Interview with Teona Strugar Mitevska, director of The Happiest Man of the World
Macedonian director Teona Strugar Mitevska, revealed her latest film –The Happiest Man in the World in the Orizzonti section, last year of the Venice Film Festival. Written by cineast and her Sarayevian collaborator Elma Tataragic, who lived this story in reality, the feature is their third scenario. They previously collaborated on When the Day Had No Name and the Berlinale awarded God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya (here is the review of Malik Berkati, in French). Mitevska studied in NYC, at the Tisch School of the Arts. The project’s producer is, for the fifth time, her sister Labina Mitevska, of the Macedonian production company Sisters and Brother Mitevski.
The story follows Asja, 45 years old who is trying to find love and meets Zoran, 46 years old banker. The man is not looking for love, but rather forgiveness from this first war victim back from when he was a Serbian sniper in Sarajevo. The film is a co-production between North Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Slovenia, Croatia, Belgium, and Denmark.
Teona Strugar Mitevska was born on March 14, 1974 in Skopje, former Yugoslavia. She’s a director and writer: I’m from Titov Veles, When Day Had No Name (2017), God Exists Her Name is Petrunya (2019). Her younger sister is Labina Mitevska. They also have a brother Vuk. Actually the director lives between Skopje and Brussels, with her son Kaeliok.
The Happiest Man of the World has been presented in Venice, Toronto, Kyiv, Stockholm, Festival do Rio, Haifa FF, Meetdocfestival, Thessaloniki FF, and Kerala FF. In France at Les Arcs Film Festival it was awarded Grand Prix and Youth Price, The film obtained the FRIPESCI Prize on Athenes FF.
Interview with Teona Strugar Mitevska:
In this beautiful, choral movie, which leaves a profound impact on everybody’s mind, you are touching on the subject of collective consciousness. Being Montenegrin and Macedonian, you are telling a true story about modern Bosnia-Herzegovina. Does that imply longer, more profound, and more thoughtful work?
The film is a triptych of love – freedom – pain/suffering. The characters in the film are like frescoes floating in exactly that triptych of love – freedom – pain/suffering. Freedom to be, freedom to live, freedom to choose, it is all we strive for. Only those who have experienced unfreedom know the real meaning of it. Freedom is about liberation, liberating one’s self from the past, in the case of our film history in order to be free. Collective history is about collective remembrance of pain, I wanted to know how one can free themselves from it in order to create a future. but through the processes of liberation precisely of history and what is considered a historical collective and acceptable fact, through transgressions, through the existence in which “time comes out of the joint”, as Hamlet says, and through the generosity of the new that gives, shares and melts in solidarity in the pain of the other who has his own intimate history within the community.
Elma was injured during the siege of Sarajevo. And then, after the war, when she studied cinema at Sarajevo Academy, she was invited to an acting workshop where she met “the” man. They were asked to talk about the worst things that happened to them. And they share their experiences just as in the film. Their meeting was pure chance. She stayed in contact with this man while having very conflictual feelings about the whole experience.
Eight years ago, Elma told me she would like to do something with her story. But what? A historical film? Who cares about historical films anymore? And then, three years ago, I was at the Sarajevo Film Festival with my sister Labina. We were at the famous Holiday Inn hotel, this big yellow building, a pivotal place during the siege of Sarajevo. We were sitting in the hallway, and I told her Elma’s story. Labina said: “imagine if we put this story here, we started talking, and we found the form of how to give it a more contemporary view. We called Elma who answered: “Great! When do we start writing?”
I grew up in Yugoslavia, my mother is Montenegrin, and my father is Macedonian. The disappearance of Yugoslavia, the disappearance of what was promised to me and my generation as we were growing up. The war took all. Making this film is in a way a personal journey to understand. And post-modern Sarajevo is the ultimate symbol of the beauty that once was, the beauty that belongs to us all.
In the end, the film ends up being in a way an ensemble film, filled with testimonials of trauma suffered, but then these individual testimonials become part of something new, a new history and a future built over death because in a way death is beginning of life in this story, they transcend the specific historical-political narrative from the screenwriter and director’s, but also the actor’s perspective, and rise to the level of individual identities, who elevate their marginalized stories to a familiar/close wound, struggle, tear, hope for everyone.
It’s very difficult to relive things past, like your co-scenarist. Which precautions did you take?
Well, it was a big dilemma. It is something I have questioned myself continuously. I grew up in Skopje and I was studying in the United States during the siege of Sarajevo. I watched the war from far away, I heard it through my family, even if, in Macedonia, the conflict was almost non-existent. But this war has affected us all, we were all part of one country, Yugoslavia. It has sort of influenced our lives in one way or another. Of course, you don’t know war unless you really experienced it, you don’t truly know the devastation of it. As we were writing the script, we did a lot of research, and a lot of interviews on-site with Sarajevo people, we integrated some of their stories into the screenplay. Only then I realized how ignorant I was, and how little I knew of what it really meant. No matter how close Elma is to me. But with her benediction, I don’t feel like an impostor.
What are the advantages and difficulties of working with a group of more than 40 actors, only 17 of them being professionals?
For me, each film is divided between content, which is the story, context, which is the environment in which I should embed the story, and the experience: camera movement, characters’ movement, framing, color, sound, what we call the “mise en scène”. I thought of this movie as an ensemble piece. I decided to use the ideas of acting teacher Sanford Meisner. His technique is by repetition getting out of yourself, forgetting, and separating yourself from the dialogue, and then the true emotions can come out. And also It’s about incorporating everything that surrounds you.
I created this troupe of around forty actors, seventeen of them are professional, and the rest are extras. We rehearsed for six weeks, then one week on the set. And we shot for three and a half weeks. I rehearse a lot and I shoot pretty fast. I had to rehearse a lot because having forty people on the set, is like having forty free atoms flying around. Rehearsing allows you to organize the chaos and then create space for improvisation which unearths certain truths that you cannot find otherwise.
I was the chief of the troupe but at the same time, it was a very democratic experience. It was all for one, one for all! We were just not the Three Musketeers. We were the forty musketeers that were working together and dancing together towards a common goal. I said to the actors: don’t look for the camera, the camera will look for you. Some of them, the older ones, were puzzled: what are we doing? What is this? And then three days later, they were so much into the process, they were the leader of the pack. There was togetherness and that was quite beautiful.
In your previous work, you already spoke about issues of women in the Balkan. Here, those women are even more visible, more real, and totally incorporated in happenings, even leading them in a certain manner. Is this some kind of evolution or change? Or just another deception?
It is all of the above, liberation is a work in progress, always evolving: two steps forward, one step back! Asja is a liberated woman, she assumes what and who she is. It is important to put positive images forwards.
Is this introduction of flashbacks to the war and siege of Sarajevo, which lasted 4 years and took almost 12 thousand lives, an attempt to recall destructive and apocalyptic consequences, 30 years later? Maybe the emphasis on the chaos and profound abbys lived by habitants, or something else?
Ludwig Wittgenstein in one of his writings radically insists that we must not measure evil, violence, or horror by the number of victims. In 1944, amidst the horrors of the Second World War, he observed: “No collective suffering can be greater than that which can be suffered by each individual person. The whole planet cannot feel more pain than one soul.” So Wittgenstein’s truth about evil cannot have measurable indicators, it cannot be measured by numbers and statistics. The crime is unique and impermissible regardless of whether it is experienced by one or many. There are certain images that we all relate to, that are encoded in our memory. And in Sarajevo, one of the biggest problems during the war was the issue of food and water. There were quite a few horrible massacres with dozens of people killed while they were queuing for water. This is one of the experiences of Asya. And also it is one of the deepest experiences of Elma. So we sort of respected her true story of losing a friend, and we incorporated it.
Even when Asja and Zoran, the two main characters manage their reconciliation, the sad truth about Bosnia remains visible. The country is emptying of population and is dying bit by bit. Is there a chance for revitalising it?
The longing for freedom and liberation as well as the longing for love are two important pillars of the film. Truth for Two, says Alain Badiou or listening to the other, creates a new truth about diversity. Ultimately people love truth no matter how difficult to swallow it can be, Badiou says people love truth even when they don`t know they love it. Forgiveness comes only after taking responsibility, so yes Zoran is forgiven.
I think that, as we speak, there are officially around forty wars going on worldwide, maybe even more. So it is more important than ever to take every precaution to clear things when a war is over. Bosnia is a country that is still deeply injured, and extremely divided. Things were not done as they should have been done. The Dayton Agreement was so complex, it basically made the country impossible to govern. I hope Europe has learned from this experience, and we will not do the same mistake with Ukraine. It is essential that we face our demons, our history, our misgivings, our horrors, and pains, this is the only way to move forward and construct something positive. When we decided to make this film Elmas and my idea was to start a conversation on the territory of Ex Yugoslavia about what happened, why and how can we all move forwards. And here come: us artists, the brave ones, braver than politicians of course pushing progress forward.
Your movie is an international co-production. How did you manage to organize it?
I am lucky to have good people behind me, producers, distributors, and financiers who believe in the potential of my films. I guess I am lucky plus persistent as a bull, no mountain is too high or impossible to climb for me.
The Happiest Man in the World found its place on the prestigious 7th art manifestations in Venice, Toronto, Arras, and was primed on the Arcs festival in France, presented at Kyev, Bruxelles, Carcassone, and Paris. Did such success and interest surprise you?
When I was younger, I used to cry if/when I didn’t get an award, today I truly fully do not care. Making films, expressing myself, and my ideas, making this world a better place is my only burning desire, this is my drive. After a film is finished I put my entire energy into distributing the film. This is largely more important than recognition because art is to be seen. In cinemas by the people. I am very well aware of the American machinery that stands behind Hollywood films, there is nothing of that sort behind my films, only me. So that is what I do, I travel and defend my films!
Can you tell us something about your next feature, which shows a week in the life of an ambitious 44-year-old Macedonian nun, which will become the famous Mather Theresa?
Seven days in the life of Mother Teresa in 1940 before she becomes Mother Teresa, the one we know today. It is a story of a 40-year-old woman on the precipice of a life-changing decision, it is the story of the person behind the myth, behind the saint.
Djenana Djana Mujadzic
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