‘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 Saturday 7th March

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