“Frustration for creation is very good”: Director Teona Strugar Mitevska on the the local scandal that inspired God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya
In 2014, Teona Mitevska received a call from her sister in Macedonia. A local scandal had just erupted where a woman jumped to win a religious prize exclusively reserved for men. It was an egregious act that Mitevska saw as fertile ground to sow a larger story about the place of women in society. She used the event as a pretext for her spectacular and probing film God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya.
During the 69th Berlinale, we sat down with the fiery filmmaker and discussed her drives as an artist, her connection to her Macedonian roots and the necessity for female filmmakers to be taken seriously by distribution.
You mentioned it’s a film that was made to some extent from frustration. Can you speak to that?
Frustration for creation is very good. It’s very important. Why? We spoke about the deep response of the media. When this happened in Macedonia, you would think that there would be a public discussion around this and the good questions would be raised: women, religion etc. There was nothing. The response was “a woman jumped. Ha ha ha. How funny”. Simple curiosity.
We were outraged! How is this possible that such a thing can happen and nobody understands the significance of the event. The problem with Macedonia is that we are still unaware of the liberties we have. We don’t use them to the full extent. We must make a film and maybe we will start talking about these things.
You left Macedonia many years ago. Why did you leave? How did you manage to create a such a delicate, detailed portrayal of the region?
I left because I wanted to see the world. It’s very difficult to return but I am extremely connected. I feel responsibility to talk about my troubled society. I continue persistently to tell stories of Macedonia.
It is sometimes helpful to be outside because it gives you a certain perspective on things. It’s not so personal because you see things from distance. [The film] is co-written by Elma Tataragic. She is Bosnian. We live in the Balkans. We understand each other. It is the same. We face the same problems. It was not distant for me at all.
Is Macedonia going forwards or backwards?
I think forward because we don’t have a choice. You have to open yourself up. I think there is a certain awareness finally. Not that it’s perfect. It’s a big mess. There are attempts that are positive. I am a big believer in the European Union. We need to create a more democratic society, more justice for all, everywhere in the world but I am talking about Macedonia. I think the EU institution forces you to make certain changes.
Can you talk about casting Zorica Nusheva?
It was sort of magical. I met her and I recognised it. I was happy to show her beauty that doesn’t fit into the mould that we usually expect. She has this quiet strength. It is very personal and it comes from her. We met one another on that level.
I love this collaboration. Cinema is not one person. You make an interview with me but it is not me it is the writer, the DOP, the actors. For me, it is a two-way street. I love to have this collaboration and I profit from it and it makes the material richer.
You had a great editor, Marie-Hélène Dozo: how was your work with her? How did she contribute to the shaping of the story?
She is incredible. I love her sense of rhythm. She has a certain understanding that I do not have. I have great respect for her. I remember seeing the first rough cut and saying, “Oh my God, who is this director? Who made this film?”. It had such an energy that she gave it… She is essential to the project.
Is the film for Macedonian people specifically?
I think it is for the whole world. The problems it attacks are problematic questions that we all pose to ourselves. Yes, it’s a film that depicts a very specific society but so many questions that are raised (the religious dogma, the establishment etc.) are things that we are all deeply concerned with in the world.
As I said at the premiere, distribution is important. Who makes decisions about distribution? Unfortunately, it is men. Now we have opportunity as women filmmakers; we make films. Now we have to push to the next step, which is for these films to be seen, for women’s films to stop being seen as unbankable. Not just a festival pick. I think the audience has the intelligence and are open. Audiences are so much more intelligent than what we provide them with and I have no idea how we have gotten to this point. Capitalism.
You started the movie before the #MeToo movement. Would you say it is good timing?
I was thinking a lot about the #MeToo movement. Lots of people have a problem that it is not ideological enough and so forth. What is beautiful about the movement is that it shows us that when you are in greater number and when people unite in solidarity you can change things. Really, it is incredible what the movement has done.
A good movie is a good movie and it shouldn’t matter if it is made by a man or a woman. Can you speak to the accentuation that a female made a good movie?
It is very tricky. It is important that we make good films. You should not be in competition of a festival if you don’t make good films. But you must be aware that we don’t live in a just world and that this is a new movement. Yes, there will be exaggeration but it is part of the process. Sometimes affirmative action is necessary in order to create change. So yes, but I think it is better this way than the other way. The other way, you are going against a wall. You’re going and going and your head will burst. You don’t continue. There are many openings that are very positive. It was very difficult for Agnieszka Holland, it’s much easier for me today and it will be much easier for future generations. I am certain. That is so beautiful.
Is it difficult to be a strong woman in this culture and in this environment?
Of course. It is very strange because in communism we had equal pay. There was no difference between men and women. And, now we don’t; it’s absurd. It’s so complicated and so complex. We have strong women who have stayed from the time of communism but when I look at the younger generation… I was 17 when Yugoslavia separated. Now it’s about stars and the Kardashians. What kind of an influence is this? It’s crazy and we must be aware. Is it difficult? Yes.
Photo: Joze Suhadolnik
God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunya (Gospod postoi, imeto i’ e Petrunija) does not have a UK release date yet. Read our review here.
Read more reviews from our Berlin Film Festival 2019 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Berlin Film Festival website here.