness. Times without war are therefore shown to be times of a different kind of (social) war, one that does not appear to have a clear-cut end in sight.

Memento Mori

Dimitre Osmanli (1927–2006) is, like Branko Gapo, one of the best-known Macedonian film directors. Osmanli’s A Quiet Summer (1961) was the first feature film directed by a Macedonian filmmaker. Moreover, his film Thirst (Žeđ, 1971) is considered to be “Vardar Film’s response to the critically hailed ‘black wave’ in Yugoslav cinema” (Holloway 1996: 9–10). In the later stages of his career, Osmanli directed a number of TV films and series, with his last feature, Angels from the Dumps (Angeli na otpad, rel. 1995). Here, I wish to focus on his second feature, a unique gem that has persistently been overlooked in Yugoslav film history: Memento (1967).

From a historical perspective, it seems unquestionable that 1967 was a monumental year for Yugoslav film, with at least half a dozen works that could certifiably be considered New Film’s legendary classics – titles include The Morning (Jutro, dir. Puriša Đorđević), When I Am Dead and Gone (Kad budem mrtav i beo, dir. Živojin Pavlović), I Even Met Happy Gypsies (Skupljaci perja, dir. Aleksandar Petrović), Kaya (Kaja, ubit cu te!, dir. Vatroslav Mimica), The Birch Tree (Breza, dir. Ante Babaja), Love Affair (Ljubavni slucaj ili tragedija sluzbenice P.T.T., dir. Dušan Makavejev), Playing Soldiers (Mali vojnici, dir. Bahrudin Bato Čengić), and The Naughty Ones (Nemimi, dir. Kokan Rakonjac). I would like to add to this remarkable list Osmanli’s Memento, a film that did not garner much attention or critical praise upon its initial release. In his discussion of the film, Petar Volk deems Memento overly melodramatic and borderline tasteless, declaring its experimentation with stylistic and formal features unsuccessful (Volk 1984: 340). I want to revisit Memento and argue for a critical rethinking of its importance and impact, particularly when considered through the prism of self-reflexivity with which the film tackles its own im/possibility of representing trauma.

Formally, Memento breaks the rules of singular time and space as it considers, in a poetic film language, the nature of traumatic memory and its inscription into the transnational flows of history. Operating within several different time frames, Memento centers on the aftereffects of Macedonian capital Skopje’s devastating earthquake of 1963, and frequently draws overt links between natural disasters and the made-man disaster that is war. The devastating earthquake and its aftermath had previously been treated on the film screen in Veljko Bulajić’s critically lauded 1964 documentary Skopje ’63. In a self-reflexive turn, Bulajić bookends the documentary by its unfinished version being screened to an audience in Skopje – this audience is informed that the film they are about to see is still being filmed, and that their reaction to it will eventually be a part of the film itself (as they are kindly asked not to look at the film camera). Moreover, as the raw footage is being screened, the film within a film is occasionally interrupted by testimonials from the audience, who identify some of the victims, or themselves on screen. After the screening of the raw footage is finished, Bulajić films the audience’s reactions – from insult and hurt, to suggestions about what else needs to be added to the film. The documentary’s last few minutes represent exactly that, an addendum based on the survivors’ opinions on what is missing in the film. Skopje’s mayor pronounces the parting thought that no film can adequately reflect the catastrophe, and that it is perhaps only the post-catastrophe and the difficulties of recovery that should be shown. Thus, the documentary calls attention to itself in the process of its own construction, with the act of spectatorship framed as bearing witness to trauma and built into the very texture of the finished documentary. Moreover, the film calls attention to its own role in the re/construction of traumatic memory for the survivors, or its inadequacy to fully capture the devastation, both physical and psychological.

Osmanli’s Memento is equally self-reflexive about the role film plays in the process of re/constructing trauma. Frequently using documentary footage to weave its collage-like narrative, Memento centers on the Skopje earthquake and its aftermath, but also persistently draws attention to a number of other transnational catastrophes through overt or implicit links between man-made and natural disasters. In this way, a transnational map of catastrophic events that both bring people together and set them apart is being charted, where Skopje, Hiroshima, Jerusalem and Berlin, among others, are intimately connected through pain. If Yugoslav New Film is, indeed, as Goulding posits, preoccupied with contemporary themes, then war, mass catastrophe, devastation and their aftermath are undoubtedly the key contemporary theme of its time, which Memento acknowledges by refusing to treat the Skopje disaster in a localized isolation.

The film switches timeframes but also points of view. It is constructed as a collage of flashbacks that come from different characters and work to assemble a disjointed history of trauma that does not amount to a coherently linear narrative, because such a narrative would negate the nature of trauma itself. The film’s central protagonist is Jana, a woman who narrowly survived the Skopje earthquake but lost both parents in it. Jana is a news announcer on Macedonian television, and we frequently see her addressing the camera in her official role, narrating about other world disasters on the occasion of Skopje’s Days of Solidarity in 1967. This gives the film a documentary texture, as it, at the same time, effectively situates the story of the Skopje disaster within many international crises that Jana mentions on her program—from the Vietnam war, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to the earthquake “somewhere in the Pacific” that Jana reports on at the end of the film, and that brings a sense of coming full circle in terms of trauma’s inevitable recurrence.

Another one of the film’s point-of-view characters is Willi Miller, a German conductor who first visits Skopje in 1963, where he encounters Jana for the first time one day before the earthquake. Miller left the city on the morning of the earthquake, thus narrowly escaping the disaster himself. In 1967, Miller is back in the city on the occasion of the Days of Solidarity, and seeks Jana out to find out what had happened to her during the disaster. Miller himself is occasionally overwhelmed by flashbacks of his own trauma of World War II. When Jana and Miller meet again in 1967, they open up to each other about their respective traumatic memories. This staging of an encounter between two strangers post-catastrophe, brought together by their different traumas, is very reminiscent of Alain Resnais’ classic Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959, France), a film which Memento alludes to intertextually, and to which it owes a great deal of its poetics of memory. In Resnais’ film, a French woman who mourns her German lover, and a Japanese man who mourns his family, meet in Hiroshima after the nuclear explosion, and their conversations enact both the imperative to bear witness to one another’s pain, as well as the impossibility of consciously processing trauma’s more unassimilable aspects (Caruth 1996). Similarly, in Memento, a German man and a Macedonian woman find in each other an understanding interlocutor, particularly when it comes to the things that cannot be said.

Memento’s use of poetic film language can be likened to Puriša Đorđević’s New Film entries The Girl (Devojka, 1965), The Dream (San, 1966) and The Morning (Jutro, 1967). Moreover, the collage-like mixing of documentary footage with narrative elements was another feature of New Film, most notably in Dušan Makavejev's work. But Memento simultaneously plays into and transgresses the boundaries of New Film, with its persistent attempts to contextualize locality within transnational flows of catastrophe and affect, whose reach extends beyond merely local contexts, in both spatial and temporal terms.
 
jelacaMoreover, like its more famous and more contemporary namesake, Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000), Osmanli’s film is about the simultaneous compulsion towards and the impossibility of restructuring the past—or, more specifically, traumatic memory—into a linear and fully knowable narrative. Both films are titled with a word that demarcates a physical reminder of the past: a memento is an object that triggers memory and at the same time brings the past into the present moment from which it never departed. In Osmanli’s film, the mementos are many, but the central one is the city itself, wounded and never entirely healed. Another memento is a TV documentary, itself titled Memento, which Jana introduces to the audience in her role as a TV announcer, and which is being shown on the occasion of Skopje’s Days of Solidarity. This film within a film depicts other catastrophes, as Memento within Memento creates transnational links between different periods and locations through trauma. With this film-within-a-film structure, where both films carry the same name, Memento itself calls attention to its own film form and to the cinematic re/construction of narratives as such, similarly to how Bulajić’s documentary on the same earthquake did. In other words, the film does not want the spectators to forget that we are watching a film that aims to partially reconstruct a history of trauma through fragments. Instead of offering us a phantasm of coherence, Memento offers a meditation on the interaction between trauma and the film form itself. That interaction does not have a coherent closure as its goal, and often can only depict a series of missed encounters—such as the final missed encounter between Jana and the man she loves, Gogo (who is another point-of-view character).

In Memento, the earthquake is perpetually compared to or mistaken for war. On the morning of the catastrophe, a confused Miller asks a hotel waiter at a nearby town what had happened and learns about the earthquake. His response to the news is such: “Earthquake? I thought a war had started,” to which the waiter says: “War and earthquake are the same, dear sir. Both destroy cities.” This exchange is followed by a brief sequence of documentary footage in which buildings are seen collapsing and we hear explosions—as if both a war and an earthquake are happening simultaneously. Miller then drives away from the site of trauma, facing all the cars that are heading towards it, as his inner thoughts are heard: “Earthquake… In any case, better than war. There are so many earthquakes in the world, no statistics can give accurate counts. But war…” Cut to Miller looking at destroyed buildings and bodies trapped or being pulled from the rubble, or people grieving their lost loved ones. Miller watches these scenes in the dark and is filmed from different angles, with a shocked expression on his face. Then we cut to Jana addressing us from a TV screen, saying that these were the scenes from a documentary called Memento. Are they scenes from war or natural catastrophe? Does it matter? This sequence offers a poignant conflation between memory and visual documentation – as the documentary footage unfolds, the spectator is led to think that it represents Miller’s flashback, only to suddenly be taken outside of the linear flow of imaging and addressed as a TV audience by Jana, who reminds us of our act of spectatorship by breaking the fourth wall.

Jana herself survived the earthquake by chance, and subsequently faces survivor’s guilt (“I should be glad that I am alive, shouldn’t I?”). The experience of the earthquake itself is inaccessible in Jana’s memory, and thus unseen in the film – we only see a flashback of Jana after the fact, in the hospital, confused and surrounded by light and doctors. In a hallucinatory haze, she sees a mushroom cloud and calls out: “Mother, it’s a bomb! Mother… it’s a bomb!” in yet another conflation between war and natural catastrophe. When recounting the experience, Jana tells Miller: “There wasn’t any bomb, although the results were no less.” Similarly, while she is still in the hospital, Jana’s friend Gogo tells her: “It was truly horrific. Like a nuclear bomb had hit.” It is perhaps the impossibility of fully and consciously grasping any mass catastrophe that makes survivors draw comparisons between them, as if a temporally and spatially removed referent would help them make sense of their own experience. A striking link between war trauma and the traumas caused by natural disasters is made by Mark, an American military doctor, who helps the injured Jana after the earthquake, and with whom she has a brief romantic relationship. In his monologue about the role of the military in both helping relief efforts (as Russian and American soldiers do side by side in Skopje), and killing people during wars, Mark says: “Who knows what will come of all this. Soldiers have come here to ease wounds. (…). Tomorrow, who knows where and under what circumstances we’ll meet. We live in a hard world, and there is no chance of changing it, at least not all that quickly.” As these words are spoken, the film cuts to a montage of archival war footage, as we see firing tanks and ships, dead bodies, and refugees. The sequence is eventually interrupted by Jana, again in the role of a TV announcer, as she addresses the audience and states that this was the last report on the war in the Middle East. As in the case of Miller, this undermining of the point of view—where it initially seems that the sequence represents Mark’s memory, but in reality it turns out to be archival footage within Memento-the-documentary—brings back to focus the process of re/constructing memory by cinematic means. This technique also effectively draws attention to the act of spectatorship itself: the viewers are denied a seamless narrative with the interruptions serving as a recurring reminder that they are watching a film.

At one point in the film, a fortuneteller suggests that there has been a lot of suffering in Miller’s past, to which he responds with: “It doesn’t take much imagination to invent that. Nor any special effort to see it.” The film then cuts to documentary footage of the construction of the Berlin Wall. We learn that Miller lost his parents during WWII, that his sister died of hunger, and that his girlfriend ended up on the other side of the Wall. Then the following exchange occurs:

Miller: “So you see, our fates are similar.”
Jana: “Why have you told me all this?”
Miller: “I just wanted to show you that you don’t need to be a fortuneteller to see the fate of all of us in this difficult century.”

This dialogue can be linked to Cathy Caruth’s stipulation that it is pivotal to recognize the extent to which one’s own trauma is tied to the trauma of another, as this understanding makes possible the act of bearing historical witness (1996). The interconnectedness of different traumas is made most overt in Memento’s central sequence—a montage of Jana drunk and dancing in a tent, snapping her fingers to the music, as she sees flashbacks to a series of images: the hospital lights and doctors, herself decorating the now destroyed family apartment, documentary footage of buildings collapsing, people crying in grief and hugging each other, planes dropping bombs and afflicted children crying, Buddhist monks praying, burning crosses and the Ku Klux Klan members, and people in concentration camps. Throughout this sequence, Jana keeps spinning and snapping her fingers to the beat. We again see a mushroom cloud and Jana’s pained face in the hospital. Jana is, in this sequence, a historical witness to the ways in which her own trauma is tied up with the traumas of others—not just the Skopje earthquake survivors, but with all those who have experienced traumas in different geographical, temporal, and historical contexts. In this sequence, Memento again inscribes the Skopje disaster within a transnational network of loss and suffering. Yet, bearing witness does not resolve Jana’s anguish but rather heightens it: at the end of the sequence, she collapses to the floor, as her ability to bear witness to so much pain collapses as well.

Jana’s process of coping is tied to an endless dialectic between remembering and forgetting, as neither is entirely attainable. Living with unresolved (and unresolvable) traumatic memory means living on a tectonic ground where small earthquakes always happen, both literally (in the case of Skopje’s aftershocks), and symbolically, as moments when the possibility of moving on collapses. Only temporary relief is possible, reflected in Jana’s answer to Miller’s question: “And aren’t you afraid of living in such a unique place?” to which Jana says: “Of course I’m afraid. When there is a tremor I feel so utterly helpless. But as with everybody else who is there when it happens, the rumbles die down.”

An important aspect of coping with trauma explored in the film is Jana’s romantic life, reflected in her dilemma of choosing between a foreigner—either Mark or Miller—and leaving Macedonia, or choosing Gogo, her childhood friend and the man she truly loves. The struggle between trying to remember and forget at the same time is expressed in Jana’s inability to decide whether to stay or to go, to try to forget or embrace remembering. And even though Jana eventually stays in Skopje, her connection to Gogo is never fully realized, as a series of missed encounters prevents a satisfying end in which the two lovers would finally be together. This missed encounter neatly reflects the film’s treatment of traumatic memory itself—even though Jana stays at the site of catastrophe, she does not achieve a satisfying emotional closure, but rather has to settle for living on a tectonic ground where occasional rumbles, or the disruption of coherence, still happen. 

A Return to History

As noted in the introductory sections of this essay, a closer scholarly attention to Macedonian cinema during the Yugoslav period is long overdue, as is an analysis of the region’s early twentieth century cinema from a non ethno-centric point of view, which could, in turn, contribute to a deeper understanding of the mutually connected histories and cultures of different Balkan nations. While the post-Yugoslav period of Macedonian cinema has received a fair amount of scholarly attention – prompted, in great part, by the international success of Manchevski’s Before the Rain—a look back at the country’s cinematic history might reveal a surprising vitality of its early works. I have attempted here, in the limited space of an essay, to do so with Gapo’s Times Without War and Osmanli’s Memento, in order to inscribe them into the history of the Yugoslav New Film, not as a way to consign the films solely to that context (nor to limit our understandings of the New Film itself), but rather as a way to illuminate peripheral visions of Yugoslav collectivity through works of cinema that both reflect and extend the recognizable norms of filmmaking. A wider and more inclusive study would no doubt further contribute to an understanding of the local manifestations of established cinematic trends, inscribing the view from the periphery in order to modify the view from the center.


Notes

1] Marian Tutui, “Balkan Cinema versus Cinema of the Balkan Nations.” Romanian Film Archive.

2] From the Cinematheque of Macedonia’s annual report, 2013.

 


Works Cited

Caruth, Cathy (1996). Unclaimed experience: Trauma, narrative and history. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Goulding, Daniel J. (2002). Liberated cinema: the Yugoslav experience, 1945-2001. Indiana University Press.

Gudac-Dodić, Vera (2008). . “Kolektivizacija u Jugoslaviji - Uzroci i posledice.” Istraživanja 19: 145-154.

Holloway, Ronald (1996). “A History of Macedonian Cinema: 1905-1996.” Kino, special issue. Skopje: Cinematheque of Macedonia.

Jovanović, Nebojša (2012a). “Bosnian Cinema in the Socialist Yugoslavia and the Anti-Yugoslav Backlash.” KinoKultura SI 14, special issue on Bosnian cinema.

Jovanović, Nebojša (2012b). “Futur Antérieur of Yugoslav Cinema, or, Why Emir Kusturica’s Legacy is Worth Fighting for.” In Retracing Images: Visual Culture after Yugoslavia. Edited by Daniel Šuber and Slobodan Karamanić, 149–169. Leiden: Brill.

Kardelj, Edvard.(1977). “Sistem političkog samoupravljanja u Jugoslaviji.” In Samoupravljanje u Jugoslaviji: 1950-1976, 9–38. Belgrade: Privredni pregled.

Liehm, Mira, and Antonin J. Liehm (1980). The most important art: Soviet and Eastern European film after 1945. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Novaković, Nada G. (2014). “Radnička klasa Jugoslavije i samoupravljanje.” Danas, 14 August.

Volk, Petar (1986). Istorija jugoslovenskog filma. Belgrade, Ljubljana: Institut za film, Partizanska knjiga.  

 

Updated: 02 Aug 15