The Macedonian Tendency: January 2008

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Stylus Magazine Reviews "Shadows"

Movie Review
By: Nancy Keefe Rhodes
Stylus Magazine, 2007-10-09

Shadows (Senki) (2007)
Director: Milcho Manchevski
Cast: Borce Nacev, Vesna Stanojevska, Sabina Ajrula-Tozija

in the 2003 introduction to the published screenplay of his first feature-length fiction film, Before the Rain (1994)—which appeared actually a few months after that of the screenplay for his second feature, Dust (2001)—Milcho Manchevski expressed his frustration with widespread assumptions about that film as literal historical account. “In almost all interviews I gave for newspapers and television in dozens of countries over the final years of the last century,” he writes, “I kept repeating that Before the Rain is not a documentary about former Yugoslavia, nor about Macedonia, nor is it a documentary at all. I would say: ‘You can see this from the aesthetic approach: it’s shot like a fairytale; look at the camera work, or the editing, or the music. I am using actors. It’s scripted, for Heaven’s sake.’ Who got it—got it.”

Now we have Manchevski’s third feature and again there should be no doubt about aesthetic approach. Shadows premiered in early September at the Toronto International Film Festival and was quickly tapped as Macedonia’s official 2008 Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film. Already scheduled for theatrical release in ten European nations, this lovely and moving film is just now making the rounds of US distributors. The other two features, with their extended historical elements and fractured, multiple and overlapping narratives—what Manchevski calls “Cubist storytelling”—are widely rentable in the US. Watching the three features close together is extremely rewarding. Manchevski is building a body of work that will shine in retrospective programs—for shared, reverberating landscapes, elaborated images, and a cadre of supporting actors whose reappearance in successive film makes his work subliminally familiar and easy to enter—and now, for the clarity of his turn into newly personal territory and straightforward narrative.

“Return what’s not yours. Have respect,” says the old woman Kalina (Ratka Radmanovic), murmuring urgently in an ancient dialect that no one speaks anymore. She appears matter-of-factly, in her head scarf and heavy skirts and shawl, a small cross tattooed between her eyebrows in the old way, waiting in the dark on the living room couch of a young doctor. Lazar Perkov (Borce Nacev) has just returned to his apartment in the Macedonian capital of Skopje from his parents’ villa in the lakes district after a year convalescing from a near-fatal car crash. Trying to return to work at the hospital, he misses his already straying wife and little son, who have remained at the lake. He has nightmares, forgets things, fears his recovery isn’t stable, speaks in odd images that cause the unnerved family chauffeur to roll his eyes, and has now had his first visit from the unsettled souls of the dead.

That Lazar doesn’t know what’s stolen or how to put it back doesn’t get him a pass. Preoccupied with his young man’s struggle to emerge from the shadow of his mother’s overbearing ambition, herself a physician (the formidable Sabina Ajrula-Tozija)—impossible not to recall with the film’s final shot of blinding light—Lazar encounters one woman after another who teaches him that ignorance and personal innocence are no excuses, and who invite his wary, steadily growing search. In a land overrun for centuries by intruders, these women are preoccupied with theft and its attendant glaring debt. Manchevski’s images are earthy, specific, free of arid abstraction. For example, one day Lazar searches out the crowded ramshackle home of his mother’s chauffeur, Blagojce (Petar Mircevski), wanting a ride to the country. With his trained scientist’s eye he diagnoses a burn on the driver’s wife’s arm. She patiently explains the birthmark resulted from her mother eating stolen grapes while pregnant.

Manchevski tinkered for several years with the nuances of his film’s title, beginning with the Ghosts and detouring to Bones before settling on the immensely resonant possibilities of Shadows. The word’s added visual dimension encourages our attention toward DP Fabio Cianchetti’s use of reflections, doubling, broken space, and Menka’s propensity for suddenly dropping out of the frame mid-stride and then abruptly reappearing. Cities in Manchevski’s films have always been claustrophobic and disorienting. There’s a similar handling in that maze-like Paris apartment where Bertolucci’s The Dreamers occurs, a film Cianchetti also shot.

Kalina is the first “shadow” who appears to Lazar, identified by her dialect as one of the displaced Aegean Macedonians. A linguist whom the young man seeks out to translate her message also remarks on Lazar’s own name’s Biblical reference to resurrection. Seeking that professor, Lazar meets the lovely Menka, a suicide by hanging (luminously played by harpist Vesna Stanojevska). On a hospital gurney, then waiting for the elevator, Lazar meets the cross, craggy-faced Gerasim, a refugee whose brother nailed a spike into his heel at burial in hopes of magically halting his wandering in the afterlife (Salaetin Bilal, the Turkish Major in Dust). There is an unbaptized infant whom Gerasim awkwardly but tenderly carries instead of abandoning, and Kalina’s sometime companion wolf.

These walking dead may invite Lazar’s curiosity and compassion—and in Menka’s case his intimacy—but they cannot explain their repeated violent deaths or their connection with the cardboard box of old bones that his mother scavenged for her own 1973 anatomy class from beyond the consecrated ground of the cemetery—“not a real grave,” she snorts indignantly—in her home village of Gluvovo. Or what he must do. In the pivotal showdown, slugging each other, sprawling on her office floor, Lazar forcibly takes the bones from his mother in this fight over laying the past to rest or making it “useful” to one’s own ambitions.

That fight over a box of bones has room to contain a parable about the past these shadows more broadly represent, though one of the film’s more courageous qualities is Manchevski’s insistence that Lazar’s own journey carry the film emotionally and dramatically rather than resort to expose. Kalina’s dialect reveals she is from Aegean Macedonia—the eastern territory annexed by Greece in 1913—but the film says little else about her people except that their fate was “exodus.” Manchevski says audiences outside that culture don’t need the specific history to connect with these characters’ pain and longing for relief as abandoned and forsaken peoples.

For those inside that culture, even that slightest reference to Kalina’s extinct dialect evokes the following specifics. In 1912 Greece allied with Serbia, Bulgaria and Montenegro, declaring war on Turkey. While this ended the Ottoman Empire’s occupation of Macedonia, it led directly to Macedonia’s partition among its neighbors. In Aegean Macedonia, Greece embarked upon a decades-long campaign to change the population’s ethnic composition, forcibly expelling hundreds of thousands, confiscating lands, forbidding languages, renaming places, plundering and destroying villages, and re-colonizing the area with ethnic Greeks from nations to the east. During the Greek Civil War of the late 1940s this campaign accelerated anew. 60,000 were expelled in 1948. Some internments from the mid-40s continued until 1974—the year of Lazar’s mother’s anatomy class—and as late as 1985 Greek laws governing that area excluded Aegean Macedonian descendants from reclaiming confiscated land. In 1991, the modern Republic of Macedonia emerged from the upheaval of Yugoslavia’s disintegration by referendum.

Lazar’s journey is also the artist’s journey and a parable for the work of cinema. It becomes his job because he is the one who is there to see. Let us hope this film is available on US screens, and quickly.

Russia names hawkish Nato envoy

By David Edenden

Good for Putin. Russia needs politicians who know enough to hang on to their wallets while dealing with Nato, a cold war relic that needs to be put in the ash bin of history!
BBC, 10 January 2008

Dmitry Rogozin pictured in January 2005
Mr Rogozin is opposed to Kosovo breaking away from Serbia
Russian President Vladimir Putin has appointed a nationalist politician as Russia's new ambassador to Nato.

Dmitry Rogozin will become Moscow's permanent representative to the military alliance.

A foreign policy hawk, Mr Rogozin is a former head of the anti-immigration Russian Motherland party.

He has previously warned Moscow the Western military alliance poses a threat and called for Russia to stand firm against independence for Kosovo.

Mr Rogozin has also served as Russia's representative to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Pace), a multi-national Strasbourg-based human rights body.

In 2005, Russia's Supreme Court banned Motherland from taking part in elections to the Moscow City Council. The court ruled that a campaign advertisement in which Mr Rogozin appeared was racist.

Mr Rogozin's appointment is a reflection of Russia's more assertive stance towards the West, the BBC's James Rodgers reports from Moscow.

Nato is viewed with great suspicion in Russia - politicians and ordinary people alike see the alliance's post-Cold War eastward expansion as blatantly hostile, our correspondent says.

Mr Rogozin has previously called for Russia to rearm to counter the perceived threat.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Barack Obama and the Greek Lobby

Last August, three US senators including presidential candidate Barack Obama introduced a resolution to the US Senate (S. Res. 300), endorsing the Greek-nationalist bullying of the Republic of Macedonia. This resolution raises serious concerns about whether an Obama presidency would pursue a responsible policy vis-a-vis the Balkans.

S. Res. 300 accuses Macedonia of a policy that ‘instills hostility and a rationale for irredentism in portions of the population of FYROM toward Greece and the history of Greece’, on the grounds: 1) that ’a television report in recent years showed students in a state-run school in FYROM [the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia] still being taught that parts of Greece, including Greek Macedonia, are rightfully part of FYROM’; 2) that ’some textbooks, including the Military Academy textbook published in 2004 by the Military Academy “General Mihailo Apostolski” in the FYROM capital city, contain maps showing that a “Greater Macedonia” extends many miles south into Greece to Mount Olympus and miles east to Mount Pirin in Bulgaria’; and 3) that ‘the Government of FYROM recently renamed the capital city’s international airport “Alexander the Great Airport”.’

The resolution, which has been endorsed by at least 75 Members of Congress and is advertised on the website of the Greek Embassy in Washingon D.C., is evidence that Obama and other senior US politicians are pandering to the peculiarly hysterical, nationalistic and ill-informed Greek lobby in the US. That the resolution justifies itself on the basis of something as insubstantial and ill-defined as ‘a television report in recent years’ is evidence of the unseriousness of its allegations. The television report in question appears to be a YouTube clip that briefly shows a school textbook illustrating the historical territory of Macedonia, which was partitioned between Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria in 1912-13 (you have to watch the clip quite carefully to catch it). The fact that the YouTube clip was undated may be why the resolution referred vaguely to a ‘television report in recent years’. Likewise, the military textbook mentioned by the resolution appears merely to have displayed historical maps of Macedonia. The Greek-nationalist lobbyists appear to have interpreted this as evidence of a contemporary Macedonian territorial claim on parts of Greece - evidence of a Greek-nationalist sense of insecurity over the Macedonian question that peaked in the early 1990s at the time of Macedonia’s secession from Yugoslavia and that, however baseless, has not gone away. The Skopje airport is indeed named after Alexander the Great, though why this should be in any way objectionable, let alone the object of a senatorial resolution, is really beyond comprehension to anyone who is not a Greek nationalist, and I shall not insult the reader’s intelligence by labouring the point.

S. Res. 300 ends by urging Macedonia (’FYROM’) to 1) ‘observe its obligations under Article 7 of the 1995 United Nations-brokered Interim Accord, which directs the parties to “promptly take effective measures to prohibit hostile activities or propaganda by state-controlled agencies and to discourage acts by private entities likely to incite violence, hatred or hostility” and review the contents of textbooks, maps, and teaching aids to ensure that such tools are stating accurate information’; and 2) to ‘to work with Greece within the framework of the United Nations process to achieve longstanding United States and United Nations policy goals by reaching a mutually-acceptable official name for FYROM’.

It is unclear why people who get their information from random YouTube clips should feel they have the right to lecture sovereign states about what they put in their school or military textbooks. Yet it is the second demand that is the most worrying: the US has already recognised Macedonia under its official and rightful name, the ‘Republic of Macedonia’; Obama and his fellow senators appear to be trying to turn the clock back and destabilise this fragile state in a sensitive part of the Balkans, in order to pander to the nationalist hysteria of the Greek American lobby, thus giving their own domestic political careers priority over the US’s foreign-policy interests.

Let us hope that Obama’s sponsorship of this resolution is simply a cynical ploy to win the Greek-American vote, and will not translate into a genuinely anti-Macedonian policy in the event that he becomes president. For if it does, the consequences for the peace and stability of South East Europe could be catastrophic.

Hat tip: David Edenden, The Macedonian Tendency.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Waiting for Kosovo Independence?

Macedonian elite police officer shot dead
Reuters: by Kole Casule

SKOPJE, Jan 3 (Reuters) - A member of an elite Macedonian police unit was killed and two others were wounded when their car was shot at in the capital Skopje on Thursday, police said.

"Attackers opened fire from a moving vehicle at the police jeep," said police spokesman Ivo Kotevski. "Three officers were wounded, and one of them died on his way to hospital."

Kotevski said the motive for the attack in a Skopje suburb was unknown.

Tensions remain in Macedonia in the wake of a 2001 insurgency by ethnic Albanian guerrillas fighting for greater rights for the country's 25 percent Albanian minority.

Organised crime is also rife in the former Yugoslav republic.