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The 70th Berlinale International Film Festival will be held from February 20 to March 1, 2020.
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Personal favorite from Berlinale Competition: God Exists, Her Name is Petrunija

(Zorica Nusheva, Suad Begovski © sistersandbrothermitevski)

 

By LINDSAY R. BELLINGER

 

Macedonia isn't usually a country that comes to mind when the discussion turns to cinema, at least in more modern times. The Manaki brothers shot their first film, The Weavers, in 1905, so they were clearly cinema pioneers in the region. Instead, the political landscape and international disputes with Greece over the country's name often tend to be the focus of conversations about Macedonia. I'm guessing that will change with writer-director Teona Strugar Mitevska's God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunija, where the story of a 30-something old Macedonian woman, Petrunija (Zorica Nusheva), unfolds as she takes a stand against the (religious) patriarchy. It's funny witnessing this scene because Petrunija clearly does not intend to make such a political statement. Her actions, to lash out at the limited role that she and other women are pidgeon-holed into within society, is a bit of serendipity after having an awful job interview with a pervert potential boss. Mitevska (How I Killed a Saint, I Am from Titov Veles) hits us hard with her fifth feature film, following the success of her first short Veta, which received a special jury prize at Berlinale in 2001. Perhaps Mitevska is able to draw such realistic and powerful performances from her actors because she originally started as an actress herself, before studying filmmaking at Tisch School of the Arts in New York City. She really allows her actors to breath.    

For me, this story is universal in a way that it mustn't and shouldn't just be a call to arms for women to fight against the system, but anyone who feels worthless, or less than, at the hands of society, their family or whatever community with which they are a part. Of course, this should not lessen the impact of Petrunija as a single woman, standing up to (religious) outdated traditions that give greater value and privilege to men and boys on a worldwide scale. Petrunija's victory at catching the cross during a yearly religious ceremony in Stip only meant for men, was quite a sight, and it makes me curious to read up about the actual woman who inspired this film. 

Zorica Nusheva, in the title role of Petrunija, is a revelation. No wonder she easily expresses so much with her face, simple movements and slight looks. She is a trained actress who graduated in 2007 from drama school in Skopje and since then has been quite active in on the stage as a comedic actress. Although God Exists, Her Name is Petrunija is Nusheva's first film role, there is no doubt that she will stay active in the film community if she so chooses. Hers is a debut that will be hard to top.  

Relentless newsreporter Slavica is superbly portrayed by actress Labina Mitevska, who just so happens to be the writer-director's sister. If one was to just refer to one or two scenes with Slavica one could easily be mislead to think that she is a cold-hearted journalist who is only after the big story and furthering her career. The most relevant modern example would have to be German journalist Claas Relotius from Der Spiegel who falsified stories for years, and Brian Williams from NBC News also comes to mind. These two men are clear examples of blind ambition without following the truth, far from what journalist Slavica represents. She even makes such an ambitious statement to her cameraman to try to convince him to stick with her and the story, but that seems more for his benefit than her actual true intentions. 

The mother-daughter (child) battle that is present in so many cinematic storylines takes a different spin here. Petrunija's mother, at first, seems very loving in her two gestures in the opening sequence. She brings Petrunija breakfast in bed and gently caresses her face while Petrunija hides beneath the covers, not wishing to wake up and get ready for yet another job interview. This caring and understanding relationship quickly takes a turn when she begins to criticize her daughter with no end in sight. This overbearing and meddlesome relationship is again reinforced when she chases her down the street, just a mere minutes after Petrunija is on her way to her friend's boutique to find appropriate interview clothing.   

My only concern is that the nicely-wrapped ending might confuse some viewers into thinking that Petrunija is only coming to self-fulfillment and happiness due to the attention of the handsome mustached policeman Darko (Stefan Vujisic). It would be silly to think that her growth and defiance throughout the story just boils down to the interest of a kind and progressive-thinking man. Throughout the film we see Petrunija defending herself, both physically, verbally and emotionally against her mother, explaining to her best friend that she refuses to go by a shorter, cute version of her name just to conform and be more approachable.

Let's hope that the movie-going public will give this film a chance, especially those in the male demographic as the title alone, God Exists, Her Name is Petrunija, is quite provocative and will for sure turn some theatergoers/film journalists, going in with pre-conceived notions of male-bashing or flashbacks to the beginnings of the #metoo movement. It should be interesting to see how the reaction to this film evolves over the course of the coming months, post-Berlinale and during this progressive film's longlife on the festival circuit. I jus hope that this film will not undergo the type of reaction certain female political candidates have faced in recent times. Some of the mysogynistic garbage that was spewed at various real-life female politicians came to mind during some of the more incendiary scenes where Petrunija faced scary mobs of young men. Sadly, Mitevska's satirical triumph will not be for those cinemalovers who need to be spoonfed some clearcut resolution explanation. This film was clearly one of the highlights of this year's Berlinale. 

 

 

 

 

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Berlin 2019: The dailies from the Berlin Film Festival brought to you by our team of festival ambassadors. Vanessa McMahon, Alex Deleon, Laurie Gordon, Lindsay Bellinger and Bruno Chatelin...
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