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Haunted by the Same Spirits: An Interview with Writer-Director Milcho Manchevski

Writer-director Milcho Manchevski. All photos courtesy of Bavaria Film.
by Dan Lybarger

While writer-director Milcho Manchevski’s latest movie Shadows is the first time he’s dealt overtly with the supernatural, almost all of his projects could be called ghost stories in one way or another.

His movies, music videos and commercials often have warped senses of time, often eschewing chronological narrative, and feature characters tormented by their pasts. In addition, death is often a recurrent theme.

Manchevski’s unusual upbringing has certainly contributed to how he approaches his work. He was born in Skopje, Macedonia in 1959, back when the now independent republic was part of Yugoslavia.

His homeland has a vivid and occasionally violent history. The region was the home to Alexander the Great and was a destination for the Apostle Paul, who dreamed that people from Macedonia had called him for help. It has been claimed as part of both Greece and the Ottoman Empire and suffered from the fallout of the Balkan wars in the 1990s and early 2000s.

While all of Manchevski’s three feature films (Before the Rain, Dust and Shadows) have been shot and set in his native country, he has studied, lived and worked in the United States for decades. Over the telephone, his Macedonian accent is barely perceptible. He’s a 1982 graduate of the Department of Cinema and Photography at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill.

Currently residing in New York, he can talk about a Croatian song he likes at one minute and then discuss his affection for the animated teenage rebels Beavis and Butt-Head. “I just like that they’re continuing this great line of anarchists. I just like how they so easily deconstruct the hypocrisy we’re surrounded with,” he says.

Thanks to his varied background, Manchevski has received a wide assortment of accolades, some from surprising places. In 1992, he won a Best Video award at the MTV Video Awards for his promotional clip of the rap group Arrested Development’s song “Tennessee,” which wound up being one of dozens of commercials, short films and music videos he has shot. He’s even helmed an episode of the critically acclaimed HBO series The Wire.

His first feature movie Before the Rain (1994) received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. The movie dealt with a married London journalist (Katrin Cartlidge) and her affair with a world weary Macedonian journalist (Rade Serbedzija, a Croatian actor of Serbian descent, who has since had a prolific career in European and Hollywood films). The film also dealt with mob violence both in Macedonia and abroad and earned the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and the Best Foreign Film at the Independent Spirit Awards.

Manchevski’s 2001 follow-up Dust starred David Wenham and Joseph Fiennes in a pair of stories set a century apart. The first concerns a pair of brothers feuding over a woman at the end of the 19th century as Turks battle to keep control of the area. The latter concerns an old woman recalling her story to a young man who has just tried to steal from her apartment in New York.

His latest movie Shadows again deals with Macedonia ’s past but in a much more elliptical way. It features first-time actor Borce Nacev as Dr. Lazar Perkov, a frustrated young physician whose life
changes radically after he survives a horrific car wreck. He starts seeing an old woman who speaks a dialect he can’t understand, demanding that he return something that isn’t his.

He gets some help from a mysterious young woman (moonlighting harpist Vesna Stanojevska), but Lazar’s attempts to solve the mystery end up putting him at odds with his family, especially his domineering mother (Sabina Ajurla-Tozija). It also touches on some of Macedonia’s more unfortunate incidents, including the expulsion of Aegean Macedonians in the 20th century.

Shadows played at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2007 and was Macedonia’s entry for Best Foreign Language film. As the movie was preparing to open in his current hometown at the end of July, Manchevski described the challenges he has faced in making films on both sides of the Atlantic and how people all over the world wind up suffering from the same problems.


Dan Lybarger: The Skopje (Macedonia ’s capital and largest city) you depict in the film is a lot like New York . People who live there want to get out of town during the summer because it's too hot. I thought, wow, we're thousands of miles away, and yet we have the same phenomenon.

Milcho Manchevski: First, I believe people are the same everywhere in the world. I particularly feel like I want to talk about that because I've lived a lot of places in the world, but especially New York and Macedonia. I see that there are prejudices both places and everywhere in the world. It’s unfortunately part of the human condition in it’s something I want to address in my films, and I wanted to show that here, even though I am more concerned with feelings and abstract concepts than with messages.

Secondly, cities in particular are more similar to each other, regardless of where they are in the world than they would be to their own countrysides.

DL: In both this film and Before the Rain, you deal with the “Butterfly Effect,” which means that one person's actions can have consequences all over that may not be instantly obvious.

Manchevski: That's an idea that I subscribe to sort of intuitively. I haven’t studied the concept rationally so much, but I like it in other works—by Murakami or Kieslowski, for example. There's more of that in Dust.

I think we’re all interconnected, and events develop in strange ways. And this is only talking about the material world; when thoughts and feelings enter, it gets more complex and more interesting and more fun. Sometimes things circle and repeat themselves. That is one method I used in Shadows. There are a lot of echoes and mirroring both in the images and in the story. Sort of like in Ravel’s Bolero, where motifs are repeated, and they keep growing. In that sense the film is sort of old-fashioned, slow-moving and even meandering—but for an effect.

DL: You brought up the reflections. That's an interesting visual touch in the movie because part of the audience’s and Lazar’s difficulty in telling what's physical and what's ghostly.

Manchevski: I like illusions. I like playfulness in art. I think if you’re not playing, you’re not making art. You start out by playing, and then you’ve got to do a lot of homework, a lot of hard and sometimes unpleasant work to deliver the piece. But it has to be playful. Playing with optical illusions and playing with illusions in time, as in Before the Rain or Dust or in my photographs or my fiction is something that’s very inviting when creating a piece of film for me.

Then in addition, of course, it’s precisely what you’re describing: What is real, and what is not? This is sort of a visual representation of what is going on in Lazar’s head at this moment because he’s never quite sure where reality ends and where imagination or the ghosts begin.

So the reflections and shooting through glass and shooting off of a mirror and shooting through a cabinet glass door, shooting
through water are some of the ways of achieving that. Back to your first question, it gives you more of that urban feel because there’s so much surface that reflects in the city, much more than in the countryside. The way I ended up with the reflections was when I started working on creating an urban look, more than while searching for a fixed metaphor.

DL: I own Tati’s Play Time, and one of the challenges they had with that movie was creating all the gags that Tati wanted to make with reflections in glass. Was your film difficult to shoot because of that?

Manchevski: If you’re ambitious, and if you’re careful with your frames, every frame requires a lot of work. And a lot of it is homework. As a straight-A student I believe in doing your homework. If you prepare way before you show up on the set, the shoot ends up being easier. We planned the shots, but in addition, we had all kinds of mirrors and reflecting surfaces handy. There was a “mirror guy” who was standing next to the camera with these art direction elements.

So, as we would start framing, he would try one thing. If that does not work, he would try something else; sometimes the reflecting surfaces would be moving within the frame. It was fun. The only thing that was sort of out of the ordinary was that we had this “mirror guy.”

DL: Because obviously, you’re not doing a Hollywood-style ghost story.

Manchevski: Well, I have a beef with Hollywood. I can’t stand boring films, and so many of the films they produce are plain out boring. And I can’t stand self-important suits who think they know better only because they ended up in a position to make decisions. Let’s forget the art side of filmmaking for a moment. If you take a look at the best-selling films of all time, you’d notice that most of them were made by filmmakers and not by suits, those films were more-or-less the filmmakers’ complete creations, which only goes to show that you can have creative freedom and commercial product.

But, more importantly, when you create art that touches the viewer, or that tells him something important about the human condition, you are performing an important social—and more importantly—humanist function. Not everything is about money. Part of the problem is the way the American film system treats intellectual/artistic property, for lack of a better word. Within the American entertainment system, what the artist creates, what he or she does is something that you buy and sell and blend and chop like a pound of bananas. You can buy the rights to do whatever you want with the tissue of the work of art, change it, rewrite it, cut it and re-shoot it, the way I think a serious work should not be treated.

In Hollywood there is a significant lack of respect for the soul of the piece. A serious work of art is like a person, you cannot sell it. Even though Europe has its own problems in how art is treated, at least there is basic respect for the process and for the artistic and intellectual pertinence. It gives you room to create something really good. Of course, on the other hand, in the extreme cases, that provides room for people creating self-indulgent work.

DL: There’s an irony to Shadows in that Lazar’s nickname is “Lucky,” but he’s an utterly miserable person.

Manchevski: (laughs) At first, it was just a coincidence because short for Lazar would be “Lucky,” a nickname that does not mean “lucky” in Macedonian. It’s just a nickname.

I also liked the irony. On the surface, he’s supposed to be happy and lucky, everything is in place. It’s that kind of petit bourgeois “happiness” and “rightness” that sort of eats your soul. You’re happy in a way that other people expect happiness should be like, not what makes you happy.

He’s a difficult character, and it was a difficult character for Borce to portray because there was so much confusion and uncertainty and discontent and a journey in Lazar, along with all the easier things to play like fear and infatuation. (Lazar) was trapped in that bourgeois dream, and could not see himself.

DL: It’s emblematic in the sex scenes. The sex itself didn’t shock me, but when he stumbles across a pair of young lovers, the girl doesn’t scream or tell him to get away. She kind of grins at him and seems to be saying, “Wouldn’t you like to be doing this, too?”

Manchevski: It’s that kind of behavior that I’m interested in. We expect her to react the way you were taught how to react. However, we are rich, complicated beings, there are impulses in us that we’re suppressing, there are impulses and even rational thoughts that surprise our cliché-driven consciousness. She’s taunting him, she’s playful with him, she’s provoking him, she’s an exhibitionist, she’s cruel…you name it. Slivers of all of these things could be a part of her or part of us, but we often suppress them, partly by turning things into taboos. Dealing with sex and with death, which are the central themes in any social taboo, is a way of confronting taboos, of trying to understand yourself better and to liberate yourself.

DL: You also notice this in the attitude toward Lazar’s family, with the exception of Lazar’s son Aron, they’re all kind of push and maybe even sleazy. For example, his wife, during the scenes where you show her on the other end of his cell phone calls, she’s holding hands with another guy and couldn’t care less about Lazar.

Manchevski: It’s all really a selfish, selfish world. It happens to be affluent, but it doesn’t have to be. Selfishness helps you become affluent. This is something one sees in Macedonian society today, a society in transition. But it’s not limited to Macedonia at all. Look what’s happening here. Greed devours everything in its way.

I saw a lot of hungry people, not hungry because they didn’t eat, but hungry because they just want to keep devouring, and they want to keep filling up this black hole in themselves. Consumers of everything around themselves. That’s why I thought of that line from one of my favorite rock lyricists, Branimir Johnny Stulic, this guy from Zagreb. “And around us, all these hungry people” (from the song, “Into the Night.”).

Lazar is surrounded by hungry, petit bourgeois monsters. Funny enough, it is only the ghosts who show affection. They know how to respect affection. They know how to respect the other.

DL: While Macedonia itself is not the primary focus of the film, knowing a few things about Macedonia makes watching the film a richer experience.

Manchevski: Sure. Originally, I didn’t even think of setting it in Macedonia. The first time I thought of this story, I was looking at the Manhattan skyline with a friend of mine from the Brooklyn Promenade, and we thought, wouldn’t it be fun to set a ghost story in an ultra urban environment like this: Ghosts in Manhattan. Yet, this is not a ghost story alone, it’s about other things.

Eventually the story somehow migrated to Skopje because of what we were talking about earlier: all the big cities look alike, and people are the same everywhere in the world, they love and hate and suffer in similar ways. But once we set it in Macedonia, it was only fair to make it an accurate reflection of the place. Yet, as with all my films—it is a film from Macedonia, not a film about Macedonia. It is a film about people.

I ended up doing some extra research because I don’t live there full-time. For example, I needed to learn how bribes are given (to doctors for preferential treatment). What is the form? How do you give a bribe? I learned that you put the money in an envelope, you put the envelope in a box of chocolates, and then you give the chocolates to the doctor.

Macedonia today is, as the phrase everybody uses goes, a “country in transition.” And it sure is. It’s trying to change in several ways. Trying to move from being part of a larger system, part of Yugoslavia, to being part of the world as a small, independent market driven country—and it’s hard. People have been driven by the family and by tradition and by a small town mentality for so long,
and now the whole wide world out there is opening up with globalization and money and insecurity and greed and opportunity.

On top of that, there was war just across the border, then NATO bombing over the border, and 300,000 refugees, a threat of war for the last 15 years, and even war in Macedonia itself for a while in 2001. There’s a serious conflict with Greece that is infuriating and insulting, but also sort of keeping people in the past, thinking and talking about history, rather than talking about how to better their lives.

The country is ultra, ultra politicized. Everybody is political. Everybody talks about politics. People get jobs through politics. People take sides all the time. Imagine what’s going on in the primaries here (in the U.S.) and multiply it by 1,000.

DL: You deal with the issue of human remains from conflicts. A lot of Native Americans have been outraged that remains from their ancestors have been unearthed accidentally whenever our government has made dams.

Manchevski: Exactly. That is something I was thinking about, specifically at the time I was thinking of doing the film in the States. That was the setting I was dealing with.

DL: No kidding.

Manchevski: The Native Americans’ story was the equivalent. I grew up with their story and also did a lot of research for Dust and for an earlier project, mainly out of interest. I was thinking of setting that portion of the film in the (American) Southwest. See, it’s just another parallel of how people and their issues are often the same everywhere in the world.

DL: As a resident of Kansas, I had never heard about the expulsion of the Aegean Macedonians. I wonder how much a person of Lazar’s generation would know about them.

Manchevski: He wouldn’t know that much. He wouldn’t care to know that much. Really what happened was that Macedonia was never an independent country until just about 18 years ago. Just before World War I, it was split up between three countries—Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece, and the Macedonians who ended up in expanded Greece were ethnically cleansed in two waves: after World War I, and right after World War II.

The people we’re talking about in Shadows came from Aegean Macedonia, which would have been a part of Greece. These were people who would have left their homes in 1948, running for their lives, settled in a small village somewhere in Macedonia and died by the early 70s. Theirs are the bones that (Lazar’s) mother excavated.

So, would he have known about it? No, not that much. Part of that history would have been suppressed, even in Macedonia, all this time.

But there are a lot of children of these refugees who now liven in Macedonia, numbering in the thousands. So that’s the way he might know about them.

DL: When I’ve interviewed a lot of international filmmakers, they’ve dealt with subjects that are unknown to the general public in their own homelands.

Manchevski: Film is a great way to make something like that better known, but I don’t think that is its primary reason for being. This particular issue (of the Aegean Macedonians) is not an issue that’s unknown, but it’s an issue that has been underreported. And it’s a major issue of contention between Macedonia and Greece. It involves brutal ethnic cleansing from the Greek state and further argument over the use of our name (Macedonia).

None of this is essential to understand or like the film. You see it through the eyes of someone who is not familiar to the back story. The film should work or not work on a basic human level, not a treatise on history or politics. If you need to read up on things to understand a film, I think the filmmaker’s in trouble.

The essential relationships, the essential feelings of the story need to move regardless of whether you know the back story. And then if the film works as such, and you’re compelled to go back and learn a little more, good. But that should not be a prerequisite to enjoying the film.

DL: I had read about the dispute over the name “Macedonia.”

Manchevski: On the surface, it’s about the name, but the essence of it is about real estate: who has the right to that slice of Macedonia that’s within Greece and about what happened to those people who were kicked out of there. Of course, no one in their right mind would advocate changing the borders, but it seems that the Greek state is nervous about a skeleton in its closet. The issue with the name is a non-issue, but the Greek state uses it as an excuse to apply pressure on this miniscule state (Macedonia), and to cover up for its land-grab and atrocities by shifting the subject of the debate.

From a Macedonian point of view it has to do with pride. What’s in a name? You’d say, “Big deal. It’s just a word. We live in the 21st century.” But it’s about the emotional investment. What does your name mean to you? How do you treat it? A lot of people there feel really, really offended when someone from outside comes and tells you what you can call yourself. The nerve! It’s as if you came up to me and said, “From now on, I’ll tell you what you can call yourself. From now on, you’re Michael, or Igor (laughs).”

Of course, it wouldn’t matter much if the hypocritical EU politics did not turn a blind eye to this rape, as Greece blocked Macedonia’s entry into NATO, exercised a blockade of the country for years, etc.

DL: Your breakout project was the music video for “Tennessee” by the rap band Arrested Development.

Manchevski: They sent (the song) around to a lot of people, to a lot of directors. It was their first video, and it was a really low budget. And most people turned it down. But my girlfriend at the time, she just loved their music so much. She kept saying, you must get this video. I loved it, too.

As I started taking to (Arrested Development), I realized there was the possibility to do something really good, and not just a bunch of guys rapping in front of a brick wall. It was very organic. It was very heartfelt, not just in the music but also in how they wanted to be seen. And we really clicked with (rapper) Speech and the band.

I don’t know if you remember, at the time hip-hop was so urban. And this was the first time that it wasn’t urban. The video took place out in the sticks. And we weren’t embarrassed of that. We liked the rural, communal feel.

(Starting to giggle) It was this very white boy from Macedonia working with a hip-hop band in Atlanta. But we just found a way.

Like I was telling you, people are the same everywhere in the world. Poverty is color-blind. I thought of black-and-white photography, the Depression era and Diane Arbus, and I thought it would be the best way to capture this sense of community.

We shot in black-and-white. Usually you shoot in color, and then you print in black-and-white. But in this one, we went and shot in black-and-white to make sure the (record) label doesn’t change their mind, and make us print the video in color.

It was a good experience. We worked really hard, a lot of homework, we went through Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank and Arbus, and sniffed around Atlanta, found a location with a real dirt floor. We spent almost a week working on the video in Atlanta, shot some of it on a wind-up Bolex.

The video has an organic feel to it. It’s about a community, and you can sense the affection between the people there. This piece was radiating with such good will. It’s funny how you can translate that onto the screen and back to the viewer. It worked. I had a Polish DP who used to live in New York at the time.

DL: With your previous two features you worked with established actors like Rade Serbedzija, Katrin Cartlidge and Joseph Fiennes. With your two leads here, it must have seemed like a risk because your star is still in drama school, and your leading lady is a harpist.

Manchevski: It’s a risk, but why do something safe? If you want to do safe things, you might as well work for a bank (laughs). Well, not anymore, but you know what I mean. Art without risk is useless for me. It is about what feels right, not what feels safe.

I was looking for the right people for the parts: That simple. I was trying to disregard risks and preconceptions about who is good and who is not. So I was looking for people who had the appropriate kind of energy. And they both do, Borce and Vesna.

She is sweet, but there’s also something a little strange about her maybe. Some unspoken sadness, but also weirdness, she can taunt you on top of being sweet. He radiates this confusion that could easily turn into paranoia. And the rest is how good they are at their craft. And even though they’re both just beginning, they certainly have potential.

It was a matter of doing a lot of work with Borce and Vesna, they are new to this. It made the shoot slower, and we needed extra rehearsal time. But I think it was definitely worth it.

I’m glad if I’m going to be discovering people who are going to do well. The only difference in this film is that there was no bigger name actor to go with them, as I’ve done in the past. But I never look at actors as names and how recognizable they are. It’s are they right for the part or not.

DL: In an essay you had on your web site (, you described your fondness for John Carpenter’s Halloween and how the film despite inspiring the slasher genre doesn’t feature an ounce of gore.

Manchevski: Absolutely. There’s not a drop of blood in that film. As you said, it started all the gore films in the late 70s, early 80s. But with Halloween itself, the whole thing was the threat (of violence), the craft - because it’s beautifully crafted: the pacing, the editing decisions...the music perhaps feels a little dated today, but so what.

There’s this big threat coming after you. There’s your superego coming after you! The way Carpenter handles the frame—the Bogeyman (Michael Myers) would enter the frame or rise in the frame, rather than the editor cutting to a shot of him. The victims would sometimes swing into frame. It’s beautifully crafted. He’s my Hitchcock.

I remember seeing it in film school. They didn’t actually show it in class. It played in the student theater where I was working at the time in Illinois. I was selling tickets, and then I saw the film. The audience, they were terrified. They were screaming. They were basically hanging from the ceiling. So then I stayed for the second screening just to see what it was that made it so effective. The same thing happened again. People were responding in the same places. I was really impressed by how visceral the film could be, how it works on people. It’s one of my favorite films.

DL: While a lot of the slasher movies that followed desensitized viewers to violence, at the same time, I’ve noticed how movies like David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises can actually re-sensitize a viewer to it.

Manchevski: I think films that make you face the fact that violence is very unpleasant, to say the least, do a service to society. It’s much better to have those kinds of films than those where it’s so easy to get rid of your enemy, you just shoot them, and they fall by the dozen.

Violence is ugly, and it hurts in real life. Nobody dies on the spot unless you’re shot in the brain or in the heart. It takes a while. It can take 20 seconds, 20 minutes. It can take a couple of days. What do you think about at that point? Are you laughing? Is it bizarre? Are you sure you will die? Are you happy? Or is it none of the above?

With film violence it’s not about what you show. It’s how you get there. I’ve been asked by people about the restaurant scene in Before the Rain. At one press conference, somebody said, “It’s violent for so long.” I said, “Actually, less than 25 seconds, and nobody gets shot on camera, except for a waiter who gets a bullet in the butt, but that’s a bit of a joke.“

There’s a long buildup, the husband and wife splitting up, basically a melodrama. There’s also hard-to-fathom violence in the background, a threatening guy who disappears and comes back. And then you see this eruption in something that’s a perfectly normal middle class environment, where you wouldn’t expect it.

That’s what makes you feel like it’s very violent. It’s in your head. And in the craft of good filmmaking: big violence. That’s what makes you feel like you’ve been violated. It’s not what happens on the screen.

DL: You’ve been teaching film at New York University ’s Tisch School . How has doing that affected your work as a filmmaker?

Manchevski: In many ways. On one hand, it’s fantastic to be exposed to a bunch of very, very talented young people with great ideas and to be sort of at the source of what is going to be great films and great filmmakers years from now. You see how their minds work, and it also teaches you that it’s not the budget. Often, it’s not the size that matters. It’s just a simple idea and how you can say it in less words and less shots and how you can be innovative in a simple way. Even when their ideas or their technique need help, it keeps you awake. So, it’s fantastic.

On the other hand is the institution of the University, you have to be there a certain chunk of the time. Sometimes that would be the time you would be shooting or that you would need to do the research. So you have to do a lot of juggling to make those two fit together.

DL: I recently saw your commercial, “Macedonia: Timeless,” where you see the book opening into a landscape. It was a combination of a fairy tale and a couple of other things in just about 60 seconds.

Manchevski: That was the idea—an invitation to take a fantastic, almost psychedelic journey to a faraway land. Macedonia doesn’t have fantastic beaches or a tropical climate, but what we have is a lot of history that’s being packed on top of itself on a little piece of land. The Republic of Macedonia is the size of Vermont. And I thought, “Would I be interested in going to the land of Atlantis, to Kipling’s Kafiristan, to the land of the Aztecs or to Tibet?” Maybe that is how we can invite people and entice them to come over, as Macedonia is a land of many rich civilizations. So basically, we went in and looked at what moments from the past would fire up the imagination.

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originally posted: 04/10/09 12:26:21
last updated: 04/10/09 12:32:13
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