Macedonian director ties together disparate tales in Mothers triptych

“In a circular way, the responses to the film further invite us to consider the nature of truth: the opinions we frame when interpreting the film provoke our curiosity as much as the events of the film do.”

By May Huang

Last Friday, Oscar-nominated Macedonian director Milcho Manchevski screened his 2010 foreign-language film Mothers (Majki) at the Logan Center. The Film Studies Center, the Franke Institute for the Humanities, the Center for International Studies Norman Wait Harris Fund, the United Macedonian Diaspora, and the Center for East European and Russian/Eurasian Studies (CEERES) all collaborated to produce the event as part of the ninth Macedonian–North American Conference on Macedonian Studies that lasted from November 12–14.

The film, billed as a “triptych,” is divided into three narrative arcs. The first is about two young girls who turn in a flasher they have never seen before to the police. The second traces the journey of three filmmakers making a documentary who travel to an abandoned village and meet an elderly sister and brother there who have not spoken to each other in 16 years. The third part of the film, stylistically different from its predecessors, is a documentary about a murder case that made headlines back in 2008, when the journalist Vlado Taneski murdered three elderly women and then wrote about them in the paper until he was found guilty.

While the documentary style of this third segment makes it seem the most realistic, Manchevski notes that all three of the stories are true. This difference in perception prompted him to ask during the post-screening Q&A, “Why do we see a documentary in a different way?”

Storytelling and deception are central to all three parts of the film, but each also deals heavily with the idea of truth. Yet Manchevski distinguished early on that “the film itself is about the nature of truth and not necessarily about what happened.” He did not set out to unravel the mysteries his stories tell, but rather to capture “what life is like in general in the world, and specifically Macedonia.”

For Manchevski, historians and anthropologists are tasked with telling direct facts while “the artist deals with things that are slightly different—the facts with emotions, the facts with concepts, how we see the world and relate to it.” He also said that “in spite of having all this real material and real people [for the film], I think we know less about what happened.”

While audience members pointed out that there are certain connections between the three parts, such as the fact that photos of suspects investigated in the murder case are being burned in the old village during the second part of the film, Manchevski confessed that such touches are more like “inside jokes” shared by the film crew than purposefully designated creative choices intended to weave the three parts together.

“It just felt like they should be together,” Manchevski said when asked to comment on the composition of the triptych. In similar fashion, he also said that he could not explain the reason why he named the film Mothers—its working title was actually Like A Baby up until the editing process began.

In a circular way, the responses to the film further invite us to consider the nature of truth: the opinions we frame when interpreting the film provoke our curiosity as much as the events of the film do. However, Manchevski indicated that this kind of analysis easily leads to over-interpretation that meddles with our response to the film, a response that should primarily be based on how we feel about it.

At the end of the film, one of the documentary makers tells the elderly brother that he is filming so that people of the future can “know what life was like today.” This quote resonates with Manchevski’s purpose, as it reminds the audience that this—and not the uncovering of the truth—is what Mothers hopes to accomplish.