THE GOLDEN FIVE

THE GOLDEN FIVE

‘Ideas that eat up our life and burn us to the flesh!’

So says the old man Alavantia, the narrator of the highly acclaimed film The Golden Five (2016) which won awards at New Jersey and Cardiff and numerous other festivals, and is an impressively nuanced study of betrayal and forgiveness: meaning it is an eye opener in more ways than one. It is about lethal gangster-style oppression by the state in the former Communist Yugoslavia of the early 1950s, something that it is easy to believe was the exclusive preserve of Stalin and his cronies, who of course practised it on an industrial scale in the former USSR. The Yugoslav leader Josip Tito (1892-1980) at various times stood up bravely to the demands of the Soviets, as well as ultimately breaking off relations with the Stalinist Albania of Enver Hoxha, so that he might be myopically regarded as some kind of notional liberal. Authoritarian or not, certainly his greatest achievement was to weld the various small republics of Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia etc into a functioning and unified whole, and to hold together this labile entity which accommodated Muslims and Orthodox and Catholic Christians in a nominally atheist state. He did that so well that Yugoslavia managed to hang together for a good 47 years, until it began to implode in 1992, with the beginning of the Bosnian War.

The Golden Five was directed by Goran Trenchovski (born 1970) who is a former Macedonian TV producer and dramatist, and the author of several incisive works of film and theatre studies. He is also for the record the brains behind the annual short film festival Asterfest which takes place in his native town of Strumica in North Macedonia.  His film is set in Strumica in 1951 when it was in the Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and the communists had been in power for little more than 5 years. Scripted from a controversial novel by Bratislav Tashkovski, it is based on real, appalling, and barely credible events. In a nutshell a group of 5 boy students from Strumica, studying variously in Zagreb, Belgrade and the Macedonian capital Skopje, are engaged in low level dissidence which at times seems comically innocent. As well as an antique copy of the Bible, they also read smuggled translations of Theodore Dreiser’s American Tragedy which is soon to appear as a film starring Elizabeth Taylor and with whom one of the boys is romantically besotted. The town’s cinema ‘The Balkan’ is about to show the movie and tickets are at a premium. Meanwhile the local security police who parade around in trilby hats looking ironically like Mafia gangsters, monitor everything going on amongst these bumptious and educated types. They keep turning up in jeeps and strutting threateningly past these insolent kids who like to dance to bourgeois American pop music. The sinister head policeman Lamarinic is played to perfection by one of the Balkans’ best-known actors, the Emir Kusturica veteran Slavko Stimac (born 1960). Like Tito, Lamarinic was a partisan during the War, fighting the legendarily cruel Croatian Ustashe Fascists whose atrocities disgusted even the German Gestapo. Coming from a hard school, perhaps explains why he believes so fervently in the will of the people and the infallibility of his beloved socialist republic. His henchwoman and chief interrogator is called Zagarieva or Zago and is played by Biljana Tanevska, who you might recognise from the 2014 Children of the Sun by Antonio Mitrikeski, another gifted Balkan director. Zago is equally ruthless and she also happens to be cousin to Jiji (Igor Angelov, born 1977) a tailor and friend since childhood of the students. But while they are all brainy intellectuals debating about Tolstoy and French literature, Jiji is just a simple youth who is silently in love with Kata, and this becomes the signal pivot in this subtly paced film. For though Kata is fond enough of Jiji, she is deeply in love with handsome Maki (Alexsandar Ristoski) who studies in Zagreb and wishes to marry her, and in an Orthodox church at that, a procedure which in 50s Yugoslavia was likely to lead to draconian reprisals.

Early in the film, Zagarieva has a student called Alavantia pulled in by her goons, and orders one of them to start choking him round the neck with a rope. Alavantia as a young man is played by Vasil Mihail who you may have seen in the commercially successful Macedonian-US movie Dust (2001) starring Joseph Fiennes and directed by Milcho Manchevski. In old age in 2016 and also doubling as the film’s narrator, Alavantia is portrayed by Nenad Milovslavjev (born 1941). Six and a half decades earlier, Zagarieva had informed him that one of his student friends has escaped over the Greek border, and she wanted to know what he knew of his plans. She had also learnt that Alavantia was a trained printer, and there were currently these treacherous antisocialist leaflets being distributed around the town. To cut to the quick, if he agreed to spy on this student scum for her, she would let him go immediately. Terrified as he is, Alavantia points out the obvious, that he cannot possibly snitch on his childhood friends, and as a result is thrown in jail.

The Golden Five begins harrowingly in tender woodland with the sight of five trussed student corpses, all blood stained from bullets. We then move from 1951 to 2016 where the narrator Alavantia is in his mid-eighties, and is an academic in Australia returning to his native Strumica. He is attending a symposium in a smart hotel about the effect of displacement on persons in recent Balkan history, and is surprised to see that the hotel manager looks very much like Jiji 65 years on.

As narrator, Alavantia muses: ‘Then some of us fell asleep. But I haven’t.’

He adds with the mordant honesty of old age. ‘Although sometimes I wish I also were dead.’

The five corpses were of course Maki and his four student friends, including the one who had boyishly adored Elizabeth Taylor. One night, Lamarinic and his henchmen had turned up with a lorry, and taken them off at gunpoint in full view of the townsfolk. By then Alavantia was out of jail and had managed to escape the swoop, but he had paused to pick up an engagement ring given to Kata by Maki, which had dropped off in the mayhem. Lamarinic had muttered that they were being taken away for ‘summary proceedings’ meaning there would be no nonsense like a trial, and that they would be promptly disposed of. Jiji was conspicuously absent during the raid for previously his cousin Zagarieva had secretly ordered him to spy on his friends the students, and who knows he might even be rewarded for his pains. In this context, one of the most impressive things about the film’s scripting and direction, is that until the end of it we simply don’t know the actual nature of Jiji’s betrayal. I for one assumed he had blabbed about the origin of the printed leaflets, and had warned the police that they would be gathered together at such a time and place convenient for a raid. All of this is subtly compounded by the film’s narrative structure, which is essentially switching backwards and forwards between 2016 and 1951 via the musings of the octogenarian Alvantia. By chance, the hotel which is the venue for the symposium is owned by Jiji (played in his old age by Petar Arsovski, born 1945) and the two old men eye each other suspiciously before deciding on their respective identities. Jiji’s life these days is far from happy, doubtless in part because of his historical betrayal, but also because his daughter and son in law had been killed in a car crash. Worse still, his beloved granddaughter Stefanija (played by Stefanija Chobanova) is ill in hospital with a serious heart condition and urgently needs a transplant.

Back in 1951 the bodies had been reclaimed by their families from the forest to be given an Orthodox burial, and an ornate communal mausoleum was constructed in their memory. Some time later, Zagarieva had got her lackeys to sledgehammer this to pieces, as she claimed the former partisans were complaining these traitors were luxuriously commemorated, while their own comrades were not. Again, Trenchovski’s direction is subtle enough for Zago to suddenly relent half way through the demolition, as if to suggest that even monsters are capable of contrition, or perhaps we should say painfully mixed feelings. In the meantime, Kata is desperate with grief at the loss of her fiancé, and she goes around in black, eats very little, and is attended by Jiji who not only silently loves her, but takes her for cathartic pilgrimages to the forest where Maki and the others were shot. Pained by her heartrending sorrow, he gathers wild fruit and feeds her with it, and cannot restrain himself from kissing her. Kata gently reproves him and says it is impossible that she should forget Maki, but later a young priest rebukes her excessive mourning on spiritual grounds (as for death, God draws to Him the ones he loves), and adds:

‘Hate corrodes the heart and gives no space for love…’

So it is that Kata relents and before long  marries Jiji, and decades later Alavantia turns up at the old woman’s door bearing a single rose and the engagement ring she had lost in 1951. Fresh from Australia he had stopped off at Belgrade to research the communist archives, where he had found an ancient document instigated by the Secretary of the Strumica Communist Party, Zagarieva. In it was a false statement signed by her cousin Jiji the tailor, that he had seen all five of the students plotting to escape over the Greek border, and had done his duty and informed the authorities. They had been shot while attempting treasonous desertion of their homeland, not for the ideological deviance of leafleting and singing American pop songs. Again, Trenchovski’s crafty direction encourages us to think that the old woman Kata will turn on her traitor of a husband who evidently had caused the murder of her fiancé, and had sat on that appalling fact for 65 years. Instead the film ends with TV cameras interviewing Jiji, who of his own initiative had invited them to witness his public confession. After describing the terrible lump of guilt he had carried about with him for all of his adult life, he tearfully describes what actually took place. Cousin Zagarieva had held a gun to his head to get him to sign that document, and he was so terrified he had wet his trousers. The simple truth was that Jiji was not a sly Judas at all, but just a young man as frightened as an innocent animal of being slaughtered on the spot.

The film concludes with this convincingly stereoscopic view of the past, in which someone like Jiji was as much a victim of totalitarian cruelty and ideological heartlessness, as was Maki and his four friends. Kata has forgiven her old husband for what he could not avoid, and even better Stefanija their teenage granddaughter has had a successful transplant operation. It was she Stefanija who had organised a new monument in the centre of the town in memory of The Golden Five, and the work of reconciliation and forgiveness as urged by the young priest has begun to purge the nightmare of their past.

NB The Golden Five by Goran Trenchovski can be viewed with subtitles on YouTube

The next post will be on or before Friday 28th February

COMEDY, NIGHTMARE AND MARIA SAAKYAN

COMEDY, NIGHTMARE, AND MARIA SAAKYAN

One reason for choosing to watch world cinema, or for that matter reading world literature, is that the subject matter might well stir your pity and/or your political conscience. It might deal with, for example, bitter ethnic or religious conflict in East Europe or the Middle East, hence the ultimate business of life-or-death survival. Alternatively, it can be an exploration of harrowing poverty, poignant collective tragedy or other extremes, meaning that the content is inevitably gripping and engaging from the start. In the case of the 2007 Mayak (The Lighthouse) made by Armenia’s first ever female director Maria Saakyan (1980-2018) in this first full length feature she performs the unique feat of blending unhinging and instructive farce with the grim nightmare of civil war. In that respect the director’s own experience is broadly parallel to that of the film’s heroine Lena (Anna Kapaleva, born 1979). Saakyan was a victim of the Nagorno-Karabakh war (1988-1994), where that unstable province within Azerbaijan which had an ethnic Armenian majority, led to Armenia inevitably taking the side of the secessionists. Saakyan was 8 years old when the war started, and at the age of 12 she and her parents fled the Armenian capital Yerevan for the safety of Moscow. Her film is set around 1992 which was 2 years after the USSR imploded, and when the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan etc had to swiftly come to terms with their new autonomy. For decades the lingua franca for all these countries, was Russian, and much of the film’s dialogue is in that language, which of course has guaranteed it a far larger audience than if it had been scripted entirely in Armenian. Ironically not only Maria Saakyan was displaced by ethnic war, but the scriptwriter Ghivi Shavgulidze (born 1979) had to leave Abkhazia, formerly part of Georgia, because of a secessionist conflict, and ditto the Serbian set designer Ivana Krcadinac was displaced by the Balkan conflicts of the early 1990s.

It is 1992 and Lena who is in her early twenties is returning by train to her remote Armenian village from Moscow. She is hoping to get her elderly grandparents to flee the war zone, and come back to Russia with her, and has fallen asleep on the primitive locomotive with its hard, wooden seats and peasant passengers. En route the train stops at a little station where an Armenian wedding is taking place, complete with accordion music, graceful dancing, and a touching light-hearted gaiety, and which is shot in black and white. So it is that despite the murderous war, lightheartedness is still a poignant possibility. Another black and white element is the recurrent image of massed flocks of flying cranes which is surely a graphic tribute to the great Georgian director Mikhail Kalatozov (1903-1973) and his 1957 The Cranes Are Flying. Other appreciative critics have discerned the influence of Tarkovsky (1932-1986) and his haunting cinematography, evident in his legendary films Ivan’s Childhood (1982) and Andrei Rublev (1966).

Prior to meeting her grandparents, Lena has to find her way to her own apartment along a wretched dirt road cloaked in fog. Fog and mist are ubiquitous in this movie and later we meet a village idiot (who is also in his own way very wise) improvising a sagacious two-line poem about it.

A mist is mysterious

And mystery is misty!

Because she is in a war zone, the electricity in Lena’s house is fitful. She tries fixing the sitting room light but in the end resorts to a candle in a special holder shaped like a lighthouse, hence the film’s title. Lighthouses are of course both reassuring and warning objects, and the next symbolic motif is when she puts on her favourite record from childhood, the sound track to a Russian animated version of Alice in Wonderland. The latter you may recall is both an unpredictable adventure set in two separate worlds, and also is a regular nightmare, i.e. just like a war. The next day walking the village comprised of high and stilted wooden houses, she hears neighbours who are both amiable and rowing angrily, and observes young women handwashing in metal tubs, and two very old ladies sawing up massive pieces of firewood. When she does locate her grandmother, who clings permanently to her mongrel dog for reassurance, the two of them end up accusing each other of negligence. Lena says there was no option but for her and her parents to get out of Armenia for their safety, and the grandmother (Olga Yakovleva, born 1941) insists it is all too late now to remedy matters. Later when she meets her adoring grandfather (Sos Sargasyan, 1929-2013) he assures her that neither of them wishes to leave, and even if things get very bad, because they are old, any enemy soldier is bound to leave them alone. At times these and other exchanges are shouted to the accompaniment of hovering enemy helicopters, people running for their lives, and at one point a small child screaming at the sight of a corpse floating down a rushing river…

That said, heart-warming farce allied with harrowing personal obsession, is never far away. There is neighbour Rosa (Ruzana Avetisyan) a middle-aged widow with her only son in the army, who is increasingly less in touch with his mother. Rosa’s remedy is to regularly pack a ton of luggage and wheel it on a trolley to the railway station, so that she can go in search of her boy. She does this routine every week, futile on each occasion, because the trains are all cancelled and the only ones going are those carrying troops. Worse still, she is pursued by the village idiot who eloquently dotes on her, and addresses her both as his wife and his mother. This crazy man is a splendid creation, aged about 50, spindly tall with a colossal bulbous nose, a floppy woolly hat, high boots, half-mast pants, and a strong line in megalomaniac patter.

‘My Queen Rosa!’

‘Go away!’

‘I am the great Maradona. And this is my wife, Rosalinda! These flowers are for you.’

‘Get lost!’

‘But Mummy, don’t you recognise me?’

‘Go away! Just leave me alone!’

‘The doctor says not to worry, Mummy!’

On her first morning in the village, Lena accompanies Rosa and the idiot to the railway station, and en route they behold the village accordionist bullying the life out of his small son as he tries to teach him the same instrument.

‘No, not like that! No, no, no! Tell me. Are you a man, or not?’

The accordionist is also put in charge of doling out emergency rations of bread from a lorry, and which the idiot ingeniously tries to steal from behind. The enraged musician batters him over the ear with a loaf for his pains, and it is this Charlie Chaplin aspect which swiftly reminds us of two unhinging things. One is that life really does go on with its inevitable comic side even under war conditions (the same object lesson is there in Emir Kusturica’s 2004 hilarious Life Is a Miracle where a Bosnian Serb falls for a Bosnian Muslim girl, when the two of them are supposedly at war). The second is that an idiot rather like a small child cannot comprehend what a war is, and that for him it has no meaning and in fact does not exist. Thus, we later have the dizzy set piece where at a funeral the idiot with a small boy next to him is watching an outdoor TV, on which the progress of the war complete with strategic maps is being explained to the viewer. Lena’s friend Izolda (Anastasya Srebennikova, born 1984) walks over and gives him a second clout to the ear for such disrespect at a funeral, though of course death is something else that both a small child and an idiot are incapable of comprehending.

Things continue in equally surreal fashion among the non-idiotic in the village. The elderly mother in law of Izolda, Kasiana (played by veteran Soviet actress Sofiko Chaureli, 1937-2008) starts noisily smashing all her windows, as she’s heard that war encourages burglary, and if she has no windows the burglars will assume the place has nothing of value inside. Lena points out it will be very cold but Kasiana thinks it worth the risk. Meanwhile after the funeral, the grieving old mother of the young woman who died of cancer, complains to Lena that her daughter is literally calling to her from the churchyard. Lena does not know how to reply, but it is a poignant irony worth noting that the director Maria Saakyan herself died of cancer at the tragically young age of 37.

Lena’s friend Izolda brusquely informs her that her return to the village here is completely pointless. Izolda herself has problems with her boyish husband Levan (Mikhail Bogdasarov) who is a compulsive womaniser. His latest village conquest Izolda nicknames Hamster-Looking Woman, and dourly adds:

‘Men rule the world.’

Levan arrives just then and says, ‘I am the world’s dictator. I talk when I wish and I don’t talk when I don’t wish!’

The following evening there is an impromptu party with plenty of home-made brandy, where Levan’s mother passes round old family photos, and mocks her philandering son for being so bald these days. After which, frightening war zone or not, we find ourselves firmly in the tradition of the East European surreal, and the tone changes to that of directors like Jiri Menzel or Pal Sandor where the preposterous and the non sequitur have their day. The daughter in law Izolda drunkenly turns to Kasiana and says:

‘Tell him to kill that woman (the Hamster-Looking Woman)’

Kasiana to Levan, ‘Kill that woman…’

Promptly from her son. ‘Sure. No problem.’

His mother, ‘But aren’t you ashamed? You’ve got a beautiful young wife and you go and take a mistress?’

Levan picks up a boiled egg and commences to berate it for taking a mistress, tapping it punitively on the head with a spoon.

Izolda, ‘The problem is there is no female solidarity.’

Kasiana mockingly, ‘What is that? When it happened to me, I just picked up a saucepan and battered him over the head.’

To round off the fractured table talk, Lena who is also very drunk, lifts up a rifle lying nearby, accidentally fires it, and sends a number of wooden screens flying…

Fascinatingly old Kasiana turns from pragmatic to prophetic the next day. She tells Lena that she has had a dream where she was a tree and couldn’t move.

‘But then I realised I had the whole of the world inside of me when I was a tree! Water and air and fibre and everything else. So that I didn’t need to move!’

Afterwards Lena goes to visit Izolda who has a handsome little dark-eyed son called Ghivi. Ghivi is in the bath and without thinking Lena picks up his toy helicopter and starts making pretend combat noises as she runs it the length of the child’s arm. After that she takes Ghivi out for a walk and as they explore a bird’s nest lying on the ground, an enemy helicopter descends above them and Lena freezes with terror for herself and her charge.  The helicopter moves off, but for sure it wasn’t a toy, and the lesson when it comes to little boys’ playthings is all too ominous.

Finally the first of a series of passenger trains arrives at the station, and it takes off Levan, Izolda and Ghivi to start a new life in Moscow. Lena without her grandparents will also depart very soon, and the film ends with archive black and white footage of a madly grieving and gesticulating Armenian woman who has lost her husband or perhaps her child. Then as abruptly it changes into an exquisite red and white streaked Armenian sunset, which wordlessly assures us that Hell and Hope and Grief and Hilarity and Ugliness and Divine Beauty, will never be completely set as worlds apart, no matter what.

NB The Lighthouse by Maria Saakyan (not to be confused with the 2019 film of the same name) is available on Second Run DVD

The next post will be on or before Tuesday 25th February

IS IT A ROPE OR A SNAKE?

IS IT A ROPE OR A SNAKE?

The most dramatic misperception I’ve ever experienced in my life, was almost exactly 30 years ago in the spring of 1990, when I was a youth of 39, didn’t need glasses for short or long distances, and had perfect hearing. I, my late wife Annie, and daughter Ione then 9 months old, were living in a very fitting location inasmuch as it had a strange hallucinatory identity, for it went by the name of the Debatable Lands, meaning where the English and Scots fought over the demarcation of the Border in the 16th century. Or to be more precise (and just to refute the heroic Carlisle Tourist Office account), where the Border Reivers whose favourite currency was stolen animals rather than bitcoins, raped, murdered, pillaged, stole each other’s cattle, and just to round things off nicely, burnt down each other’s farmsteads. We were renting a very old farmhouse in the far north east tip of Cumbria, about a mile from the Border where the latter followed the path of the much lamented and highly scenic old Waverley railway line between Carlisle and Edinburgh, and which also paralleled the route of the river Esk. The village we lived in, Penton, had a preposterous identity as it was composed of four separate hamlets all about 2 miles apart, some of whose names could not be located on any available map. There was Catlowdy where the Post Office and only shop were soon to close; then en route to the border village of Newcastleton, Roxburghshire was Bushfield, composed exclusively of forestry cottages… and between these poles was Penton itself comprising the railway station that had been closed for 20 odd years, and a small and touching riverside picnic area called Penton Linns. Half way between Penton and Bushfield was Nicholforest which subtended the handsome eponymous church and the imposing new village hall, and which is mentioned in Sir Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet as ‘The Nickle Forest’. Many a map pinpointed Catlowdy and nothing else, so that the parent which is to say generic village of Penton where we lived apparently did not exist…

So it was that my 1990 hallucination happened on the usually trafficless road from Nicholforest church to the renovated railway station, both of which emphatically and tangibly existed that pleasant spring day, as much as myself and my 9-month-old daughter who I had in a pushchair, and whose locomotion usually encouraged her to have an extended afternoon snooze. For suddenly I saw before me at some 200 yards distance, a quite inexplicable vision. It would seem to be some bizarre reciprocal analogue of myself and Ione, inasmuch as I perceived a small child of say 8 to 10 years old was sitting on an armchair plumb in the middle of this remote North Cumbrian backroad and was facing my daughter and me. At first, I thought this furniture object was static, until no I realised it was intermittently and clumsily being propelled along in my direction. Weirder still, immediately behind the seated child was either what looked like a walrus (!) or an Old English Sheepdog which had its chin resting squarely on the back of the chair. I should point out at this stage that I hadn’t been drinking, nor was I on any medication or psychedelic stimulant, whilst also sheepishly confiding that the floridity of my vision does not end there. On either side of the sofa, which item is of course not as a rule propelled unlicensed along the public highway by a Lewis Carroll animal, were what seemed to be a pair of custodial or perhaps I mean heraldic flamingos.

Beat that, is all I can say at this point…

As I moved with extreme hesitation towards this Debatable Lands vision, after some 100 yards the mirage resolved itself into something a good deal more intelligible, albeit still very much an epistemological rarity. For a start it wasn’t a sofa that I was looking at, but a capacious wheelchair that was in the middle of the road and trundling towards me, a vehicle that was broader than the run of the mill kind, given that its occupant, an elderly and short lady was a bit on the stout and billowing side. The Alice in Wonderland walrus cum sheepdog I soon learnt was simply her old husband, who was white haired and had an enormous beard, and he was in the habit of regularly stooping down to chat with her, so that from a distance it seemed as if his walrus and/or Old English fizzog was permanently flush with her chair.

Nor were the flamingos flamingos, for they were in fact two beautiful peacocks, in themselves permanent exquisite hallucinations, two majestic pets kept by the gamekeeper who worked on the estate that this old couple lived on in a peppercorn rent cottage. The wheelchair lady fed them with the choicest of titbits, which obviously explained why the pair of them were following the old couple like ceremonial courtiers. The couple did not work for the estate, but as Harriet and Joe eventually explained to me the estate was looking for loyal tenants, long stay and reliable, not fly by night kids who would be here for a month or two at most. Then, after she had complimented the touching beauty of my sleeping daughter, Harriet told me from her wheelchair:

“Long stay alright.”

“Are you?” I asked her in all ignorance.

“You betcha! I ain’t going anywhere in the next five minutes …”

The next post will be on or before Friday 14th February