Voyage to Skopje: 1st Macedonian Film Festival
The rise of national cinema in the Balkan region over the past decade should be heartening to serious film lovers and anyone with even a vague knowledge of the bloody conflicts that engulfed Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, and neighboring precincts after the breakup of Tito’s Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Of these, perhaps the Republic of Macedonia has been the most active, in terms of film production, as well as the most visible on the world festival circuit. Now, under the auspices of the Macedonian Film Fund and International Film Circuit, New Yorkers have a chance to sample recent work (and a few classics) by some of the nation’s brightest talents during the First Macedonian Film Festival at Village East Cinemas, November 20-23.
“The Republic of Macedonia, despite being a relatively new country, only formally recognized as an independent nation in 1991, has become, through its cinema, a “melting pot” of the region’s mixed cultural diversity – Albanian, Greek, Serbian, Bulgarian, Bosnian, Kosovar and Croatian,” says Wendy Lidell, president of International Film Circuit, in the press release. “The films featured in The Macedonian Film Festival have been selected to shine a light on this culturally rich nation and as a declaration of its artistic independence. It is this independent spirit that we hope will appeal to all New Yorkers. Hopefully, the festival will find a home here.”
Among the offerings are Teona Strugar Mitevska’s I Am From Titov Veles (2008), the opening night film and Macedonia’s official Oscar submission this year, about a turbulent relationship between three sisters. Also on tap is Sergej Stanojkovski’s Kontakt (2005), written by Gordan Mihic (Time of the Gypsies), which tells the story of a troubled man and woman who cross paths after leaving state institutions (one psychiatric, the other carceral) on the same day. Kiril Cenevski’s Black Seed (1971), about ethnic Greeks who were deported to concentration camps after the 1946 civil war, is a landmark of Macedonian cinema, and is paired with Stole Popov’s Dae, a 16-minute doc on Gypsy lifeways.
The closing night film (and one of the few I’ve had a chance to screen) is Milcho Manchevski’s Oscar-nominated Before the Rain (1994), perhaps the most celebrated motion picture in the national archive. (Criterion released its own edition back in June.) Essentially a triptych with a temporal twist, the film engages fitfully with Macedonia’s history via the story of a young Orthodox monk (Claire Denis regular Gregoire Colin) who breaks his vow of silence to shelter an Albanian girl fleeing a murderous mob. Far away in London, a married editor’s conflicted romance with hirsute photographer Aleksandr (Rade Serbedzija) spurs his return home for the first time in 20 years, as he attempts to make sense of the violence wracking Macedonia. The film’s presiding metaphor, about “a circle that is not round,” concerns both the nature of fate and a more philosophical, almost Vician sense of historical time. But Mancehveski’s stunning camerawork and gorgeously saturated visuals, married to a haunting, well-told story of displacement and return, are what likely won over the Venice jury that awarded this film the Golden Lion. See it on the big screen if you can.
Less impressive is Svetozar Ristovski’s Mirage, a film I saw and reviewed for Time Out a couple of years ago. As I wrote then, Ristovski’s debut “brings to mind anti-feel-good movies like Lilya 4 Ever or Los Olvidados, tracking the sullying of quiet, coy Marko (Kovacevic) from an A student into a homeless, 12-year-old criminal delinquent. Tortured by a vicious gang of hooligans and invisible to his barbarically dysfunctional family, Marko soaks up the encouragement of his teacher (Nadarevic), who stokes his faith in escaping to Paris via a poetry competition, but hardens into a disillusioned miscreant after life deals him one lousy hand after another.”
The film’s thinly veiled Nietzschean sentiments—announced in an epigraph (oh, how often the great German philosopher’s words are used to ill purpose)—and its brutal, school-shooting denouement try to allegorize harsh realities within present-day Macedonia, but made me feel the wrist-slashing emptiness of the filmmaker’s nihilistic attitudes toward life and society more than that of the reality he presumably wanted to illuminate. Marko’s fateful “encounter” with an imagined outlaw is part schizoid break, part power fantasy, but the end result of his newfound strength—an explosive assault against hope or the possibility of an alternate future (i.e. “Paris”)—is homicidal self-annihilation. What’s left to argue if an filmmaker bluntly equates both underdog humility and ubermensch overcoming with dead-end misery?
For more information on the First Macedonian Film Festival in New York, attending talent, and Q&A or screening times, click here.