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Life through a witch’s eyes in ‘You Won’t Be Alone’

Jake Coyle

AP – Maybe it’s a counter-reaction to our increasingly digital reality, but lately horror films have increasingly turned to primal pasts to resurrect the rituals and fears of folktale.
It’s a strikingly global trend, spanning New England (The Witch), rural Iceland (Lamb), North Dublin (You Are Not My Mother) and Sweden (Midsommar).

Goran Stolevski is an Australian writer-director but he was born and raised in Macedonia. And in his feature-film debut You Won’t Be Alone, he has drawn from old regional witch tales to craft a spell-binding immersion in a distant and fantastical 19th Century Macedonian realm that throbs with a strange, timeless existentialism.

You Won’t Be Alone begins with a visit from a 200-year-old witch (Anamaria Marinca). She’s known as Old Maid Maria or as the Wolf-Eateress, and her face is marked from the fire that wouldn’t consume her. She came for a peasant woman’s infant daughter Nevena. The mother pleads to let her raise the child until she’s 16, a bargain that Maria strikes by cutting the child’s tongue. After trying to hide Nevena all her life in a cave, Maria comes for her, arriving in the form of a crow.

When Maria leads Nevena (Sara Klimoska) out of the cave, it’s one of the most bizarre entrances into the world any person could make. Until now, she’s known little more than a small pile of dead leaves. Agog at the sun, the pastoral surroundings and her new captor, Nevena marvels at the world she has no grasp of, or of her place in it. In voiceovers, Nevena’s half-formed words – she calls Maria ‘Witch-Mama’ and herself ‘Me-the-Witch’ – struggle for understanding.

Sara Klimoska as Nevena in You Won’t Be Alone. PHOTO: FOCUS FEATURES

Maria begins raising Nevena as a kind of protégé but her lessons are brutal. Seeing Nevena play with a rabbit, Maria picks it up and instructs, “Blood, not playthings.” But Maria quickly grows frustrated with her witch pupil. Tiring of motherhood, she transforms into a wolf and leaves Nevena alone at a forest creek.

Nevena is left to roam the countryside, where her unusual point of view lends an outsider’s perspective on humanity. She might as well be an alien in human disguise. What she sees both enraptures and horrifies her. Nevena soon realises she, too, can transform. After accidentally killing a peasant woman, she muses, “What isn’t strange?”

But You Won’t Be Alone – not really a horror film – is much more concerned with using the young witch’s innocent but deadly outlook to examine life. She’s a witch anthropologist, and her transformations from one body to the next – a beautiful young woman, a young man, a dog, a child – give her many windows to look out from. As a woman in the male-dominated society, she notices that when woman are around men, “the mouth, it never opens”. But when the women are alone, conversation flows. “The mouth, it stays open.”

The film is so artfully composed that you’d believe it was the work of a more veteran director.

You Won’t Be Alone enchants in its novel perspective and in its sharp-shifting protagonist’s unquenchable curiosity. The witch, once so set in stereotype, has never felt so enthrallingly elastic.