A Brief Overview of the Current Situation and Prospects of Macedonian Film, and Some Remarks on the Films Bardo, Punk’s Not Dead, and on Biljana Garvanlieva’s Documentaries

By Hristo Petreski

© Hristo Petreski, 2015

Critical Notes on Film: Thesis and Antithesis

1. Nostalgia for the Past
The first Macedonian film criticism was published in 1944 in the newspaper New Macedonia, with a dedicated section introduced in the same newspaper the following year. Since then, film criticism in Macedonia has travelled a long and painstaking road, but at the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century, the contemporary chronicler and analyst faces yet more new dilemmas. Without undue nostalgia for the past, it is still a fact that at present the film industry in Macedonia is in decline, meaning that certain areas are worse off than in the past—they are not even at their former level, let alone at a better one. Above all, the problem rests with cinemas. They can be counted on one’s fingers; what is more, only in our memories can we return to the lines in front of the ticket booths at the cinemas “Culture” and “Vardar” (for both halls, “Vardar 1” and “Vardar 2”), including almost all Macedonian cities. And without cinemas and a regular film repertoire, as is well known, there can be no education, affirmation, creation of film consumption habits, and, some would even say, no future for film art.

2. Expansion of new media
New technologies and digital media, which are constantly developing, have significantly contributed to the fall of the collective screenings in cinemas. At the same time, they have also made popular individual film downloads.

Today we witness a low number of moviegoers and half-empty cinemas, but also an unprecedented growth of piracy. In such an extremely commercialized situation, domestic directors and local production companies are marginalized together with the few experts and connoisseurs of film art.

This is not surprising; after all, every day we are drowned by all kinds of foreign imports, while domestic production mainly vegetates and has a hard time circulating beyond Macedonia’s borders. With the rare exceptions of Milcho Manchevski, Darko Mitrevski and Vladmir Blazhevski, Macedonian film is relegated to the role of an exception, and currently does not have a sustainable tradition and practice.

3. Success as a sensation or accident
Unfortunately, the few positive examples of successful domestic productions present themselves as minor sensations or accidents rather than as a rule or a continuous and established phenomenon. Without preparations, forecasts and polls, the possible results are more than accidental; what is more, this situation has already become a status quo.

Within this framework, film criticism deserves close monitoring, as it is in a phase reminiscent of an infant’s illness and symptomatic of the sickness of the overall critical judgment in general. Criticism is most often brought down to the level of an expanded informational announcement or an impressionist and informative retelling of the film. Without any analytical-synthetic pretensions and solely as a factual retelling, Macedonian film criticism is an infomercial and consists of straightforward recommendations of whether or not to watch a given film. Without subtlety and without sufficient professional literature and critical cinematographic materials, the film scholar has a hard time adopting the role of a competent judge, whose opinion is accepted unquestioningly by the viewers who are guided by his/her evaluations and indications.

4. Far from the source
The Macedonian film critic is rarely present at world film festivals, mainly because of financial reasons, but also because of a lack of credibility. Consequently, domestic critics rarely have the opportunity to drink from the source, as it were, and as a result their reviews turn out to be short critical texts rather than extended reviews, articles, or special editions.

Currently, Blagoja Kunovski-Dore from the Macedonian National Radio might be considered the leading film critic. Some other active film critics include Sunchica Unevska, Marina Kostova, Vlatko Galevski, Stojan Sinadinov, and Igor Angelkov. Some of the younger authors who deal with film analysis are Goran Trenchovski, Zarko Kujundziski, and Robert Alagiozovski.

5. Associations and institutions
In the conditions mentioned above, film critics and journalists should organize their own association so that it may be possible to establish a Film Institute (around FDU and ESRA as higher education centers) in the Republic of Macedonia. The Macedonian Cinematheque, which is the main source for information and popularization, should continue as well with special screenings for the younger generation, but also for more educated viewers.

Some Thoughts on Recent Films

bardoMarija Apcevska’s Bardo (2012)
The mournful atmosphere that governs the short feature Bardo leaves a bitter and tragic impression on the spectator, which does not disperse at the end of the film’s projection. On the contrary, the little girl’s face—a truly young, vulnerable and fragile creature, whose existence has only began—is thrown into a grim, rough, tragic and harsh life. Alongside the insults cannot change the overall distant performance.  

The girl, faced with the inevitability of her father’s death, comes to understand prematurely the ugliness and unchangeability of facts and events. Life, unfortunately, is like an already finished film or a puppet play, while everything else is simply an experiment or an illusion with a seemingly known outcome and negative results. The father’s loss is a trauma that cannot be suppressed by the child’s play, and from which the child cannot escape into memories and the imagination.

The talented actors seem to miss the opportunity to distinguish themselves and display the full range of their creative potential due to insufficient space and time for acting. Furthermore, the girl’s game, as well as the rest of the film, stops as if prematurely, leaving the impression of something mechanical and ambiguous.

Despite the small inconsistencies and specific problematic details—such as, for example, the scene where it remains unclear if the girl gets a balloon as a present or takes it from the seller without paying—the film remains a solid example of a young creative crew’s potential. The short film was first presented at the opening of the international film festival Asterfest in Strumica, Macedonia, in 2012 and received a debut award.

punkPunk’s dead. Long live Punk. No, Punk’s not dead. Punk’s alive.
Punk is not simply a way of life; it is not just a style. Punk is a valuable social, existential and cultural system. In the case of Vladimir Blazevski’s Punk’s Not Dead (Pankot ne e mrtov 2011), it stands in for the former Yugoslavia, a state that no longer exists and that has transitioned into a subculture in the present time.

In its place, there are various missions and missionaries, NGOs, multiethnic and multicultural associations and unions. Debar stands for a metaphor, but it is also a real place where the punk group lives and performs. Like in the films Who’s Singin’ Over There (Ko to tamo peva, dir. Slobodan Sijan, 1980) and Special Treatment (Poseban tretman, dir. Goran Paskaljević, 1980) an old vehicle travels along muddy and dusty roads, bringing together and connecting the now displaced and middle-aged musicians.

The film’s cast includes Jordan Simonov, Toni Mihajlovski, Kamka Tocinovski, Kiril Pop Hristov, Jovica Mihajlovski, Vladimir Tuliev, Flora Dostovska, Ratka Radmanovic, Xhevdet Jashari and others. Under Blazevski’s direction (one of the laureates of the 2012 Asterfest) this impressive team creates a multilayered, attractive, and provocative film.

This film is short, contemporary, and instructive—it shows not only what was, but also what is happening at present, and what will happen in the future. With decisive moves and cuts Blazhevski vivisects the not-so-distant past through a chronological account of the group’s friendship, and sketches a visionary portrait of the future. And no matter how dark and hopeless, how illusory this future seems, it presents a small light at the end of the tunnel, which splits, but also brings together a range of different cultures, ethnicities, realities and dreams.

Punk’s Not Dead is an outstanding hyper-realistic parody, which reflects its social milieu and portrays the lost generation and the false ideals. It is a warm and stunning tale about our humanity and leaves no one indifferent. Without a true opportunity for escape and rescue, the protagonists of this tragicomic story seem to participate in a memorial service for a space that no longer exists and for a time that was made-up. The loud music and cruel songs muffle their ears and do not reach further than hopelessness, loneliness, and self-deception.

The Documentaries of Biljana Garvanlieva: A Girl and her Accordion (2006), Tobacco Girl (2009), and The Seamstresses (2010)

garvanlieva Watching three documentaries in one evening and in one place is similar to attending the screening of one feature film. Three half-hour films are equivalent to a 90-minute feature. At the same time, these three separate films encompass a director’s entire oeuvre, in this case that of Biljana Garvanlieva, who has lived abroad for a long time, but who obsessively returns time and again to Macedonia through her films.

tobacco girlLike Milcho Manchevski, Garvanlieva likes to show her native land through filmic tales that speak about our environment mainly through the templates of public opinion. The films also touch upon prejudice and stereotypes, which seem closer to courtship and flattery than to a harsh and rough reality. The Macedonian viewer is caught between what s/he sees, hears, and perceives every day personally or through the media, and the truth presented on the big screen. To what degree this truth is new and sensational, how deeply it saddens and/or pleases, to what extent it shocks and concerns—that all depends on the moment, on the psychological and social aspects, on a deeper and more significant analysis than the mechanical and direct image of the black-and-white display of a transient filmic Macedonian reality.

Above all, interventions—the montage, the transformation and remodeling of reality—get in the way, which already means that it is not about true and authentic documentality, but a documentary-acted display where the film director is the screenwriter and creator not of a documentary, but of an auteur film narrative and vision.

Biljana Garvanlieva is already a masterful director of documentary films. She chooses mainly topics with common, meaning universal locations, with clear and direct messages that are easy to read and understand in the Macedonian context, but even more importantly—abroad. Her film style is precise, without big revelations and surprises. The plot arises from the domestic realistic environment and from the open-ended story—something that needs to be specially noted as it leaves a special mark.

seamstressesThe documentaries, or as we should maybe call them documentary-features, are well accepted and have received prizes abroad. Biljana Garvanlieva has dedicated five entire years of her life to their making. They should be seen as the author’s overture and prelude to what is obviously her next step: a full-length film. This is only to be expected: Garvanlieva is already a mature artist and her three documentaries come off as a small, but significant film omnibus, which purposefully focuses on female faces and closely related themes. The director’s interests and film typology are already defined and recognizable.

While awaiting Garvanlieva’s feature film, where countless new ideas for other documentaries will be incorporated and translated, we would wish to see in the documentaries (to the extent that they are present in the documentary or documentary-feature format up to now) less authorial intervention, montage, and artificiality in favor of life, reality, authenticity, and genuineness.

The stories about the girl with the accordion, the tobacco girl, and the seamstresses are great examples and form a solid artistic contribution. With their familial, social, psychological and other positioning, the shorts hint at and provoke the eternal question: what is more believable—the rough and grim reality or the interpretative power of film, which recreates documents rather than transposing them only once to be lost in space and time. Anything else is a less successful or an entirely unsuccessful copy, an imitation, a construction or montage.

Translated by Maria Hristova