The birth of cinema is attributed to the Lumière brothers in 1890s France, who captured a train pulling into the station at La Ciotat and workers leaving a Lyon factory in hurried bursts. Few people know that further east in Macedonia, similar early experiments were being played out in the hands of another pair of brothers: the Manakis. From 1908 they recorded a grandmother weaving, panoramic views of the countryside, the formality of a visiting Romanian delegation: the first film captured in the Balkans. The Manaki brothers loom so large in Macedonia’s cultural history that their name is given to the country’s largest annual film festival, founded in 1979 under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture.
Teona Strugar Mitevska is one of the latest young filmmakers to take up the tradition of the Manaki brothers in Macedonia. Born in the country’s capital, Skopje, she made her first foray into film as an actor, performing regularly on several long-running television shows. But restlessness ensued. “I was a rebellious teenager, and growing up in Yugoslavia was quite an ordeal if you were a little bit different. The system enticed sameness on every level.” After initially working as a graphic designer in Skopje, she was accepted at New York’s Tisch School of the Arts in 1998, where she studied filmmaking. Her first film was a short called Veta, about an arduous bus ride with a band of distressed passengers through dilapidated countryside. It won the special jury prize at Germany’s Berlinale in 2001. Mitevska’s concern with national identity has been evident from the beginning, with Veta’s closing frame bearing the phrase: “for the country that once was, and never will be.”
Her working process relies heavily on immediate family; in 2001, while in the planning stages for Veta, Mitevska founded Sisters and Brother Mitevski, a production company that includes her sister Labina and brother Vuk. Together they tackle the difficulties of film financing. “I make a film every four to five years. This is the amount of time I need to gather the finances, which includes lots of rejections, but it is all part of the process.”
Mitevska’s latest film, When The Day Had No Name (2017), is currently touring the international festival circuit and receiving plaudits for its scrupulous attention to the lives of teenage boys; how their mindsets reflect adolescent alienation in the face of Macedonia’s ethnic tensions. The narrative is based on a real life incident that occurred in 2012, when the bodies of four teenagers thought to have been professionally executed were found near a lake on the outskirts of Skopje. The ritualistic manner in which they were murdered shocked Mitevska. “The loss of these innocent lives affected me profoundly. I tried to imagine their daily routine, their dreams, hopes, ways of being in the hours before their deaths.” The film follows a group of teenagers as they set out on a fishing trip, capturing their social, cultural and political milieu. “I wanted to paint a picture of a society divided on the basis of religion and ethnicity: Albanian versus Macedonian, Muslim against Christian. I wanted to put forward the atmosphere of violence the young generations have been growing up in.”
“Growing up in Yugoslavia was quite an ordeal if you were a little bit different. The system enticed sameness on every level”
The teenagers are filmed in close-up for extended periods, locked in conversation inside their car or in dank, semi-urban locations. This creates a foreboding as to the characters’ fate. The film’s sound design is also unsettling, adding to the narrative’s presentiment, with long stretches of staccato strings. Because the film is a quasi-road movie, albeit without the carefree abandon often associated with the genre, the sound design is an ideal accompaniment to the bleak surrounds of city streets and a countryside littered with rubbish. I also had the feeling, while watching for the first time, of the sound imitating a struggling swimmer trying to catch their breath, of the strings gesturing ahead towards the fatal lake at the film’s end.
The Woman Who Brushed Off Her Tears (2012), Mitevska’s third film, explored the tragedies of two families through the lenses of their mothers. In Paris, Helena (Victoria Avril) is distraught after her son commits suicide after claiming he was abused by his father. Desperate to compensate for her loss, she tries to make Lucian (Arben Bajraktaraj), a manipulative deportee, a part of her life. She conspires to abduct him and travels to Macedonia. Lucian’s lover, Aysun (Labina Mitevska), is struggling for her independence after being sold off as a slave to another man, driven by the misguided notion that this would protect her from the shame of having an illegitimate child. Both Aysun and Helena must forge their own place in a male-dominated world. What makes the film unique among Mitevska’s work is its use of magic realism. While never heavy-handed, her use of wolves to convey a character’s psychology is straight out of fairy tale lore, as are the numerous abnormal coincidences, where characters are thrown together conveniently for the plot. When seen together with her latest film, it’s striking how both narrative drives rely on a similar sense of fatalism, that despite the struggle of the protagonists there is little they can do in the face of larger cultural and political forces.
While visiting Macedonia’s second largest city, Bitola, in 2015, I was invited to a film screening of Mitevska’s most well-regarded film, I am from Titov Veles (2007), in an abandoned, underground car park. The location was what the locals call grubo: rough. As I made my way to the back of the dimly lit space, sitting among a group of enthusiastic local cinephiles, I noticed that the folded green chairs — many dotted with cigarette burns — had been etched with the words Klubot Manaki: The Manaki Club.
When darkness fell over the car park and the projector lit up with I am from Titov Veles, I was captivated. In one of the opening scenes, three sisters clothed in sprightly summer dresses lie locked in an embrace on a large, rose-patterned bed. The bed, and the interior of the house more generally, acts as a sanctuary from the austere urbanity of Veles, a town blighted by unemployment, poverty and lead poisoning in the post-Tito era. The three sisters and their restless predilections shape the narrative drive, where the virginal Afrodita (Labina Mitevska) has chosen to remain mute since her mother walked out on the family and her father died. Afrodita’s twin sister Sapho (Nikolina Kujaca) is a promiscuous handball player whose sexual exploits leave her unfulfilled, while Slavica (Ana Kostovska), their older sibling, is a recovering drug addict whose beauty cannot disabuse the town gossips from casting her as damaged goods. Afrodita and Sapho try to hatch a plan to marry off Slavica; if a breadwinner can be assured they will have the chance to emigrate and leave the confines of Veles behind. By end of the film, after following the characters repressed desires to flee, we come to understand that their noxious hometown stands in for Macedonia as a whole, a landlocked country ill at ease with its communist past.
Mitevska is very aware of the country’s peripheral role in European cinema. “A new Macedonian film is not such a hot item. My last [Macedonian] film that was well distributed was I Am from Titov Veles. Before that there was Milcho Manchevski’s Before the Rain (1994) and that’s it for Macedonian cinema.” While this isn’t strictly true — Stole Popov’s Gypsy Magic (1997) and Darko Mitrevski’s Bal-can-can (2005) among others have done well — it does speak to the difficulty of film production in a country with limited resources. Looking ahead, Mitevska is working on a new film called God Exists, Her Name is Petrunija, which is also based on real events. It follows a woman from Stip, in eastern Macedonia, who is cast as a Joan-of-Arc character after being apprehended by the police on trumped up charges. “She becomes larger than herself. She’s a very simple woman who is only looking for justice. And, as the story develops, she becomes this symbol of feminism. It’s got a lot of absurd moments, and there is humour, which I’ve never done before.”
“I wanted to paint a picture of a society divided on the basis of religion and ethnicity: Albanian versus Macedonian, Muslim against Christian”
As a provocative voice in eastern Europe, Mitevska’s films stand out for their acute portrayal of youthful torment. Her focus on the trials of adolescence not only depicts a culturally specific milieu in Macedonia, but also the universal coming-of-age experience. Her take on the Bildungsroman is less than straightforward, often charting the journeys of multiple protagonists within a single film. While this can at times make for an opaque experience, in terms of narrative flow, it is ultimately the tender way she is able to reveal the characters’ inner workings that mark her out as an exceptional director.