When writer/director Goran Stolevski says that he can’t believe his film debut, You Won’t Be Alone, got made, he isn’t being modest. Not entirely, at least. A “strange” film, in Stolevski’s reckoning, Alone is a folktale set in 19th century Macedonia (and written in an archaic Macedonian dialect, to boot) that follows two shape-shifting witches and serves as a meditation in part on the socializing aspects of gender. In my review pegged to its Sundance debut, I wrote, “Think Orlando meets Malick meets Nell meets Kate Bush and you’re in the general vicinity.” I stand by that. It’s part body horror part fairy tale part elliptical philosophizing, and all together, a weird little movie that doesn’t feel little at all.
Stolevski recalled handing nearly a dozen feature ideas to producers Kristina Ceyton and Samantha Jennings, who reached out after his short film Would You Look at Her won a prize at Sundance at 2018. “I kept You Won’t Be Alone toward the end of the list because I thought it would be a little bit too esoteric to start with,” Stolevski explained to Jezebel recently via Zoom. “You know, this Macedonian language mood poem about witches in the 19th century, but it’s really about their feelings.” But they loved it and produced it via their Australian production company Causeway Films. “And then even two years later, I was on set and I’m like, ‘Really? We’re doing this?’”
Really, they were doing it. They shot in a small village in southeast Serbia called Pokrevenik, where Stolevski says there are no residents under the age of 65, a detail with its own fairytale flair. The plot of the film follows protagonist Nevena (played by a variety of actors, but most prominently, Sara Klimoska), who is raised in isolation after her mother cuts a deal with a witch who attempts to abduct her as a baby (and cuts her tongue, rendering her mute). When she’s 16, the witch comes back to claim her and show her the ropes of her particular kind of witchery—they shape-shift by stuffing organs from host bodies into ports on their chests. Nevena experiences life as different women (one of whom is played by Noomi Rapace), a child, a man, even a dog. All along, Nevena narrates her developing understanding of the world and what it means to be human through a kind of feral poetry (“Are women wasps?”; “Me, am I devils?”).
“The words she speaks in voiceover, her inner words, were really the conception of the movie,” explained Stolevski. “I kind of had the sense of her consciousness and then built the story and world around it.” That consciousness gives the movie a matter-of-fact approach to a bounty of gore. “To her, whether it’s entrails being removed from a human body or leaves, it’s all just surfaces that she’s not used to because she’s been brought up in isolation from them,” the director said. Though, he is not nearly as sober as his character when faced with literal guts: “I am the most squeamish human being there is. I tend to look away from any violence or gore, but I felt like I had to honor this person who is just curious about everything.”
Stolevski liked building his world through the nascent consciousness of his protagonist rather than relying on exposition, to which he says he is allergic. “I kind of want to be thrown in a situation, be interested enough to know what’s happening, figure out things gradually, and sort of come up with my own feelings—the film is just the setting for my own feelings as a viewer,” said Stolevski. “So it’s kind of making the movie for like a who’s similar to me in that sense. I think it’s kind of a collaboration really between me and of you, the feeling we come up with at the end.”
The elliptical You Won’t Be Alone manages to be both singular and conversant with a lot of pop culture that has come before it. But there’s a name that keeps coming up in reviews (I’ve already dropped it myself): director Terrence Malick, with whom Stolevski shares a meditative approach to capturing the natural world. Stolevski said that Malick is “obviously” an influence, but that his most overtly conscious influence was Virginia Woolf. He also name-checked novelist/experimental filmmaker Marguerite Duras. He joked that as a result of the continual Malick comparisons, that director’s name is “almost like it’s a triggering phrase in my life now. Every time someone says ‘Malick,’ I’m like, ‘Oh God, no! I’m sorry! I didn’t mean it!’”
Stolevski said he was similarly inspired by the way Hou Hsiao-hsien’s film The Assassin and Radu Jude’s Aferim! (both from 2015) played fast and loose with genre. Though the former is ostensibly a wuxia and the latter a Romanian western, Stolevski admired how they “used little bits of convention and then completely ignored others.”
“I wanted do that with a horror premise, essentially,” he explained. “You start with an idea, kind of sort of, and then as you build on it, it sort of starts to direct you. I don’t feel like I’m directing it after a certain point at all. So it became even less of a horror film as it progressed. There were maybe a couple of jump scares in the script that at some point just did not feel organic anymore, so they came out.”
And then, with a laugh he added: “I think you want to tap into something that then kind of takes over and you’re just kind of the person that’s talking to it rather than telling it what to do.”
Some reviews have detected a trans allegory in Nevena’s shape-shifting, and the character experiences sex with men and women in her various forms. I asked Stolevski if he considers You Won’t Be Alone a queer movie and he said laughing, “I think of me as a queer movie.” (Stolevski is married to a man.) And then he continued: “I feel like it’s up to other people to define what it is. It’s about how others experience it. I definitely didn’t want it to be limited, but you know, I wanted to depict things in an honest way as they would have been at the time. I didn’t want to sort of bring contemporary phrases or things and put them in this world. But at the same time, the feelings that are shaping culture now always existed so I wanted to honor that: As the person I am now, how would I functioned in this body at the time? It’s made from a queer consciousness. Ultimately I’ve put in everything of myself as I could in it. And then again, it’s about what comes out. What stayed in my head, I think, is a whole other thing.”