“We eliminated these plus signs.”
The film The Great Water from Macedonian director Ivo Trajkov begins with an elderly man named Lem experiencing a heart attack. As he loses consciousness and is whisked into the hospital operating room, Lem’s memories take him back to 1945 when he first entered a Stalinist Macedonian orphanage. While there are other orphanages for the children of war heroes, this particular orphanage (once an abandoned factory) is reserved for the children of “fallen enemies, the wealthy, traitors, and collaborators.” Built like a fortress with impregnable concrete walls, it’s impossible to escape. The orphanage is run like a prisoner-of-war camp–with rigorous exercise, inadequate food, and constant physical punishment from dawn to dusk. All the children here are treated viciously and with arbitrary brutality. Indoctrination occurs in the classroom, and although punishments are supposedly decided collectively, the corrupt system’s rules of retribution and reward, make it perfectly clear exactly what will happen if anyone steps out of line. This system, naturally, also encourages bullying, reporting, toadying, and other revolting and predatory behaviours.
Lem (Saso Kevenoski) soon latches on to a new arrival–a quiet boy named Isak (Maja Stankovska)–a boy who appears to possess strange powers, and who also refuses to deny his belief in God.
The Great Water depicts the horrifying cruelty of the Stalinist run orphanage, and the film is at its best–and most subtle–when it depicts the indoctrination of the children. Unfortunately, the film is too clumsy for its own good. The attempt to show Isak as some sort of “devil’s seed” weakens the film considerably, and this just confuses the plot and adds to the heavy religious symbolism. One scene for example, depicts the monstrous warden (Mitko Apostolovski) asking a classroom full of children whether or not they believe in god, and he whips out a confiscated cross, and then dares the terrified children to acknowledge their faith. The next scene concerns a pair of red running shorts awarded to Olivera (Verica Nedeska), one of the older monitors. These shorts are supposed to be directly from Stalin, and when they go missing, the camp officers lead a frantic search. Several times, the point is made that the shorts are “holy objects” etc, and the connection between the rejected cross (“we eliminated these plus signs”) and the “holy” shorts is all too obvious. Yes, ironically, one may not worship the cross, but one may worship these shorts. This fact becomes a much-belaboured point. We get the message … but it’s these sort of clumsy gestures that spoil an otherwise decent film. In Macedonian with English subtitles.