One-on-one | North Macedonia

Milčo Mančevski: The film isn’t a CNN report, or a historical PhD, but a work of art

By - 16.12.2019

Celebrated Macedonian director talks about his latest movie, female people, and politics.

Twenty five years ago, the debut film “Before the Rain” (“Pred Dodjdot,” 1994) launched Milčo Mančevski onto the peak of the world’s cineastes. The film received more than 30 awards, while the New York Times ranked it as one of the 1,000 Best Movies ever made.

In October 2019, Mančevski premiered his sixth feature movie, “Willow” (“Vrba”), Mančevski once again moved the borders and made a movie that is already getting some positive criticism. This film marks his return to the Balkans and to his country where he had been on a blacklist since 2010, after the release of his movie “Mothers” (Majke).

“Willow” was first shown at the 14th edition of the Rome Film Festival, and it is currently on distribution in cinemas throughout North Macedonia. Over the next year, it will be distributed throughout the Balkans.  In the movie, Mančevski deals with topics such as pregnancy, motherhood, adoption, and abortion against the backlash of tradition, prejudice, and the myth around a woman “having to also be a mother.”

The core of his interest still remains bound to the universal issues of human existence. Currently, the director has one foot in New York and the other in Skopje.

“People are the same everywhere. The core ideas from the movie could be taking place in some other country and culture, and the movie would only be a bit different,” Mančevski told K2.0 in an interview.

Responding to the current discussions in North Macedonia regarding the claims that this is a feminist movie, Mančevski insists that his interests lie with the people and their being. “I do not work with ulterior motives and I don’t believe in intentions and agendas,” he said, adding that he oftentimes does have “female people” as his main characters.

“It is interesting how the main actress says this is a feminist movie, while some critics believe it isn’t, at least not in the hysterical sense. I have worked on it rather intuitively,” he emphasizes.

Photo courtesy of Milčo Mančevski.

K2.0: Two years ago, you filmed  “Bikini Moon,” your first movie produced in America. Why did you come back to North Macedonia? 

Milčo Mančevski: To me personally this is strange, and I have already ceased to ask myself why do I keep on coming back to Macedonia. I don’t even know where I live: I go to New York, and then to Skopje, and then some third place.

I don’t insist on filming in Macedonia. It was easier for me to create “Bikini Moon” in America, because back then I was placed on the Macedonian government’s blacklist. As for “Willow,” I had the idea for a few years and the opportunity presented itself just now.

But I want to say that where I’m at isn’t important at all. Whether I’m residing in America or Macedonia, the core of the story, the approach, and taste are identical. It is only fair that a movie constitutes a faithful portrayal of the community where it’s placed. The most important thing is to investigate the story as much as possible, not to invent propaganda and Hollywood naivete but for the movie to reflect reality.

There is this tendency that a movie reflects the culture and the country someone had previously imagined, which is de facto racism.

The film isn’t a CNN report, or a historical PhD, but a work of art. It is for this reason that, when an author creates a world where certain ideas work, it’s not important where the story is unraveling.

What I am speaking about isn’t very popular, especially at festivals and with film funders. I had a situation with an Austrian producer telling me: “You know what?! This scenario of yours isn’t Macedonian enough.” There is this tendency that a movie reflects the culture and the country someone had previously imagined, which is de facto racism.

From the very start, I have been struggling with producers, oftentimes ruthlessly. As for the movie, it’s either good or it isn’t.

Its essence isn’t to represent some country the way you want to see it. There are producers and distributors who are aware of this, so they accept your proposal. For many, it is far easier to sell exotic content. But how can people live with themselves when they know what they did?

You played around with exotic content when you filmed “Dust” (Prašina, 2001). You spoke about the “eastern” genre — the Balkans as the Wild East against the Wild West.

I find it very interesting to debunk cliches. We have a cliche about the Balkans being some sort of a Wild West, an Ottoman Empire, Freud, and the Wright brothers and the plane residing there, and that all this is happening simultaneously. Sometimes, people even mix it altogether. I wanted to help out in smashing this notion.

When you investigate some historical topic and reveal what actually occurred, then you find out that the truth is far more incredible and interesting than the myth. It’s amusing to know that sometimes cliches are imposed “from outside.” For example, there were many Indians who used to be cowboys, whereas allegedly as many as a fourth of all cowboys were black. We never see this reflected in movies.

The ideas for the “Dust” movie arose visually at first, when I realized the vast similarities between Komitas and the revolutionaries of Pancho Villa. Beards, horses, everything was very similar. Everything is more or less happening at the same time. Okay, the sombrero is a big difference.

Interestingly, this image has moved around a lot, while independently arising in both places. This has inspired me to bring them into a situation where they would meet. The rest was enhancing the story: What would happen if you go through with this to the very end.

Sometimes you are presented as a Macedonian, and at other times as an American director. How do you place yourself in the midst of ethnic categories?

I am either a good or a bad director. The box they place me in is completely irrelevant.

I believe this insistence on nationhood, especially at festivals, constitutes a sort of implicit racism which many are putting to good use. For the past 25 years or maybe even longer, I am forced to handle the fact that I am supposed to be representing “a Macedonian product.” On the one hand, this is very nice, on the other — it is a burden.

One Japanese magazine published criticism of one of my movies, as well as a map showing a circle around Macedonia. Next to it there is an explanation as to how to pronounce the name of the country, while they also inserted a photo from Macedonia. So, I do have an obligation towards the spectator and the reader in Japan, as well as toward our people who expect that I should be “representing” them.

I am not even bothered by representing myself, let alone someone else. This is a highly interesting dichotomy: On the one hand, when people watch my movies in Brazil, China, and Europe, they form a positive opinion about our culture thanks to this small piece of art.

Among us there are people who find this to be a nice thing to do but they are angry for being presented as living in the countryside, how a bus is messed up and broken, how we are poor, and they think all this is shameful. This doesn’t say anything about the movie but about the value system. They are focused on poverty, and not on the fact that there are people depicted in the film who have very strong moral attitudes, which is more important than the number of sheep one owns.

It wasn’t my intention to count sheep, but Macedonians understood it that way, while there are those who say they would like to wear their best tuxedo when having guests over. They’d want the movie to be an ad but then it turns into social realism, and a good movie can almost never be made from that.

Photo courtesy of Milčo Mančevski.

Why doesn’t North Macedonia’s cultural and political establishment like you?

Because I always speak my mind. The previous government requested that I support them explicitly. I supported the things I thought were good, and cut my support for what I didn’t like. I simply gave my opinion.

However, your name is no longer on the blacklist. 

Yes, for now! The thing is that the former government started demanding ever increasing support from public figures. Hence, they saw “Mothers!” (2010) as a criticism of their party. This is only a reflection of their paranoia, because the movie wasn’t about any one party. I think they were simply provoked by the nausea that this movie creates.

They gave me an offer to make a movie about Clement, Naum, Cyril, and Methodius, which I declined. I love history, but I don’t like uncritically redacted myths. This would probably demand such an approach. I work on the basis of my own stories, while this project was supposed to be in line with some thread constructed by politicians.

You often work with myths.

I find history, legends, and fairy tales interesting. This stayed with me from my childhood, from the period when one reads adventures and comics.

Women are simply more interesting for the art of narration.

I remember my uncle bringing some old edition of cowboy fairy tales, presumably from Belgrade. However, I never do my work on an intentional basis, but by hearing and tasting. When there is a symbol, I leave it to the spectators to give an explanation of the symbol.

“Mothers,” “Bikini Moon,” and “Willow” aren’t female movies intentionally. To me women are always rich and strong characters, even physically sturdy when necessary. Women are simply more interesting for the art of narration.

In the same sense, in “Willow” and other movies, on the one hand we have a myth, while on the other there is naturalism, as a counterpoint. It’s interesting to me to see how these two things repel one another: Echo, mapping, and complementarity. I find it boring to do only one story.

In “Willow,” we have a 17th century archetypal story, which begins in a rather linear and simple manner. The more the narration proceeds, the more the story becomes complicated, with flash forwards and flashbacks. Relations between people are also becoming more complicated — whereas today’s relationships among people are probably more complex than the ones 600 or 1,000 years ago.

How do you understand the fact that the nationhood myth in the Balkans is still so important?

All nations have their myths. It’s only a question of whether they are ready to kill for their nation’s myth, or whether they refer to it when killing for other reasons: Let’s say for real estate.

The sooner we start dealing with the present in an honest fashion, the better. Myths won’t go away; it’s nice to have them as stories, even as part of one’s identity, but I don’t think they should make up the central component of an identity. It’s rather important what kind of a person you are.

I hope that people in the Balkans are increasingly overcoming tensions, and that on the one hand they are more dealing with bread and butter issues, while on the other with fighting crime. Nobody is immune to either of the two.

When you look back 25 years, with a few movies behind you, what do you think made “Before the Rain” such a success?

I absolutely have no clue. I often ask myself, especially when I meet people who speak about how much the movie meant to them, and these people originate from different cultures… One lady from Brazil was spending time in Europe, so she came to Skopje to meet me, because the movie meant a lot to her. Two weeks ago I was in Thailand, where I met this other lady who is an anthropologist. She said that “Before the Rain” changed her life when she was 16.

I think that this movie isn’t about being very successful or about being liked a lot. The thing is that, “Before the Rain” positively influenced all these people emotionally.

I don’t know what this is and I’m glad that’s the case, because if I knew, I would probably misuse it.

Maybe the thing is that the making of this movie was stuffed with strong energy. It is back then that several things coincided: An emotional return home, because before that I was studying in the US, hence I came to Macedonia to do a film as a stranger.

Production wise, it was difficult, because none of the producers, except Simon Perry, actually believed in this movie. The producers had messed around, many refused to work on the film, while there was a daily battle on how to edit some scenes. Often, I found out that they had deleted some scenes from the shot plan because the producer thought there just wasn’t enough time.

The struggle to make the movie was probably built into it, so people feel this feverish love. As I am doing now, back then I worked with my hearing and taste in mind, completely intuitively. I don’t know how this worked out, but it did.K

Feature image courtesy of Milčo Mančevski.

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