for this week’s ‘Tribune’: Skopje (Cinedays) film-festival report

“SKOPJE is not a film,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre, “not a thriller where we guess the chief event. It is a concentration of man’s struggle for freedom, with a result which inspires further struggles and no acceptance of defeat.” His words were inspired by the earthquake which devastated Skopje, the capital of Macedonia – at the time Yugoslavia’s most southerly republic, and now an independent nation for nearly 20 years – early one Sunday morning in July 1963.

After a minute-long temblor, 80% of the city was a dust-choked ruin. The relief effort galvanised the world’s attention, leading to a rebuilding programme that showcased best and worst of 1960s architecture. But since then this small, landlocked country’s international profile has been decidedly low – it’s perhaps best known these days for its long-running squabbles with Greece, who for historical/territorial reasons have insisted that it be referred to by the cumbersome mouthful ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ (FYROM for short.)

The names of world-famous Macedonians, dead or alive, aren’t on the tips of many tongues, either. Mother Teresa was born slap-bang in the middle of Skopje – on a spot now market by a garishly religiose fondant-fancy of a memorial centre. But back then Skopje was part of the Ottoman Empire, and the late Ms Bojaxhiu is generally classified as Albanian, an ethnicity which makes up between 20% and 30% of the city and the state’s populations (it depends who’s counting.)

Going back somewhat further, 4th-century-BC conqueror-king Alexander III (“the Great”) is usually labelled Macedonian, though Macedonia at that time was a much bigger entity, most of which is now part of Greece. Alexander’s nationality has been a significant bone of contention between the southern Balkan countries – the squabble ratcheting up a notch after a colossal (and colossaly unsubtle) 22m-high statue went up in Skopje’s main square earlier this year.

Officially a nameless ‘Warrior on a Horse’, Valentine Stevkovska’s bronze-gold chap is understood to be a representation of the chap known across the ex-Yugoslavia as Alexander Makedonski – and thus a kind of two-fingered gesture from Macedonia’s ruling right-wing nationalists to their Athens-based counterparts (who are rather preoccupied with more pressingly urgent economic matters just now.)

The quasi-Alexander is the biggest element of the government’s grandiose ‘Skopje 2014’ project which involves further statues to key figures in Macedonian history, a triumphal arch (nodding to the ancient city’s Roman past?), plus vast neo-classical new official buildings on the banks of the rather dinky Vardar river. The bombastic scale and allegro clip of the construction has attracted considerable adverse comment among a population which has long been widely liked for its down-to-earth amiability.

And one needs only spend an hour in Skopje to wonder if some of the estimated €200 million budget of Skopje 2014 (in a country where unemployment runs well above 30%) might have been a little more prudently allocated. A humane programme to deal with the city’s ubiquitous stray dogs and cats, for example. And/or something approaching efficient rubbish-collection. And/or a bit of cash to stop the stupendously weird main post office – a circular, insectoid 1982 edifice by local maverick Janko Konstantinov, which resembles a long-abandoned Blake’s 7 set – crumbling into unkempt decay.

Sadly, as is generally the case with right-wing governments, culture – including a respect for unorthodox architecture – isn’t high on the Macedonian list of budgetary priorities. And the Cinedays film-festival of European film, which held its 10th edition from 10th to 20th November, operates on the proverbial shoestring out of the city’s Youth Cultural Centre.

The programme is a survey of the continent’s current and recent movie output – the 12-strong Official Selection included a picture which competed at Venice just a couple of months ago (Steve McQueen’s Shame) and one which contended at the same festival in 2009: Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes. I was on the three-man jury which awarded Lourdes the top prize at Cinedays, the Golden Star (it also took Best Screenplay, and Best Actress for Sylvie Testud), though my personal preference was for Václav Kadrnka’s autobiographical Eighty Letters from the Czech Republic, which landed Best Director and Best Actor for teenage newcomer Martin Pavlus.

In a film with very little dialogue, much emphasis is placed on Pavlus’s facial expressions – while not deploying subjective camerawork, Kadrnka effectively tells the story through his character’s eyes as he accompanies his mother on a round of bureacracy in a Czechoslovak city one chilly day in spring 1987. The purpose of the mother’s doggedly patient, persistent activity is only gradually revealed in a picture made with intense formal control – every shot and take feels calibrated to the millimetre and to the split-second – and which at 74 minutes has the kind of compressed economy more often found in shorts. The 31-year-old Kadrnka, who lived in Britain between 1988 and 1992, is firmly a name to watch – though a somewhat tricky one for non-Czechs to pronounce.

Outside of competition, Cinedays provided Macedonian premieres for two of 2011’s most outstanding new films – both of them Cannes prize-winners which had their UK premieres at November’s London Film Festival. Andrei Zvyagintsev’s absorbingly intense Russian drama of family, love and money, Elena has already been glowingly mentioned in these pages (in our coverage of Serbia’s mid-summer Palić Film Festival) – though at the time of writing it has (scandalously) yet to secure UK distribution.

Also currently distributor-less but eminently deserving of maximum arthouse exposure is Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, the latest from the writer-director generally regarded as the leading-light in the burgeoningly rich Turkish cinema scene, Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Ceylan has won major awards at Cannes for Distant (2002), Climates (2006), Three Monkeys (2008) but never the Palme d’Or, and this year had to again content himself with the runner-up ‘Grand Jury Prize’ for his epic, 157-minute take on the ‘police procedural’ sub-genre.

The first half of the film, in which various cops drive around rural hinterlands at night in search of a recently-buried murder-victim’s corpse, is a masterclass in pacing and cinematography – Gökhan Tiryaki’s contributions on the latter front rank among the art’s greatest achievements in recent memory, each scene lit only by car-headlights as dawn very gradually lightens the sky. The film’s latter stretches, set in daylight in a nearby city, can’t quite match the spellbinding magic of what’s gone before – but even so Ceylan’s overall achievement and control over his chosen medium is so striking that it seems rough justice that he was pipped to the Palme d’Or by Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. Given his remarkable Croisette record to date, however, Ceylan’s eventual landing of art-cinema’s top prize is surely a case of “when” rather than “if.” Further struggles, indeed, and no acceptance of defeat.

Neil Young
22nd November, 2011
written for Tribune magazine