Macedonian-Australian director Goran Stolevski's incredible debut uses the tale of a body-swapping witch to ask what makes us human
The cinema of the former Yugoslav countries in the 21st century – at least in the small batch that makes it to festivals and theatrical release in the UK – has tended to prioritise realist social dramas about the big issues of the day: the trauma of the war that broke the country up in the ‘90s, cycles of inter-ethnic violence, and the failures of post-conflict democratic transition and corruption.
All well and good, but rare has been the jump into something more metaphysical, fantastical or surreal (although even when the country existed as Yugoslavia, such fantasies were relatively rare). You Won’t Be Alone stands in stark contrast to that trend – a strange, fluid, utterly bewitching fairytale, of the sort Balkan grandmothers might tell their grandchildren.
The film tells of Nevena (Sara Klimoska), a woman cursed as a baby to become a witch in a 19th century Macedonian village, deep in the mountains; her mother keeps her in a cave and she grows up without human contact. Eventually liberated and coming to terms with her powers, which include the ability to shape-shift, she moves from woman to man to child and back again, via the occasional dog, learning how to interact with others.
Macedonian-Australian director Goran Stolevski films all these proceedings in a deeply elliptical, hazy mood, drawing on Nevena’s voiceover throughout, constantly taking in the width and breath of the rural Balkan landscape. The bulk of the reviews of the film have labelled it “folk-horror meets Terence Malick,” which feels like a superficially obvious comparison (though there’s plenty of voiceover and images of nature). Instead there's something more of Nic Roeg here, especially in the way these images crash together to create new meanings.
Stolevski’s thinking is of greater clarity than Malick, too: his debut feature hinges on direct idea about what it means to internalise ideas about ourselves. What does it mean to be a woman, or a man, or a child in this world? Novena arrives practically as an alien, experiencing humanity for the first time (not a million miles from Bowie’s central role in Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth). When she assumes the visage of Bosilka (Noomi Rapace), she takes on her role matter-of-factly: parroting what other women in the village do, even as she remains without speech, and accepting the patriarchal demands of the world around her without question, including its abuses.
These patterns repeat themselves with variations as Nevena takes on each new persona – taking on more understanding at each point – but each actor is allowed near-complete freedom to build to that step. Much of the work was semi-improvised, and you can sense the actors (an international cast that includes Rapace, Carlo Cotta, and Felix Maritaud, as well as many domestic professionals) took the liberty afforded to them by Stolevski with both hands.
With the dialogue in an archaic, near-forgotten dialect of Macedonian, Stolevski also smartly has many of his cast play non-verbal roles. Thus, Rapace’s deep-set eyes begin to beam with curiosity. Maritaud’s childlike face is played against his chiselled frame. What emerges is a head-spinning trip through history, given an oblique point-of-view and freshness by Stolevski’s confidence and creative freedom. It all translates to an incredible debut.
You Won't Be Alone is released on various streaming platforms from 20 October.Where to watch