Teona Strugar Mitevska • Director of The Happiest Man in the World
“I will never be able to shoot films in any other way, going to the heart of the emotion, in the truth of the moment”
- The Macedonian filmmaker tells us about her latest film, unveiled in the Orizzonti programme in Venice, and in Competition at Les Arcs Film Festival
Macedonian director Teona Strugar Mitevska revealed her latest feature, The Happiest Man in the World [+see also:
interview: Teona Strugar Mitevska
film profile], in the Orizzonti section of the 2022 Venice Film Festival. We talked to her during the 14th edition of Les Arcs Film Festival, where her film is playing in Competition.
Cineuropa: Many films have returned to the war in ex-Yugoslavia and its consequences. What led you to do the same, and how did you find your very original approach?
Teona Strugar Mitevska: The film tells a true story, that of my co-writer Elma Tataragic. I grew up in ex-Yugoslavia, I’m a child of mixed racial heritage from the region. The disintegration of Yugoslavia has profoundly affected my generation. Some people were touched by the war very directly, as was the case for Elma, and others by the end of the great idealistic idea that was Yugoslavia, even if it wasn’t perfect. For 30 years, I was angry at this war because it had taken away from us all promises of brotherhood and freedom. This anger — why this war had taken place, what it meant, how it had affected my life and what my existence would have been if it hadn’t happened — it haunted me. When Elma told me her story, it was a eureka moment and I saw this opportunity to address the topic. Because it’s an existential question that is very important for my entire generation and for all the inhabitants of the region. But it was a very personal story (a surprise encounter years later with enemy who asks for forgiveness, editor’s note) that belonged to Elma, and for years she had been looking for the right way to tell it, to transpose it into another context. One day, during the Festival of Sarajevo, my sister and I were at the Holiday Inn and we started imagining what this story would be like if it took place in that hotel. Elma immediately liked the idea.
And what about the speed dating idea?
In reality, Elma had encountered her "nemesis" in a theatre workshop. But she wanted something more contemporary. What is more universal, regardless of people’s colour , ethnicity, or origin, than the search for love? Hence the concept of the speed dating event, which allowed us to make this difficult topic more approachable for the audience.
You have described this film as a poem. Why?
It is a love poem for Sarajevo. Because in the time of Yugoslavia, Sarajevo and Bosnia were synonymous with diversity, a wonderful melting pot and an effervescent cultural centre, for art in its most progressive forms. When we prepared the film, we collected many testimonies from Bosnians and we incorporated into the film some of these stories about the war, these traumas deeply anchored into people’s lives. Many of the stories in the film come from the actors themselves because we rehearsed for a long time. At the beginning, beyond the two lead protagonists, the other participants in the speed dating event were not supposed to have this much importance, but we eventually understood that to really capture the complexity of the central story, of the two protagonists’ dilemma, we needed to explain the context, the past, this madness, this tragedy that also had some beautiful facets. And this was possible by integrating small details coming from the other characters.
Your direction stands out for its great sense of freedom.
I love the films of Xavier Dolan for this freedom he has: he dares to do things, and dares some more, he experiments, he trusts his intuition, he has self-confidence. As a woman and as someone from the Balkans, I have to work on my lack of self-confidence, I have to allow myself to do what I dream of. It has been an ongoing fight throughout my career to slowly, eventually manage to become completely rock ‘n’ roll and free. With this film, I wanted to push my limits. The 40 actors had to be in every scene, but they never knew when the camera would be on them. It was thrilling, energetic, and done with a team spirit, in a mood of collective creation. Because when you have 40 people in one room, it can be really boring, therefore the only way to proceed is to make the viewer feel part of the action. In order to do that, we needed to communicate a feeling of urgency, so that the viewer would not be simply observing things. This is why I allowed myself some imperfection, some experimentation, in a search for sensation. Now, I don’t think I will ever be able to shoot films in any other way: working with the actors and going to the heart of the emotion, in the truth of the moment.
How did you strike a balance between the difficulty of the topic and the dark humour of the film?
At the editing stage, but this mostly comes from our culture, because Bosnians have a great sense of humour. After Toronto, I went to show the film in Kiev and everyone was laughing a lot. It’s only natural: when we’re going through very difficult events, we have to take some distance, and humour — particularly dark humour — allows for that. This also connects me to that "black wave" in Yugoslav cinema, which included Dušan Makavejev among others. Personally, I did not manage to integrate humour into my films until God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunya [+see also:
interview: Labina Mitevska
interview: Teona Strugar Mitevska
film profile]. I understood that humour came from situations, as in the films of Buster Keaton, and that if I put the characters in the right situations, humour would appear naturally and these breaths of comedy would allow people to digest the more difficult side of things. We also structured the film like a slide that’s on a loop, always repeating itself, with things worsening a little every time, until it finally leads to the final catharsis.
(Translated from French)
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