FREE MOVIES. THE UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON'S Cinema Study department has set up a series of 'em, open to the public, Mondays and Wednesdays throughout April and into May. All of them are foreign films, and while some have played Seattle before (Macedonia's Before the Rain, France/Spain's Latcho Drom, Russia/Kazakhstan's Prisoner of the Mountain, U.K.'s Bhaji on the Beach, France's Marius et Jeanette), there are plenty of first-timers (Hungary's Memoirs of a River, U.K.'s Love Story, Sweden's The Hunters, Germany's Everything Will Be Fine). As with most free stuff, there's a catch: Going under the title "Conference on Contemporary European Cinema & Ethnicity," most of the films will be introduced by professors, and some by the actual directors - which means you may just learn something. It's a small price to pay for free movies.

The only film that's not in Kane Hall is the opening night selection, Milcho Manchevski's Before the Rain (1995). A movie in three artfully interconnected parts--the first and third set in Manchevski's native Macedonia (in "the former Yugoslavia"), the second set in London--Before the Rain won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award, and even got a release in the States in 1995. Manchevski will introduce the film, and may even talk about his rocky relationship with Hollywood (he was publicly ejected from the Robert Carlyle vehicle Ravenous, currently in theaters).

Knowing that people change over time as much as countries do, I dug up a previously unpublished interview I did with Milcho Manchevski four years ago, when he was on the publicity tour for Before the Rain.

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After high school you moved to the States to go to school. What motivated you: the idea of leaving, or the allure of America?

I just wanted to get the hell out of there. I think a lot of people want to leave at that age. I wanted to get out of there, to study film, and I also wanted to come to the States because it has such an incredible lure. I don't think Americans realize how much of a lure it is for everybody else, and not just for the Third World. I think it's more the concept of it than what it really is. It's the concept of going to a place where you can start all over again.

I got a scholarship from Southern Illinois University, I got [government] money, and I rented out my house. Money-wise it was okay. In terms of papers, it was very easy, actually. The hard part would have been getting the American visa, but as a full-time student, it's almost automatic.

Then you started working in industrials and music videos?

After film school I went back to Yugoslavia, where I had a film that never really got off the ground. Some older directors didn't want upstarts sharing their piece of the cake, and they managed to kill the film that I was developing, so I went back to the States. That's when I started doing industrials, shorts, music videos.

Did the success of your video for Arrested Development's "Tennessee" help you get Before the Rain off the ground?

No, not really. It may have helped if the film were American-financed, but it was financed by British Screen and a couple of other companies. Those people just don't watch MTV. It was mainly the script.

Part of the idea behind the script is returning to Macedonia. When you returned, how different was it?

Well, most of my friends had gained weight, some had lost their hair. Actually, it was a bit of an emotional homecoming. I don't know how much the place had changed and how much I changed, but I was glad to be back. At the same time I sensed this expectation in the air. Those two things--coming home and the expectation of something happening--were the beginning points for the film.

Has there been any fighting or conflict there?

No. It's ironic that the film takes place in Macedonia, because it is the only part of what used to be Yugoslavia where there has been no violence at all. I always try to emphasize that this is not a documentary, but that this kind of situation could exist there, and it could easily exist other places in the world. Couldn't you imagine this taking place at an Indian reservation in the States?

The photographer character is obviously a stand-in for you.

I didn't say that!

The press packet describes him as unpredictable and dangerous. Do you see yourself that way?

I'm sure my producers would see me that way.

How does that come into play with the responsibilities of making a film?

It's a constant conflict. I really think I was very predictable, unfortunately. The photographer is impulsive; he makes decisions that look as if they just happened on the spot, but they have very serious justification in his head, in his history. But he doesn't talk much, he doesn't explain much, which makes him appear impulsive and unpredictable. He's not a conformist.

What effect would you like to have come from this movie? What would you like to have people learn or recognize?

I'm quite cynical. I don't think I'm going to change anyone's mind. One important theme to me is watching, observing, being a passive participant. By now we have all become passive participants because communications are so good. We see everything. For us who live in the West--I would include myself here part-time--the film really talks about this passive participation. How sometimes you cannot switch the channel, to come out of your TV, which is what happens in the second section.

With the characters in the film I noticed the theme of needing to take sides, to be decisive. How does that relate to you?

I've been talking about nationalism that breeds violence, which to me was taking sides. In high school I got very involved in politics, as much as you can at that age--I was very passionate and idealistic--but when I realized it was all a big manipulation and illusion, I stopped dealing with it. This was the first time I was really talking about politics since then.

Anything else you would like to add?

Basically, it's all love stories. It's only in the background of these love stories that you deal with the moral issues, the war and the consequences of war. In general, I need about two or three years to pass to be able to say, "Oh, that's what it meant!" Now I can look at things I did two or three years ago and see what's crap and what's good.

See for yourself what's crap and what's good at the Conference on Contemporary European Cinema & Ethnicity at the University of Washington, April 7-May 5. Free!