American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
A kid in Macedonia wants to be a movie director, but there are no openings in the official film school in Belgrade. One day a professor from Southern Illinois University comes to lecture in his home town, and the kid gives the professor a pitch about how he wants to go to film school, and the professor says, "Fine, send me some of your work," and the kid mails his writings and some of his short films off to Carbondale, and they give him a scholarship.
So Milcho Manchevski arrives in Illinois, thinking he speaks English. "I had learned it in school, but they don't teach you all the words. For example, I didn't know what they meant by..." He mentions a noun. I agree that if you want to speak English it is essential to know that noun. "Steve James taught me that word," Manchevski says proudly. "He was a few years ahead of me."
Steve James went on to direct "Hoop Dreams," and Milcho Manchevski went on to direct "Before the Rain," and now it is 1995 and Manchevski's film has been nominated for an Academy Award in the best foreign film section. Let's not get started on the subject of "Hoop Dreams" and the Oscars.
"Before the Rain" is quite a film. The winner of the Golden Lion at the 1994 Venice Film Festival, it has been compared to Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction," Kieslowski's "Red" and Egoyan's "Exotica," and like those influential films it has a plot that winds back upon itself, so that, in the words of T. S. Eliot, "In my beginning is my end." It is not often that a single film, a first film, announces that a major director has arrived, but on the basis of "Before the Rain," Manchevski must be taken seriously.
His film's style is not directly influenced by Tarantino and the others; the screenplay was written in 1991. It's as if they all simultaneously grew tired of A-to-Z narrative, and decided to exploit the ability of film to circulate freely in time. The result makes the film seem more alive, more spontaneous.
The story takes place in Macedonia and London, and is told in Macedonian, Albanian and English, although not very much of any one of them (one of the characters is a monk who has taken the vow of silence). Manchevski, who was born in Macedonia, is resigned that not very many Americans know exactly what that country is.
All of it used to be Yugoslavia? I asked him during a recent visit to Chicago.
"It was Macedonia, which was part of Yugoslavia."
There's a disagreement, isn't there, about the use of the word "Macedonia?"
"Yes. The Greeks think they own the copyright."
But it's been called Macedonia for a long time.
"Well, the geographic region has been called Macedonia since Philip, in 5 B.C. He came up with it; he has the copyright."
He grinned. Manchevski is a youthful, 30ish man with an easy smile and easy English that now includes all the necessary nouns. After graduating from S.I.U., he tried to get several features off the ground, but found himself working instead on TV commercials, experimental films, and MTV music videos. (Proving that it's a small world, his video of "Tennessee" for Arrested Development won the MTV and Billboard awards for best rap video of 1992).
He called in some favors and commitments from his video and commercial contacts, he said, to put together the financing for "Before the Rain." And he somehow convinced the film insurance companies to underwrite a risky production in a potential war zone. ("The political risk companies gave us five different scenarios of how war could start as we're shooting there.")
Macedonia is just on the edge of the current bloody struggles between Serbs and Croats, and has its own long history of bloodshed between Christians and Moslems. It stands to one side of the current fighting, but the atmosphere there, Manchevski says, "is like waiting for something to happen and you're not quite sure what it's going to be. It could be tragic. It could be the end of something and by the same token, it could be cleansing and the beginning of something new; just as the rain washes you and now you're new."
The movie has three sections. In the first, the young Macedonian monk finds, hiding in his cell, an Albanian girl accused of a murder. In the second, Alexander, a famous photographer, born in Macedonia but now a world citizen and a Pulitzer winner, is reunited in London with the married woman he has long been involved with.
In the third, the photographer returns to Macedonia to discover his homeland tense and unhappy. He wants to visit the first woman he ever loved, but since he is Christian and she is Moslem, no one else on either side very much wants that to happen.
It would not be right, or wrong, to say the action in each section takes place after the one before. Manchevski plays a little trick of time on us, so that we cannot be sure. The point is to show the action moving in a circle. And in his story, people today hate each other because their parents and grandparents hated each other, and so time repeats itself, around and around.
"There are two moments in the film," Manchevski told me, "where the circle is sort of broken. Ann [the woman in London] sees some photographs. If the story were a perfect circle, those photographs couldn't be there. And there's a phone call that shouldn't be possible.
Those two things are bits of zen; bits of time paradox. Also, they could a sign that the circle is not round, and maybe in the next round it can open--perhaps with an act of self-sacrifice like what Alexander does."
So the message is in the structure of the film?
He shrugged. "Maybe what it takes, to break the circle, is for someone to say, 'Well, I don't agree with this endless bitterness. If I'm going to be paying you back for the fact that your grandfather killed my grandfather's sheep, it's going to go on forever.' "
The purpose of the London section is to show that regional wars are no longer content to stay in their regions. There is a virtuoso sequence in a restaurant, where as two important characters hold a conversation in the foreground, a seemingly unrelated discussion begins in the background, and then explodes unpredictably.
"What I'm saying is, at some point you won't be able to change the channel," Manchevski said. "These troubles don't stay in some far corner of the world. They come into your living room. As we were editing the film, it actually happened in London, when some local violence in Georgia spilled over into London, where the ambassador of ex-Soviet Georgia was killed. Some innocent bystanders were taken for the sisters-in-law of one of the guys involved there. All of a sudden you have a couple of English women who don't know where Soviet Georgia is, but who get killed as part of this."
I asked Manchevski if he had another project in the works.
"Nothing. Not a thing. I liked making this film. I liked the storytelling part of it; I liked the work. I liked getting sucked into it. At the same time, there's just a lot of crap in the movie business, spending so much time with people you don't like. If I had the balls to retire now, it would be brilliant."
Are you serious?
"If I had the balls and the money, I would do it. There are a lot of books I would like to read."
You don't feel that work is necessary.
"It's not so much the working or not working. It's having the choice of who you work with and how you do it."
What kind of stories do you want to tell? What kind of a filmmaker do you want to be?
"Stories about people that surprise you; that like take you on unexpected turns. A journey where what when the first part ends and the second part begins, you ask, 'Where the hell; are we? Where is this?' Stories that play with your mind a little bit."
They must be proud of you in Macedonia.
He nodded happily. "It's a country where, even in volleyball, the national team cannot be called the Macedonian National Team. Suddenly a Macedonian film does well. People respond to that. The theatres were almost dead because of pirate video and TV, so this was the first time there was a hit movie in about, like, 12 years."
I heard it outgrossed "The Fugitive" in Macedonia."
He smiled. "Yes, although I'm sure 'The Fugitive' will outgross it in the United States."
At the ripe age of 89, Oscar can still be a notoriously picky fellow when it comes to what constitutes a contender fo...