Today is the anniversary of the premature death of Biljana Gavranlieva (Skopje, July 1973 – Berlin, 10 September 2016). She was a director, screenwriter, and author of documentary films for which she received a number of international awards. For her debut documentary movie “Macedonian Dream: A Girl and her Accordion” (2006) she received the German National film award. For the documentary movie “Seamstresses,” which describes the social injustice endured by women textile workers in Macedonia, the Sarajevo Film Festival awarded her in 2010 with the prize “The Heart of Saraevo.” She is also the author of the documentary “Tobacco Girl” which has been screened at a number of festivals worldwide. The main protagonists in her documentaries are women struggling for their social rights in Macedonia. She is one of the rare, if not the only director, who masterfully narrated stories about social injustice, privatization and the patriarchy, and how these in the past decades have thwarted women’s emancipation and liberation and forced many women to leave the country.
The interview that follows was recently discovered by her family in Berlin. At the end of October, 2012, Ivana Knesevic interviewed Biljana Garvanlieva in Skopje for her film project “Balkan Express.” The conversation took place three days after the two-week filming of Garvanlieva’s new film, “Tetevo Story.” In this interview she talks about her work and struggles as a woman director, politics in Macedonia under the rule of the previous nationalistic government of Nikola Gruevski, and the destruction of multicultural Skopje with the government sponsored project “Skopje 2014.”
At the beginning, crows circle around.
Biljana Garvanlieva sings, „Oj devojce, devojce ti Tetovsko jabolce“
Can you quickly introduce yourself?
My name is Biljana Garvanlieva and this is my story, in brief. I was born in Skopje, studied dramaturgy here and wanted to become a dramatist. I wrote my first play in 1999. Two days before the premiere, I heard the first bombs, because Belgrade was bombed on March 26th. This atmosphere, like what we went through with the Bosnian war, with Kosovan refugees, totally narrowed my space as an artist. I simply could not realize myself here as an author, and I left the country.
You went straight to Berlin and learned film. What does it mean to you to make a film?
Love, passion, freedom, and uncertainty. With documentaries I felt at home again. I found my homeland again. The whole time I was torn between places. In 1999, after the bombing of Belgrade, I left Skopje very deliberately–that is, Macedonia, where I had a happy childhood in what was then Yugoslavia–because in Skopje I could no longer find my place as an artist. I wanted to be able to express my critical voice freely without being punished. So I went to Berlin.
It was there that I discovered documentary filmmaking. I was enchanted with it. I’ve been doing it now for seven years. That’s how it always is with me: my heart is with my biological family, my parents who live in Macedonia, but also my body is with my German husband with whom I have two children. So I am always torn, always in this space in-between. In this corridor it was very moving for me to make documentaries. In a documentary, there was a space where I found myself truly at home. That is my homeland.
What does Macedonia mean to you now?
I experience Macedonia through the friends and the people that I meet here, and through the sun. I mean, I feel foreign in this city. I have such a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach. All of my senses were assaulted by these statues, which I see as a form of propaganda. I just do not feel comfortable here. On the other hand, there is so much love and warmth when I am with my friends, when I can be together with them. That is the inspiration for my films.
What do you mean about the statues?
The city square in Skopje was always a free space. And thus it was always a place where all people from the city interacted. And this openness and this multiculturalism defined Skopje and the entire country. And at some point the ruling party, a conservative Christian party, decided to reconstruct it in a baroque style…. I really don’t know. I mean, I see it as an assult on the senses, as a kind of propaganda. It began about four years ago. So I really think it is such a shame, because Macedonians once could find shared heroes with Albanians, with Turks, with Roma people, and to build upon that. You know, my impression is, I somehow find it ridiculous anyway to identify through nationality. For me, integration is something that is much more important than identification through nationality. Cultural identity is much more important than if I would say: I come from Bosnia, my husband comes from Germany, my kids grew up in Germany and Macedonia. ‘Who am I?’, I ask myself–and that’s why I think the question of identity is nonsense. A far more important question for me is the question of integrity, and I try to raise my kids in this way.
What are your hopes and what are you afraid of?
The biggest fear for me is the fear of death. I experienced this very intense fear of death a year ago, when I was diagnosed with cancer. But I live with it, I just let it inspire me, and I look this fear in the eye. I try to deal with it, with the illness and with my fears, somehow.
I try to do the same thing in my films, for instance: ethnic conflicts, the conflict between Albanians and Macedonians in 2001, the exploitation of seamstresses, the exploitation of children, of tobacco pickers–these are all fears among Macedonians who prefer not to speak about them. They sweep them under the rug. I am a person who likes to look fear in the eyes. I think that only when you thematize those fears, when you show the wounds, do they heal. Only the wounds that are made visible can heal.
How would you describe your dreams?
Oh, I haven’t dreamed for a long time. I just started beginning to dream again only recently. (She laughs, then pauses for a long time.) Yeah, I have more fears than dreams for the future. Because there are these…. I may not like freedom and uncertainty, but this uncertainty prevails in everyday life. And my dream is to make films, and perhaps I am a Don Quijote, but I strongly believe that documentaries really can change the world. I am so happy when, for instance, people who have seen my films get in touch with me and extend financial support to the protagonists, or want to invest in that village so there’s a school there again. That makes me unbelievably happy and joyful.
How do you see the future in Macedonia?
(Long pause) Yeah, the future in Macedonia? I feel like everything here has stayed the same. I cannot see a future for Macedonia as long as I regularly see for example how in Macedonian families children are beaten. That is such a taboo that no one talks about. That is how children are brought up here. But the fear that small children get, when they already get beaten as children, those fears resurface later, in how–as I see it–Macedonia is ruled by so many stressed out politicians. I imagine how they must have been beaten as children whenever they told the truth. Instead of being rewarded for that, they were beaten. I think the future will happen when this beating of children stops, because they are such victims. I mean, here in Macedonia, that is a totally nuormal way of raising a child. I think it gets transferred later when the children are grown up. All of these suppressed energies and suppressed fears–so yeah, I do not see a bright future.
I had such a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach when I saw the city square and the statues. I have never experienced that as my history. I experience it as propaganda, and only the place where I am right now, the Lunapark, do I sense a free space, the only one still left in Skopje.
It’s a shame. Macedonia had a chance to work for self-sufficiency, for this multicultural life that existed here for centuries, to find common heroes, common dreams and wishes. But this patriotism that is so present everywhere automatically excludes the other. For me patriotism is simply racism, I encounter it in Macedonia on every corner, every street, Albanians and Macedonians, people from Bosnia, from Romania and Greece, who always lived together. I think that is why the war did not break out in Macedonia, because the different nationalities get along so well together. All of the artificial factions, this artificial division of the city into different cities–it is something that has to be changed. I try to change it with my films. That is, I try to show the other side and to talk about art, to talk about youths that have various nationalities. To them it doesn’t matter. The main thing is that all are human beings that they have things in common, make the same music.
What do you wish for your children?
For my children? I hope that they can cry, that they can show their feelings. I mean, I think that is a very important discovery in life. Here, children are raised not to show their feelings. You are not allowed to say that you are poor. I raise my kids to know that it is natural when they are sad and cry. When they are angry because of suppressed feelings that have accummulated here for centuries–for instance a civil war in Greece, there are so many refugees who came to Macedonia from Greece. There are so many histories, so many suppressed feelings, and this energy has accummulated and at some point this powder keg explodes. I hope that my kids are not afraid of their tears, that they can show their feelings and give a lot of love and warmth to other people. I really think that this tenderness and love is what is missing in the communication between human beings. Everyone is so stressed out and estranged. Just a pure automatism. This materialistic world supresses what most people have deep inside of them. I try somehow with my films, with small and human stories, simply to give my statement about the world and globalization.
Has there been any positive side to your illness?
So, I didn’t perceive cancer as an illness, but as a challenge to change my life. I just asked myself, what is the most important thing to me right now? Is it my films or my children? It is not easy to be a woman filmmaker and at the same time have two children who are still small. They need a mother and support. At any rate, the illness said to me: now stop, take a break, give yourself time and space just for you.
It also inspired me perhaps to make a documentary about power struggles, because this power struggle I experience also in the city square whenever I go to Skopje. There is always this representation of proud muscular men that are on a much higher pedestal than the women. The representation of women are either as sluts or as mothers who want to nourish their children. I think this power struggle that you see in the statues is something that is also so present in society. That is why my films are the way they are, why the main protagonists are women. I see that as my motivation as a filmmaker, just to break this traditional and conventional image of the woman in Macedonia and to show her as a hero. As someone who knows what she wants and pushes through alone and achieves what she sets out to. Yeah, that is why I devote all of my films to women here in Macedonia. Normally in Macedonian films they are always shown as victims, either as prostitutes or as housewives. There is no other image.