Rade Serbedzija, the actor who plays the doomed photojournalist Aleksander in Before the Rain, is quick to point out the irony of the powerful antiwar movie's setting. The first major film about the ethnic conflicts that have torn apart the former Yugoslavia, Before the Rain takes place in Macedonia, which so far has not witnessed an outbreak of civil war. Since 1992 a U.N. contingent of more than 1000 troops, better than half of them American GIs, has patrolled the country's Serbian and Albanian borders. The ethnic cleansing and military skirmishes that have wracked Bosnia-Herzegovina have not spilled over into Macedonia. Yet.
"I'm afraid that this war [in Bosnia] can expand to other countries," reflects Serbedzija, in town recently to promote Before the Rain during the Miami Film Festival. In real life the fortyish actor with the salt-and-pepper beard looks every bit as wise, world-weary, and intense as he does on-screen. His faded blue eyes seem to radiate sadness and twinkle with mischief simultaneously. They crinkle at the corners when he laughs, and he laughs often. But they betray no hint of mirth when he discusses the bitter fighting that consumes Bosnia-Herzegovina and threatens neighboring territories. "Macedonia is in a not comfortable situation between Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Albania," the actor explains. "All of these states and countries have their own opinions about Macedonia and think they have rights to some piece of it. The Greeks are even against just the name 'Macedonia.' If it would be reason for war A and if I would be president of Macedonia A I would change name immediately."
Serbedzija, who still considers himself "old Yugoslavian," experienced no difficulties shooting the film on location in Macedonia. "There are not many people like me," he explains. "I am like Palestinian. I lost my country. My country is Yugoslavia. A lot of people got country. They became Slovenian, Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian, Macedonian. My parents are from the part of Yugoslavia now called Serbia. But I do not call myself Serbian. My country, the old Yugoslavia, died."
The actor was appearing in a play in London with Vanessa Redgrave when Before the Rain director Milcho Manchevski, a fan of Serbedzija's work in several Yugoslavian films, started looking for him. Manchevski's search encompassed Greece, Serbia, and Slovenia before he finally tracked down his soon-to-be leading man in London. Serbedzija read the script and immediately sensed that his countryman was on to something special.
"Milcho didn't want to explain in depth how wars start, just to touch on this point," Serbedzija speculates. "But he showed how easy war can start, how it can grow up from private conflicts between two men. It only takes two fools to start it. It's exactly what happened in the former Yugoslavia. Nationalists on three sides knew that they could keep power only if they got a war. They manipulated the media to convince their own people that the opposite side was responsible for horrible things. It was enough. In the beginning you have poor people who hate each other for no reason. Once blood is spilled they have a reason.
"Meanwhile the politicians drink whiskey together and talk in Geneva and New York," he continues. "Someday they will make some agreement and become again friends. But what happened to these people who died? They paid a really big price for all these new countries they got from the former Yugoslavia."
Such outspokenness has earned Serbedzija a few enemies. "I know that it's always danger for me when I'm talking like this because these bloody nationalists, they don't like that some of us has a chance tell the truth to foreigners. It's a danger for them," the actor reveals. "I am old Yugoslavian. My country is no more. I don't even want to dream about if it could be like it was [before the country split into several sovereign states]. I don't want to dream about possibilities. It's too hard."
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When he isn't expounding on the political strife in his homeland, Serbedzija guilelessly admits to excitement over the prospect of Before the Rain's stateside success leading to his being asked to act in a film in the U.S. (Serbedzija has an agent in London and is looking for one in L.A.)
"I want to play a cowboy," he laughs self-effacingly.
Serbedzija has cause for optimism. Before the Rain has opened to overwhelmingly positive reviews in the U.S. "I'm very happy," he beams. "A lot of people like this film, especially people who know movies A critics and other filmmakers. Of course I hope that ordinary people will like it also.
"I don't like this word, to say that you will learn something from art," the actor points out. "But maybe you will learn something new about my people. And of course if it gets nominated for an Academy Award, to be this evening in Hollywood with my friend Milcho and we'll have a chance to say to my people, to Yugoslavians everywhere in the world, 'Hey! Are you still killing each other?'"
He smiles ruefully and laughs. Then the smile fades. "And they'll say, 'Yes.'