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Mitevska: The church told us “God exists and he’s a man”

Teona Mitevska’s latest feature film God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya, premiered at the Brussels International Film Festival (BRIFF) last week. In an interview with MIA, Mitevska discussed the production process, as well as her hopes for the film. She also addressed the wild allegations surrounding her previous project When the Day Had No Name.

Brussels, 10 July 2019 (MIA) – Teona Mitevska’s latest feature film God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya, premiered at the Brussels International Film Festival (BRIFF) last week. In an interview with MIA, Mitevska discussed the production process, as well as her hopes for the film. She also addressed the wild allegations surrounding her previous project When the Day Had No Name.

What do you think of the film’s reception in Belgium and in Europe in general?

During the production process, I had no idea the film would end up being screened in 35 countries. Given the current conditions in the industry, it’s a miracle it was so widely distributed and embraced by the audience. This is the 11th week it’s being shown in France and it has already been seen by 34,000 people, which is a significant number for a foreign film.

We’re yet to see how it will be received in Belgium. The distribution here is moderate, but the theaters where the film is shown are excellent. It’s important to me how it will be received in Brussels, because this is where I live. I want audiences here to like it, just like I want audiences back home to like it.

It was young immigrant girls who asked all the questions at the premiere. Were they your target audience?  

I had no target audience. However, every artist wants their art to be seen, so we counted on the fact that this film will attract the female population. I didn’t expect questions from younger audiences, both here and in Australia, because most of the European film-goers are over the age of 50. But, evidently, young people are returning to the cinemas and are interested in discussing hard-hitting topics.

I feel a change is coming after the latest trend of extremist tendencies. When you’re making a film, of course you want people to see it, but more importantly, you want to inspire change.

What was your inspiration for this film?

God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya was inspired by actual events. The girl who actually charged after the cross should take all the credit, she is the true heroine in this story and the rest of us were just inspired by her.

As an artist, I’m constantly trying to explore the foundation of time we live in. When I’m looking for inspiration, I’m constantly reading and gathering information. This event happened a few years ago and it was actually Labina who first read about it. The story immediately inspired frustration. A girl charged after the cross for the first time and none of the Macedonian feminist organizations discussed the motives behind her action. The media covered the event as an entertaining news story, without raising a debate.

We can’t create democracy without first facing our problems head on and discussing our present situation and future endeavors. This girl’s action was very unusual; one can’t help but wonder what her motivation was. It can raise a debate about multiple aspects of our society, including out system, nepotism, religion, beliefs and the position of women. The movie was born out of this frustration.

So, you approached the subject like a reporter?

I try to use this approach in all my films, including my previous project When the Day Had No Name, which discussed macho culture, the multiethnic conflict and how young people are unable to define themselves as anything other than macho and aggressive.

That’s why we created the overly caricaturized character of the journalist, played by Labina. We wanted to create balance between her and Petrunya. The two complement each other and are meant to promote female solidarity. They show that we should help each other because we’re all working towards the same goal.

I was meaning to ask why the character of the journalist was so caricaturized?

Slavica brings an important touch of humor to the film. The character was based on the characters of Woody Allen, Almodovar, and the characters from the Black Wave.

She is observant and always goes to extremes. She is the response to Petrunya’s initial inertia. Pertunya starts off as a lethargic character; no one expects her to do anything. But the two complement each other. Slavica is the person who guides Petrunya and gives her the keys to her freedom.

Did you think the movie will raise a bigger debate in our society?

I definitely thought it would raise a bigger debate. After every project, I think about what I could have done differently.

Labina and I discussed this question thoroughly. I see how films are distributed abroad, and there is no doubt that we have a lack of cinemas and film distributors here. French distribution took months to get organized. In addition, people rarely go to the cinema anymore.

If I could change things, I would definitely contact all feminist organizations up front. Despite not raising a bigger debate, the film was also shunned by the political elite.

Why do you think that is?

We live completely isolated which does not allow us to face reality. It’s like we suffer from PTSD.

My films are meant to provoke. I believe art should be provocative and pose hard-hitting questions.

Do you think this is due to the controversy surrounding your previous film, When the Day Had No Name?

I don’t know. Ever since I started making films, I’ve insisted on artistic independence. I never wanted to get ahead because of my political affiliation or nepotism, a practice that has been poisoning our society for years.

The film was said to have been financed by state funds and you were accused of spreading propaganda…

State funds belong to the people and politicians are just here to serve the population. The film budget also belongs to the people; film funds are not granted by political parties.

I have a responsibility to secure the film’s initial financing, before establishing co-productions. Euroimages and five co-productions collaborated on Petrunya. In the case of When the Day Had No Name, it was Euroimages together with Macedonia, Belgium and Slovenia.

When all the allegations started, I felt as if I was living in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.  All attacks were identical, attempting to censor the film, which at that point no one had actually seen. At first I didn’t understand it, but then I realized that all allegations stemmed from one source.

I know that the film discussed a sensitive topic, but the whole point was for us to understand how we got to the point where we started killing each other. The film analyzes contemporary society and criticizes the fact that we don’t know how to live together. If nothing else, it’s a plea to make an effort to build a better future.

Is Petrunya a victim of its predecessor or do you think our society is still not ready to discuss these topics?

I think it is. After Petrunya was shunned by the Skopje elite, the film was screened throughout the country, and the feedback was highly positive. I got letters from young men and women who understood precisely the message the film was trying to convey. People here are smart and open-minded, but the society keeps bringing them down.

The script was submitted anonymously, but I was told that after my identity was revealed, certain people did everything in their power to prevent me from getting the funds. After we got the funding the pressure was enormous. The former head of the Macedonian Film Agency Tozija was under a lot of pressure, but he and the French Ambassador Thimonier had our back, they were our guardian angels.

When the Day Had No Name came out while I was working on Petrunya. We were under a lot of pressure, but Ambassador Thimonier went to see the film. He and EU Ambassador Žbogar asked to meet with minister Alagjozovski. In addition, they talked to the head of Euroimages, met with members of the government, etc.

There were even rumors that the film was going to be blacklisted. Can you imagine?! I know Tozija was under a lot of pressure, but he acted very professionally.

Can you tell us more about the church’s reaction to the film?

The main inspiration for the film was the young woman who charged after the cross in Shtip. Unfortunately, her life became unbearable after that event and she moved to London with her mother.

When we went to Shtip and said that we were doing a film about the girl, everyone told us we were crazy, and had a lot of negative things to say about her and her family. It’s really hard to cope with small town gossip. Had she lived in the middle ages, she would have definitely been stoned to death.

We were supposed to shoot in a church, during the celebration of the Epiphany. Labina contacted church authorities, sent them the script and told them the film was called God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya. A week later, they responded, saying thanks but no thanks, we want nothing to do with you or your movie because God does exist – and he’s a man.

We were anxious, but Labina talked us through it and by the end of the production, everyone in Shtip was somehow involved in the project, except for the church.

If the issue was never resolved where did you shoot the church scenes?

We shot the church scenes in Struga and we were anxious that this would cause trouble, but no one complained.

Art really can change the world. In January, another girl from Shtip charged after the cross and was actually allowed to keep it.

Tanja Mileska

 Tr. by Monika Mihjalovska

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