21 Days Until the End of the World (dir. Teona Strugar Mitevska, 2023). Image: Venice Film Festival
North Macedonia has a proud cinematic history – the country’s largest film festival is named after the Manaki brothers, who captured the first film in the Balkans way back in 1908. In the post-Yugoslav era, however, it has struggled to establish itself on the international scene. One figure who has done more than anyone to change that is the polymathic writer-director-producer-actor Teona Strugar Mitevska.
Mitevska kicked off her career as a child actor and then went on working as a painter and graphic designer, before studying at the Tisch School of Arts and fully committing to filmmaking. Since her debut short Veta (2001), Mitevska has snagged many prizes in the international festival circuit and experimented with different formats and genres throughout her work. Her most successful film to date, God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunya, was premiered in the main competition of the Berlinale in 2019; based on real events, it follows a woman from eastern Macedonia who is cast as a Joan of Arc character after being apprehended by the police on trumped up charges. Alongside writing and directing, Mitevska has been producing extensively with her brother Vuk and her sister Labina for her family banner, Sisters and Brother Mitevski, staging titles from south-eastern Europe such as The Wild Pear Tree by Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Nightlife and Half-sister by Slovenia’s Damjan Kozole, and Sieranevada by Romanian New Wave icon Christi Puiu.
At the Venice Lido, we sat down with Teona Strugar Mitevska a few days after she premiered her latest feature, 21 Days Until the End of the World. Showcased in the Giornate degli Autori strand of the Venice Film Festival, the melancholic, home-made picture sees the North Macedonian director putting herself in the shoes of someone who has only 21 days left to live. Shot during Covid-19 lockdowns, it turns the restrictions of that period into creative strengths. It’s a very intimate tale, where she confronts and shows herself as she has never done before.
How did the idea for 21 Days Until the End of the World come about?
I started working on it during the first lockdown. I was in North Macedonia, in a house up in the mountains. The lockdown had been a strange time, and there was an absolute silence. Maybe for the first time, the whole of mankind was truly afraid about what was coming next. This time offered room for some thoughts, and I had to react. I gave myself the “restriction” of 21 days […] I didn’t know whether it’d have become a film, a journal or anything else. Initially, it wasn’t even meant to be shown to the public because, as you can imagine, it took time and self-confidence to allow myself to be exposed in such a personal way. And Giornate degli Autori was the only place I submitted the film to […] I shared it with people I trust. They told me: “Teona, this is something that should be seen.” So, it was a matter of mutual trust – me as a filmmaker, and them as programmers.
Is there a specific idea or input that made you decide to shoot for exactly 21 days?
I do things very intuitively, and as I grow older, I trust more and more intuition and listen to my inner voice. Actually, God spoke to me – by God I mean Petrunija [a reference to Strugar Mitevska’s 2019 film God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunija]. And [21 days] just felt more attractive than 20 or 22. [laughs]
for me it’s always been a problem, to find the courage to say: “It doesn’t matter, as long as you’ve something to say, go for it.” For me, this has been an important step, to venture into imperfection
I assume the main theme you explored in each of the 21 days was also picked intuitively.
Can we define your film as a work of improvisation?
Absolutely, but it’s a mix between improvisation and the fact that you give yourself a structure of 21 days, so you need to deliver something. It’s a sort of push. So, I’d write down something every day, choose the frame that I find interesting, set it up and when the light is good – sometimes I had to wait long for that – I’d start filming. It’s been very strange. Now that I look at the film, I see that there’s a certain structure, because there are all these independent elements and, in the end, they piece together like a puzzle […] I understand there’s some logic behind, even though it is an aleatory one.
Why did you decide to go for on screen text with no blanks in between words? Was there a specific idea behind or was it a pure aesthetic choice?
It wasn’t an aesthetic choice. Many of the things I write are very personal, and very emotional. Sometimes emotions are difficult to understand, and to “read”… So, this choice is really connected to this aspect. It was part of my thoughts and inner confusion.
Was it more difficult to film or to edit this project?
The most difficult part was to watch myself, my God, the horror of watching yourself on screen! I’m a film director so I understood how hard it must be for actors to endure [such a process]. But, of course, it was harder to edit it, and at some point, I started addressing myself as an external character, using the word “she” instead of “I” in order to distance myself [from my image on screen]. That distance offered me a sort of new perspective, or maybe allowed me not to think about myself, but about the film.
21 Days Until the End of the World (dir. Teona Strugar Mitevska, 2023). Image: Venice Film Festival
How long did the post-production process take?
It took quite a long time because as filmmakers we spend all our life waiting… I think it took six months, in and out. Plus, as a zero-budget film, I’d cut it overnight when the editing room of my producer was free, so I actually learnt what it means making a film with no budget. Once I finished, it took even longer to find the courage to show it…
Looking back at your whole career and the films you directed, where does 21 Days Until the End of the World stand?
You know, a few days ago I thought that this is the first of a series of films that are part of a [bigger] never-ending film. What does it mean? Between films, instead of being frustrated and before preparing for the budget films I make, I will just do films like this, maybe. Or allow myself to be free in the choice of the format I choose, and what a film is, not being a prisoner of a certain way of making films. That for me has always been a problem, to find the courage [to say]: “It doesn’t matter, as long as you’ve something to say, go for it.” For me, this has been an important step, to venture into imperfection.
Speaking of the pandemic, has there been a shift in terms of the themes you’re interested in exploring in your film work, or did it leave a mark on your vision as a filmmaker?
It’ll take us a long time to process what has happened. We’re still in a post-traumatic moment. For me, the pandemic has been a revealing, freeing moment. I cut all the bullshit out of my mind. It gave me the freedom to live every day as if it’d be the last. Life is too brief not to go out of your comfort zone, and even try things that are impossible or may not work out. This film too might have not worked out.
It’ll take us a long time to process what has happened with the pandemic. We’re still in a post-traumatic moment
We’re going through a very delicate phase. We’re witnessing the SAG-AFTRA strike, the rise of AI, while VoD platforms are getting more and more powerful… As a producer and filmmaker, how do you see the future of European independent cinema?
I said this a few times already. I think the quality and variety of European films is incredible. It’s incredible how diverse our voices are. So, I think this is a heritage, a value that is immensely important. We produce a lot of films – maybe too many – and our biggest problem remains distribution. Many of the films – I’d say 90 percent of the films we see at festivals – are never distributed in theatres. And this is a problem on which states should intervene. This is where film distributors and exhibitors need support. Cinema is part of our culture […] I’m not afraid [about these developments]. My son is young, and he comes from the generation that is known because they don’t read or aren’t politically committed. But in truth my son and his friends are anything but that. He’s constantly reading, he’s extremely into politics and was imprisoned after demonstrating… So, when I see them, I think that we’re going through a very extreme phase with many things happening, but human nature will endure. After all, what do we care about? We care about being inspired, about love, about learning, we’re curious beings. I believe that even commercial cinema will always exist, along with video games, books and even operas! Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I don’t see a threat. I’m not even afraid of venturing into VR, television, or whatever… It’s all about putting ideas forward, telling stories, and creating emotions. It’s just a matter of format.
I see your point: we’ve been hearing talk about “the death of cinema” since the dawn of time…
Exactly. I say: let’s go on, let’s go follow the change…
You’ve such a vast background spanning acting, painting, design, directing, and producing, and you try out new things all the time. Do you consider this variety of experiences a sort of personal wealth or also something that made you lose your compass along the way?
In the beginning, it was all about having the courage of let myself be a filmmaker. I wanted to be [a filmmaker] since I was 12 years old and back then I was part of a local cinema club in Skopje. We were filming on Super8. It was me and two boys, and they kept on putting me down. I said: “Fuck them, I don’t want to work in cinema because I don’t want any men to tell me what to do.” I’ll do painting and graphic design. Until I realised: “Maybe I’m capable, maybe I’ve the right to be a filmmaker too.” Do I regret that? Maybe, but I grew up at a certain time. Today, many girls believe in a different world and that’s beautiful. It’s great they don’t question themselves too much. Of course, I learnt a lot [by going through these experiences] but, to tell you the truth, I wasted a lot of time. Every time I speak to young people, I tell them: “Don’t allow anybody to tell you what you can do and what you cannot.”
Davide Abbatescianni is an Italian film critic and journalist based in Rome.