Dust was supposed to be one of “the” films: the most expected one, disputed between the festivals, starting with huge difficulties and even more incredible events during the shoot, provoking controversy, on purpose perhaps, and with actual political background for the film story.
At the time of Milcho Manchevski’s debut feature film, Before the Rain, which won the Golden lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1994, the crisis in the Balkans had reached its culmination point when Sarajevo under siege: peace in these remote areas of Europe being more than uncertain.
Macedonia, homeland of Milcho Manchevski, was one the republics of the former Yugoslavia that was supposed to survive without a military conflict, although it remained a multiethnic environment, like Bosnia and Herzegovina.
But the illusion to evade military conflict disappeared as the realization of Dust was approaching.
The circular plot of Milcho Manchevski’s debut feature film, its parallels between the western world and the archaic region of Macedonia, where the time seems to stop or centuries coexist in cinematic open spaces, was not merely an echo of contemporary events, but was a personal vision of “homeland.”
It was a vision of homeland that was disappearing in the heart and imagination of the Macedonian filmmaker, who had already been living abroad for many years.
Before the rain was a cruel, and at the same time, a poetic vision. Besides the international success of the film, there were only a few viewers who, all originally from parts of the former Yugoslavia, could not feel the emotional strength, the profound human message, and the respect toward the people who stayed in the occupied territory regardless their fate. Milcho Manchevski was practically a hero.
But there is always the film “after” Before the Rain. Dust was shown as the opening film at the Venice Film Festival, an occasion usually given to major film productions, particularly American films.
Manchevski was the warranty for honest and fearless filmmaking, honest in the sense that he went beyond compromising the boundaries of the acceptable.
Like the other filmmaker, Emir Kusturica, originally from former Yugoslavia who obtained international recognition, Manchevski also made a fortune out of the tortured regions of the former Yugoslavia.
Just some ten years before Manchevski, Kusturica actually won several prizes for his films concerning the former Yugoslavia. But the best story is still our own, though sometimes that is not enough.
Dust has a displaced narration in time and space: it goes from the American West to the European Southeast, from the beginning of the 20thth century to its end.
One story catches the other: from an attempted robbery to the Wild West story of two brothers and one woman, then back to contemporary urban society in one of the most bizarre plot twists.
Angela, the elderly woman (Rosemary Murphy) and victim of the attempted robbery, tells the story to her assailant Edge (Adrian Lester).
The relationship becomes one of strange conspiracy and is in fact a plan for blackmail; through each fragment of story she tells, Edge finds more information about the hidden gold to re-pay his debts.
From then on this strange, twisted story moves towards Paris and even notes the beginning of cinema; one of the two brothers learns about the Balkan War through the cinema.
Dust is, in reality, the story about the liberation of Macedonia from the Ottoman Turks in 1912.
Two brothers Eliah (Joseph Fiennes) and Luke (David Winham) seem to be the main characters; the story starts with their dispute about Lilith (Anne Brochet) in a brothel but finishes far away from their own tragedy, in Macedonia, where they play the role of mercenary soldiers.
In fact, Milcho Manchevski’s idea for the film was based upon American reports about the Balkan wars and the adventures of the Americans who took part in these local wars without really understanding them.
The course of the film is borrowed from the Western genre. Even though the bandits are slightly different, yet with the same figures of evil and good, the scenes of cruelty could match the genius of Sam Peckipah.
It is a Milcho Manchevski film in the construction of a visual space out of time, which was so poetic in Before the Rain, but in Dust it is oddly out of context.
In this attempt to make a new genre, Milcho Manchevski called it himself “Eastern,” for the narrative line does not follow the basic idea of parallels between time and space, nor the idea of repetitiveness of human nature and its stories of love and hate, life and death.
The film is like a mosaic where we can only guess the missing pieces; the real face of the film is revealed in its dark spots.
Instead of a coherent narrative structure, there is a lot of action, dramatic close-ups, symbolic figures (like the pregnant Macedonian girl), and flashbacks that discover the real issue concerning the quarrel between the brothers. What is left, is the surface.
The real missing image throughout the film is the lack of intervention by the civilised, mostly western world during these “exotic,” local, colourful quarrels of the South and East.
There is a profound lack of understanding the other, an inability to understand “otherness” and, in this sense, a profound lack of human compassion.
Furthermore, when there is an intervention, it is most likely to be a pretext to avoid conflict and problematic issues; we can understand the escape of the brothers to Macedonia as an escape from themselves, from their own fate, their own homeland.
This escape may be because they do not have a “homeland” anymore, because homeland is an illusion that should be constructed and not escaped.
The missing images were replaced in words through the director’s commentary about the actual political context of Macedonia, the role of NATO, and the role of other political topics and organisations.
But the director did not place this commentary in this bizarre film, losing the link between the different stories and simultaneously losing his own story.