AN INTERVIEW WITH THE FILM DIRECTOR MILCHO MANCHEVSKI
by Zharko Kujundziski
I interviewed Manchevski on 27 November 2001, in the Bastion café in Skopje. We all know that this man isn't just a film-maker, although he became world famous through the film Before the Rain. His second film, Dust, received various responses. In Skopje, it was called the "Macedonian Guernica", and the Italian novelist Alexander Barico claimed:
I like Dust because it's an open artwork, it has everything and it's completely opposite to everything, it combines linguistic patterns with archetypes... Critics aren't ready for such films and books: it is as if you went to the mountains wearing a swimsuit, and you wondered why you were cold. It's like the people who saw the train for the first time and asked: "And where are the horses?"
The Italian film magazine Chak also announced that "the new millennium in film art starts with Dust." In Asia, after the film's success at Tokyo film festival, this film was even compared with the popularity of Marcel Proust.
To start with, how pleased are you with the
reception of Dust outside of Macedonia? Do you think that the focus on some
particular historical and cultural determinants decreases the possibilities
for those who aren't familiar with the historical framework of this film?
I think that every film should function on several levels and in this case the problem of how the film fits into the culture and history that it speaks of is one of those levels. But, the film shouldn't function only on that single level. People should understand it even without knowing anything about the particular culture its story is built on. It's like that with every good film. For example, to understand and like Citizen Kane one must have some knowledge of America in the first half of 20th century. When I'm not working, it's my motto to see people first. In this film, it's a matter of people, inherited destinies, sufferings, relations, striving. It's essential to achieve this when you make a film. Everything else will only fill in the gaps in the picture. When you make a film about the history and culture of a place, you never get a classic feature film. That's either documentary or television - CNN. Apart from that, I'm not the one who should comment on the reactions of the audience or the critics. As an author I can't see it objectively and without personal limitations. From those few places I've been present at the screenings, the reactions have been quite good - exactly the opposite of the view of some critics in Venice. Now, after I have seen how this film has been accepted by the critics and the audience in Tokyo, Taipei, Toronto, even in Solun (Thessaloniki), I've concluded that what happened in Venice was an attempt to assassinate Dust. The true merit will be in how this film is accepted by the audience throughout the world. It's always the only merit.
On a few occasions, in foreign and domestic magazines, you've appeared as an author of columns with a political viewpoint. Do you think that's the reason that some ultra-right and nationalist critics reacted like that to the film in Venice, or do you think that they were frustrated by the fact that Milcho Manchevski, some director from some land Macedonia, came from the Wild East and made such a audacious film as Dust?
...and attempts to lecture them in aesthetics, instead of begging for help among those numerous international non-governmental organisations. I think that both the reasons you mentioned are correct. I refused to believe, and long after Venice I still couldn't believe it, that one had something to do with the other. But it seems that I have still much to learn about things. I was naive enough to think that people would focus on the aesthetics of the film. Now I see that those reactions weren't that coincidental. I'm basing these claims not only on the reactions but also on research that was conducted by other people, such as Iris Kronauer, who was also a guest at Skopje, and she's writing a book on the reactions to Dust. Iris found a text in Germany, a review, where the critic claims that two days before they saw the film they were discussing in what way they should review it. Other reviews say that the film is just an illustration of my journalistic texts where I attack and criticise NATO for its mistakes. NATO, de facto, isn't guilty for what happened here, but it's partly a consequence of the organisation's faults. By the hypothetical situation that some people claim happened, Dust was made in a period of one month. I'm sorry to say that I realised that a whole segment of the culture - the critics, for which I thought only pure aesthetics matter - actually manipulates politics. I saw that for European film critics politics is equivalent to Hollywood gossip. It isn't important who sleeps with whom (as in Hollywood), but who has this or that political opinion.
Neda speaks of Miss Stone and Miss Rock. The metonymic replacement of sign-signifiers is very common in oral folklore tradition, was used by the futurists and it recalls the children's game of Chinese Whispers. Did you really encounter that name in your research for this film?
No, I didn't. The name Miss Rock is used as for its associations, as you mention, and because I didn't want to talk about real people and events, although I had to do that here and there. But generally speaking, I avoid speaking about things I haven't actually seen. I don't think I have a moral right to do that.
We've already used the term "audacious" in the positive sense of the word. The narrator has an especially interesting position in the film. Mikhail Bakhtin would say that you dethrone the narrator's position. In olden times, the position of a story being orally transferred is the position of unmistakable authority. The distance between the recipient and the narrator isn't that large, but the limit is clear. In the scene when the number of the Turkish soldiers in Angela's story is being discussed by Edge and Angela, here is a perfect example of the audacious and impudent listener (Edge), who, although he is listening to the story for the first time, intervenes in it. It emphasises the relativity of every datum we get from the past through some medium. Can that intervention, not by a real witness, but by the author that transfers the information, become that big that what we receive today, supposedly as an absolute fact, actually be pure fiction? Isn't that a reason to question the view of the history textbooks as a fiction, as novels and such? Are such forgeries real in this global village of ours?
It's more than obvious, and it was probably always like that. Today, it's more a question of an intentional manipulation from political, psychological or plain and simple selfish reasons. I want to introduce you to reality and history as I see it myself. Fake information is made independently of that how reachable they are, anyway. Accessibility to the facts only makes the lie more obvious - but only for those who really search for the truth. The next question is how much one truth can be objective, because we can approach historical material very objectively, but we can see it and comprehend it differently, and so we can transfer it differently. And if we still stand by the belief that the objective truth exists, the fact is that it's, most often, manipulated by the narrator and his intention. So, the main goal, the main intention of this film is to say exactly this, but in an euphoric, pleasant, impudent way. Don't trust me, and don't believe films and the film narrators in general. Enjoy them freely, but from a safe distance. So, don't trust Assassins from Salonika, or the films with John Wayne or CNN. Look for your own truth. Whenever you can, you go and check for yourself to be sure of the information or consult whatever other information sources that you can. And if I go back to the previous question, the third reason they "hate" Dust is maybe exactly that: Dust breaks the very structure by which they've worked for the last 30 or 50 years.
Once you mentioned that Dust is a cubist film. In some parts you can sense the influence from the so-called Russian formalism, which itself has an air of cubo-futurism to it. Eisenstein was under great influence of that formalism. For Dust is the word that is over-blooded film. Viktor Shklovski, one of the most significant theoreticians of formalism, said: "In the end, the blood isn't bloody... It's a material of the artistic construction".
I agree. Absolutely. Hitchcock said it more plainly when Ingrid Bergman cried during filming some scary scene. He approached her and said: "Hey, this is only a film!" [laughs].
About the two scenes with the comicbook hero Corto Maltese. I'll mention the formalists again, Daniil Kharms this time, and his famous story of the redheaded man. As an author, he first introduces a character and he quite openly says that is a redhead: "a redheaded man". Right after that, he denies all of those attributes and simply chases his main character out of the narration, placing himself in the situation where he has no hero. This, certainly, is an auto-referent procedure in art. Did Maltese have this reason to show up, in order to build a play upon the function and position of the film characters in the narrative film structure?
You know, these aren't rational decisions of mine, but more like intuitive ones. I first make a structure which is completely fictional. Afterwards, I do my research and I see what can be done based on the similarities with the optionally real and historic personalities. Even then, I anecdotally imprint the real characters. They have the role as J.F.K. has in some of Robert Rauschenberg's paintings. He's there, but the painting isn't there because of him. That's the case with Freud in Dust. The next step was that if in that time and space a fictional character, like my Luke, walked around, as well as those real characters, Freud or Picasso, at that same time and space why shouldn't there be another, also fictional, character such as Corto, although he's made up by another author. I just don't mention his name. He's recognised only by those who know Corto. In that period, Maltese travels to the places where the "heat is on", so it's most probable that, although fictional, at that time he went to Macedonia [laughs].
You have some experience as a humorist and satirist; at the end of 1970s you used to publish in the humorous satirical magazine Osten. Two things can be noted: They are written in grammatical first person, as some kind of a film notification. In Dust, we could see your sense of humour in a few of its variants (irony, sarcasm, and anecdote) and through some different characters. Finally, the whole film is a kind of an ironic play with the narrative film. What function do you give humour in your projects: to ease the communicability with the audience?
Humour has two purposes in my films, and, I think, in the film in general. The first one is to makes it communicative. The second, and much more important, one is that it's a part of life euphoria. Although I'm not the one who should say this, but this is the main difference between Before the Rain and Dust. Dust is more complex. And besides that enriched complexity, the greatest difference is humour, more of that life euphoria is at the surface, and at the same time it's quite subdued in tone. They don't function well without each other. Both ends of the spectrum should be given to get the real complexity. If the shadow isn't there, the sun can't be that strong. The humour in its essence is an amazingly difficult phenomenon. Something you find funny, I don't, and vice versa. Especially among different cultures, so I did expect that it would travel with difficulty. What I was most pleasantly surprised of, was the fact that the audience reacts at exactly the spots I wanted them to. It was most important to me. I did see that the audiences everywhere laughed at the same spots: in Toronto, in Tokyo, as well as in Skopje. The very reason I started to make films is the story itself, to make my stories more easily communicative with the recipient.
I personally agree that, when we spoke of art, that it should speak of universal things, and that in every story, however intimate it is, the artist should present it in some collective framework. But, why is Milcho as defensive as the devil himself when someone says that he made a national film - not nationalistic film or even (God forbid!) a chauvinistic one? If someone like Spielberg can do it, for example, in Saving Private Ryan?
I have nothing against a national film. Dust can be considered, in some small framework, as a national film. Even a little more than Before the Rain, but it isn't a nationalist one. I'm not afraid of it, but I must note that even if I wanted to, I just couldn't do such a film. Only if I stayed to live here for the next 15 years, then, maybe I would be able to do that. You have to consider that I haven't lived in Macedonia since I was 19. What I do as an author and artist doesn't come 100 percent from here. It's a different story with someone like Lars von Trier, who lives and works in Denmark. If I write a script, and I want some of my friends to see it, it would certainly be a New York friend, because I'm there, too. And if I compare some of what I write, I would certainly compare it with something from there, too. On the other hand, my aesthetic formation and the first 20 years of my life were in Macedonia, so my origins and roots are Macedonian, and I can't escape it, even if I want to, although I don't. On the contrary. Anyway, every film should be above the national level.
However much we try to apply that, the conclusion is that Dust isn't firmly tied up with one single space, mentality or ideology. On the contrary, it often changes the theoretical strategy and incorporates historical pieces. Ritual dances of primitive tribes, ancient pillars, Byzantine fresco-painting, cubism, Les Desmoiselles d'Avignon, then the whole history of the 20th century: the nuclear bomb, the prohibition, the native American Indians, Freud, the Wright Brothers plane, the Ottomans, Tito... Can the use of these historical events in any context of the film be considered as some kind of author's comment?
I use them as a part of a mix. They are the part of the scenery design. I will say again, like Rauschenberg uses some elements. They are all moments from our collective past and from our individual psychology. I'm aware of the atomic bomb, of cubism, and I can't avoid it, even if I want to. How can I make a film about the komiti (Macedonian rebellions), and how can I be familiar with that history, and not to be familiar with something so universally known as cubism? I may not mention it, but cubism, formalism, and all other aesthetics, older or not. I always start with a presumption of deep honesty. I invite the recipient with that: let's make this film together, let's play together. A part of that honesty is to show him the "stitches" of the making of the suit, and that's nothing new in art, but it's new in narrative film. It is a form of honesty because I show the "stitches" while saying: "I'm telling a story, so it means that I'm lying to you, but do recognise the fact that I'm showing to you that I'm lying by agreeing with it." I don't do that rationally, with intention, but as a part of a game. If the game is consequent, and done with talent, then it's functioning and it will be open for analysis. Hiroshima was one of the most important events in the 20th century, which defines us, and even those of us who live in Shtavica. On the other hand, all that is so close to us in time. All that history that seems so widened onto a period of 1000 years, so close to us. Elijah, starts his travel from Oklahoma in 1900 as a young man and arrives in Macedonia in 1903. So, it is quite possible he was in New York in 1945 when the atomic bomb was dropped. We do fall on the clichés. We think in this way: Ottoman Empire - 16th century; cowboys - 19th century; atomic bomb - well, that's the 21st century!
In Before the Rain, you appeared as the victim of a Serbian soldier; in Dust, you appeared as the mother of Luke and Elijah. Does this imply you are using some of the poetics of Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles, who had the habit of appearing in some scenes of their films?
Absolutely. Hitchcock originally invented this idea, and I just do a different variant of it - I only appear in photos [laughs]. Those photos play quite an important role in my films. In Before the Rain, the photo was important because that was the embryo of the whole film's action; that was the moment when Alexander decided to go back to Macedonia. In Dust, on the other hand, the photo of the Luke's and Elijah's mother is probably the oldest photo in the whole of Angela's collection. They both started from their mother, as characters and with their relationships towards the females. It's playing, again. I do think that when someone does art he should try to say a lot - and he should be killing himself with work, at the same time. That someone must be constrained and free at the same time, that is my greatest engagement when I make a film. How to play and to be responsible towards the team and the colleagues, how to bring the invested money back after finishing the film, etc...
Both Before the Rain and Dust start with tomatoes and end with the very similar scenes with skies, clouds, and in analogy, somehow, the birds. Often, unintentionally, I call Dust the second part of Before the Rain. Can we talk at all about some essential link between them, or maybe about some kind of trilogy?
There probably is a trilogy, but the third film still hasn't revealed itself to me. I assume that my third film would be extraordinary simple - a "stream-lined" one. The first one has three defined stories, the second has, in essence, two stories, and, by extrapolation, the third film should have only one. Otherwise, the appearance of the tomatoes is very interesting. I had a production professor who was always saying "the first scene defines your film", and my father, then again, said that by the title music at the beginning of the film we can recognise whether the film be good or bad, and even what the film will be, in general. When I did my thinking about the beginning of Before the Rain, I did ask myself what's the most typical thing in this country? I concluded that tomatoes are the one of the few things with which Macedonia is superior to any other country, or area. In the second film, the question was how to do that again, but in New York. It seemed very logical that those tomatoes from the Before the Rain arrived at the market in America.
Whatever the way of presenting Macedonians, Albanians, Turks, Americans or soldiers, flies, sheep, and gun, in both films they are one and the same. It would be unfair if we said that the cry for cosmopolitanism and for respect for the Other, wins in your films. Can that be linked in the relation with the general process of globalisation, or is that your personal determination as an artist and as a human, above all?
Humanism, not globalism. In fact, it's an absolutely firm humanistic and pacifistic idea, and I stand 100 percent that the people are everywhere, that they have the same loves and sufferings, the same problems, deceits, the same evil. All that depends on the man, and on the moment. If we go back for a third time to Venice, this may be the fourth reason that bothered some of the critics. Maria Todorova speaks about that in her book Imagining the Balkans. It's a syndrome by which every racism projects itself on the others, far away, on some cannibals in the Balkans. Maybe, with my presentation of the very opposite, I disturbed their racist prejudices. There was a situation when some journalist defined Dust as a racist film. The same man was a member of a paramilitary organisation in Northern Ireland. So even this humanism is never a fully intentional thesis. My authorial credo is that we are all humans, and that there will always be good and bad ones amongst us. The issue is how you tell the story about it.
Translated by Petar Volnarovski
Based on: Trilogiya postoi, tretiot film se ushte ne se kazhal. (Razgovor se Milcho Manchevski.) In: Kinopis, no. 25, 2002, pp. 101-114.