The culture sector in Europe was hit hard by the corona crisis. Theatres, museums, and galleries closed their doors, concerts were cancelled, film production grinded to a halt. Countries across Europe approached the issue of culture differently, and the emergency package for the revival of European economy allocated big funds for culture. The crisis also showed that culture is of fundamental importance. Last November, the European Parliament awarded the Lux Film Prize to “God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya” by Macedonian director Teona Mitevska.
The story about the fight for women’s equality won the hearts of European audience. In her speech before the European Parliament Mitevska said: “Petrunya is a rebel. I was deeply touched by her resistance, her courage, and her search for justice. I’m always criticised by Macedonian politicians that my films are too political. It is true. I am an author who is interested in societal deviations. I take it as my duty to voice my opinion and speak about the problems that no one dares to raise. Because, ultimately, how can we build a better future if we don’t dare? We must be given the chance to air our opinions freely. This must be our common fight, as creators, artists and politicians, to express ourselves freely and without fear. I am a woman, I am Macedonian, I am European. And the future of Europe lies in solidarity and inclusivity, not in exclusion.”
N1’s foreign affairs editor Ivana Dragicevic spoke to Mitevska as part of the ongoing series “World in Times of Corona.”
In your speech before the European Parliament you said that Europe must be inclusive, and not exclusive and that the key for all of us, the pillar of the European Union, is the freedom of speech, freedom of expression. We’ve been in state of emergency for a few months now, how important is your message in these times?
I think it is important, maybe more important than ever before. When I spoke in the European Parliament about inclusivity, I was referring to Europe’s greatest treasure – its cultural diversity – which we have to celebrate and place above everything else. I think that everything that is happening right now is a great lesson to all of us. When it started, Europe reacted with fear, we all closed ourselves away before I think we realised that we are stronger together. I hope therefore that the future of Europe lies in inclusivity. As far as Macedonia and the Balkan region is concerned, if I were one of Europe’s leaders, I would not wait until 2029 or whatever year, I would welcome the entire region in the EU within the next two years. Europe needs that step in order to begin something better, something healthier. Something more European.
How important is it, when talking about culture, to understand that diversity and this common space in Europe that everyone should be a part of?
It’s important because culture goes beyond national borders. We talk about the diversity of experiences and the way in which we tell stories, look at lives, find solutions. That is priceless. For three months now we have been shuttered away and this time has given us a lot to think about. I think it is clearer than ever that culture is food for spirit for everyone. This intellectual and emotional stimulation that comes from culture is incredibly important, it’s something without which we cannot exist, without which there is no progress.
A similar debate can be heard in Europe these days, and EU funds have been more generous towards culture during the crisis, even though member countries have approached aid to the sector in different ways, especially to freelance workers. Do you think that the financial injection given to the culture sector will be helpful in the long term, and also to open space for the idea of diversity in an intelligent and creative way?
Of course it will. Personally, I would double or triple this financial injection, because now is the time to create, to think and to go beyond borders in every way. This entire experience is humbling, we have seen how small we are. All of us, artists and others, are forced to ask ourselves the real, essential questions. The essence of real art is talking about what is important instead of faking it. This is why I would invest in culture now. In Japanese architecture after WWII, the movement called architectural metabolism has become popular. Japan was destroyed and they were thinking about creating something healthy, something new, out of nothing. That movement is very interesting because it talks about the need to have the healthy roots on which you can organically build everything else. I think the same pattern can be applied to culture and the institutions that work in culture. All of this is an opportunity to think about how culture and financing culture and cultural institutions can function better.
During the pandemic, you were invited by the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, along a few other authors, to make a film about the times we’ve found ourselves in. You made a film about your family. In the last scene, with all of you crowded in one room looking at the sky, your niece utters the sentence “we’ve survived, but the question is whether we will evolve.”
That’s Shakespeare. To be or not to be, that is the question. And I think that is the question we’re all asking ourselves now. In times of crisis, what can we, as a society, learn from that experience. Whether we should go back to the way things used to be or try and create something new, something that will work better. When you’re a film director, you’re used to having a big crew, certain conditions, predispositions that make the film what it should be. Working on this project, I was forced to abandon all of my old ideas on what makes a good movie. Then you realise that the essence of everything is a good idea. To have something to say. You can adapt to form and conditions. To answer the question directly – the economic system. It caused us to self-destruct. The 21st century won’t be a century of ideology, but of science. Perhaps also, in a way, a time of questioning and reconstructing societies and an economic system in which we function.
In your speech, you also mentioned that Macedonian politicians are criticising you because your movies are too political, and you talk about disruptions and societal deviations. Without talking about that, here would be no art that reacts to everyday life. How much can artists contribute to a wider discussion in societies, because we often hear it is senseless to expect art to change things? How important is the participation of creative voices in the story of our future?
Participation of creative voices is essential. There is no progress without freedom of expression. The artist is, and should be, the philosopher of our time. You need to be brave, to provoke and talk about uncomfortable things. How political is that? The world in which we live, everything we live, is political. Create conditions in which an artist can feel safe and free. To express yourself freely is the thread that keeps democracy together. That is what we all must aim for.
Talking about means, each art has its own method, its own expression. We talk more and more today about digital spaces, which we have experienced more in the time of the pandemic. There is a lot of talk about how those spaces help, or harm, art. In any case, it is another platform for creating, promoting, and disseminating cultural content. How do you see this debate on digital spaces?
It’s important to consume art. Society is developing, virtual reality is inescapable. We must accept the inevitable. People will consume art in the digital world, but that doesn’t mean that everything else will go away. I think, perhaps I’m too optimistic, that this other kind of consuming art, immediately, directly, will become more important. Humans are social beings. We need touch. One example is this conversation we’re having. As interesting as it is, it’s happening online. Being next to each other, the energy exchanged, is essential to us. As Harari said, touch, communication, gossiping, they are essential for evolution. I have nothing against digital consumption, but the experience of going to the theatre, museum, a cinema, exhibition – we are all going to become more aware of how important, how necessary that feeling is.
You said that a group of European authors from the film industry has been talking online this entire time on the future or European cinematography. What did you conclude?
People have become more honest. A very frank discussion has opened up suddenly. In a way, perhaps the problem of cultural institutions and the system of European financing is rigidity. Everyone is talking about flexibility. The European system is functioning, the foundations are good, but how do you create something more flexible, more open, something that will give us more freedom in our attempts to create something? I like that newfound honesty. When you are standing on the precipice about to step into the unknown, that’s when the truth comes out. Perhaps real solutions will be found this time.
Speaking of new solutions, you are very aware of the feminist position in that regard. There has been a lot of talk about women during the pandemic, from the increase in domestic violence, to the fact that the burden of the crisis has fallen mostly on the backs of women, starting from those working on the front lines of the health care system, all the way to piled-up domestic work. The crisis also saw the emergence of a debate on the new, empathetic feminist leadership where the prime ministers of New Zealand and Iceland are singled out as examples. How important is to see this as a path for our future? The female future.
Women have never been on top of the pyramid of power, the pyramid of patriarchy. The system wasn’t designed to give us room there. I know that in my profession – the film industry – me and my sister Labina, who is an actress and a producer, we always had to adapt and find alternative ways to be able to reach the final product. Nothing was ever given to us. We always had to fight harder. That experience – growing up in a world which treats you as the second-class citizen – is essentially very useful for us women. We were always forced to find alternative solutions to every problems. And, what happened? The coronavirus came along, the crisis came along and it was of course the women who managed to cope with everything in these conditions. Is that the future? I hope so. It will take at least another century, if we survive, to do away with patriarchy. Ultimately, the entire idea of patriarchy is the fight for power. So how do you create a more egalitarian world? We must continue fighting and shining the light on good examples. Does the future of the world rest on women? Yes. That is a fact, neither you or I have reached that conclusion, there’s been talk of this for years now. It’s incredibly important to stress that, when talking about how the future is female, it doesn’t mean that women will conquer men and perpetuate the same old model. What it means, symbolically, is that the world will be more equal than it is now. For everyone, men, women, all of us. I’m not promoting war, I’m promoting a different way of functioning. A more equal way where everyone is given the same opportunities.
Your film, “God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya,” has won many international awards. It’s a story of one woman's struggle. I recommend the movie to all those who haven’t seen it yet. Not to talk about the plot too much, but what do you think, in connection to what you said earlier, would be the message from Petrunya to all of us?
Each of us has the capacity to change not only ourselves, but to change the world.