Manaki Brothers - International Cinematographers’ Film Festival

A PORTRAIT OF STOLE POPOV: It’s a first-shot magic: a train, a dwarf and the author par lui-même

Sometimes, some things are left between the lines, and sometimes even left unsaid in the body of work of film auteurs. Are there any such moments in Stole Popov’s work? Let’s see…

He was born in Skopje, 20.08.1950. In 1973 Popov graduated film direction from the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Belgrade, in the class of Director Radosh Novakovikj. He made 10 short feature films as a student. Between 1974 and 1978 he worked as a freelancer and between 1978 and 1988 he was a director in Vardar Film, where he also served as general manager from 1985 to 1986. Starting from 1989 he has worked as a Professor in Film Director at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Skopje. He was one of the founders of the Triangle Film Production House, and in 1999 he became a member of the European Film Academy.


His started his film career with the short documentary FIRE (1974), which earned him the first award at the Festival of Documentary and Short Feature Film in Belgrade (popularly known as the March Festival) in 1974. He went on to create documentary films: the full-length AUSTRALIA, AUSTRALIA (1976), and the short DAE (1979) are documentaries that he was also awarded at the March Festival in Belgrade for, while for DAE he also got an award at the festivals on Oberhausen, Melbourne, etc. With DAE he entered the history of Macedonian cinema as the first Oscar-nominated film.

Starting from 1981 Popov shot feature films and so far he has made five long-feature titles that have achieved superb success at a number of international festivals around the world. Those are THE RED HORSE (1981), HAPPY NEW ’49 (1986), TATOO (1991), GYPSY MAGIC (1997) and TO THE HILT (2014).

To gain full insight into his filmography we need to list the credits he has a director of the short documentaries 99 (1973), FIRE (1974), CONSTRUCTION FACTORY “MAVROVO” (1977), WELCOME (1979), then as assistant director to Trajche Popov, his father, in the feature film THE VERDICT (1975) and the documentary KOSTA SOLEV RACIN (1975), as well as a writer of the film REUNIONS (1975), and as a music director in SHARPLANINA DOG’S WEDDING (1970) by the same author.


Popov has received dozens of awards for his work. Among the other awards, he has also won the Special Diploma at the March Festival in Belgrade in 1973 and an award from the Belgrade University in 99; the Golden Medal for Direction at the March Festival in Belgrade, the Best Film of the Year Award by Television Belgrade in 1974, the “Seven Secretaries of SKOJ” Award and he was the Yugoslav candidate for the Academy Award for FIRE; A silver medal for Direction at the March Festival in Belgrade for Alkaloid (1975); the Grand Prix and the Great Golden Medal at the March Festival in Belgrade for AUSTRALIA, AUSTRALIA (1976), and he was also the Yugoslav “Oscar” candidate for that year; DAE in 1979/1980 earned him the Golden Medal for Direction at the Belgrade March Festival, the Grand Prix in Oberhausen, Germany, the Special Jury Award “Silver Boomerang” in Melbourne, Australia, the Special Jury Award at the festivals in Leipzig (Germany), London (Great Britain) and at the Balkan Film Festival in Ljubljana (Slovenia)… At the film festival in Ottawa (Canada) DAE was listed among the three best films in the world, while at the festival in Los Angeles (USA) he got the accolade of the American Film Academy and was shortlisted among the five best documentary films in the world. Indeed, the greatest success that DAE and with it Macedonian cinema had achieved by then, is the Academy Award nomination.

In 1981, THE RED HORSE received the highest award presented by the state “11 October”, and in 1982 it got a Diploma at FEST in Belgrade (Serbia) and at the festivals in Los Angeles (the FILMeX Award) and San Francisco (USA).

In 1986 HAPPY NEW ’49 dominated at the former Yugoslav Festival in Pula (the Grand Prix and the Great Golden Arena for Best Film; the Milton Manaki Award of the Yugoslav critics; and the Golden Gladiator Award of the Yugoslav Film Academy), then the Culture Charter from the Culture Union of SR Macedonia; the Special Diploma at the Festivals in Jerusalem (Israel) and Munich (Germany) and the Grand Prix in Porto Allegre (Brazil), as well as the 13th November Award, and the film was also the Yugoslav Academy Award candidate.

In 1991/1992 TATOO won the Grand Prix at the Golden Mimosa at the Festival in Herceg Novi (Montenegro), it was the Macedonian Oscar candidate and it was nominated for the “Felix” Award of the European Film Academy.

In 1997/1998 GYPSY MAGIC was in the official competition at the festival in Montreal (Canada), won the Grand Prix, Antigone d’or at the festival in Montpellier (France), the Special Jury Award at the Festival in Izmir (Turkey), and it was also the Macedonian Academy Award Candidate and in the official selection for the Felix Award of the European Film Academy.

Popov’s last film, for the time being, TO THE HILT, had its premiere at the 35th edition of the International Cinematographers’ Film Festival Manaki Brothers, in Bitola, 2014; the film was the Macedonian candidate for the Academy Award for best Foreign Film, and it also participated at the Balkan New Film Festival in Sweden, 10. Balkan Film Days in Munich (Germany) and the Febiofest Festival in Prague (Czech Republic).


This is what Miroslav Chepinchikj, historian and film theorist wrote about Stole Popov’s oeuvre, in his book “Macedonian cinema – volume two”:

“The style of the documentaries FIRE and AUSTRALIA, AUSTRALIA is characterized by a particular cinematic articulation of life’s factography and it is exactly this that in the best possible way reaffirms the author’s spiritual connection with the tradition of the Macedonian documentary production…

The film DAE contains nearly all the underlying structural motives that stirred Stole Popov’s interest from the very beginning as a cineaste and which typical of his oeuvre so far. What comes to prominence here in particular is the metaphoric, Antaeus-like invocation and quest for the connection between a human and his land, as well as sublime visual evocation of this connection and the human destiny…

It is unnecessary to emphasize the fact that S. Popov, both with his documentary oeuvre and with the RED HORSE is a brilliant example of how to genuinely steer the creative fantasy… THE RED HORSE as his debut does not really resemble a first film in its unquestionable dramatic and visual qualities. Popov, with his renditions, undoubtedly set up a completely new authorial standards which would prove quite useful for the Macedonian feature production later on. Even without these comments, THE RED HORSE is a long awaited sum of aesthetic virtues, which had only been partially achieved in our cinema up until that point…

What I think is worth pointing out in relation to Stole Popov’s directorial method, or to be more precise, his visual poetics, is his very lucid use of trains as elements of dramatic moving sets with full visual resonance. Such an element was already found IN THE RED HORSE, but in HAPPY NEW ’49 it has been distilled to near perfection…”


It may seem like an ordinary part of the so-called trivia in the author’s filmographies, but here we must emphasize that the visual resonance that Popov draws out of trains is a part of an informal triptych in his feature films, which the author practices almost religiously. This triptych means that in every one of his films there is a train, a dwarf and an appearance of the author par lui-même (himself), like Alfred Hitchcock in his films.

When the film historian, Chepinchikj points to the “Antaeus-like invocation and seeking of the connection between a human and his land” (Antaeus is a giant, the son of Gaea, the Goddess of Earth and Poseidon, the God of the Sea; the great force), it reminded me of an informal discussion with actor Mladen Krstevski, who together with Meto Jovanovski, was often cast in Stole Popov’s films. Krstevski, who has played very effective supporting roles in all of Popov’s feature films with the exception of GYPSY MAGIC, lucidly remarked that the heroes in Popov’s stories always arrive on their (Macedonian) land from somewhere – on a train. But they also leave that same land by train.

Trains as a “moving, panting force” as this dramatic space is defined by Chepinchikj, occur in his debut feature, THE RED HORSE, when Boris Tushev (Velimir Bata Zhivoinovikj), as a political immigrant, together with this fellow-fighters from the DAG (the Democratic Army of Greece) roams around the wasteland of the eastern part of the Soviet Union, until they settle somewhere, but only temporarily.

In Happy New ’49, the train is effectively present in the opening and the closing scenes of the film. At the beginning Bota (Meto Jovanovski) comes home from the East, with the train arriving from the former SSSR, after Yugoslavia broke off with the Eastern Bloc; at the end of the film Pigi (Svetozar Cvetkovikj), in the cold new year’s eve of 1949, is holding the axis of the wagon of the puffing train in order to get away from that same Yugoslavia, but moving to the West.

In TATTOO, the main character Ilko (Meto Jovanovski), after an argument with his wife, wants to just leave everything, so he goes to the Skopje Railway Station in order to take the first train away from the city. It may be an exception that this character from Popov’s film does not arrive from afar on his own land, but he still does end up in prison.

Popov continues to make use of trains in his other feature films – GYPSY MAGIC and TO THE HILT. In both films trains act as very strong anticipatory visual idioms of destiny. In the first case GYPSY MAGIC, the main character Taip (Predrag Miki Manojlovikj) passes away from this world, stabbed with a knife in his stomach and chest, leaning against one of the wagons of the train that starts to move and pulls away towards the horizon. In TO THE HILT, two of the main characters, Tereza (Inti Sraj) and Filip (Martin Jordanoski), come to Macedonia on a train that symbolizes the “Orient Express”, to meet their destiny…

Furthermore, in all his five feature films a dwarf appears, and when it comes to the Hitchcock-like appearances by Popov, they are all short flashes, lasting 1-2 seconds.


The absurdist cinema, which also constitutes the dramatic essence of TATTOO, is a consistent realist thread (with naturalist ingredients) in his creative opus. When he paints his story’s characters, this space is often set-up within the boundaries of a family, and this is where Popov reigns supreme, extending this set-up further to GYPSY MAGIC and TO THE HILT. There is no space to read between the lines, and although Popov’s “personal triptych” has not been overly emphasized, it doesn’t mean that it has left anything unsaid.

To the contrary.

The Russian film historian Miron Chernenko, in the extensive study “The Macedonian Film”, (Cinematheque of Macedonia, 1997, Skopje), also takes note of Popov’s debut in the Macedonian feature production with THE RED HORSE in the “tumultuous eighties”, but not as some kind of a rookie, but as an already completely mature author.

Chernenko believes that HAPPY NEW ‘49 is probably one of the best cinematic achievements in Macedonian cinema throughout its history.

“… It is exactly HAPPY NEW ’49 that puts a line under the general Yugoslav cinema, and at the same time was one of the first harbingers of the Balkan cinema of the new epoch, which would only start several years later, but which was promised into the very subconscious of art long before it emerged to the surface, which broke through the screens in the unplanned testimonies of the impending breakdown of the entire system, in the various areas and republics in the Federation, within a tangible mutual connection”.

Consequently, it is not by accident that when the Cinematheque of Macedonia celebrated its 35 anniversary in 2011, for the first time it undertook a project for digital restoration of Macedonian films in order to permanently protect them and make them available to the broader public. The project included 7 films by Stole Popov: the feature films THE RED HORSE, HAPPY NEW ’49, TATTOO and GYPSY MAGIC, and the documentaries FIRE, AUSTRALIA, AUSTRALIA and DAE. The digital restoration was carried out by the Restart Production Company from Ljubljana, Republic of Slovenia.

The poetic circle that Popov’s films make is also enriched by some of the most popular dialogue lines from his movies. Just as there are some songs today that we do not even remember being authored by Jonche Hristovski or other authors, and we consider them to be folklore, there are dozens of dialogue lines coming from Popov’s films which are still used today (at least by the older generations) in the urban, colloquial speech.

The chroniclers of Macedonian cinema would certainly not fail to mention that in 1977 Popov shot one of the probably most successful so-called “special purpose” documentaries for the Skopje based pharmaceutical industry Alkaloid.

Last, but not least, among other things, Stole Popov is the author of two exceptional and highly effective music videos – one for the Partner cigarettes (with Franjo Lasic, actor and singer from Dubrovnik) and for Leb i Sol’s song Skopje from 1987 (which won the first award for best music video at the Festival of the Yugoslav Radio-Television in Belgrade; by the way, Popov also has a short, Hitchcock-like style appearance there too). In 1988, the music video for Gypsy Song from GYPSY MAGIC was declared best Macedonian music video in Skopje.

Has the circle been closed?

Who’s to tell… Popov has already had one huge gap between two of his films which lasted full 17 years (GYPSY MAGIC 1997, and TO THE HILT, 2014).

The name of the award that he is presented with now is Great Star of Macedonian Cinema. It would sound as a line from an Alan Ford comic if I say that stars shine until they go dark, but I have no other, more adequate and catchy line regarding any optimistic prognosis as to whether we are going to ever see another film by Stole Popov…

Stojan Sinadinov