Macedonian Culture and Its Audiences: An Analysis of "Before the Rain" by Keith S. Brown

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The view from outside.
The film’s three-part structure defies straightforward chronology; a photograph is examined before it could have been taken, and a phone-call is received before it could have been made. Two dream sequences foretell events which immediately come to pass. These moments of rupture, and of apparent repetition, occur within a whole that sharply juxtaposes disparate locations and characters and also includes a series of apparently traditional rituals.

At any other time, such stylish aesthetic elements might have occupied the central attention of reviewers. Some did allude to the paradoxes in the timeline, and drew comparison to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. But the principal points of interest among the first wave of American reviewers were the visual impact of Before the Rain and its main subject matter; Balkan violence. In The International Herald Tribune, on January 25, 1995, under a headline which declared “Macedonia Movie Confronts Balkan Hatreds”, the film was summarized as “a story of ethnic conflict set in London and Macedonia” (Pall 1995). In The New York Times on the same day, it was “a wrenching tale of ethnic hatreds with a love story that has its own mysterious power” (Maslin 1995). On February 21 1995, Richard Woodward wrote in The Village Voice that “Its three interrelated stories, built around the tale of a disillusioned war photographer returning to his native village in Macedonia, are concerned with ethnic hatred in the region” (Woodward 1995).

In a longer piece in Newsday, on February 24, Jack Mathews used the phrase “ethnic hatred” three times, while calling the film a “parable” (Mathews 1995). On the same day, The Los Angeles Times, ringing the changes on the theme of ethnic hatred, called it a tale of “fratricidal horror” (Rainer 1995). The Christian Science Monitor on March 1 told the reader that in the film’s third part, in Macedonia “ethnic strife leads to a tragic climax” (Sterritt 1995).

The San Diego Union-Tribune of March 9 reintroduced the romantic element, reporting that “... in the film love keeps being routed by political, ethnic and religious tensions” (Elliott 1995), while the BPI Entertainment Newswire called Before the Rain “a three-part story of ethnic conflict and romance set in Macedonia and London” (Ryan 1995). By the time the film reached Ohio in June love had disappeared again, and the film critic of The Columbus Dispatch wrote “Before the Rain is most effective in conveying the extreme hatred between ethnic factions” (Gabrenya 1995).

The dominating impression here is of ethnic hatred, violence and strife, as the principal impact of the film. That impact, clearly, fits into certain ideas that people in the U.S.A. had of Yugoslavia. Reporting on the Yugoslav War in the period of 1991-3 followed a similar pattern—irrational as it seemed, said a majority of reporters, Serbs, Croats and Muslims had returned to fighting, after the “unnatural” peaceful interlude of Yugoslavia. A further dimension to the reporting was an emphasis on the messiness of the fighting that resulted, as populations were so integrated. Indeed, in the coverage of the break-up of Yugoslavia it could be said that chaos and disorder were organizing tropes. This is perhaps true of war in general: where the coverage of the Yugoslav War was striking was in that chaos and disorder were presented at every level. Cease-fires, front-lines, refugee routes; all were disputed. Disorderliness extended to the men depicted as doing the fighting; paramilitaries, volunteers, irregulars, militias, all were in action. More often than not the images presented in the West were of scruffiness and improvisation.

The authenticity of the movie as Macedonian for a non-Macedonian audience, appears to be lodged primarily in the correspondence between the images depicted and other more familiar impressions. Manchevski’s Macedonian villagers, seen in both the first and third sections, are an odd group, heavily armed with automatic weapons, yet dressed in a motley collection of clothes. Where the leader appeals to sartorial conventions of the past, others in his entourage pay homage to global fashion, whether with baseball caps or sneakers, or with the Beastie Boys on a Walkman. Their appearance and demeanour correspond with pictures from the Yugoslav War that appeared either on television, or in the media in the early 1990s. The sentiments that these characters expressed also resonated with a prevalent idea that Yugoslavia was riddled with age-old hatreds, influentially promulgated in Robert Kaplan’s best-selling Balkan Ghosts (1991).iv

The authenticity of these characters appears to be reinforced by the other single quality of the film on which most foreign reviewers agreed, the visual impact of the landscape in which the action is set. Indeed, the scenery is for some Western reviewers the main attraction of the film. Whether they focus on “spectacular Macedonian hillsides” (Woodward 1995, in The Village Voice) or the “glowing Balkan countryside” (Billson 1995, in The Daily Telegraph), the “hard tan hills of Macedonia, the cobbled stone houses of the village” (Johnson 1995, in Maclean’s Magazine) or “the limitless vistas and star-clustered night skies” (McKenna 1995, in The Los Angeles Times), reviewers were drawn to compete in their descriptions of Manchevski’s images. Some made more explicit their recognition that the aesthetic element lay not in the landscape, but in the film’s cinematography, and transferred their adjectives of approbation to the apparatus. The Village Voice also applauded the “wondrous shots of the forbidding landscape” (Woodward 1995) and The Times in England commented that “the camera feasts on the rolling Macedonian hills” (Brown 1995).

Despite this recognition of Manchevski’s creative input, the various reviewers nevertheless all appear to have fallen under the spell of the landscape as a site of authenticity, which further contributed to the realism of the events that unfold within it. In this respect, viewers harnessed that landscape to their interpretation and stance. Where Maclean’s Magazine, for example, described the “... fierce poetry to his images, but also a strong sense of authenticity” (Johnson 1995), the reviewer’s phrasing echoed theoretical writing on cinematography. In 1960, Maya Deren described the manner in which “an artifice borrows reality from the reality of the scene” and “natural phenomena [can] be incorporated into our own creativity, to yield an image where the reality of a tree confers its truth upon the events we cause to transpire beneath it” (1992[1960] 64). The actuality of the landscape thus confers actualité on events.

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