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

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Macedonian visions.
Manchevski creates an image of Macedonia: he does not recreate Macedonia. Much of the film is shot in sites that are spread across the Republic and constitute the historical legacy of Macedonia—a legacy that most of its inhabitants recognize. But although there can be no forgetting that those sites exist, a Macedonian audience is also aware that they are taken out of their context and relocated in close proximity to one another. This is not to suggest that people continuously monitor what they are watching and compare it with some pristine “reality. ” But only an audience without experience or knowledge of the Macedonian landscape could read the film as documentation of an existing locality.

Similarly, Macedonian audiences in 1994, at least, when the film opened, knew that armed bands of this kind were not operating in their own country. They knew, as did the Western viewers, that violence had occurred in Bosnia—but they were also aware that by that time, Bosnia and Macedonia were no longer part of the same country, and that internal conditions in the two were very different. They were aware that they were watching a potential future, rather than an account of what was happening. Thus, when asked about Macedonian reactions in an interview in February 1995, Manchevski was able to give the following answer;

I was concerned that people would be upset with me .... . Some people said, 'We don't all live in run-down villages, we also drive Mercedes cars. Why didn't you show that?' But most of them read the film just as I wanted them to, which is as a warning.

(Woodward 1995, in The Village Voice)

Macedonian reviewers and audiences could not straightforwardly connect Manchevski’s images to their own experiences. For the place depicted, although comprised of locations that were recognizable, was not as a whole familiar to them. As a consequence of this, the frames within which they read the film as Macedonian were thus strikingly different from those of their counterparts outside the Republic. Instead of viewing as Macedonian the object of the camera’s gaze and the photojournalist’s encounter, they focus instead on the character who undertakes a journey to a war, and becomes enmeshed in the quarrels of those he once lived among.

Aleks, the photo-journalist, is a cipher for the director and author himself—in some sense Manchevski is documenting his own return to Macedonia from New York in 1991. The character is played by a famous actor from the Yugoslav period, Rade Sherbedzija. According to a variety of sources, his was one of the best-known faces in Yugoslavia, from stage and screen. The double impact of seeing such an actor lends additional textures to a Macedonian audience’s reception, which are unnoted by foreign reviewers. In the final part of the film there is a short scene in which Aleks wakes up from a bad dream in the house he has inherited from his parents, and looks for a cigarette. The Los Angeles Times reviewer reduced the scene to a heavy-handed director’s point, that by smoking, Alex is returning to his “Balkan” roots. In so doing, she takes smoking to be a sign of Balkan identity. A few months earlier, though, an essayist in a Skopje weekly, Mirko Kostovik, reacted differently to this same scene.

Sherbedzija opens a suitcase. In it is an issue of “Nova Makedonija” [the daily Macedonian newspaper] from the past, and one unsmoked cigarette. On the cover page Josip Broz Tito, and in the cigarette opium of past happy days. Rade smokes the cigarette in the role of Aleksander, Tito is still proud and happy in that picture, and in the darkness of the night the music of the Sarajevo band “Indexi” and Pimperkov’s voice with the song “Sonuvam” [I’m dreaming].

(Kostovik 1994)

Kostovik here indicates how much is going on in this depiction of one of the most personal rituals of all. For what Manchevski presents here is a multi-layered evocation of the past, and simultaneously an image of what has come to be an increasingly familiar refrain from artists from the former Yugoslavia—a kind of “Yugo-nostalgia. ” The scene with the opened suitcase, is a return not to Balkan roots, but to a very different mode of life, in which Sarajevo stood as a symbol of co-operation between today’s divided ethnic groups. and the soft music from the Yugoslav period, tells the story of the actor as well as the character. Sherbedzija still considers himself “Serbo-Croatian;” he, as well as Aleksander within the film, has found himself without a place he can call home.

The grounds for such an interpretation are further strengthened by the nature of the music in this scene. Although it is extra-diegetic, the beginning of the song is preceded and accompanied by the rhythmic scratching that would be heard on an old gramophone recording. The foregrounding of the obsolescence of the reproductive medium complements the nostalgia encoded in the music itself—by a band from a country and a city whose meanings have radically changed.vii

This emphasis by a “native” interpreter, on the complex relationship between Macedonia and the federal country of which it was once a part, is one that one would not expect from a western audience for whom Yugoslavia, Tito, Sarajevo, Macedonia, and the actor Rade Sherbedzija are not related in the way that they are for any Macedonian in their late twenties or older.viii In this vision, Macedonia is not straightforwardly categorized as a site of the same violence that has overtaken the country of which it was once a part. Instead, it could be argued that Macedonia is located in the person of Rade the actor, Aleks the character, and the engaged audience, confronting a scenario where bitter confrontation has replaced former coexistence.

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