‘You Won’t Be Alone’ Director Goran Stolevski Breaks Down His Bloody Fable About a Body-Swapping Witch

There’s a strange poetry to You Won’t Be Alone, Goran Stolevski’s feature directorial debut. It’s a film with few words but a lot of heart and (literal) guts, narrated in dreamy voiceover from its main character: a young witch named Nevena who shape-shifts by carving her chest open and stuffing it with the viscera from another being. Isolated in a cave throughout her childhood, Nevena must learn how to be human by imitation. Her speech is broken but evocative. “It’s a burning, breaking thing, this world,” she repeats throughout the film. “A biting, wretching thing.” And yet, her response is one of awe: “My, my, my, my.”

While preparing to write You Won’t Be Alone, Stolevski had been studying folktales. That research eventually gave way to more historical accounts, many of which centered around women being accused of shape-shifting—and, by extension, witchcraft.

“I mean, what an amazing perspective to look at humanity,” the director told The Daily Beast during a recent interview. “I wanted something that looked at life and humans as this strange other thing, and looked at them in a very simple way without embellishing.”

Folkloric flourishes permeate this film, which begins with a vengeful, charred witch leaving her mark on an infant Nevena. The baby’s mother begs the dreaded Old Maid Maria to let her keep the infant until she turns 16. But Nevena’s childhood is far from sweet; her mother keeps her isolated in a cave for protection, leaving her to grow up wild and (mostly) alone. That is, until she finally takes her first steps into the outside world as a teenager.

Stolevski, long fascinated by research into feral children, cites Genie Wiley—who was discovered in California in 1970—as an inspiration. He showed his actors a clip of 13-year-old Wiley emerging from his home as a reference video. “The way she’s behaving, it’s devastating and beautiful and fascinating,” he said.

You Won’t Be Alone feels like a culmination of Stolevski’s previous work, which favors female protagonists and outsider perspectives. The Australian-Macedonian director said that while working on this project, he actually had a little real-life inspiration: He and his husband were living in England during the writing stage, an experience that made him “a migrant for the second time in my life.”

“It was fascinating to me that in England, I was treated not as an Australian… but I was treated as kind of the dirty foreigner Macedonian,” he said. Even within the Macedonian community, Stolevski pointed out, “Being the gay kid who reads books is very different from the straight kids.” So, yes, outsiders are a constant source of fascination.

It was fascinating to me that in England, I was treated not as an Australian… but as kind of the dirty foreigner Macedonian.

You Won’t Be Alone reunited the director with Sara Klimoska, who starred in his short film “Look at Her” in 2017. Stolevski credits the Macedonian actress, who plays Nevena in her original form, with being one of several “auteurs” on the film, alongside producer Kristina Ceyton, cinematographer Matthew Chuang, and production designer Bethany Ryan. Klimoska was present for pretty much every stage of production, down to location scouting, and she and Stolevski even committed to learning a nearly dead language for the film.

“The film is in a specific dialect because I wanted to capture the way people spoke in this place in the 1800s,” Stolevski explained. “Both me and [Klimoska] come from a region that’s very close to it. I had to study the dialect and kind of connect it to people I knew—my grandparents and things I knew. I needed to kind of understand the rhythm of it. And then she did the same thing.”

Stolevski and Klimoska were the only people on set who knew the dialect, which hardly anyone can speak anymore. “We could improvise in this ancient dialect ’cause we kind of studied it to such detail,” he said. Each of the actors who would take over the role of Nevena—Noomi Rapace, Carloto Cotta, and Alice Englert—received Klimoska’s voiceover recording in advance so that they could prepare, and the actress even dialogue-coached each of the new Nevenas before they began filming.

But this story is not just about Nevena; while she’s certainly the main character and audiences’ eyes into the film, the 200-year-old witch Old Maid Maria looms large.

“The two main characters [Nevena and Maria] are kind of me split into two people,” Stolevski said.

While Nevena moves through the world with wide eyes and sensitivity, Old Maid Maria is all bitterness and bile. The exact origin of her burnt skin and cynical outlook remains hidden until late in the film, but it’s clear throughout that her anger at humanity is not unwarranted. Somehow, her community betrayed her. No wonder, then, that she trusts no one but herself and has little patience for her abducted daughter’s sentimentality.

Romanian actress Anamaria Marinca plays Old Maid Maria, performing the role in two different languages. At times, when affecting a persona, the witch speaks in Macedonian. But her real language, the one in which she thinks, is Aromanian, an ancient nomadic language that’s basically extinct.

Having a performer like Marinca embody that kind of demanding role was a thrill for Stolevski, who’s been a huge fan since he saw her in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. The director found himself entranced by “her eyes and the worlds they contain” in that movie, “and in this very simple setup, how much she can convey while being completely still and silent.” Actually getting to work with the actress only reinforced Stolevski’s passion for her artistry. “I want her to be in a lot of my films,” he said with a laugh.

as much as You Won’t Be Alone is about observing humanity as an outsider like Stolevski, the film’s reception has, remarkably, given its director the opposite experience.

“In some of the reviews I’d read, there are some sentences that are almost literally notes I’d written for myself in the margins that I haven’t even shared with anyone on the crew,” Stolevski said. “It’s really moving to see that, because the movie is so much about connection and how difficult it is to maintain.”

It’s a realization all of us who feel consistently out of place would do well to remember: We are never, in fact, really alone in that experience.

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