Goran Stolevski on You Won’t Be Alone: “The film is about witches, but it’s also about feelings!”

The Macedonian-Australian director's bewitching debut feature is a Balkan fairytale that grapples with identity and humanity. Fedor Tot talks to the filmmaker ahead of its UK release

Goran Stolevski’s feature debut, You Won’t Be Alone, is one of the year’s best films, a woozy horror-inflected fairytale set in rural 19th century Macedonia, about a young witch who discovers she can shape-shift. It’s a psychologically enriching and visually beautiful exploration of humanity, aided by exquisite cinematography and excellent performances. On the eve of the film's UK release, we sat down for a chat with the Macedonian-born, Australia-raised director.

FT: What is home to you?

GS: It’s hard to really quantify it now. My home is usually where my bookshelves and my husband are. I’ve never really felt at home in Australia, I’ve been there since I was 12. But I did just shoot in Macedonia, and it felt like shooting in a foreign country again, not in a bad way. I think the Macedonia I felt at home in no longer exists, because it died into childhood and nostalgia, and now it’s not somewhere I feel very connected to. But not disconnected either. There’s definitely a part of me that feels like I’m from the Balkans. I’m grateful to have that, there’s a different perspective of life that’s given me and then I feel lucky to have also grown up in a functioning OECD economy with access to the arts. But I struggle to answer that question! My address is Melbourne, but I feel my soul belongs to Eastern Europe more.

You’ve made a dark Balkan fairytale. Do you think that strange relationship to Macedonia has given you a different perspective on these stories?

I think both sides of my life probably inform that. I think if I had stayed in Macedonia I don’t think the film would look how it does. I also don’t think I would be able to make a film, because I’m not a rich person with an important surname, which is the only way you become a filmmaker in Macedonia and in most countries in the world!

The majority of the world is shaped by thousands of years of agrarian life like [in the film]. But it’s on the verge of extinction and it’s had this continuous life for thousands of years. I really wanted to document it before it disappears completely. The film is spoken in this dialect of Macedonian [Porečski] which isn’t widely spoken anymore, and I studied it extensively alongside the lead actress, Sara Klimoska, to make sure we captured these words. It’s very similar to how my grandparents spoke: when I would read the texts I would remember the melody of how they spoke and I realised that, if I don’t capture this now, it would disappear completely.

Historically in Balkan cinema, there haven’t been many films that deal with fairytales or the supernatural. Why do you think that is?

I think there is an attitude of looking down on anything that’s supernatural or even genre to an extent. It’s kind of a distorted inherited snobbery from what used to be western European culture… but I think there’s still remnants of that snobbery that’s solipsistic and misguided in the Balkans. It took a lot of effort with the cast and crew coming in just to explain “yes, I know the film is about witches, but it’s also about feelings!” I think there’s a lot of richness to it: a supernatural element is a very easy way to make a story transport someone in a way that’s very primal.

You’ve developed this improvisatory, freeing style – rare for a first-time feature. How did you achieve that?

It’s also about how [free] you’re allowed to be. I feel very lucky that my producers responded to how I wanted to shoot the work. There was no traditional coverage. An LA studio was involved; they had a few questions after the rushes and those questions were answered in a very straightforward way and they chose to trust us. It’s a small miracle that this film was made… it’s just a bunch of kids shooting this strange film in the hills of Serbia unsupervised!

How did you go about building this improvisatory space with your actors?

Actors are my priority on set, even more so than my personal safety sometimes. It’s about understanding what they’re going through not just terms in terms of the character, but physically in time and space, in this specific setting and having to conjure up these feelings… and feelings are not that easy to control.

My job is to create an environment where they can come out. It’s more about nurturing a space and a sense of safety. I shot-list obsessively, but at the start of each day I throw it out and deal with what’s in front of me. The shot-list is more about processing the story and having a back-up in case we’re running out of time and things aren’t working. I prefer to be surprised on set and discover new things, feelings and images that I didn’t plan for. But at the same time a lot of the film was exactly what was written, so I don’t how that happened!

You Won't Be Alone is released on various streaming services from 20 October. You can read our full review here.

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