GOran Stolevski does not like being in front of the camera. “That was the most uncomfortable 25 minutes of my life,” the Macedonian-Australian director laughs over the phone, after a Guardian photoshoot in Melbourne’s Edinburgh Gardens. There’s something artificial, he says, about sitting still, subjecting yourself to the steely gaze of a lens. He glimpsed a test shot at one point and winced.
If the past 12 months are anything to go by, he’ll have to get used to the exposure. In that time, Stolevski’s debut feature You Won’t Be Alone – released in Australia this week – has ignited his career, landing him a coveted spot in Variety’s list of directors to watch before it had even premiered in the US, where it was met with a flurry of rabid acclaim. It was one of his two films that screened at Melbourne international film festival in August; the other, achy queer romance Of an Age, opened the festival – and has just won him Australia’s richest film prize.
“I think the last six weeks is more money than I’ve made in the previous three years combined,” he says. “I told [my husband] to take a holiday. You get to be the trophy wife now!”
Appearances – and their mutability – matter to Stolevski. His own – cropped dark hair, khaki T-shirt, silver chain – is a kind of masculine cosplay, less a product of choice than a strategic decision. “How I look and dress has been shaped by trying to survive society without, you know, risking violence,” he says. “Or just the least stressful way I can possibly exist right now. But inside my brain, my feelings are like: watch this fucking movie! Do you really think of me as a you?”
Gender (and, more broadly, personhood) certainly become slippery in You Won’t Be Alone – the sinuous tale of Nevena, a young shapeshifting witch in a 19th-century Macedonian hamlet with the ability to assume the identities of other villagers. Raised in captivity and armed with little knowledge of the world, she implants herself into a series of distinct bodies – a woman, a man, a dog, a child – played by a host of actors including Noomi Rapace and Australia’s Alice Englert. From each body, she emerges transfigured.
North Macedonia is also where Stolevski spent his childhood, though he’s quick to dismiss any autobiographical reading of You Won’t Be Alone’s setting. (“If you transplanted my brain cells into another human being in a 19th-century mountain village anywhereI would be accused of witchcraft,” he says.) He had a “simple” bringing up in Tetovo, in the country’s northwest, where he slept on a roll-out couch in an apartment with his parents and grandparents, before moving to Australia at the age of 12. “I was thinking we were moving to this metropolis – I pictured something like Manhattan, the way it is on TV … And then I was in suburban Melbourne.
“I didn’t realize it until I moved – everywhere was empty. I would walk for 40 minutes and not see another person. I mean, you see dog walkers and joggers—” He pauses for laughter. “… but I don’t consider them people. It’s really, to this day, chilling to me how there’s just no ordinary day-to-day life, bustle and movement.”
The world of the arts … is entirely made of rich people who discover what injustice is in roughly 20-year cycles
Everyone in the housing commission where he lived, in Melbourne’s Macleod, was issued a weekly voucher to the cinema, where he began watching films voraciously. Soon – like any precocious tween with a flair for melodrama – he was borrowing Battleship Potemkin from the video store, and renting Ingmar Bergman at the local library. “I never had any friends,” he jokes.
That sense of suburban sprawl – and the all-consuming desire for something, anything to alleviate its hollowness – finds its way into Stolevski’s second feature, Of an Age. Three teens, each burdened with the starry-eyed optimism of adolescence, share a weekend with lingering ramifications into adulthood. Two of them fall in love as boys, and confront their relationship as men.
Stolevski’s breakthrough moment came in 2018 when, after writing and directing a string of short films, one of them won an award at Sundance. “Just the second I got into Sundance, it felt like a hallucinatory moment… When I got the email, I was ironing my husband’s shirts. My mum called me straight away. And my dad was on the phone, and he’s like, what does this mean? And I’m like, this means I’ve made it, I’m gonna be a film-maker, I’ll get work from now on.
“And from the moment I uttered that sentence, through to 2020, for three years, I didn’t really have work.”
A call from Causeway Films – the production company behind cult horror hit The Babadook – changed his fortunes. Said aloud, it resembles a fairytale: a producer from the studio asked for a list of ideas, read the screenplay for You Won’t Be Alone overnight, and decided it was the one.
You Won’t Be Alone is a horror film, though it adheres to neither the slasher tropes of its predecessors nor the cloying minimalism of recent “elevated” horror, which Eschews jump scares for thinky parables. There’s blood and guts aplenty, sure – the metamorphosis ritual alone sees Nevena carving into her victim’s flesh with blackened talons to extract their viscera – but a wide-eyed curiosity runs alongside the gore. Nevena, newly unleashed into the world, consumes all it has to offer: its bounties and its brutality.
That something as brazenly bizarre as you won’t be alone was made at all seems like a small miracle in Australia, a notoriously hermetic – and, as Stolevski has described it, “aesthetically conservative” – industry.
Any Australian director left of the mainstream is well acquainted with rejection, often shunned at home in favor of staid fare even as their star rises overseas. Plus, this was a beast of a film: an ensemble cast, an international shoot, and a script entirely performed in an archaic Macedonian dialect didn’t exactly make for a straightforward debut. Somewhere along the way, Stolevski was offered $3m by a distributor to change the dialogue to English, a deal he promptly rejected.
“Australia [talks] about diversity all the time,” he says, “but then it also has to feel Australian, and apparently, things in a foreign language don’t.”
All those anxieties ebbed on set. After the drudgery of Covid lockdown, he found himself awed by the six-week shoot in a tiny Serbian town nestled amid mountains so verdant, so vast they could turn anyone religious. “I was just traipsing happily across the most bucolic areas and dreaming up this story I’d written with no real limitations … [I] felt so overwhelmed. And lucky.”
I ask if there is a unifying treatise to the two features he’s made so far – and he answers with a question: “Is there? … I’d love to know.” I offer something cheesy about the characters in both films finding passages out of desolate existences – suburban Melbourne, agrarian North Macedonia – by imagining lives larger than their own. “Yes. Jesus! yes!” Hey exclaims. “Are you my therapist?”
The same expansiveness underpins his disdain for the identity labels sometimes used to shoehorn him into the guise of a queer film-maker, a migrant director. “I just find it something that rich people use to entertain each other,” he says. “I went to a working-class public school – I didn’t even think about it [diversity] because that was just reality.
“[Then] I entered the world of the arts, which is entirely made of rich people who discover what injustice is in roughly 20-year cycles – and they always limit it to this way that becomes purely theoretical … [Through film]I want to feel like my soul is traveling to another place and connecting to someone else I might never get to know and meet.
“And if that person is another Macedonian-Australian gay kid, like, ew!”