One-on-one | Film

Teona Strugar Mitevska: We live in a hysterical moment

By - 08.03.2023

Macedonian director talks about her latest film, the Balkans and why she’d never live in any other time.

Teona Strugar Mitevska was sitting with her sister Labina in the lobby of the famous Holiday Inn Hotel in Sarajevo. It’s unclear if it was the environment, the moment, or something else, but there was something she couldn’t hold in. She decided to tell her sister a story she heard from their mutual friend and co-worker Elma.

The story goes something like this. Elma grew up in Sarajevo. During the war, she was shot by a sniper whom she met face-to-face many years later. It’s very likely that they would not have recognized each other had it not been for an unusual detail mentioned during their conversation — a blanket through which he shot and hit her.

Today a screenwriter, Elma Tataragić told this story to Teona, who saw the story as completely incredible. They thought about making a film out of it, but Elma was categorical about not wanting to make another war movie or explicitly documentary work.

“Imagine if it all happened right there, in the hotel,” said Labina, who’s an actor, as the two sisters sat in the Holiday Inn. They quickly began fantasizing about some sort of gathering at the hotel as a backdrop for Elma’s story, until Teona stepped on the brakes.

“Labina, we can’t do that. This is Elma’s story,” Teona recalls saying. “We don’t know how she’d react.”

After the conversation, however, Elma said, “Great! When do we start?”

Fast forward a bit and we get the film “The Happiest Man in the World,” which reaches theaters across Bosnia and Herzegovina on March 9. After its premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September 2022, the film has been featured at countless festivals.

This type of roll-out is normal for the director; her first creative work, the short film “Veta” (2001), was awarded the Special Jury Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival. Her next film, “How I KIlled a Saint” (2004), premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, making her the first Macedonian woman to direct a feature film. With her story of three sisters “I Am From Titov Veles (2008), she returned to the Berlinale and subsequently won dozens of awards around the world.

She collaborated with Elma Tataragić on the films “When the Day Had No Name” (2017) and “God Exists — Her Name is Petrunija” (2019). “The Happiest Man in the World” is their latest collaboration. It was Elma’s idea that the main characters of the film, played by Jelena Kordić Kuret and Adnan Omerović, meet unexpectedly during a speed dating event.

The crew of the film “The Happiest Man in the World”. Photo: Courtesy of Restart production.

An emotional story about coming to terms with the past and forgiveness, about love, life and death, was screened at the Belgrade Authors’ Film Festival late last year. After the screening, K2.0 spoke with Teona Strugar Mitevska about the film, war and struggling with dinosaurs and the new generation.

K2.0: You said that this story is a kind of love letter to Sarajevo. Have you lived there?

Teona Strugar Mitevska: No, never. During the war, I lived in the United States as an exchange student. I finished secondary school there and continued my studies. But my first film, “Veta,” is based on the story of Sarajevo. It’s also a true story of how my best friend from Stolac, Amer Turković, escaped in a bus.

My whole career started with this film. It was shown at the Berlinale, received an award, and doors started opening for me. The film was a closing of the circle for me because I was in America during the war and I didn’t understand anything, like many of us there. Why did this war happen in the first place? I was angry for a long time. I felt like this war took everything away from me. It really messed us up.

That’s why I always felt connected to Sarajevo. Then I started working with Elma on the film “When the Day Had No Name.” Then “Petrunija” was a really personal story for me, dealing with all my frustrations about growing up and living in my community. In the end, we were presented with the opportunity to film Elma’s story. I think that was a brave act on her part because it’s a very intimate story.

Are you afraid that audiences, especially the younger generation, will say that this is another war film? We often hear comments about people being tired of these films, that we should make more cheerful movies.

That’s why we looked for a more modern context for the story, this odd speed dating. Love is important. Being accepted and finding a soulmate, that’s what matters to us.

After Venice, I screened the film in Toronto. And after that, I was invited to screen the film in Kyiv. It was essential for me to show the film there, because of the story.

And how was that experience?

Very interesting. Of course, this film was difficult for Ukrainians. For us, war was 30 years ago, while they are in the midst of it. However, I was invited to several panel discussions and I could see candor in their relations. At this point, they’re thinking about what to do after the war.

They had a lucid view of some of the things that we in the Balkans, 30 years later, are still not considering… Well, it’s not to say we don’t think about it. But we avoid it.

It’s tough to go on if you don’t face the truth. But we don’t all have to have the same truth. The reconciliation process doesn’t mean you must be 100% reconciled with someone. The process is important because it allows you to tell your story, and it allows me to tell my story, which will lead to us at least agreeing on something. And even if we agree to disagree, it’s a start.

This film gets to the heart of the issue. I wouldn’t call it a war film. It’s a post-war film about how to move on, how to build something constructive and not just go around in circles, which is what our reality has become.

“We prepared this film like a play”, says Strugar Mitevska. Photo: Courtesy of Restart production.

There are some really poignant scenes in the film, some of which I assume are based on true events. What was the most difficult thing for you and Elma in this film? Was there any part of the story you thought you couldn’t shoot?

I felt an enormous responsibility because I’m not from Sarajevo and because Elma allowed me and rather than someone else to tell her story. So I spent a lot of time researching, collecting testimonies, and talking to people all over Bosnia and Herzegovina. Many of these stories and intimate details went into the script.

My biggest fear was that I wouldn’t be consistent in portraying all of these experiences. Who am I to tell this story? But Elma told me rather directly and early on, “Teona, this is my story. Now go and make the most of it.” With that confidence I got from her, everything became easier.

Even now, when I watch some scenes, I think to myself: My God, are they acting, or did that really happen?

How did other actors and actresses react to the story? I suspect that many came to the shoot with their personal experiences.

It was important to me to portray as authentically as possible what post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) means and what it’s like to live with it and survive. The film is just an evocation of the truth.

In terms of casting, the actors are all from this area, and many lived through the war. I care deeply about working with the actors, so we prepared this film like a play. For six weeks, we rehearsed and then shot. And everyone was working non-stop. We were guided by the principle: Don’t look for the camera, because the camera will find you. The shooting was highly intensive, because we wanted to capture the truth, to capture the tension of the moment.

Even today, when I look at some scenes, I think to myself: My God, are they acting, or did that really happen? This reality was crucial because I was afraid I’d portray something inaccurately or exaggerate something. But I did my best.

The film was shown in several countries, including North Macedonia. Is there a difference between the reactions, especially among the Macedonian audience, considering that this country seems to have had the least painful relationship with the breakup of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia?

After the premiere in Belgrade, people left the hall flooded with emotions. Elma told me that she felt like we were beating people up — that’s how strong the reaction was. That still has a strong impact on us.

The same thing happened in Macedonia. There, too, people were completely taken over by the story’s emotions. We somehow managed to save ourselves, but that doesn’t mean that our country didn’t experience difficulties during the disintegration of the former common state.

When you met with journalists, you said you believe in reconnecting the region, there was talk of the forgotten legacies of Yugoslavia, the Non-Aligned Movement, and more. How do you feel about the Yugoslav era, and what is the modern Macedonian perspective?

My 20-year-old son describes himself as Yugoslav. He’s of French-Macedonian descent and also has a bit of Montenegrin blood. Yet he describes himself as Yugoslav, a Marxist, a hardcore leftist. That is also his lifestyle. However, he’s studying in France, and there, the context is different.

I think that here we also have to believe in the good, that the younger generations will create something better, that they’ll get us out of this terrible right-wing mess. Because this isn’t only happening in our countries, but all over Europe. I don’t know what Macron used to be, but today he’s a right-winger.

When I started 20 years ago, it was strange — a woman on set! I had to fight with the dinosaurs.

But you know what, this time is very interesting. I’d never choose another time to live in. As far as freedom of expression, as far as individual freedoms go… Just consider that I’m the first woman in Macedonia who produced a feature film. When I started 20 years ago, it was strange — a woman on set! I had to fight dinosaurs to prove to them that I had the right to be on the set.

Just look at what’s going on these days. It’s the same with sexual orientation. The freedom that exists today is a wonderful thing. My only regret is that none of that existed when I was a teenager. I would have had the opportunity to decide more freely about how I wanted to live my life.

The fact that my son can choose who he wants to be and how his generation wants to be is wonderful.

So you believe that their generation can change things for the better?

In that sense, in terms of feminism and freedom, it’s all great. At the same time, we have to be aware that there is terrible self-censorship, political correctness. People are eating themselves alive. The right-wing is also on the rise. We live in a very hysterical moment. Everything is being taken to extremes. Complete openness and complete closed-mindedness.

I really believe that we’ll reach a certain equilibrium when all this is over. It’s obvious that humanity is evolving in this way, through the measure of extremes, so that we can find some balance in the midst of it. Eventually, our planet will fall apart. Either we’ll start working together, or we’ll kill each other. If the latter happens, we don’t deserve to survive.

One of the most interesting scenes in the film is a party where the main character is talking with a group of young people. It quickly becomes clear to the viewer that the people in the group are under 18 and have no memory of the war.

Yes, but it’s been scientifically proven that PTSD and trauma in general don’t just stay with you, they stay with your children and their children. Three generations in total. It has been proven that the grandchildren of people who were imprisoned in concentration camps have a strange relationship with food to this day.

These children can reject as much as they want to accept that this is part of our history, but it’s woven into their DNA, and there is no escaping it. So what’s the solution? To ignore it? Or to face it and find ways to understand it as an integral part of one’s being?

I think the whole Balkans is still suffering from terrible trauma. All of our politicians are traumatized. We all have PTSD. And that’s why we’re all hysterical.

“So what’s the solution? To ignore it? Or to face it?” Photo: Courtesy of Restart production.

Although this film is just being released in the region, you are already at work on a project about Mother Teresa. 

Yes, I am preparing a film about seven days in the life of Mother Teresa when she was 44 years old. Everything takes place in Calcutta, which makes this film my first English film.

It’s actually a film about a person freed from the myth of an ambitious woman working under a structure imposed by the Catholic Church, trying to achieve her goals.

In recent years, her work and her person have been highlighted again and again. How is it that she has suddenly become so controversial?

I have wanted to make a film about a woman, a historical figure, for a long time. The fact that someone is controversial is not a problem in and of itself. We are all human beings — whether we are saints or not. This film will explore eight temptations of Mother Teresa.

What kind of temptations? Are you afraid of the reactions of the audience in North Macedonia?

The Macedonian audience will not have a problem with it, but I think we have already seen reactions worldwide. An artist isn’t brave if she doesn’t address certain issues. I mean, someone has to do it.

Eight or nine years ago, I was working on a documentary about Mother Teresa, and I was in Calcutta at the time. Since she’s an Albanian from Skopje, I had the opportunity to do an interview with the nuns who founded the order with her and who knew her well. She is fascinating. She acted like a general. She is a very, very interesting person.

As a woman, I have to talk about this issue. I’d die if I didn’t make this film.

I’m not interested in praising or condemning her. I’m interested in the character of this woman who worked miracles at that time. But how did she do it? What were her dilemmas? That’s all part of the human condition, and it’s very interesting. I think it’s important to demystify saints. A person is a person, right?

But it’s true that we may see controversy because the movie touches on love, motherhood, and abortion — all these aspects that are very important and very relevant right now. As a woman, I have to talk about it. I would die if I didn’t make this movie.

You are the first female director of a Macedonian feature film. You always collaborate with your sister Labina; you worked with Elma on some scripts for the last few films. Do you find it easier to work with women?

Yes, it’s easier. My team is mostly women, about 90%. But that might be part of my character. I’m very competitive and when I work with men I’m always in a kind of race. It’s awful.

Over the years, I kind of realized — because I’m very collaborative and team-oriented — that I just work much better with women. I used to work with men, but somehow my team, even though it is all over Europe, is mostly women.

Maybe it comes from my frustrations growing up in the Balkans and having to prove my worth as a woman in this industry. That’s probably why I put up some defenses.

What’s important in the end? Feminism is important, but it doesn’t work without men. It’s there to open doors for everyone who is, so to speak, second class. That includes women, various minorities, and so on. I think that when we talk about feminism, it’s important not to leave men out.

Together with your sister and brother, you run the production company “Sisters and Brother Mitevski” and have co-produced numerous European films. Of all the films you have been involved in, perhaps the most successful was “The Wild Pear Tree” by the acclaimed director Nuri Bilge Ceylan. What was your experience working with him?

Nuri is amazing! He and Lars von Trier and Alexander Sokurov are among the most important film directors in Europe. Nuri is a poet — every movie he makes is like poetry. We tried to become part of something bigger than ourselves, which is part of the history of cinema.

As a director he knows exactly what he wants. He is very precise and stubborn in his vision, and then you have to respect it. Maybe that’s a little troubling, but it doesn’t seem to be too much of a problem for us women. At some point, male directors get so out of touch that they don’t listen to constructive criticism. And I would say that this is a small problem in the way Nuri works — in terms of the length of his films.

We, women, because we have always had to fight to get things, we know how to listen, we know how to compromise… So we have an advantage over men — we know best how to survive in this world.

Feature image: Ivan Blažev.