You Won’t Be Alone is one of the most extraordinary films I’ve seen, or rather experienced, in recent memory, a deeply unusual and deeply emotive drama about a witch discovering how to be human by taking over the bodies of others in rural 19th-century Macedonia. It’s part gruesome body horror, part dreamy fairytale, part exercise in existentialism and extreme empathy told mostly through strange, fractured narration from someone learning what language is and means as they navigate an often barbaric yet often beautiful world. It’s really quite something.
“You’re gonna realize I’m an idiot really quickly,” director Goran Stolevski says, laughing, at the start of our Zoom conversation with disarming, and ultimately unwarranted, nervousness. The 36-year-old Macedonian-Australian film-maker, who quickly reveals himself to be very much not an idiot, traces the nerves back to my ebullient five-star review of his debut feature, which premiered at this year’s virtual Sundance film festival in January.
His film has the lived-in feeling of an old, oft-told folktale or a dusty, dog-eared novel but is in fact, a true original. Stolevski, who had spent years making modest shorts (he refers to himself as “the most failed film-maker who’s ever failed” before his breakout), was living in Bristol when the idea came to him. He was about to turn 30, one year into a three-year period of unemployment, and as a gay migrant, he felt like an outsider, often not speaking to anyone but his husband for weeks. He was also reading a lot of Virginia Woolf …
“Virginia was helping me feel less isolated,” he tells me. “What she does with words to capture consciousness or innocence, I was really wondering how you could do that with cinema? I wanted to do something with a particular feeling I had at the time and then try to capture this way of life that’s now pretty much disappeared and to document that in all of its beauty and ugliness.”
He’d been researching folktales from his homeland but was finding them mostly unhelpful. Female characters were usually sidelined, told to stay in the kitchen and then to shut up and get to work, and instead he found more inspiration from studying witchcraft and how such legends allowed for women to transgress even if such transgression would often lead to severe punishment .
“I think I have the brain of what is commonly known as ‘a difficult woman’ so witches are just a natural thing to me,” he says. “I think if I lived in this time and place, I would be the person who wanted to live differently because I would want more out of life and I would be burned at the stake for sure. I’m not sure which gender they would think I am but either way they would call me a witch.”
The journey taken by the film’s protagonist – through the bodies and lives of a woman (played by Noomi Rapace), a dog, a man and a child – becomes a frustrating, foundational lesson on gender and power. What can a man get away with that a woman cannot? What is expected from women that isn’t from men? Stolevski, as a young gay kid, always gravitated towards “the stubborn girls” who refused to accept such regressive restrictions. “I learned a sense of unfairness before I even understood the concept of fairness,” he tells me, recalling stories as a child of when girls were made to do the chores that the “lazy as fuck” boys were able to evade.
There’s a distinct queerness to the film, with its narrative of being a misunderstood outsider, and while Stolevski denies any conscious process of making the film queer, he admits it’s an undeniable part of his work. “It all works out of instinct,” he says. “I always insist that I don’t write autobiographically because I’m not interested in seeing myself specifically reflected. I’m more interested in seeing if my brain, if my essence, was transported into this other person in a completely different time and a completely different place, how would I cope, what would I come up against as a border or a limit, how would I try to figure out my way around it?” He adds that “the queerness obviously, I just trust it comes out” with a laugh.
Before he decided to go witching, his short films had been effectively relationship dramas (he admits this “started partly out of practicality as when you’re nothing and no one trying to make movies you sort of need to go, what can be achievable? ”) so horror was not an obvious place to go for his full-length debut, especially given his tendency to be rather squeamish. You Won’t Be Alone might only play with horror tropes rather than being a horror in the traditional sense but there’s no such half-measures when it comes to the gore. Bodies are ripped and slashed open, innards are torn and pored over, it’s never explicit exactly, more matter-of-fact, but there’s very little left to one’s imagination.
“You kind of tap into this creative frequency and then the movie takes over and was directing me,” he says. “I have an appetite for making sure I don’t shield myself from any part of life. I do trekking but I have a morbid fear of heights and I’ll get to the top of a mountain and literally I’m taking a fucking photo like this [he looks away while pretending to take a picture] because I have to have a photo and it needs to look good. It’s kind of like the way I take photos from a big height, dealing with the gore.”
Even scarier than dealing with the gore? Dealing with bad reviews. Although the film might have found much acclaim at Sundance and in the months since (it’s currently at a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes), as a self-confessed “film nerd”, Stolevski found it hard not to go down a self-masochistic online rabbit hole as soon as it premiered. He was in the process of editing his second feature, a queer love story set in the late 90s, and found himself stuck on a particular scene. “I was just like why can I not connect to this character in this moment and started to feel like, wait have I been shit all along and I just didn’t realize it?” he says. “The film came out and I went on Letterboxd and honestly, I’m still like 50/50. I don’t know if I might just be shit based on Letterboxd!”
His confidence has grown since, he’s got used to critics microscopically analyzing his work (“I don’t think it’s up to the world to be kinder, I think it’s really up to me to negotiate it,” he admits) and now has to get used to studio execs doing the same. It wasn’t intended as such but his film is a striking, can-do-anything calling card, a debut feature that feels like something made by someone much further into their career (he’s said elsewhere that the many Terrence Malick comparisons have become “ trigger”). He’s understandably cautious about what’s to come.
“I kind of have my team and I have my set of stories I wanna tell and I’m really wary of getting distracted by people buying you dinner and champagne,” he says. “I’ve written 13 scripts. I have three others that are just bubbling away. Most of the people who want to talk to me most of the time, they just want to talk about IP, you know like a prequel to something or I just wanna make a movie about the fire in Bambi but just from the fire’s perspective about how she was misunderstood which is not my jam.”
He definitely doesn’t want to “end up in the system” and for the foreseeable future, it’s hard to see that happening. His next two films are both queer and the first of which, Of an Age, is a Melbourne-set romance between a ballroom dancer and his friend’s older brother. “Look, that one will make people cry,” he insists. “I’m very excited. It’s making everyone cry so far at least twice. And horny at least three times which is kind of a good balance.”