The Japan News Situated at the cultural crossroads of the Balkans, Macedonia is increasingly committed to anchoring its strategic orientation to Europe by reinvigorating its efforts to seek EU membership. With experience as a film director versed in the Japanese psyche, Macedonian Ambassador to Japan Andrijana Cvetkovik spoke with The Japan News about the former Yugoslav republic’s aspirations and its ties with Japan.
Q: What sparked your interest in Japan?
Cvetkovik: When I was 5 years old, I watched Akira Kurosawa’s movie “Rashomon.” Of course I could not understand anything. But as my mother recalls, I was running around, and when the film started, I just sat in front of the TV and didn’t move for an hour and a half. I was captured by the images.
When I was in elementary school, we studied haiku as a poetic form. I really liked haiku. I thought there was something very unique about Japan. How are they able to express so much by so little? In this kind of minimalistic style, you have to really carefully choose what you are going to put in. Selecting things, editing them and putting them together are what distinguishes the Japanese people. All these principles are embodied in haiku. I decided to be a filmmaker because of the influence of haiku.
I then studied at a film school in Bulgaria. In an Asian cinema class, we studied Chinese and Korean cinema, but somehow we were all captured by Japanese cinema.
My encounter with Japan has always been something magical. The main character of the first film that I made in Bulgaria was a Japanese lady that came to study in Bulgaria and she was part of the university. It was a very short 5-minute comedy without words.
I also did theater in Macedonia. When I was 18 years old, I directed my own play in one of the professional theaters, but during that experience I realized I wanted to make movies, not theater because I really liked the haiku principle of editing. In theater we have continuation, but in cinema you can pick [something] and juxtapose it with something else, and then you have a third meaning.
Haiku has really left a great impression on me as a person. I’m still writing haiku. I’m a very big supporter of haiku to be included in the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list.
Q: Can you name your favorite filmmakers from Japan?
A: That’s very hard because if I don’t mention some, they might feel that I don’t appreciate them. But I can mention several. I really like Kenji Mizoguchi. I think his movie “Ugetsu Monogatari” (Tales of Moonlight and Rain) is really classic. Of course, Kurosawa is also our all-time classic. From the new generation, I like very much Hirokazu Koreeda. I really love Masato Harada. He’s also my personal friend. Also, Yoji Yamada and Shunji Iwai [are my favorite film directors].
I hope Japanese film directors will become more famous abroad as well. Time will definitely serve in their advantage, but releasing their movies on DVD with English subtitles [may help]. Sometimes producers think there’s not enough market for these movies so they do not release them with English subtitles. But I would like them to do that so they will be able to cultivate generations of filmmakers that will have a higher appreciation for Japanese contemporary cinema.
The wanderer archetype
Q: In your doctoral thesis at university in Japan, you analyzed the theme of the “sasurai bito,” or wanderer, in Japanese cinema. Why did you choose that?
A: I first came to Japan to do research on digital technologies. In Bulgaria, I did a master’s thesis about the history of digital cinema. But I came to Japan and realized that the digital technology needed more time to develop. I became more interested in Japan as a country.
My research was about archetypes in Japanese cinema. I used Jungian and post-Jungian — Carl Jung — theory. According to that, there are several archetypes that are part of our collective psyche. One of the major archetypes that I followed was the hero archetype. According to my study, the hero archetype and the archetype of self are best recognized in the “wanderer archetype,” as I call it.
It’s a hero that is usually traveling around the country, or does not have a home, or for some reason he or she cannot be at home, or the most important part of their life is happening on some journey. I went back through Japanese mythology and literature. I then continued following these types of repeating characters in Japanese cinema.
From the mythology, one character that I used as an archetype was [the deity] Susanoo no Mikoto. Among other themes in the thesis were [Minamoto no] Yoshitsune [the young fugitive hero of the Genji clan], and Hikaru Genji [the main character in the Japanese classic novel, “The Tale of Genji”], the Zatoichi series [of dramas about a blind swordsman] and of course [director Yoji Yamada’s] Tora-san series. In contemporary cinema, these kinds of characters are continuing through the movies of Kitano Takeshi, Hirokazu Koreeda and Kankuro Kudo.
I am very grateful for having the opportunity to do this kind of research. I did my PhD at Nihon University. I had brilliant mentors there. I learned so much from them. I did my dissertation in the Japanese language. It was actually very, very tough.
Q: How do you compare filmmaking and diplomacy?
A: I find very big similarities. Someone jokingly said, “Diplomacy convinces others to buy your story and to believe in your story.” In filmmaking, directors just do that. When they tell you a story, they actually tell their perspective on that story. The story is the same, but the interpretation is different.
Film directors carefully choose the perspective of the camera, the music, the actors, the timing and the editing, in order to make the viewer identify with the story. Diplomacy in a way is to make your partner identify with your position and follow your vision, or at least, meet you halfway. It’s an art in the details. It has to be executed very carefully.
The other similarity is that film directors always have to see the big picture. While building the script, you have to start from somewhere and end somewhere else. Sometimes the story is not linear, but you have to know your message.
Diplomacy as well is a long vision. You plan how your countries will strategically be positioned in the world in the next 200, 300, 400 years. You have to plan these steps ahead and make moves step by step, having in mind the big picture. Having in mind the big picture is something that I think is a way of thinking that needs training, discipline of the mind, and patience.
I think that Japanese are very good at that. They have a very patient approach.
Tange made huge impact
Q: Is it hard to explain things about Japan to your country?
A: Japan enjoys such a great reputation in Macedonia. Macedonian people really love Japan and everything connected to Japanese culture, food and arts.
I think that part of history plays a very big role. In 1963, there was a very big earthquake in Skopje, which destroyed a large portion of the city. Japan was among the first countries to send aid very graciously. The most memorable is Kenzo Tange, the architect who through the United Nations submitted his project to revive Skopje into a new modern city. He also spent several years in Macedonia. He was at that time not as famous as he is now. However, the impact he had on the city is pretty big.
The other factor is the technical assistance Macedonia received from such organizations as the Japan International Cooperation Agency after its independence. As you know, a friend in need is a friend indeed. Macedonia actually reacted very fast when the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami happened.
The third reason is the Japanese people themselves. Whenever they visit Macedonia, I think the Japanese people are different from other tourists. They are very respectful and kind. The Japanese people are the best ambassadors of the country.
Q: As ambassador, what economic aspect of bilateral relations have you focused on?
A: I’ve focused on promoting Macedonia as a country for doing business and investment. The Republic of Macedonia is high in the World Bank’s annual report on ease of doing business. In the latest report, we were No. 11 in the world. We have about 15 free economic zones in which we offer special advantages for companies that want to invest.
Macedonia is a very small market, but we have a free trade agreement with the EU, free access to European markets. Independently we have a free trade agreement with Turkey and other countries. So Macedonia is actually a gateway to the markets in Europe, Turkey and the Middle East.
We do not have one sector in which we promote investment, because Japanese companies can choose any sector they want. But we can recommend sectors that have potential for higher growth or are very good for placement of the European market. One is the IT sector. Macedonia has very skillful programmers, IT specialists. It’s really grown in the past five years. Also, the investment in the automotive industry in Macedonia has been substantial in the past 10 years.
We are also introducing the food and agriculture sector. It has great potential.
Macedonia has some of the most delicious fruits and vegetables, although I might be very subjective. There are a lot of organic products such as tomatoes, paprika and wine. Macedonian wine is very famous. There are already four small companies in Japan that are importing Macedonian wine and we are very much interested to encourage their activities.
We have been working very devotedly in the tourism sector as well. We have held several seminars with the Japan Association of Travel Agents to attract Japanese tour operators to include Macedonia in their tours. This year we are organizing a familiarization tour for Japanese tour operators. We are also working on a project of making a bilingual website about Macedonia. We are hoping to finish that website by the end of March or beginning of April.
Q: The issue with Greece regarding your republic’s name has been a stumbling block for your EU membership aspiration. What is Macedonia’s current stance on this issue?
A: This is a very complex issue. What we can say is that the government of the Republic of Macedonia is devoted to overcoming this particular issue.
The fact of the matter is that there are intense negotiations on the highest level happening at the moment. The goal is an outcome that will guarantee the dignity of both sides. Without this, it will be very hard to have a sustainable solution.
This is a longstanding issue and having a dialogue is crucial. The reality is that the status quo is not beneficial to either country. Macedonian Prime Minister [Zoran] Zaev had a meeting with his Greek counterpart, [Alexis] Tsipras, in Davos [in Switzerland] in January, and there have been meetings between the foreign ministers of the two countries.
What is clear is that there have to be some concessions from both sides. The important fact here is that both sides are showing willingness for moving forward. The Republic of Macedonia, the Western Balkans but also Europe will benefit from coming to a mutually acceptable, dignified and sustainable solution of this bilateral issue.
It is important to highlight that we are looking forward to a fair EU accession process, based on [an] individual merit system. An efficient and fair EU enlargement, through which the Republic of Macedonia becomes an EU member state via implementing crucial reforms in the process, will provide Europe with a win in these challenging times.
‘Larger-than-life’ Tito’s death
Q: How did you perceive the breakup of Yugoslavia as a youngster?
A: I was born one year after the death of the great leader Josip Broz Tito. He was the president of Yugoslavia and a larger-than-life character in his time. So, in a way, my birth coincides with the disintegration of Yugoslavia, which was going slowly, and then Yugoslavia fell apart and Macedonia gained independence in 1991. The Republic of Macedonia gained its independence in a peaceful manner and maintains good relations with all its neighbors.
The Socialist Republic of Macedonia was the name during the time of Yugoslavia. So, in a sense, we had the Republic of Macedonia for many years, but it was the Socialist Republic of Macedonia and part of the federation. There was not a huge change.
Q: How should Macedonia take advantage of its multiethnic, multireligious character in the 21st century?
A: I think the way for us to approach the world is [based on] understanding that diversity is part of every nation. To diminish stereotypes is also important in order to build a world in which we can have non-homogenous societies that act as one.
Macedonia has a very longstanding tradition of cohabitation of different ethnicities and religions. Whenever you have a chance to visit Macedonia, you will see very beautiful old churches next to very beautiful old mosques. There are even synagogues. Different religious holidays are observed, and people greet each other in a very kind manner.
However, we should never forget that peace is a fragile concept. We should never stop contributing on an individual basis as well as a governmental basis to strengthening the foundation for peace. Peace can only be achieved through mutual respect and inclusion.
This interview was conducted by Japan News Assistant Editor Michinobu Yanagisawa.
Born in 1981, Ambassador Andrijana Cvetkovik completed her master’s degree at an academy of film arts in Bulgaria in 2005. She then moved to Japan to continue her cinema studies at Nihon University College of Art in Tokyo, earning her PhD in 2009. As a film director, Cvetkovik has created a number of distinguished works including “Time of the Wave,” for which she received an award from the Japan Association of Audiovisual Producers, Inc. in 2009. She assumed her current position in 2014, becoming Macedonia’s first resident ambassador to Japan. Speech