Friday, November 21, 2008

Macedonian Film Festival: I am from Titov Veles

Many Communist-era industrial behemoths are still around, continuing to plague the environment in former Warsaw Pact countries. Macedonian’s Titov-Veles, now known simply as Veles, is one such city dominated by a carcinogenic white elephant. Its dreary backdrop dominates Teona Strugar Mitevska’s I am from Titov Veles (trailer here), which opened the Macedonian Film Festival last night.

The blight of Veles accentuates the bleak desperation of three sisters’ lives. The eldest Slavica is a recovering heroin addict looking for economic security. Sapho, the middle sister, is obsessed with immigrating out of Macedonia. Deeply affected by their mother’s desertion and father’s subsequent death, the youngest, Afrodita, desperately clings to her older sisters. Since their mother left, she has not spoken a word out loud, and might even have difficulty fully distinguishing fantasy from reality.

Mitevska portrays a rootless Macedonian, where jobs are scarce and immigration information is discussed in much the same way New Yorkers trade real estate anecdotes. Given the tremendous continuing human and environmental costs of what the press notes call “forceful socialist industrialization,” it is understandable Afrodita’s sisters are looking for a way out. However, when they find apparent escape from the doldrums of Veles, they leave behind Afrodita, in much the manner their mother did to the family years before. Ill-prepared for life on her own, Afrodita’s perceptions and judgments becomes ever more questionable. Likewise, Mitevska’s narrative becomes increasingly subjective, seemingly giving Afrodita’s fantasies equal footing with ostensive reality.

In other words, Titov is most definitely a festival picture. Unfailingly patient, Mitevska lets her distinctive visuals unfold at a very deliberate pace. Often we watch Afrodita from odd angles, observing events at ankle level or over her shoulder. At other times, we see her fully exposed during moments of such vulnerability, the film feels intrusive. Mitevska’s sister and producer, Labina Mitevska, carries the entire emotional weight of the film as the lost Afrodita. She is quite convincing, holding up well under the scrutiny of director Mitevska’s unforgiving lens.

Somehow Mitevska has crafted a film that is both impressionistic and naturalistic. While casting a critical eye on contemporary Macedonian culture, particularly the gender attitudes of the brutish men the sisters encounter, Titov is a very personal story and a demanding film. Although it might not sound like a Chamber of Commerce promotional film, Macedonia has selected it as its official best foreign language film submission for the upcoming Academy Awards, in hopes of repeating Macedonia’s success in 1994 with the nomination of Milcho Manchevski’s Before the Rain, which will close the festival with a special screening Sunday. The Macedonian Film Festival continues through the weekend, and Titov will screen again in New York this coming January at MoMA.