Picturing the Pain of Others: Before the Rain and the Ethics of War Photography

By Meta Mazaj

© Meta Mazaj, 2015

In her seminal book On Photography, Susan Sontag says, “Nobody ever discovered ugliness through photographs. But many, through photographs, have discovered beauty… So successful has been the camera’s role in beautifying the world that the photographs, rather than the world, have become the standard of the beautiful” (1977: 85). Photography has defined what beauty is and increased our appetite for things beautiful. We want our photographs to look beautiful, our beautiful occasions need to be photographed, and we want to look beautiful, present a better version of ourselves, on photographs. Roland Barthes as well reminds us that photographs make physical truth permanent, so to photograph is to embalm the objects in the beauty of their existence (Barthes 1981). This understanding and definition of photography, however, falls short in accounting for the appeal of war photography, which seems to defy the primary function of photography as defined by Sontag and Barthes. It would be difficult to define a picture of a tortured, disfigured, emaciated body as beautiful, and yet, newspapers, radio, internet, the twenty-four-hour headline news shows all supply a steady diet of images of conflict and violence, which have become an integral part of our sight- and soundscape.

From the Civil War, when photography was still in its infancy, to the Vietnam War, the Balkan war, and the more recent armed conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Liberia, Sudan and the Middle East, war photography has permeated our environment and played a key role in shaping the public’s perception of the events and discourses surrounding them. The potent connection between war and photography is the central concern of Before the Rain (1994), Milcho Manchevski’s directorial debut that focuses on the conflicts between Macedonian Christians and Albanian Muslims in Macedonia in the early 1990s. Using the medium of film—a fundamentally photographic medium—the feature is an effective exploration of the power of photographic medium, its role in shaping real events as well as its (in)ability to represent them. If photography is about beautification, why do we need photographs of war, why do we take pictures of war? How can such pictures help us make sense of irrational violence and do they play an active role in shaping it? And, finally, how do photographs interact with and change our understanding of film?

These and similar questions have long given rise to and colored debates amongst theorists and practitioners of photography, filmmakers and the general public. At their core are the two main but contradictory functions of photography. Since its invention in 1839, photography has been associated with the establishment of truth and evidence. In the nineteenth century, at a time when society advocated realism and science, positivism and commitment to facts, calculation and exactitude, photography seemed to banish the threat of subjectivity and inexactitude; it added the benefit of visually recorded facts to the new scientific era. Its mechanical reproduction of the world, its capacity for exact representation, set it apart from all other known communication systems. Photography becomes the first iconic mode of signification, the result of the mechanical process that excludes an active subject, and is thus endowed with the objectivity and authenticity that painting or writing could not achieve. A picture has presence, a sense of thereness. It seems to exist independently of a cultural sign system; it does not need translation. This notion has become a part of our every day vocabulary, in sayings such as “a picture is worth a thousand words,” or “seeing is believing.” Jean Baudrillard has named this faith in the truth-value of the photograph “faith in the referent,” a practiced belief that seeing is believing. The enterprise of our Western culture that has influenced the rest of the world is premised on this belief. Thus photography has marched hand in hand with those in power, with those determined to establish the truth and reality in an undisputable manner. Our faith in the truth value of photography is inseparable from our faith in modernity, and our identities are inextricably bound up with our relationship to photography as a medium of evidence, information, memory, history and record.

It is because of this intense investment in photography as the evidence of real that something becomes real by being photographed, and that the history of the twentieth century can be seen as the history of the changes in photographic coverage. In the absence of evidence established by photography, we question the existence of reality. Thus, the launching of the US Farm Security Administration in the 1930s and the subsequent commissioning of photographers, such as Dorothea Lang, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, and Pare Lorentz, was meant to convince the Eastern political establishment that the situation in the Midwest and on the Plains was indeed grave and warranted serious attention and assistance. Lewis Hine’s photographs of children working in cotton mills, beet fields, and coal mines influenced the legislators to outlaw child labor. Without that effort, sanctioned by the State but based in photography, there would have been little recognition of the conditions of the workers in the US. History is replete with examples like these where photography has awakened us from the slumber of doubt or ignorance to a state of belief and, perhaps, action based on that belief.

We can say, then, that it is the truth-value and the sense of immediacy that makes war photography significant. War photography brings war home to us and has become essential in establishing the truth of war, and understanding of war among people who have not directly experienced it, is mainly the product of being exposed to such images. For geographically removed violence to break out of its immediate constituency and acquire the status of a real event worthy of consideration, it needs to be recorded. The Bosnian War in the 1990s, or the First Intifada (the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli rule) had the guaranteed attention of the cameras and were, thus, able to engage the international community; in the meantime, other conflicts where civilians were relentlessly slaughtered, such as the decade-long civil war in Sudan or the Russian invasion of Chechnya were relatively under-photographed and were therefore not imprinted in the Western collective consciousness. It was not until Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker got hold of the photographs from the Abu Ghraib prison that we realized the scope of the brutality of Iraq war; it may well have been a turning point in the public opinion because photography brought it close to home. While there are other factors at play, undoubtedly, the presence of photographic evidence or the lack thereof plays a large role in which conflicts are brought to the attention of the global community and how we understand them.

Paradoxically, however, we also know that the physical likeness of a photograph is a miniaturized, two-dimensional version of reality that makes it disjunct, mute, malleable, and denies its interconnectedness and continuity. As various theoreticians of photography, including Victor Burgin and Roland Barthes, have argued, photographs are empty spaces devoid of meaning, and because of that open to various interpretations and manipulations. They are texts inscribed in what we may call a photographic discourse, which, like any other, engages discourses beyond itself. A picture outside its context may not mean anything at all; it is not true or false in and of itself, and makes sense only in relation to the context in which it circulates. We believe not because we see, but we see because we believe. Baudrillard makes this point forcefully with his concept of simulacra, where the image itself is an act of faith and its very existence proves that there must be reality behind it. There is an abundance of examples from popular culture and film demonstrating this notion, such as Wag the Dog (1997), where a Hollywood producer and a spin master construct staged images of war to fabricate a war in Albania in order to cover up a presidential sex-scandal. The rule here is “provide the pictures and the truth will follow.”

Even with this paradox considered, war photography still presents a larger puzzle since it also begs pressing aesthetic and ethical questions. How does one explain an insatiable appetite for pictures of bodies in pain, bodies mutilated and emaciated? According to Kant, our aesthetic faculties tend to turn away from repulsion, disgust and horror, and prefer the varied beauty that satisfies our palate of pleasure, knowledge and experience. In a visual culture that seems to cultivate pleasure, spectacle and consumption, how do we explain fascination with events that are akin to train wrecks, the phenomenon of “gaper delay,” the urge to slow down and look at the loss and destruction on the other side? Given the paradigm of visual pleasure that film theory has so painstakingly cultivated, how do we explain our fascination with apocalyptic and horror films?  

A compelling account of this phenomenon is given by Julia Kristeva in Powers of Horror (Kristeva 1982) where she explains that our fascination with and attraction to things abject is the result of an incomplete process of subjectivity, our inability to separate ourselves from the world of objects we have been detached from. The abject refers to the human reaction (horror, vomit) to the threat of breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object or between self and other. The abject is neither object nor subject; it is situated, rather, at a place before we enter into the symbolic order and marks what Kristeva terms “a primal repression,” one that precedes the establishment of a subject’s relation to its object of desire and of representation. Kristeva specifically associates abjection with our rejection of death’s materiality, differentiating the knowledge of death from the experience of being actually confronted with materiality that shows you your own death:

A wound with blood and pus, or the sickly, acrid smell of sweat, of decay, does not signify death. In the presence of signified death—a flat encephalograph, for instance— I would understand, react, or accept. No, as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being (Kristeva, 1982: 3).

Disguised from desire and associated with both fear and jouissance, we are repeatedly drawn to the abject, and every culture, every symbolic system, comes up with various means of purifying the abject—what Kristeva calls “catharsis.” Different rituals, taboos, religion, and art all explore the place of the abject, a place where boundaries begin to break down, a place before the distinction between self/other, subject/object. They utter the abject, but they ultimately purify it. The sublime for Kristeva is an effort to mask the breakdown associated with the abject and to reassert the boundaries.

If the primal condition of subjectivity formation that includes the process of abjection as discussed by Kristeva can be understood in universal terms, the processes of purification, the forms of catharsis, have to be culturally specific. This means that in our culture, which is structured around the sense of sight and in which visual apparatuses dominate, our catharses, our relationship with the abject, have to be influenced by those apparatuses. I want to suggest, however, that photography, rather than functioning as the medium of purification or catharses, nurtures the state of abjection and transforms it into an aesthetic prerogative. In a way, the very condition of photography is one of abjection, a state of being in the in-between, an incomplete and failed process of externalization, expelling of oneself that nevertheless keeps the remnants of oneself. Photography is a manifestation of precisely that abject state where the borders between the self and the other, between inside and outside, collapse. Profoundly alienating and yet perversely intimate, photography enables us to establish ourselves by the process of expelling ourselves.

It should be no surprise then, that since its inventions, cameras have been most attracted to picturing the Other that has already been abjected, expelled and marginalized by other discourses such as colonialism. A handmaiden to colonialism, to tourism, travel and of course war, a photograph enables us to posses, to consume again, in a gesture that is utterly perverse, the object that has been expelled. The photographic medium reasserts the self not through catharses but through embracing abjection. It is this perverse fascination with the abject that most openly raises the ethical questions surrounding the act of watching the horrors of the Other, a question that underlies several works on photography, including Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others (2003). Here, Sontag, rather than condemning photography altogether, attempts to locate and recover a positive and possibly redeeming effect of war images in an age where a vast repository of these images and the way of disseminating them results in nothing but a passive spectatorship, an impulse to turn away, switch the channel, apathy, or postmodern cynical stance that condemns reality to a mere spectacle. If the position of watching is necessarily a passive one, how can we be something more than consumers of the other’s pain? Can photography engage us and make us not just picture but “regard” the other’s pain?

This question gained a particular urgency during the wars in the Western Balkans in the 1990s, in which images played a crucial role, made the war familiar yet incomprehensible, irrational, necessarily belonging to the Other. This was an excessively covered and photographed war that entirely consumed the Western media for an entire decade. It was a war that occurred under the watchful gaze of the West, and yet, a war that was marked both by the failure to act and the impotency of international players in the face of war atrocities. The coverage of the war revealed a fascination with the unspeakable violence happening right in the middle of Europe, unmatched in Europe since WWII.

Despite countless scholarly accounts and studies that have been published since the 1990s, there have been no definitive answers or effective solutions proposed to the spiral into violence and its aftereffects that are still felt in the Balkans. One particular aspect of the war, however, has been explored only rarely: our role as voyeurs, our own obsession with the violent images of war while maintaining a blanket of silence and indifference.[1] Feeding this voyeurism, the media revealed its ambiguous role: while professing horror at the spilling of blood, describing the ethnic wars as unimaginable elsewhere in Europe, it nevertheless continued providing an astonishing daily output of gory images that enabled us to vicariously partake in the experience. The deep narcissistic impulse buried under the obvious motivation of humanism was admitted by very few involved in the Bosnian cause. A British journalist covering the war, Paul Harris, gave a surprisingly open account of the enjoyment of watching somebody else’s history, someone else’s suffering. In Somebody Else’s War: Frontline Reports from the Balkan Wars, he admitted, “there is the awful realization that you can actually enjoy, physically and mentally, the heat of battle, the taste of fear and actuality of survival. And as a writer you realize that the extremes of emotion to which you are so brutally and suddenly exposed release the ability to string together words in a way you dreamt impossible” (Harris 1993: 44).He acknowledges that the fascination with the war in Bosnia had nothing to do with the brutality of war itself and more to do with how it made him into a better writer.

It is this troubling ethical context that several films in the 1990s address. Before the Rain is particularly relevant in this discussion in that it directly addresses the issues of war photography. The film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and became one of the most successful and most widely distributed Balkan films in the 1990s, and certainly the only internationally acclaimed Macedonian one from that decade. Although most frequently admired as one of the most insightful cinematic documents about Yugoslavia’s breakup, my focus is to show how the film becomes a useful and provocative dissection of the mechanisms implicit in the filmic representation of war, capturing both the process of this representation as well as its impossibility. By directly addressing the integral paradox of the filmic image, Manchevski shows us how any filmic representation of the Other in war is necessarily conceived in terms of photographic realism but how such representation can be nothing but a second order reference entirely removed from reality but at the same time playing an integral role in shaping that reality.

The narrative of the film is non-linear and structured around three separate but overlapping parts entitled “Words,” “Pictures,” and “Faces.” The first episode, “Words,” is set at an Orthodox monastery at the shore of Lake Ohrid. Kiril, a young monk who has taken a vow of silence, discovers an Albanian girl, Zamira, hiding in his cell. He offers to shelter her and hides his knowledge of her presence both from the other monks and the mob of village men looking for her. When her presence is finally discovered, Kiril decides to forsake his vows and run away with her to his uncle, a photographer based in Western Europe. They are pursued by Zamira’s Albanian relatives and before they manage to escape, Zamira is shot by her own brother. Kiril watches helplessly as Zamira lays dying. The second episode, “Faces,” chronologically occurring before the first episode, is set in London. Here Alexandar, a photojournalist covering war zones, decides to quit his job after a traumatic experience in covering the war in Bosnia. He breaks up his relationship with Anne, a layout editor at a news agency, and returns to his native Macedonia. Anne dispassionately examines a batch of photographs, which show Kiril and the dead Zamira, but at the same time she receives a call form Macedonia, presumably from Alexandar’s nephew, Kiril. The same evening Anne is pulled out of her safe life during a meeting with her estranged husband Nick in a high-class restaurant, where their conversation is brutally interrupted by an argument between the waiter and a customer (both of whom are from the former Yugoslavia). The fight escalates and Anne’s husband is accidentally shot dead, leaving Anne to helplessly witness the tragedy. “Picture” shows Alexandar’s return to his native village, in the mountains surrounding Lake Ohrid, where he reunites with his family and seeks out his old love, Hana. Alexandar refuses to acknowledge or participate in the antagonism between the two ethnic groups that has developed and exacerbated during his absence. In his refusal to “take sides,” he tries to protect Hana’s daughter Zamira, who is accused of murder, and ends up being killed by one of his cousins. Zamira flees and hides in the monastery where Kiril resides. The film ends where it begins, showing Kiril picking tomatoes listening to the old monk talking about the rain that is soon to come.

Before the Rain is a fiction film, and yet, its claim to the referential world of reality is historically concrete: it represents historically specific instances from the Balkan war, and captures the growing hostility between Macedonians and Albanians in a region with mixed population. Because of this, it was received according to the conventions of cinematic realism, as a kind of a documentary about the break-up of Yugoslavia. In fact, perhaps even more than the rest of the films of this period, Before the Rain was quickly categorized as a “historical film,” in that it attempts to write history with film, realistically reconstruct the “there and then” and “here and now.” To the native audience, it presented a clear reference to their immediate situation, as well as a likely prediction of a near future. To the Western audience, the film was a window into the iconic reality of the Balkan war, a depiction of conflicts that were already taking place in Bosnia and were supposed to spread to Macedonia. As such, this film was hailed as having great “educational” value; watch the film and you will finally grasp the deep roots and absurd logic of the Balkan conflict.

It is this very label of historical film that also invited criticism, which accused the film of offering what Dina Iordanova calls “instant history,” a teleological approach to history which condenses the causal link between the present day affairs and past events to cater to the explanatory needs of the moment, an approach regularly practiced by journalism that turns to instant historical evidence to explain the present (Iordanova 2001). In this case, the instant history approach explains the bloody demise of Yugoslavia by references to past conflict, an approach that always results in mere reiteration of cycles of violence.

As Iordanova points out, such approach was seen as especially problematic in regards to Macedonia, where the war was only a projection. Since the early 1990s, “Macedonia was extensively discussed in the scenarios of journalists and political analysts as the real ‘powder keg’ from where uncontrollable violence could spill over into a conflict that would bring the neighboring countries into the war as well” (Iordanova 2001: 76). In anticipation of more violence, peacekeeping units were brought to Macedonia in 1993. Years later, the war did not happen, but a belief persisted that Macedonia would follow the disaster of Bosnia. War may not be here yet, but it is in the air. Manchevski, who was born in Macedonia and educated in America, himself shared this sentiment and said he was inspired to make the film after he revisited his native country in the early 1990s and was struck by an intense sensation of escalating tension and “a heavy, pervasive sense of expectation” (Manchevski, 1995). Released in these circumstances, Before the Rain was perceived as “just another manifestation of this syndrome” (Iordanova 2000: 151), a mere reflection of the stereotype of Macedonia as a quiet but possibly explosive powder keg, and the idea that all Balkan nations are destined for violence. Iordanova accused the film of “uncritically continuing the line of traditional representation of the Balkans as a mystic stronghold of stubborn and belligerent people” (Iordanova 2000: 150) and thus continuing an existing Balkan trend of voluntary self-exoticization.

A closer look at the film’s form, however, reveals that the film’s claim to historical “reality” is not nearly as unproblematic as the label of a historical film might suggest.  Before the Rain, undermining the assumption of the straightforward relationship between reality and a film’s ability to depict it, points to the fundamental paradox embodied in the very nature of the photographic and filmic image, the conflict that is created by the concreteness of the image and the reality of the referential world on the one hand, and the constructed nature of this image on the other hand.


The film builds upon this paradox by centering the entire narrative on the figure of the photograph. The epistemological break between “reality” and its photographic depiction is first announced by the main protagonist, a photojournalist who no longer believes that history/reality can be documented through photographic realism. In Bosnia, Alexandar had complained to the militiaman that nothing interesting was happening, that he was not getting any good photographs. The militiaman randomly picked out a prisoner and shot him, while Alexandar took pictures. Realizing that “[his] camera killed a man,” Alexandar also realizes that there is no neutral position from which to take photographs, already foregrounding the film’s critique of photography as an objective representation of reality. This critical gesture of the main protagonist is echoed by Manchevski, the author, who writes himself into the script by playing the role of the prisoner whose murder is documented by Alexandar’s camera.“ Depicting himself as the executed and not the executioner,” he symbolically kills himself as the film’s author, mimicking his protagonist’s realization about the impossibility of documenting “reality” (Tängerstad 2000: 179). Manchevski thus collapses the relationship between photographic realism and historical writing as a visual framework of the entire film.

mazajOn a formal level, this critique is achieved by a contradictory positioning of the role of the photographs in the narrative structure. The central event that links the three separate episodes, contextually as well as geographically, is the killing of the Albanian girl, Zamira. Her murder is documented by a photographer, and in the second episode, Anne is shown looking at the photographs of Kiril sitting by the dead Zamira. Anne, who is viewing these photos, has on her desk other photographs as well: pictures of ethnic persecution in Bosnia, photos of starving prisoners, children who have been maimed and starved, all mixed with photos of a fashion show with topless models smiling into the camera. For Anne, who represents the Western viewer, somebody outside the diegetic world of the first episode when Zamira’s killing takes place, these photographs are far removed from her world; they become the documentation of history, a representation of an unmodified past. They are the main medium through which the knowledge of the war is transmitted, and for her the most direct access to that knowledge. As Marciniak points out, these photographs hold crucial significance for the narrative because they show us “how the tragedies materially experienced in the ethnic war in the Balkans are ‘transported’ to the West via visual representations to be studied, examined, and published” (Marciniak 2003: 71-72).  Moreover, it is the presence of the photos of Zamira’s death that presents the strongest diegetic link between the episodes taking place in Macedonia and the one taking place in London.


Yet, rather than insuring the circular structure of the narrative, these photographs are precisely a locus where the narrative coherence, diegetic unity, temporality, and cause-and-effect structure break down. It turns out that not only is the story not linear, but it is not even circular—as testified diegetically in the center of the film with a graffiti sign on a London wall: “Time never dies/The circle is not round.” According to the chronology of the story, Anne looking at the photos of Kiril sitting by the dead Zamira is impossible, because at that time Zamira would still be alive, and no mob would be out looking for her. Moreover, it is Alexandar himself who gives Anne these photos, which is also impossible, because Alex’s death chronologically precedes Zamira’s. Thus, as soon as the photographs’ central place is established, it is undermined both as central and as possible at all. This confusing place of the photographs in the narrative design, without a fixed position in the chronology of the story, renders impossible the very existence of the photographs upon which the entire narrative is built. This, in turn, makes impossible the understanding of photography and the filmic narrative as a documentation of history.


The problematic placing of the photographs in the narrative not only undermines the indexical nature of the photograph but also addresses the ethical questions brought up earlier about the relationship between the one doing the watching and the one being watched. This relationship usually assumes a clear separation between the spectator (in this case Anne, London, or the West) and the object of its gaze (the conflict in Macedonia) as well as the superior position of the spectator. On a broader level, this relationship is represented in the opposition between Macedonia and London. The binary relationship between the two is immediately set up by the very theme of the narrative and further framed by the triptych structure of the plot that inserts the events occurring in London in the middle of the narrative taking place in Macedonia. Macedonia here represents a local culture marked by traditionalism and the violence of ethnic conflict, and London – a cosmopolitan culture marked by global media and rapidly changing trends and fashions. The main setting in Macedonia is rural and exotic, while the one in London is urban and postmodern. In Macedonia war is real, in London it is only present in the media images. London represents the civilized and cultured West, while Macedonia—its barbaric and primitive Other.


Ultimately, however, the film works to question the clear boundaries that separate the Balkans and the rest of Europe, reality and its representation, the neutral spectator and the object of the gaze. Despite the binary opposition set up by the plot, the different chapters are symbolically interconnected by recurring images, and by cinematography and editing techniques that create a complex layered web that subverts not only spatial but also temporal and representational distinctions. The monastery scenes in “Words” are linked to the scene in “Faces” when Anne walks the streets of London and gazes into a church, drawn by the sound of the church choir. In “Words” one of the men in the group who is hunting down Zamira repeatedly listens to a Beasty Boys song; this is then echoed in “Faces” by a girl listening to the same song. The words spoken by a monk in “Words,” “Time never dies. The circle is not round,” reappear as graffiti on London streets. The images of the children playing “Ninja Turtles” in part one are echoed by the turtles in a restaurant aquarium in “Faces.”


While these parallel images serve to discursively link the two geographically and culturally separate places, even more importantly, Manchevski deploys cinematic strategies that show but ultimately deny the distance between the violent event (for example, Zamira’s murder) and its referential world where violence exists only in a mediated form (the photographs of this murder), the distance between the violent act and its spectator. Whether it is cinematography that challenges our assumptions about Europe in relation to Macedonia (the London sequences are marked by strangely angled, chaotic and rapid shots that imply the violence otherwise associated with Macedonia) or the plot events that challenge our assumptions about ethnic conflict (although we are led to believe that the characters are threatened by ethnic conflict, all the brutal acts in the films are mostly the result of familial violence), the pleasure of voyeurism that rests on our status as distant observers is destroyed, and we become ethically implicated in the spectacle of a violent act. For example, in the central scene in “Faces” where Anne is studying the pictures of the war in Bosnia in her high tech studio, there is an obvious contrast between the obsessively sterile, mostly white mise-en-scene of the studio, Anne’s white shirt and white gloves, and the grossness and horror of the pictures of war. As Marciniak argues, this underscores the fact that “she is engaged in a ‘safe’ analysis” (Marciniak 2003: 72) and that her only engagement in the tragedies of war is through photographic representations of that war. However, the photographic collage of terror she is studying—a starved man, a child with a tattooed number on his forehead, corpses of children—are shown in an extreme close-up, through the point of view of a magnifying glass, so that the viewer is literally pulled into the photograph, becoming a part of it. With this the distance between the spectator and the object of her gaze is erased, and Manchevski ensures that the spectator’s gaze is implicated in the scene, drawing a direct parallel between a direct violent act and practices of its representation.


This conflation of a violent act and its photographic depiction is further enforced by the intense bodily reactions the characters have to violence and blood, specifically the continuous motif of vomiting—recalling Kristeva’s notion of abjection—and the sound of vomiting that assaults the viewer throughout the film. In “Words,” Kiril vomits when witnessing the brutal killing of a cat. In “Faces,” Anne vomits after gazing at the photographs of war victims and later when she sees Nick’s face. In “Pictures,” Alexander vomits after looking at his controversial photo of the prisoner being shot. Kristeva suggests that through vomiting, “I expel myself, I spit myself out, I abject myself within the same motion through which I claim to establish myself” (Kristeva 1982: 78). These scenes, however, as Marciniak explains, are more than a mere act of cleansing at the sight of gruesome violence; rather, they are “acts of awakening, of solidarity with the ones who die, who are, in fact, brutally expelled out of being” (Marciniak 2003: 78). If the act of vomiting signifies the bodily need to cleanse and reestablish itself at the sight of brutality, here, the violent bodily reaction is induced not only by a direct witnessing of the horror but also by its photographic representation. In such a way, the moments of vomiting parallel the abject state of the unwanted people on the photographs and enforce the identification of our gaze with the abject zone.

The film thus not only exposes and addresses the paradox of photographic reality, but it uses this paradox to challenge the assumption that film can serve the project of “instant history,” that it can successfully represent national imagination by photographic means. The photographs, rather than the site of access, are the site of ambiguity, marked by a discomfort that becomes the main experience of the film. In this structure of discomfort, one is tempted to begin articulating a vision of the nation, an answer to the question of ethnic conflict, but this search for a coherent vision is anything but gratifying, and it is precisely the nonsensical disjunction where the locus of “sense” needs to be located.

mazajIn light of all this, the key ontological puzzle of the film, the ambiguous placing of the photo of Zamira’s death, may not be that troubling after all. Surely, if we go along with the dominant belief that a photograph is an objective record of a past event, a documentation of history, the narrative makes no sense. But what happens if we make an attempt to try to assimilate the presence of this photo into the diegetic world of the narrative? I argue that we can, only if we can rethink our fundamental assumption about photography and consider it in an entirely different role. Not as an objective and neutral photographic record of the past—but a record of events imagined by the camera, a window into something that is yet to take place and is provoked by the presence of the camera. The problematic photograph makes perfect sense if we consider the possibility, as our protagonist Alexander already has, that photography is a medium that shapes reality, that photography can and does kill.


1] For an excellent account of this issue, see Goldsworthy 2002.

Works Cited

Barthes, R. (1981) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. NY: Hill and Wang.

Goldsworthy, Vesna (2002). “Invention and In(ter)vention: The Rhetoric of Balkanization,” in Balkan as Metaphor: Between Globalization and Fragmentation, eds. Dušan I. Bjelić & Obrad Savić, MIT Press, pp. 25-39

Harris, P. (1993) Somebody Else’s War: Frontline Reports from the Balkan Wars. London: SPA Books.

Iordanova, D. (2001) Cinema of Flames: Balkan Film, Culture and the Media. London: The BFI.

Iordanova, D. (2000) “Before the Rain in a Balkan Context.” Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice, 4:2, 147-156.

Kristeva, J. (1982) Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. NY: Columbia University Press.

Manchevski, M. (1995) “Oscar-nominated ‘Rain’ to screen at Tulane. An Interview with Andrew Horton,” The Times-Picayune, 22 February.

Marciniak, K. (2003) “Transnational Anatomies of Exile and Abjection in Milcho Manchevski’s Before the Rain (1994).” Cinema Journal, 43:1, 63-84.

Sontag, S. (2003) Regarding the Pain of Others. NY: Picador Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Sontag, S. (1977) On Photography. NY: Picador Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Tängerstad, E. (2000) “Before the Rain—After the War?” Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice, 4:2, 175-182.