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Last week, Macedonian film God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya was crowned 2019’s Lux Prize winner, an award given out by the European Parliament to help significant European films find an audience beyond their national market. Beating fellow finalists Scandi doc Cold Case Hammarskjold and Spanish political thriller The Realm, the comedy-drama uses a real life story as its jumping off point.
Zorica Nusheva in her screen debut stars as the title character, a 30-something woman living at home with her parents in a rundown suburb. Beaten down by the patriarchy, one day she spontaneously takes part in a religious competition for men and wins. Refusing to give the prize back, she finds herself hauled into an entirely male driven police station at the behest of the parish priest. From there, Petrunya gives voice to the voiceless and fights the system.
Thanks to the Lux Prize, the three finalists have been translated into the 24 different languages of the EU and shown in each of the member states. Following her film’s win, co-writer and director Teona Strugar Mitevska told journalists at a post-prize ceremony press conference at the European Parliament in Strasbourg; “For such a small film to have access to so many European screens, it is an incredible opportunity. Do you know when a Macedonian film would be seen by such a large audience? Never. So, this is maybe a renaissance for our cinema and freedom of expression.”
HeadStuff had a chance to speak with Mitevska in Strasbourg the day before her film was announced the Lux Prize winner. The following is that conversation.
Congratulations on being a finalist for the Lux Prize. God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya is an evocative title. It sums up the themes of the movie very well but also stands out in a market of very generically titled movies. When in the process did that name come about?
If you look at my filmography, all my titles are long. I write actually the title before the script. The title came when I heard the real story and when I started thinking about how to develop it into a film. It is a provocation. It evokes the story. The title itself consists of the core idea of the film but also it is connected to something personal. Growing up I never understood why God is a man. Today, I don’t understand why God needs to have a gender.
The movie tells a story about institutionalised misogyny and how that crosses over into all of society and the Church’s role in that. Did you bring any personal experiences to the film, examples of double standards that exist between men and women you may have faced in your career?
Yes, I’ve been facing this double standard culture since I was born. I mean, I don’t think there exists a woman in this world that has not felt it on her skin.
It is an exciting time because times are changing. In the past 10 years, we are discussing openly these problems. Petrunya really carries everything that frustrates me as a woman in the Balkans. When you make a film, you want to say many things. Through this very simple story, I was able to get a lot of frustrations out.
Your sister [Labina Mitevska, producer and co-star of Petrunya] told a story at the Venice Film Festival at one of the Lux Prize panels about how when you first started making movies, you were being told how to direct by men on set.
Totally. It was after that we decided to create our production company [Sisters and Brother Mitevski] because we said: ‘We cannot survive in this world’. I remember making my first short film surrounded by 50-something men. I’m setting up a long moving shot – the characters are moving in this very complicated mise-en-scene set up. This man comes to me and says [Mitevska takes on a condescending tone]: ‘Teona, now enough is enough. This is not how a film is shot. I’ve been working in this industry for 50 years. You have to shoot [Mitevska mimics cutting from one perspective to another] you me, you me, you me.’ I’m like: ‘Would you dare talk to me like this if I was a man?’
When I started making films, I had to act like a man, like a truck driver in order to be taken seriously. What I noticed after making the second and third was that I was spending so much energy pretending to be something that I’m not. It took me a long time to get the confidence and be myself on set. That was my personal struggle.
When I say, we live in exciting times – when I talk to young directors they don’t go through this struggle. There’s an advancement. And it’s beautiful to see.
One of the most satisfying things about your new film is how when Petrunya is brought into the police station, while she spends a lot of time having cops scream and pester her, she still somehow feels in control of the situation. You almost feel like she’s interrogating them too.
Yes. She’s not like that at the beginning. The first time we see her is under the bed cover when her mother brings her food. She is somebody who you would never expect to achieve what she does by the end of the film. So, I guess it is the situation she finds herself in plus the empowerment she got from her education – because she’s a historian – that give her the tools for how to go through the situation very wisely, much wiser than any of the men or the powers that surround her.
When you develop a character, you start from something very simple and you know where you want them to go or arrive. It was a natural development, but there is always a message or idea behind it. This quiet strength Petrunya has is something that I dream to have, that I dream to achieve. We talk about changing the world. But the idea is can we change the world without violence? Can we do it with discussion? That’s what’s behind it. There are other ways than standing on each other’s throats.
Your sister also said at that panel that when Petrunya came out in Macedonia, there was a few newspaper critics who wrote along the lines of: “Why do these sisters make such political movies? Why don’t they make comedies?” I wanted to follow up on that because while Petrunya is very political and dramatic, it does have a comedic energy.
Totally. It is a satire. All our films our very critical of our society. Whatever comes out from the Sisters Mitevski, it is under attack right away. But you know, there will always be people who will say: “Why don’t you make a film about the beauty of Macedonia?” Because I’m not a tourist guide. I talk about things that concern me deeply and yes for some, it is difficult to see such a harsh picture of the society.
Yes, there was a lot of criticism when the film came out. But then the film worked. People went to see it. We devised an alternative way of distributing Petrunya within the country and people came and saw the film.
What was this method of distribution?
We don’t have many cinemas. Basically, we would take the film and every weekend create a cinema in the old cultural centres left from Yugoslavia. Three projections, a very low price for tickets – just enough so people who worked on this were paid and people would come.
So, at first the film didn’t work so well in the capital because people said: ‘Oh, that’s not for me.’ But then inside of the country it worked very well. The public is intelligent and wants to be challenged. Everything that we think the public is not able to accept, they can. And what we started – this alternative way of distributing – now it’s been followed by two other Macedonian films. We started maybe a trend which is wonderful. After all, the films are made with public money so they have to be shown to this public.