Goran Stolevski delves into his Balkan folk-horror hybrid You Won’t Be Alone

Sara Klimovska in You Won’t Be Alone (dir. Goran Stoelvski, 2022)

Born in what is now North Macedonia, Goran Stolevski has spent most of his adult life abroad. Currently residing in Australia, his budding career as a filmmaker has led to the unusual phenomenon of an Australian-Serbian co-production released by a major studio. You Won’t Be Alone is a film like no other: not only because of the delicate way it interweaves arthouse with more mainstream tropes; not only because it looks like a Terrence Malick-directed period horror remake of Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte; and not least because it puts the world of the nineteenth-century Balkans on the big screen for foreign audiences with unprecedented affection and accuracy. You Won’t Be Alone represents a potential watershed moment for Balkan film on the world stage.

The film’s faithfulness to its historical and geographical setting, its attention to the details of Balkan folk narratives, is immediately apparent. A case in point is the plot, which twists and turns with the opaque logic of a folk legend. The film follows the story of a curse bestowed on a mother by the witch “Old Maid Maria” (Anamaria Marinca), which leads the terrified woman to hide her daughter, Nevena (played in different incarnations by Sara Klimoska and Noomi Rapace), in a cave for 16 years. When Nevena is released into the world, she is forced to accompany the witch, learning how to live while acting as an agent of evil.

From this point onwards, the narrative evolves into a journey through the human experience. Starting with the particularity of the Balkans in the nineteenth century, when most of the peninsula was under Ottoman rule, the film is inclusive enough in representing human and nonhuman experiences that are nevertheless universal. Whether it’s representing patriarchal oppression in a small village, or the disillusion of growing up in times of war, Matthew Chuang’s cinematography marvels at the film’s corporeality. But while it pays close attention to bodies and their transformation, this film is not bound to surfaces. You Won’t Be Alone draws on myth and folklore in its exploration of human subjectivity, as we are invited to share the protagonist’s journey beyond personhood, gender, and species, discovering anew the magic and the pain of existing in a world both wretched and wonderful. I had the privilege to meet with Stolevski during last year’s London Film Festival, where we talked about history, humanity, and the miracles of cinema.

Sara Klimovska in You Won’t Be Alone (dir. Goran Stoelvski, 2022)

Let’s track the path that Nevena follows: she goes from the cave she was born and raised in, to the pastures; then she enters human life through agriculture, and then, societal norms. It seems like a replication of human history.

No, right. Absolutely. You’re very right.


Was that the idea, to have a chronology, or linearity, of some sort?

I never really start with an intellectual plan, I write from instinct, and then once I have something, I look at the intellectual side of things. But, to me, it was more about being exposed to society in stages, as if you’re coming from the edge towards the centre. The core of the village, which stands in for belonging, [while] the cave obviously signifies complete isolation. In terms of putting together the story, I just thought in terms of becoming “more” human, for lack of a better term. It’s an inwardly-oriented process – how she mistakes human interaction for something that’s just on the surface, something that you mimic, and then gradually, instead of just copying people, you need to feel those things yourself. So, it was more about someone who comes at humanity from the outside to finally make it their own. A lot of it is kind of unconscious when you’re putting it together, but it comes from a place that is ultimately very concrete.


In terms of folklore, did you start with one myth? I was trying to piece together what I know from Bulgarian folktales. And I can see traces of the Baba Yaga figure: there’s a wild child, there’s the forest nymph as well…  

Initially, it was more [about] the feelings and energies, characters, and a setting. I rarely start from an event, instead I sense a character’s feelings. At first, I thought we might find some Macedonian folktales to use as a basis for the story, set in this time and place, but I didn’t have access to many and what I found was rather uninspiring.

Then, I did a lot more historical research, trying to see how witchcraft was perceived within our region, you know, at that time. The thing that struck me [was that] women accused of witchcraft were said to have taken the shape of another human being or animal, which I also know from the Western tradition. That was the only element that I took, and I knew everything else was going to be an ordinary day-to-day life story. To me, that was also a special moment. Most tales of witchcraft or the supernatural come from the West, and I thought, “Wait, this happened here, too. We’re also part of the world!” It’s not based on a specific myth, or folklore, but I wanted it to feel like it comes from a folktale.

I wanted it to feel as organic and simple as humanly possible. I wanted the supernatural to feel natural

And how about when you actually had to shoot in Serbia, did people say anything?

To be fair, a lot of the people I spoke to kept asking me which set of superstitions I borrowed from [laughs]. They said it felts like it was from a specific story, so they wanted to know. That’s the aim! The only thing I will say is that when I was researching the day-to-day life of the region in the nineteenth century, there was some mention of a figure called the “Wolf-Eater” or “Wolf-Eateress”. There wasn’t much detail of what that was, just a generalised bogeyman. I thought that was an interesting name. And then it became part of the world building.


But to have her steal someone’s heart, literally?

To me was more the entrails she had to steal [laughs]. It doesn’t have to be the heart, it’s more like the substance of another person. So, it was more about keeping things very earthy and primal. I kind of wanted the film to feel like an ordinary day-to-day life, so that even invading someone else’s body would feel like an ordinary occurrence. And I wanted it to feel as organic and simple as humanly possible. I wanted the supernatural to feel natural, essentially, that was my instinct. And you know, most of this film is shot in daylight and showing gore in daylight is very complicated, because you can’t rely on lighting. I had a very good prosthetics team and actually, it came down to them.


How did that work, practically?

Simplicity was the governing principle for every aspect of the filmmaking. I wanted every scene to feel found, rather than staged. That’s the operating principle of everything I do. I try to imagine how this would feel like in real life, not how it would look in a film. I’m always fascinated that when something terrible is happening to me, ordinary life is happening around me uninterrupted. It’s a surreal feeling: you’re aware of the tectonic shifts happening inside you, but on the outside, everything is so normal and quiet. That’s why, in the gory scenes in the film, usually there isn’t any music. Because I’m always surprised by how often trauma comes over us in very mundane settings. I think it affects you in a way that doesn’t sensationalise the violence, which was very important to me.

Noomi Rapace in You Won’t Be Alone (dir. Goran Stoelvski, 2022)

So how did that translate into working with cinematographer Matthew Chuang? He composes brilliant, almost gleaming images that tremble and linger in the mind…

I also feel like the frame is my department. I don’t feel like a cinematographer, and it’s not like I’m talking to Matthew all the time – there’s a point where I don’t need to say anything anymore. He knows instinctively what my eye is drawn towards, and what I’m after. So, what’s left is just minor adjustments. I don’t think the frame belongs to me or to him, I think we’re an entity [working] together. And Beth [Bethany Ryan, production designer] was in charge of making sure there was a 360-degree space on set, [so] we could turn the camera in any direction and keep shooting, which is very complicated on a low budget for a period film. But somehow we managed, and the actress had complete freedom as well. Then for Matt, the important thing is that everything doesn’t look lit, it looks natural.


While the violence feels tactile, but never cynically so, the backstory of Old Maid Maria is also tragic. It’s the time of the Ottoman Empire, and yet this is the only contemporary film I’ve seen that represents that historical period, which shaped the present-day Balkans in such an authentic and ambivalent way.

I know so much of Western storytelling is about the hero who is in control of their life. That’s the complete opposite of my experience of life so far. What I’m always interested in is people who are stuck in their relationships, stuck with the things that they cannot get away from in their day-to-day life. How do you [escape], especially if you’ve been dealt a really difficult hand? To me, the important thing was to base life in a reality that she [Old Maid Maria] had to live with. Because, you know, it was a reality that a lot of women had to live with. And then, given that reality, there’s a hunger for fullness in her life. But beyond that, I didn’t want to overemphasise it. And actually, though I’m really not squeamish, but such violence unsettles me. To me the most violent scene is what happens to her, you know, in that house at the end. I feel like I had to honour [the fact] that someone had to go through that, and you have to honour their reality.

Savina Petkova is a Bulgarian film critic and academic based in London.