Teona Strugar Mitevska on Telling a Story About Having the Audacity to Define Yourself in “God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya”

Teona Strugar Mitevska was born in Macedonia. She started as a child actor, and trained as a painter and a graphic designer before studying in the MFA program in film at New York University’s Tisch School of Arts. Her award-winning feature films include “How I Killed a Saint,” “I Am from Titov Veles,” “The Woman Who Brushed Off Her Tears,” and “When the Day Had No Name.” Together with her brother Vuk and sister Labina she founded Sisters and Brother Mitevski, a production company based in Macedonia.

“God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya” premiered at the 2019 Berlinale. The film opens in theaters and virtual cinemas June 25.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

TSM: This is a story about having the courage or audacity to define yourself by your own rules — and by doing so, liberating yourself from the traditions that imprison you.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

TSM: It is a story that processes everything that frustrates me and has frustrated me in the past related to being born as and living as a woman in the Balkans.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

TSM: Each of us — no matter the gender, size, or color — has the power within and the right to change society.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

TSM: Although in the center of the story is one character, Petrunya, she is constantly surrounded by a minimum of 40 additional actors and extras. Directing them all was a true challenge, and a first for me — I usually work with a five character cast maximum.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made. 

TSM: The European funding system works. It takes time since the funding comes from several sources, but it is attainable. “Petrunya” was funded by the film funds of five countries: Macedonia, France, Slovenia, Croatia and Belgium. On top that, there is Eurimages, a trans-European fund that co-funds European co-productions of two or more co-producing countries.

We also had pre-sales for France and some other smaller funds for pre-production and script development.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

TSM: I was a child actor in communist Yugoslavia. I spent my childhood acting in television and radio dramas. At 12 I decided that I wanted to be a film director, but I quickly gave up on this, being the only girl in the club.

Afterwards, I went to art school where I did painting, sculpture, and photography, then art college. After university, I was an art director within the advertising industry. And then one day I left. I took a plane and went to New York, where I tried to get in to NYU grad film school to finally attempt to do what I always wanted to do: be a director. I was 26 years old and finally had the courage to pursue my dreams!

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

TSM: The worst advice that I’ve received is that the rules are the same for all — they are not. Being a woman in the industry, I have felt it on my back time and time again. When I was younger, I screamed and fought. Consequently, I banged my head millions of times against the wall. Today, I go around the walls, finding alternative ways to exist and make my films.

Hopefully, with every action I take, and every film I make, I open a door to the next generations of young women filmmakers. I must admit that it is much easier today than it was 20 years ago when I started to work in the industry.

The best advice I’ve received is to believe in myself. This is something we women lack in general. I myself am still working on it, giving my self the permission to do what I want to do, and having the courage to do it. There is nothing worse than self-censorship and unfortunately we all fall under its feet at one moment or another.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

TSM:  If I, a woman from a country of two million people, can do it and make films that find audiences across the borders, then you can too. All you need is a good story, and even more importantly, something to say. If you have nothing to say, don’t waste my time or anyone else’s.

Be audacious, and never forget stories are told by creative use of the cinematic form. That’s the true beauty and power of cinema.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

TSM: I love Lucrecia Martel. “The Headless Woman” is one of my favorite films ever. I love how she uses the form to deliver an experience, this vertigo-like state the main character finds herself in.

Lucrecia is a director that pushes the cinematic form. She dares to do what many don’t. Art — cinema included — must push the borders, and that’s what she does.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

TSM: Early on within the pandemic, I decided not to wait, so I worked with what I had: I have a small camera, so I used it to shoot daily. I used the footage to make a very personal and intimate experimental documentary.

I can’t tell its worth, but the fact that I made it liberated me from myself and the idea of how a film is made — basically a film is just a form of an expression, and when there is a good idea, a single camera can be sufficient.

I am also in pre-production on my new film. I am shooting in two months time, so I have tried to stay busy.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

TSM: The actress that plays Petrunya, Zorica Nusheva is not your usual heroine. She doesn’t satisfy the preconceived notions of what a main role actress should be. I love this challenge — I love finding and showing beauty that’s different. Diversity is our biggest strength, I do not see why and how we don’t feature this more.

In my previous film , “When the Day Had No Name,” one of the five main roles is played by a young man that is physically challenged. I loved giving him the opportunity to shine on the screen, showing his beauty — this other beauty that we often refuse to see. It is the minimum that each of us can do!

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