Yesor Won’t Be Alone is one of the most extraordinary films I’ve seen, or rather experienced, in recent memory, a deeply unusual and deeply moving drama about a witch discovering how to be human by taking over the bodies of others in rural areas. 19th century Macedonia. It’s part horrific body horror, part dreamy fairy tale, part exercise in existentialism and extreme empathy told mostly through a weird and fractured storytelling of someone learning what is and means language as he navigates an often barbaric yet often beautiful world. It’s really something.
“You’re going to realize that I’m an idiot very quickly,” director Goran Stolevski says with a laugh, as we start our Zoom chat with disarming and ultimately unwarranted nervousness. The 36-year-old Macedonian-Australian filmmaker, who very quickly turns out to be very do not an idiot, jitters my exuberant five-star review of his debut feature, which premiered at this year’s virtual Sundance Film Festival in January.
His film has the lived-in feeling of an oft-told old folk tale or a dusty, chipped novel, but is actually a true original. Stolevski, who had spent years making modest shorts (he describes himself as “the most failed filmmaker who ever failed” before his escape), was living in Bristol when the idea struck him. He was about to turn 30, a year after a three-year spell of unemployment, and as a gay migrant he felt like an outsider, often speaking to no one but his husband for weeks . He also read a lot of Virginia Woolf…
“Virginia helped me feel less isolated,” he tells me. “What she does with words to capture conscience or innocence, I was really wondering how you could do that with cinema? I wanted to do something with a particular feeling that I had at the time, and then try to capture that way of life that has all but disappeared and document it in all its beauty and ugliness.
He had researched folk tales from his native land, but found them mostly useless. The female characters were usually ostracized, told to stay in the kitchen, then shut up and get to work, and instead he found more inspiration studying witchcraft and how to such legends allowed women to transgress even though such transgression often led to severe punishment. .
“I think I have what is commonly called a ‘difficult woman’ brain, so witches are a natural thing for me,” he says. “I think if I lived in this time and place, I would be the person who would want to live differently because I wanted more out of life and I would definitely be burned at the stake. I don’t know what gender they would think I am, but they would call me a witch anyway.
The journey undertaken by the film’s protagonist – through the bodies and lives of a woman (played by Noomi Rapace), a dog, a man and a child – becomes a frustrating and fundamental lesson in the gender and power. What can a man get away with that a woman can’t? What is expected of women that is not expected of men? Stolevski, as a young gay man, always turned to “stubborn girls” who refused to accept such regressive restrictions. “I learned the meaning of injustice even before I understood the concept of fairness,” he tells me, recalling childhood stories where girls were forced to do chores that boys were “lazy as shit” could avoid.
There’s a distinct weirdness to the film, with its tale of being a misunderstood outsider, and although Stolevski denies any conscious process of making the film weird, he admits it’s an undeniable part of his job. “Everything works by instinct,” he says. “I always insist on not writing autobiographically because I’m not interested in seeing myself specifically reflected. What interests me more is to see if my brain, if my essence, was transported into this other person at a completely different time and a completely different place, how would I cope, what would I encounter- I as frontier or limit, how could I try to find my way? He adds that “the weirdness obviously, I just hope it comes out” with a laugh.
Before he decided to become a wizard, his shorts were mostly relationship dramas (he admits it “started partly out of practicality, because when you’re nothing and nobody’s trying to make movies, you kind of have to go, what can you do?”) so horror wasn’t an obvious place to go for his full debut, especially given his tendency to be rather gross. Alone may only play with horror tropes rather than being horror in the traditional sense, but there are no such half measures when it comes to gore. , the innards are torn and scooped out, it’s never exactly self-explanatory, more down-to-earth, but there’s very little left for the imagination.
“You kind of tap into that creative frequency, and then the film picks up the slack and directed me,” he says. “I want to make sure I’m not protecting myself from any part of life. i’m trekking but i have a morbid fear of heights and i get to the top of a mountain and literally i take a fucking picture like this [he looks away while pretending to take a picture] because I must have a photo and it must be beautiful. It’s kind of like how I shoot from a great height, managing the gore.
Even scarier than dealing with blood? Dealing with bad reviews. Although the film received acclaim at Sundance and in the months that followed (it’s currently at a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes), as an avowed “movie nerd,” Stolevski struggled not to descend down a self-masochistic online rabbit hole upon its premiere. He was in the process of editing his second feature, a queer love story set in the late 90s, and got stuck on a particular stage. “I was just like why can’t I connect to this character right now and I started to feel like, wait, I’ve been shitty all along and I just don’t get over it figured out?” he says. “The movie came out and I went on Letterboxd and honestly, I’m still like 50/50. I don’t know if I could just be Letterboxd-based shit!”
His confidence has since grown, he’s gotten used to critics looking at his work under the microscope (“I don’t think it’s in the world to be nicer, I think it’s really up to me to negotiate that “, he confesses) and must now get used to studio execs doing the same. It wasn’t planned as such, but his film is a striking, do-it-all business card, a feature debut that feels like something done by someone much later in his career (he has said elsewhere that Terrence Malick’s many comparisons have become “trigger”). He’s understandably cautious about what’s to come.
“I kind of have my team and I have my set of stories that I want to tell and I’m really scared of being distracted by people offering you dinner and champagne,” he says. “I wrote 13 screenplays. I have three others that are bubbling. Most people who want to talk to me most of the time they just want to talk about IP you know like a prequel to something or I just want to do a Bambi fire movie but just from the perspective of the fire about how she was misunderstood, which is not my jam.
He certainly doesn’t want to “end up in the system” and for the foreseeable future, it’s hard to see that happening. His next two films are both queer and the first, Of An Age, is a romance set in Melbourne between a ballroom dancer and his friend’s older brother. “Look, this one is going to make people cry,” he insists. “I’m very excited. It’s made everyone cry so far at least twice. And excited at least three times, which is kind of a good balance.