GOran Stolevski doesn’t like being in front of the camera. “That was the most awkward 25 minutes of my life,” the Macedonian-Australian director laughs on the phone, after a Guardian photo shoot in Melbourne’s Edinburgh Gardens. There is something artificial, he says, about sitting still, subjecting yourself to the steely gaze of a lens. At one point, he caught a glimpse of a test shot and cringed.
If the past 12 months have been anything to go by, he will have to get used to the exposure. In that time, Stolevski’s feature film debut You Won’t Be Alone – released this week in Australia – set his career on fire, earning him a coveted spot on Variety’s list of directors to watch before it even premiered in the USA, where it was met with a fit of raging acclaim. It was one of his two films to be screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival in August; the other, achy queer romance Of an Age, opened the festival – and just won it Australia’s richest film award.
“I think the last six weeks is more money than I’ve made in the past three years combined,” he says. “I said [my husband] to take a vacation. You will now be the trophy wife!’
Appearance – and their changeability – are important to Stolevski. His own – cropped dark hair, khaki T-shirt, silver necklace – is a kind of masculine cosplay, less a product of choice than a strategic decision. “How I look and dress has been shaped by trying to survive society without risking, you know, violence,” he says. “Or just the least stressful way I can exist right now. But in my head my feelings are like: watch this fucking movie! Do you really think of me as a Man?”
Gender (and, more broadly, personality) certainly gets slippery in You Won’t Be Alone – the twisting tale of Nevena, a young shape-shifting witch in a 19th-century Macedonian hamlet with the ability to assume the identities of other villagers. to take. Raised in captivity and armed with little knowledge of the world, she implants herself in a series of different bodies – a woman, a man, a dog, a child – played by a host of actors, including Noomi Rapace and the Australian Alice Englert. She emerges transfigured from every body.
North Macedonia is also where Stolevski spent his childhood, though he is quick to dismiss any autobiographical reading of You Won’t Be Alone’s setting. (“If you transplanted my brain cells to another human being in a 19th century mountain village” everywhere“I would be accused of witchcraft,” he says.) He had a “simple” upbringing in Tetovo, in the northwest of the country, where he slept with his parents and grandparents on a fold-out couch in an apartment before moving to Australia. moved. at age 12. “I thought we were going to move to this metropolis – I imagined something like Manhattan, as it is on TV… And then I was in a suburb of Melbourne.
“I didn’t realize it until I moved – everywhere was empty. I would walk 40 minutes and not see another person. I mean, you see dog walkers and joggers—” He pauses to laugh. ‘…but I don’t think of them as humans. It’s really, to this day, horrifying to me that there’s just no ordinary everyday life, hustle and bustle and movement.”
The world of the arts…is made up entirely of rich people discovering injustice in cycles of about 20 years
Everyone on the housing committee where he lived, in Macleod in Melbourne, was given a weekly voucher to the cinema, where he eagerly started watching films. Soon—like any precocious tween with a flair for melodrama—he borrowed Battleship Potemkin from the video store and hired Ingmar Bergman from the local library. “I’ve never had friends,” he jokes.
That sense of suburban sprawl—and the all-consuming desire for something, anything to alleviate its emptiness—finds its way into Stolevski’s second feature, Of an Age. Three teenagers, each charged with the sanguine optimism of adolescence, share a weekend of rambling ramifications into adulthood. Two of them fall in love as boys and confront their relationship as men.
Stolevski’s breakthrough came in 2018 when, after writing and directing a series of short films, one of them won an award at Sundance. “From the moment I got to Sundance, it felt like a hallucinatory moment… When I got the email I was ironing my husband’s shirts. My mother called me right away. And my father was on the phone, and he said, what does this mean? And I’m like, this means I made it, I’m going to be a filmmaker, I’m going to get a job from now on.
“And from the time I uttered that sentence, through 2020, for three years, I didn’t really have a job.”
A phone call from Causeway Films – the production company behind the cult horror hit The Babadook – changed his fortune. Put it out loud, it’s like a fairy tale: A studio producer asked for a list of ideas, read the screenplay for You Won’t Be Alone overnight, and decided it was that one.
You Won’t Be Alone is a horror film, though it doesn’t abide by the slasher styles of its predecessors, nor the tacky minimalism of recent “elevated” horror, which eschews jump scares for imaginary parables. There is certainly blood and guts galore – during the metamorphosis ritual alone, Nevena sees the flesh of her victim cut with blackened claws to extract their entrails – but a great curiosity runs alongside the blood. Newly released into the world, Nevena consumes all it has to offer: its bounties and its brutality.
That something as brutally outlandish as You Won’t Be Alone was created seems like a minor miracle in Australia, a notoriously hermetic—and, as Stolevski described it, “aesthetically conservative”—industry.
Any Australian director to the left of the mainstream is well acquainted with rejection, often shunned at home in favor of a flat rate, even if their star is rising abroad. Plus, this was a beast of a movie: an ensemble cast, an international shoot, and a script performed entirely in an archaic Macedonian dialect didn’t exactly make for a straightforward debut. Somewhere along the way, Stolevski was offered $3 million by a distributor to change the dialogue to English, a deal he promptly turned down.
“Australia [talks] always about diversity”, he says, “but then it has to be to feel Australian, and apparently things in a foreign language are not.”
All those worries ebbed away on set. After the toil of the Covid lockdown, he found himself in awe of the six-week shoot in a small Serbian town nestled amid mountains so green, so vast they could make anyone religious. “I was just merrily strolling through the most rural areas and dreaming of this story I had written with no real limitations… [I] felt so overwhelmed. And luck.”
I ask if there is a connecting treatise for the two functions he has made so far – and he replies with a question, “Is there? … I would like to know.” I offer something cheesy about the characters in both films who find passages from a desolate existence – suburban Melbourne, agrarian North Macedonia – by imagining lives larger than their own. “Yes. Jesus! Yes!” he exclaims. “Are you my therapist?”
The same expanse underpins his disdain for the identity labels he sometimes uses to portray him as a queer filmmaker, a migrating director. “I just think it’s something rich people use to entertain each other,” he says. “I went to a working-class public school – I didn’t even think about it” [diversity] because that was just the reality.
“[Then] I entered the world of art, which is made up entirely of rich people discovering what injustice is in cycles of about 20 years – and they always limit it to this way that becomes purely theoretical… [Through film]I want to feel like my soul is traveling to another place and connecting with someone else that I may never get to know and meet.
“And if that person is another Macedonian-Australian gay kid, like, ew!”