‘A hallucinatory moment’: Goran Stolevski on his unlikely rise in Australian film

With queer romance Of an Age and oddball horror You Won’t Be Alone, Stolevski has marked himself as one of the country’s directors to watch

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 man?”

Goran Stolevski walks along a shaded path in a park wearing a jumper and neck chain
Stolevski’s new film You Won’t Be Alone is an outlier from Australia’s ‘aesthetically conservative’ industry. Photograph: Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/The Guardian.

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 anywhere, I would be accused of witchcraft,” he says.) He had a “simple” upbringing 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 realise 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.”

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.

A still from film You Won’t Be Alone featuring a woman being patted on the shoulder by a man
An ambitious directorial debut: You Won’t Be Alone involved an ensemble cast, an international shoot, and a script performed in an archaic Macedonian dialect. Photograph: Branko Starcevic/Focus Features

Any Australian director left of the mainstream is well acquainted with rejection, often shunned at home in favour 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!” he 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 [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 travelling 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!”

  • You Won’t Be Alone is released in Australia on 22 September


Michael Sun

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
From Sissy to The Stranger: the 10 best Australian films of 2022 – ranked
We were treated to some remarkable new talent this year, spanning environmental documentaries, satirical horror and kitchen sink realism

Luke Buckmaster

25, Dec, 2022 @8:24 PM

Article image
Sissy review – influencer horror film is a deranged pleasure to watch
Carnage ensues when a social media star reluctantly agrees to attend a former friend’s hen party in this impressively unpredictable film

Luke Buckmaster

01, Nov, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
‘Muriel’s Wedding was our north star’: the minds behind Sissy on their influencer horror film
A 90s dark comedy and Australian conwoman Belle Gibson inspired directors Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes to create their camp gorefest that has fans around the world screaming for more

Michael Sun

04, Nov, 2022 @7:00 PM

Article image
You Won’t Be Alone review – a spellbinding horror movie from a great new talent
Director Goran Stolevski casts a different light on witch stories in his debut, which follows a shapeshifter in a 19th-century village

Luke Buckmaster

21, Sep, 2022 @5:30 PM

Article image
From Mountain's majesty to Lion's roar: the best Australian films of 2017
Film-makers released a bunch of squeamishly effective scary movies in a year that was revitalised by first-timers

Luke Buckmaster

20, Dec, 2017 @5:00 PM

Article image
From Relic to The Invisible Man: the best Australian films of 2020
Guardian Australia’s film critic picks the crop from the movies that made it to market in a year that has been anything but ordinary

Luke Buckmaster

17, Dec, 2020 @4:30 PM

Article image
Dev Patel, Eddie Izzard and the director of The Babadook: 10 Australian films to watch in 2018
From Hotel Mumbai, which stars Patel, to Jennifer Kent’s next film, 2018 is looking good for Australian cinema

Luke Buckmaster

15, Jan, 2018 @5:00 PM

Article image
From Annette to Shang-Chi: eight new films to watch as Australian cinemas reopen
As locked-down regions reopen this month, here’s our guide to the best bet for your next night out

Michael Sun

11, Oct, 2021 @2:01 AM

Article image
Melbourne international film festival 2022: 10 movies to see, from Crimes of the Future to new George Miller
Miff’s 70th edition offers 371 titles from all over the globe – including 18 world premieres

Luke Buckmaster

12, Jul, 2022 @9:30 AM

Article image
Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis leads 2022 Aacta award nominations
Austin Butler and Tom Hanks up for acting roles alongside director Luhrmann, while ABC drama Mystery Road: Origins leads TV categories with 15 nominations

Sian Cain

23, Oct, 2022 @11:55 PM