Jani Bojadzi does not look like a man who could instigate a diplomatic furore.
It was only after recently seeing his controversial film Mocking of Christ with hundreds of local Macedonians at the Macedonian Community Centre in Broadmeadow on January 28, that I came to appreciate how Bojadzi himself, in both demeanor and appearance, personifies the very location in which his film is set.
For the audience, the journey towards peace and security in their homeland of Macedonia has been an arduous one. To this day it has seen them locked and engaged in an economic and diplomatic struggle for ascendancy against their much larger southerly neighbours.
After the premiere, the director suddenly looked small beneath the enormity of the screen overhead, like Macedonia itself - squinting beneath a spotlight, beholden to a imperious powerhouse that is and has always been the people of Greece.
When he spoke his words resounded with a powerful resolve. It was a message that resembled that of his own people. It is one thing for one man to look lost and a long way from home, it is another to be truly threatened by those living next door to it.
The warmth of the applause that followed must have come as a welcome relief to Jani Bojadzi. In October 2018, when the film opened in Skopje - the capital city of what is now to be referred to as Northern Macedonia – a furore instantly erupted. A story depicting brutalities inflicted by Greek militants upon Macedonian civilians may have been expected to spark an outrage over the border, but less predictable was the incendiary response in Macedonia itself.
Before sharing Mocking of Christ with the world, and winning an Innovation Award at the 2018 Montreal Film Festival, Bojadzi found his film banned in Greece. Were it not for an eleventh-hour legal intervention in Skopje, it would have been banned in Macedonia as well.
While the Mayor of Athens threatened to sue the production company responsible for the film, the Macedonian Prime Minister publicly expressed his disapproval. With a single, albeit poignant and sumptuously-shot piece of cinema, the director appeared to have alienated himself from both sides of the political debate.
But none of these realities have discouraged Bojadzi. When I was welcomed to speak to him about his work, I encountered not only an advocate for his cause, but an emboldened artist committed to spreading a message that is still inspiring controversy.
And when I walked in to the sanctum of this community – their Orthodox church and their generous reception for Jani Bojadzi, I was graciously embraced with curiosity and enthusiasm.
So what I had previously imagined would be a quiet and private interview with the director became something else entirely.
The President of the Macedonian Orthodox Community of Newcastle, Sash Stojcevski, may have been a stranger to me initially, but I quickly became aware of how he and the film director had come to represent, in that same room, the contemporary face of the Macedonian people. What Bojadzi had achieved across continents with cinema and provocation, Stojcevski is now doing, here in Newcastle, with consultation and community.
His efforts, alongside younger leaders like Simona Gorgievski, to bridge the generational chasm between the new and the old – to bring avant-garde provocateurs like Bojadzi to a largely ageing demographic in Newcastle – has introduced a novel modification to an older cultural network. For Stojcevski it is about paying homage to the then by imagining, through millennial eyes, what might be achieved in the now.
It is a strengthening of ties through the search for new connections, for dialogue with people who might otherwise pass their community by. Put in the simplest of terms, I couldn’t imagine many visitors like me remaining a stranger to Stojcevski for very long.
It is perhaps in this pursuit, to preserve the Macedonian identity by better connecting the present to the past, that Bojadzi’s visit to this city was treated with such reverence.
“It is very symbolic that Jani agreed to bring this film to Australia and especially to Newcastle”, Stojcevski says. “It allows our ethnic Macedonian population and our community members to see the injustices that have occurred. It also allows younger Macedonians who descend from the Aegean region of Macedonia like Jani Bojadzi does, to be presented with facts and then to heal,” he explains.
For Simona Gorgievski, a 22-year-old marketing student at Newcastle University, the significance of Bojadzi visiting Newcastle can best be explained in the context of her own past, and how her experience represents that of her cultural family here in Newcastle.
“As a second-generation migrant of Macedonian heritage in Australia, all I wanted in my childhood was a name that my teachers could pronounce,” she says.
“I wanted to blend in, driven by the fear of standing out. Fast-forward 10 years and Newcastle has welcomed one of Macedonia’s bravest modern patriots, Jani Bojadzi. He not only heralds a story of a silenced Aegean Macedonia, but within that teaches us not to be afraid. To never stop fighting for what is in our hearts.”
In a way that bookended my initial impression of the director, there was nothing imposing or intimidating about Jani Bojadzi.
For a man who in parts of his homeland has become a figurehead for political agitation, and a hero for shining a light where few have ever dared. His message was, and is, a simple one of pride in and connection to his people. Of keeping the historical story of Macedonia alive.
As he stood before his audience, Bojadzi spoke quietly to those who sat before him.
“My film is about you people”, Bojadzi said. “Many of my characters, who are fictional persons in my movie, are here in the Macedonian community. They are prototypes that are here in this room and that are around me everyday,” he says.
“After you have seen this film, you will understand that the Second World War never finished in Macedonia. If we stop talking about this, about our fathers and our grandfathers, we will not find the solution to living in peace. I am sure that my art, the art of cinematography, has a power. It is to show the audience this solution and to show them all toward a better way of life.”