Epic and Personal in New York and Macedonia; Milcho Manchevski's "Dust"
by Howard Feinstein
"Dust," the 2001 film which Lions Gate is belatedly releasing in New York and L.A. on Friday, spends half its time in New York and half in what is now officially known as the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia -- just like its writer/director, Milcho Manchevski. But with a temporal lag. The Big Apple scenes are contemporary (replete with intact WTC towers); the Macedonian ones are set a century ago. In the latter, a tough, quiet American cowboy named Luke (Aussie actor David Wenham), an amoral gold hunter, ends up protecting Macedonian peasants from slaughter by Turkish soldiers attempting to quell a populist rebellion, and from pillage by roving Albanian gangs.
Blond, fair-skinned Luke could be a clone of the Manchevski of nine years back, when his feature debut, "Before the Rain," took the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. "I don't think it was just subconscious that he looks like me," says the filmmaker, now 43. "But I thought he should look better than me." Is it more than chance that Manchevski, who came to New York in 1986, dispatches a Yank to help save the Macedonians? "I haven't thought of it that way," he responds. "What I do is exotic fun."
Critics at the film's premiere in the coveted opening night slot at the Venice Film Festival did not find the movie funny or exotic. Most wrote in large part from a political perspective far heavier than remarking on a mere case of physical and experiential resemblance. "Like 'Titanic,' the whole thing takes on a misty rose-tinted view of the past -- and by uncomfortable proxy, the present Balkan crisis," wrote James Christopher in the Times of London. "Having placed his film in the teeth of a deadly serious conflict, can (Manchevski) really shrug off the responsibility?"
Manchevski was dismayed: He should have been prepared. One month before the festival, he had published an article entitled "Just a Moral Obligation" for the German Suddeutsche Zeitung, which was reprinted in several European newspapers. In it, he condemned the Albanian uprising in Macedonia -- a poor, landlocked nation of 2.2 million which is bordered by Albania and Kosovo, among other entities -- as property grabbing by former members of the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army). He also called for American intervention.
"Macedonia is collateral damage to NATO's involvement in the Balkans," he wrote. "Bodybags are not sexy, so NATO chose to let the militants keep their western weapons...The Albanian militants claim they are fighting for human rights...This time the human rights issues are a front for armed redrawing of borders...The U.S. has a moral obligation to stop the Albanian extremists from turning Macedonia into another Afghanistan or Cambodia."
He does not take the Venice reviews at face value. "In Europe, politics substitutes for gossip. I guess Macedonia was the bad guy at the time. And I think there was hostility (to the film), which had nothing to do with politics. The way the film plays with structure is in your face."
That is inarguable. "Dust"'s construction is gutsy: The New York and Macedonian sections are dizzyingly intertwined, with stories within stories overlapping the constant crosscutting. The New York sequences follow a desperate, hyper young burglar, appropriately called Edge (Adrian Lester), and his would-be victim, frail, elderly Angela (Rosemary Murphy). Edge knows Angela has valuable old gold coins (which turn out to be from Macedonia) somewhere in her cluttered, Lower East Side apartment -- not far from Manchevski's own East Village flat. ("I'm Angela," says the director, "but I want to be Luke.") The two dance around each other: He smacks her to get her to reveal her hiding place, she forces him at gunpoint to hear her own long story -- which is the film's whole Macedonian section. The struggle builds into a strange emotional bonding.
The characters in the Macedonian story are Luke and his Bible-totin' brother, Elijah (Joseph Fiennes), a Cain and Abel feuding over a prostitute (Anne Brochet) they have both loved; a beautiful, very pregnant young Macedonian villager, Neda (Nikolina Kujaca); and framesful of extras from all camps. The leads there are nearly mute.
"I wanted New York to be at least as important as the Ottoman Empire, probably more important," Manchevski explains. "I hoped that the emotional attachment of the viewer would be more to the New York portion. It is more intimate; it's about real people. Luke, Elijah, and Neda have an epic dimension. They are small humans in a big landscape, in a big historical event.
"They are also characters in another person's tale, so that takes them one step away from us," he continues. "It makes us care more for Angela and Edge. When you're in Macedonia you want to go back to the New York story. When you're in New York you're curious about the Macedonian story."
In Macedonia, more than 70,000 spectators saw "Dust." Ironically, the film has never been shown in New York until now. The NYC angle would seem to have attracted American distributors who saw "Dust" either in Venice or at Toronto a week later. The few who felt out the asking price for American rights say it was way too high. The biggest hurdle, however, was that they found the intersecting epochs hard to follow.
"The switching back and forth was more annoying that entertaining," says one acquisitions executive. "As soon as you settle into the past or present day and make sense of the characters all over again, you would be thrust into the other story."
"'Before the Rain' was mysterious while you watched it but exploded into significance at the end," says a prominent art-house distributor. "In 'Dust,' though, the material didn't resonate. There were key junctures where I went, 'Wait a second. What just happened?' "
"The story makes no sense," offers another acquisitions expert. "The flashback/flashforward technique repeats itself SO many times."
However, the same distributors praise the film's visual allure ("It's a beautiful mess," notes one), especially in the flashy Macedonian sections -- although the editing and swish pans of the New York City exteriors are also striking. No surprise. Renowned British cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, known for his work with Ken Loach, shot the film, and Manchevski, who has on his resume books of still photography, has made more than 50 music videos, including the award-winning "Tennessee" for Arrested Development.
Love it or hate it, "Dust," which Manchevski calls "a non-western western," is a true original built on a slab of homages and inspirations. Critics have cited Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah (Manchevski told this writer in 1994 that he planned "a remake of the 1969 'The Wild Bunch' set in 1901 Macedonia"), and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (George Roy Hill, 1969), though the director says he owes more to George Miller's post-apocalyptic, Mel Gibson-starrer "Mad Max" (1989); John Huston's Connery-Caine buddy flick, "The Man Who Would Be King" (1975); and Hal Ashby's transgenerational love story, "Harold and Maude" (1972).
The generic stew didn't pass muster with Variety: "Pic's main problem in positioning itself commecially is that it straddles the genres: It's too arty to cut it as a violent action pic and too gore-spattered to appeal to the arthouse crowd." Manchevski says he had no intention of making a straight genre film. "They read the fact that 'Dust' goes against expectations on purpose as if it fails to fit in within their expectations. If you're making a living quickly analyzing and putting a film into categories, then it's probably going to rub you the wrong way. If it pisses off a lot of petite bourgeois, the gatekeepers, then great."
Manchevski is an unrepentant artist. The only child of parents who died when he was a child in Macedonia's capital, Skopje, he has written fiction and created performance pieces, not to mention founding an arts movement (the anti-everything Conceptualists, back in his Macedonia days). His artistic sensibility might explain why he is most comfortable with actors, and they with him (though he clearly resents Richard Gere for "wasting my time" for nine months on "Dust").
"He listens to the actors so much that it felt like a theater production," croons Adrian Lester. "It felt so good." The techies are another story. "I think they had a really rough time," Lester admits. "Milcho was so exacting, what he wanted to see, what he wanted to do. People were having quite a tough one from him. He was like two different people."
"They say difficult, I say tough," Manchevski responds. "I'm first tough on myself, then only 70 percent tough on everybody else. Very often people try to cover their incompetence by blaming me. I make myself an easy target: I'm absolutely blunt." His relationships with producers are even more tenuous. His perceived stubbornness has gotten him into trouble on Hollywood projects (he was unceremoniously booted from the Prague set of "Ravenous" by Fox 2000), and it still haunts him in the parallel universe of multinational European co-pros.
"There were about a dozen different investors and producers on 'Dust' before these guys (Chris Auty, Domenico Procacci, and Vesna Jovanoska) came on," says Manchevski. "Domenico and Chris, we had our share of conflicts, but they put the money together and helped in an extremely difficult shoot.
"I only have problems with money people if they have the moral structure of amoeba. The issue I have with 'suits' is not money: It's dishonesty. The issue is, 'Don't lie to me.' That makes creative work more difficult. It becomes a full-time job to defend the piece from outside interference. I don't see it as business. I see it as something more precious. The film is what is left behind."
For the moment, however, he is staying away from the medium--at least as a director. "I'm teaching directing to grad students at NYU," he says. "They are fabulous. I'm actually enjoying life without films."