Director Goran Stolevski, whose film Of an Age opened the Melbourne International Film Festival, is having a dream year. By Andy Hazel.
Director Goran Stolevski
Goran Stolevski stands outside the Supreme Court of the Republic of North Macedonia, shielding his eyes against the late-afternoon sun. “This looks a lot like my childhood,” he says, gesturing toward a nondescript concrete building. “I grew up across from a post office just like this one.”
Days from calling “action” on his third feature film Housekeeping for Beginners, Stolevski contemplates relocating a scene from inside the courthouse, allowing the “post office” to feature in the background. His cinematographer uses an app to determine the position of the sun on the day they plan to shoot and deems its angle “good”. The production designer, sipping water in the stifling, windless heat, adds to her voluminous notes.
Already today we’ve visited a shabby apartment Stolevski considered “workable” for how its cramped interior reinforced the themes of cosy domesticity and the psychological pressure of being in a queer relationship in Macedonia, and a Roma community on the edge of Skopje, where a gaggle of children attempted to impress the director with soccer, bicycle tricks and mimicry. “You’ve already got the part,” Stolevski joked in Macedonian, to little effect.
His gangly, hirsute limbs sprouting from tight grey shorts and a white T-shirt, Stolevski squints as he frames the shot with his fingers. He moves with too much confidence to blend in with passers-by but enough to fit the description “sui generis auteur’’ that Variety used to describe him in its list of 10 Directors to Watch in 2022.
Stolevski’s second feature film, Of an Age, chronicles a brief and intense relationship between a 17-year-old Serbian–Australian ballroom dancer and his friend’s older brother, and was the opening night film at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival. It is joined by his first, You Won’t Be Alone, based on a Macedonian folktale about witchcraft – an unsettling and beautiful horror film that was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. His films have been picked up by Focus Features and will be distributed worldwide by Universal Pictures. But Stolevski is most famous for turning down an offer of $3 million to make his breakthrough film, You Won’t Be Alone, in English.
The film’s producers, Kristina Ceyton and Samantha Jennings from Causeway Films, told him that he had been offered an extra $3 million above the budget that had been approved. “There was no pressure,” he tells me. “I had invested my entire income into the film but I said, ‘I want to make it in Macedonian.’ They were like, ‘Exactly.’ ” Stolevski also turned down “an A-list actor” who was interested in starring in the film because he “didn’t feel connected to them” – another decision the producers supported. “To find producers like that in Australia, in a very – not ideologically conservative but aesthetically conservative – film industry, I still feel like it’s a hallucination. I can’t believe it actually happened.”
Watching Stolevski at work is a rare opportunity to see someone engaged in a job they were born for. He moves smoothly between languages; his head raised slightly, his chin drawn in, his voice deeper when he speaks Macedonian, while his Australian accent crackles with short Balkan consonants. He seems to have every aspect of the production so clearly envisioned and communicated that creative decisions seem more about efficiency and economy. It’s apparent how both his completed features were delivered to their producers on time and under budget.
“I’m a child of migrants,” he says. “That means I don’t like wasting money. I think adrenalin needs to be high for actors to connect to the world and the material. There is something in the urgency of ‘we have to get this done’ that is a benefit creatively to the crew and the cast and conducive to lower budgets. The benefit of growing up not that well-off is that I save every chance I get. Other people would consider me to be lower middle class now, whereas I would consider me rich. I’m comfortable and I think that’s enough.”
He invites me to dinner with his husband, Matt, a health researcher and surprisingly patient listener. We meet at a restaurant that specialises in dishes native to Stolevski’s hometown of Tetovo.
“In that town there were families with known surnames, and then there were the rest of us,” he says, spooning the bean-based staple tavče gravče from an earthenware pot onto our plates. “My grandparents were peasants, basically. We weren’t a known family, so when I was in class, I had to earn my spot by being very good at school. I was very bookish.”
By eight he had outgrown the books being recommended to him and enlisted his mother or aunt to procure young adult fiction from the school library. “At age 12, when I moved to Australia, I was reading for a little bit but then I shifted to movies in the same obsessive way,” he says. “I wanted to be around other kids but I just didn’t know how to interact very well. At 14 I’d go to Video Ezy Thomastown and borrow Ingmar Bergman, or I’d ask –” he gestures to Matt, “he’s heard this story 800 times – ‘Do you have Les Enfants du Paradis? I’ll spell it.’ And they didn’t, but they could order Battleship Potemkin in from Coburg.” He laughs. “I know! I’m living in commission housing and watching Battleship Potemkin… That’s my childhood in a nutshell.”
Leaving behind “90 per cent of my relatives” for a country he had only seen through Muriel’s Wedding, Stolevski recoiled at the sense of space in outer suburban Melbourne. “You could walk 40 minutes on the sidewalk and not see a human being.”
“Coming from here,” he gestures to the broad Skopje laneway full of pedestrians, buskers, waiters and diners, “this is quiet right now. Going to a place where you just didn’t see people, you didn’t know your neighbours, it was traumatising. And for someone who was already struggling at the time to be around people anyway…” He trails off. “Even at home, the walls were hollow. You’d knock on them and they were hollow. That to me was chilling and so representative of what arriving in Australia felt like.”
It was shortly after this discovery that he, in his words, “became gay, and suddenly Australia was fine because, my God, coming back here was tricky after that”.
After graduating from the University of Melbourne with a bachelor of creative arts and then doing a master’s in filmmaking at the Victorian College of the Arts, Stolevski secured a job as a Macedonian interpreter for SBS and occasional work as a writers’ room assistant on the television series Nowhere Boys, and later Barracuda. From there he began the long game of making short films, submitting them to festivals and applying for grants. When one picked up a prize at the Sydney Film Festival, funding materialised in Macedonia. It resulted in the short film Would You Look at Her, winner of Best International Short at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018.
On his return from the festival, Stolevski graduated from writers’ room to director at Nowhere Boys. “For three months I was solidly employed and living the dream,” he says. “I had always been taught that once you get into a festival, your career is set. I not only got into Sundance, I won a prize. Five Polish companies got in touch, French ones, American ones. Other than Kristina [Ceyton, of Causeway Films], no one in Australia emailed me after Sundance.”
Within days of that email, Ceyton had read four of Stolevski’s 10 completed screenplays and selected You Won’t Be Alone.
“You Won’t Be Alone was written for a script workshop in Macedonia where only seven people applied, so we all got in,” Stolevski says. “Of them, only four got funding and I didn’t get into the funding round for development. It got rejected at the lowest levels. I didn’t want to send it to anyone.” After this fortuitous meeting, Stolevski was unable to find work for two years and both he and Causeway Films were rejected for every funding avenue they tried.
“Then, on August 29, 2019, I got into [the Venice Film Festival funding project] Biennale College for the project that I’m shooting here,” he says, refilling my glass with a local red wine. “And on August 30 I found out there was a tax offset in Romania if you shoot there, which meant that You Won’t Be Alone was suddenly viable.”
The next day we visit Shutka, the country’s only Roma-run municipality. The landscape shifts from middle-class Eastern European suburbia to what looks like a mountain range of refuse. Towering peaks of plastic rubbish eventually give way to streets of partially built apartments and then a shanty town. As we pile out of the mini-van, Stolevski literally sets the scene: “And Tony goes, ‘Do you know Ali with the blonde hair? Which Ali? Ali the fag? Oh, that one. Follow me.” He runs through the sequence with the crew as we walk down a narrow road, a high concrete barrier to a new housing development on one side, the low walls and gates from which spread the open houses, drying washing and cattle yards of Shutka on the other.
Soon a woman in a pink shirt calls out and waves us over. “She’s saying she lives here and that we can come in,” Stolevski translates for me. The woman shows us her house, lamenting its condition, as her handsome adult son idles half-clothed in the doorway, smoking and eyeing us with curiosity. “They sleep on the floor and no one from welfare has visited for a while,” I’m told, before it emerges that we have been mistaken for government officials. After a brief and rapid conversation, they both laugh and hug. “It turns out she’s from my hometown.”
Stolevski is attracted to stories of outsiders and people struggling to assert their identity in oppressive environments. Critics note that they’re driven by an ability to powerfully communicate empathy with unlikely and often unfamiliar subjects. I ask if this is a product of being, as he has said elsewhere, “two degrees marginalised”.
“I didn’t get through life feeling marginalised. I was like, this is the reality. How do I make it through to live a life of meaning?” He pauses for a moment. “While I was borrowing Battleship Potemkin from Video Ezy Thomastown, I felt like life happened elsewhere. For a life to matter it had to be something cinematic. If it happened in a movie, that meant it mattered. So, my challenge to myself in writing Of an Age was to make suburban Melbourne in 1999 cinematic.
“My parents still live in the same suburb, and I would go back every week and the same feeling of emptiness came in. Since Of an Age the emptiness is gone, because writing it meant spending time with myself in that mental state. You have to be the soul that invests something with meaning. I always felt like there was a blank in my life between 12 and 18 and this means that there wasn’t.”
As we drive back through the outskirts of Skopje past vast dark concrete towers that even the directors of Chernobyl might regard as a little too monolithic, I ask Stolevski to tell me what it was about the post office that was so important. Was this another section of his life he wanted to invest with meaning?
He shakes his head. He would never put something in a film solely because of its personal importance. It must be the right scene, well lit and shot.
“For me, when I’m in a cinema and watching a film like Happy Together or La Strada or Everything Everywhere All at Once, where the audience is reacting together and enjoying it, I don’t give a shit about the audience,” he says. “The director is talking to me right now, they are giving me feelings. That post office gives me this feeling, and I know how to try to give someone else that feeling. Because the way my feelings will be preserved will be if someone else experiences them after I die. Someone else needs to feel it for it to live on.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 6, 2022 as "A new age".
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