Provost's Film Series
March 20, 2003
A study of ethnic violence and religious hatred in the Balkans, Before the Rain (1994) was the first feature film by Milcho Manchevski, a young Macedonian director. The film consists of three interlocking stories, set alternately in London and Macedonia, and the film crew was international in scope, including actors and filmmakers from Britain, France, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Croatia, Bulgaria, South Africa and Macedonia, among other nations. Born in Macedonia, Manchevski studied film at Southern Illinois University and then moved to New York, where his early work consisted of documentaries, commercials, short films and music videos. Before the Rain follows the story of a photographer who returns to his native Macedonia after many years in Western Europe. Similarly, Manchevski began writing the story for the film shortly after he returned to Macedonia to visit his dying aunt following a six-year stint in the United States. "What I saw there," he observed, "were two things: a sense of heart-felt homecoming and impending doom. I am not sure that doom is the right word, because it was more a feeling of impending something promising and optimistic. . . . I decided the best way to describe this feeling was by calling it a before-the-rain feeling, like when you wait for the skies to open and bring down something hard, but also potentially something cleansing. Like rain."
Macedonia or Myth
The recipient of the Golden Lion Award for best film at the prestigious Venice Film Festival, Before the Rain won widespread critical praise internationally prior to its release in Macedonia. The film was acclaimed for its visual images of the Macedonian landscape and its portrait of political unrest. Formed only three years before the film's release, the Republic of Macedonia was also proud of the international repute of the young director and celebrated the film's nomination for an Academy Award as best foreign language picture. Ironically, though, Manchevski claimed that the film was "not about a particular country" and once considered setting the story in one of the breakaway republics of the Soviet Union. Macedonian critics also noted that the images and events of the film were not representative of Macedonian history and culture. Manchevski contended that the film was not to be seen as a "documentary analysis of the current political situation" but as a "fable" with a "heightened sense of reality," something "closer to a mythical land than to current day Macedonia." Some of the scenes, in fact, are composite images of various landscapes, brought together by the wonders of editing.
But it is also difficult to forget that this is a film set in the director's homeland. The Republic of Macedonia was formed in 1991 as one of the splinter nations emerging out of the dissolution of communist Yugoslavia. Macedonia is actually the longstanding name of a geographic region in the Balkans, and the new republic covers about half of that region. Ever since its founding, the nation has experienced tension with Greece, which has expressed fears that the new republic might lay claim to parts of the Macedonia region that currently lie within Greek borders. There has also been tension between the government and the Albanian minority, who are largely Muslim and desire greater autonomy. The opening sequence of the film was shot at an Orthodox monastery on Lake Ohrid, which divides Macedonia from Albania. This tableau sets the stage for the story's friction between Muslims, Orthodox Christians, and expatriates returning from Western Europe.
One of the poorest countries in Europe, Macedonia suffered for years from international sanctions against Yugoslavia, though it achieved its independence without bloodshed. Although the history of the young republic had been relatively free of violence when Manchevski made the film, the film portrays considerable ethnic violence and religious hatred. That provoked wide controversy in Macedonia at the time of the film's release. The director claims that his story was not intended to be an accurate historical portrait of reality in Macedonia, but an artistic "warning" about the potential for conflict. The film does invoke the general sense of the Balkan states—nations like Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, and Croatia—as an explosive, Byzantine, and troubled corner of Europe, though some commentators wondered if the film was relying on stereotypes. Shortly after the release of the film, however, an assassination attempt was made on the Macedonian president, weapons were seized by rebels from bordering nations, and violent demonstrations in the streets led to the loss of Macedonian lives. Manchevski's "warning" suddenly seemed relevant.
Structure and Image Making
Along with the visions of the landscape and the ethnic conflict, the film's most immediate impressions on its audiences have been its unconventional structure and its use of repeated images and motifs. Although told as three separate episodes, the film challenges viewers to make connections between each of the stories and the narrative is full of riddles. To provoke us to think about interconnections, Before the Rain relies on several prominent symbols, often used in ironic or ambiguous ways. The opening sequence of the film, entitled "Words," examines the story of a monk who has taken a vow of silence. The second sequence, "Faces," invites the audience to take a second look at some familiar faces. The circle and the rain are persistent and often rather overt symbols, which seem to gather new and complicating connotations as the story progresses.