Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

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Risto Siskov in Kiril Cenevski's Crno seme (Black Seed, 1971)ACTOR FOCUS
Looking back on Macedonia's Marlon Brando
The Ninth Risto Šiškov
Festival of Chamber Theatre

The festival inspired by actor Risto Šiškov paid hommage with a retrospective of its dedicatee's film performances this year. Igor Pop Trajkov reviews the career of "the Macedonian Marlon Brando."

The story of the Risto Šiškov Festival of Chamber Theatre in Strumica began nine years ago with a group of enthusiastic organisers whose ambition was to create a festival focused entirely on actors; their hard work and diligence ensured that it became one of the most reputable theatre festivals in Macedonia, very influential and enjoying the respect of the country's elite actors.

Named after one of Macedonia's stage giants, a man of enormous talent and rare sensibility, the festival aims to reward the best individual performance in a theatre play.
Festival poster
Poster for the Risto Šiškov festival
This year, the award went to Petre Temelkovski for his performance in the play Filoctes under the direction of Ljubiša Georgioevski (whom Šiškov himself worked with).

But Risto Šiškov was not only a gifted theatre actor: he was also one of the first Balkan film icons—a fact the festival organisers were keen to remind the audience of. Besides the nine performances in the official competition, therefore, the this year's festival, which ran from 9 to 15 September, featured a comprehensive retrospective of Šiškov's film career.

His progressive, advanced—avant-garde, even—stance is apparent throughout the body of work he has left us. Academics and highbrow critics have seldom tried to view his films and their ideological content within the larger context of the place and time he lived in; the size of his achievements is such that it transgresses all spatial and temporal limitations and enters the abstract dimension of pure art. Watching him on the big screen feels like watching a contemporary film star of great talent and overwhelming presence, ready to star in the films of Michael Haneke or Quentin Tarantino.

Risto Siskov in Najdolgiot pat (The Longest Road, 1976) by Branko Gapo
Šiškov in Najdolgiot pat
His being ahead of his time is illustrated not only by the political connotations of most of his films (in which, between the lines or quite directly) he alludes to the idea of Macedonia as an independent state—an idea that, in Tito's Yugoslavia, seemed quite unachievable—but also by his acting method: he seems to have intuited and subscribed to, by virtue of his natural talent alone, many current contemporary trends.

In parallel, however, he remained true to the refined aesthetic criteria of his period, primarily to Jerzy Grotowski's concept of ritual theatre, violence and cleansing. (Both Grotowski's company, the Theatre Laboratory, and his manifesto, Towards A Poor Theatre were highly influential in the 1960s and 1970s touching, among others, Peter Brook and Eugenio Barba's theatre in Denmark). This influence can be particularly observed in Ljubiša Georgievski's Planinata na gnevot (The Mountain of Wrath, 1968).

An actor for all generations

Mother and son:
The Šiškovs in Mrsna
Born in 1940 in the village of Mrsna, in today's northern Greece and graduating from the high school in Strumica, Šiškov barely classified as somebody who could have anything to do with art. Art students in socialist Yugoslavia of that time tended to come almost exclusively from the families of members of the Party. Šiškov was one of those exceptions that broke the rule; his obvious and fascinating talent led to his enrolment with the acting department of the drama academy in Belgrade.

As he was so fortunate as to be able to create at the time of the generation of the summer of love (the 1970s were his golden years), and as he quickly established himself as a lead actor in mainstream productions by the Macedonian National Theatre, not to mention the A-list of Macedonian film, Šiškov was quickly described as a true star, a film-icon who appealed to people of all ages. Nicknamed "the Macedonian Marlon Brando" and often seen as an enfant terrible, he was somebody who, with passion, talent and natural acting, dispersed the old scheme of apparatchik-actors, socialist reciters and stiff servants of the system.

The freshness of his attitude is evident in films such as Ljubiša Georgievski's Republika vo plamen (A Republic in Flames, 1969), Najdolgiot pat (The Longest Road, 1976) by Branko Gapo or Kiril Cenevski's film Crno seme (Black Seed, 1971)—according to many the best Macedonian movie ever made. Through these films he captured the attention of the public throughout Yugoslavia.

Past master

Risto Siskov in Ljubisa Georgievski's Republika vo plamen (A Republic in Flames, 1969)
Burning talent: Šiškov in
Republika vo plamen
The other reason he attracted people's attention was the fact that he acted in films that were almost exclusively connected to Macedonian history. Most actors of that time fought to get roles in blockbuster productions depicting the Second World War, the so-called Partisan Films. Although Šiškov could not completely avoid accetping roles in such pictures, he minimised his involvement with them and tried to stick to films that had a patriotic Macedonian programme.

In Republika vo plamen, for instance, Šiškov plays, in a modern naturalistic style, the role of the revolutionary Pitu Guli who was fighting against the Ottoman Empire, an army considered to be far superior. Although aware that his squad would be defeated, he decides to give his life for the sake of his idolized and liberated Macedonia.

In Crno seme (a film focusing on the plight of Macedonians in northern Greece) he displayed once again a great depth and wide range of emotion while playing the part of a prisoner on a desert island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. The premise of the film was not welcomed by some supporters of the Yugoslav idea—including, according to some of his colleagues, Tito himself.

Furthermore, he was also somebody who had been "caught speaking in bars against the personality and work of Tito." For these and other reasons, he was many times arrested, detained and beaten by the police—which led to his early death in 1986.

Notably, almost none of his colleagues had the courage to defend him at the time. On the contrary, his difficult position was used in various ways to speed up the advancement of their own careers—which is further proof of the progressive dissident role that he played in Macedonian history. Socialist Yugoslavia has never had great dissident names like those in other countries of eastern Europe. The name of Risto Šiškov, however, is here to lessen this shame.

For generations of Macedonians, however, he will simply remain the man who, in the film Crno seme, once asked the question: "Which song are we going to sing—ours or yours?"

Igor Pop Trajkov

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About the author

Igor Pop Trajkov is a critic and film director based in Skopje. His articles have appeared in Macedonian publications such as Puls, Ekran and Dnevnik, the latter of which he now writes a weekly film column for, and his films include shorts, documentary work and advertising.

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