Sundance 2022 review: You Won’t Be Alone (Goran Stolevski)

You Won’t Be Alone is somewhat of a horror folk-cautionary tale and its ending is as open as the waters of a riverbank that may seem to follow a path on the surface but still run free underground.”

In an isolated mountain village in 19th century Macedonia a woman nurses her baby girl unaware that behind her a witch, or Old Mary as the locals call her, watches the scene, ready to make her move and take the baby with her. As the folktales go, and this one is no different, to save her child a supplicant mother begs, “Please, wait until she turns sixteen. Why bother raising a baby? You’ll have a maid by then.” The witch seals the pact and spills some of the baby’s blood but she’ll be back, that is a fact; so that mother hides her child in a cave and that little human being is to become a young girl alone, listening to the sounds from the outside world, and creating a myth out of even the smallest things such as the falling autumn leaves, for she knows no better. Man and nature, old ways and new ones, Christianity and paganism are concepts that overlap each other throughout mankind’s history, and their boundaries are porous, such as the limits between Old Mary’s body, a witch that can turn into anything she eats, and the world around her. This is the point of departure of Goran Stolevski’s You Won’t Be Alone.

The song She Was by the French singer Camille tells the story of a woman that lived many lives in many forms and in a particular verse, she sings, “When she was young / She was a cow / And all day long / She milked the stars / She taught me / “Women to survive/ Must be unfaithful to their child” / Of all the wonders of the world / She was a lady with a bird/ She must have had so many lives / Was it the first? Was it the last?” To be unfaithful to their child, what a strange and scary thought that finds a parallel in how the women in You Won’t Be Alone navigate the patriarchal world they live in, as well as in their connection to each other. It all begins with a woman locking her own kid inside a cave so that she could maybe survive her fate, but in a tragedy every actor gets their own part and must stick to it all the way through. So she was not “unfaithful” and she kept visiting her daughter as she grew up into a beautiful woman and that is how, shapeshifted as a bird, Old Mary finds the girl and claims her prize.

It is a new world full of sounds, colors, and creatures that the young woman hasn’t seen before – and in order to first drag her out of the cave, Old Mary eats and becomes her mother. A bit of familiarity amongst the unfamiliar, that is the world crafted by Stolevski. A world in which a magical woman can turn into anything as long as she carries it inside her. Here, as a mother dies, the witch becomes a mother herself, teaching the young girl the importance of drinking blood – that’s where her strength comes from, how she can turn into any animal she eats – but above all how she should avoid the world of men. However, there is violence in that which makes itself necessary and thus to become a woman herself the young girl (in this particular moment played by Sara Klimoska, and later played by Noomi Rapace and Carloto Cotta) parts ways with her Mother Mary and wanders into a village where she sees a woman (Noomi Rapace) giving birth. It’s a never-ending cycle but this time instead of taking the child, the girl becomes the mother herself.

Unlike Orlando and Tiresias that lived as both man and woman, she needs to first learn how to become a human being, for she stopped being one when her path crossed Old Mary’s while she was still a baby. “A woman never talks when a man is in the room,” her mother-in-law teaches her, as the old woman assumes that she got “woman’s madness” due to her recent labor. “A woman waits until the men finish eating their food. Only then she eats.” She mimics every smile, every cry for help, every tear shed in order to become one of them. Something that is astonishing to Old Mary as she points out “You chose a prison!” Time passes, the girl becomes more of what is expected of a woman. While Orlando simply woke up as a woman and Tiresias was cursed to live as a woman for seven years, this girl is raped by the husband of the woman she took her body from, but she kills him and becomes a man herself. A “powerful man” as she claims.

That Camille song goes on like this: “Sometimes I wonder (go) / If my child (go) / Will have her eyes (go) / (Go away, go away) / To see through me (go) / And when I die (go) / And I am born again (go) / (Go away, go away) / What will I be (go) / A stone? (go) A cat? (go) / A tree? (Go away, go away)…” In You Won’t Be Alone, the baby turned into a young girl, turned into a different woman, turned into her husband, goes on to become a child again, another girl, an animal. Her life is like a river, she says, it flows; but this river never turns its waters away from the village where men and women live a miserable existence working themselves to death, threatened by a plague, creating rituals and reinforcing traditions that only segregate them. She wants to be one of them. Perhaps, even though suffering and refusing the power of being free as an animal in nature, it is by rebelling against her witch mother that she gets closer to being a human. Don’t we all rebel eventually? Isn’t it human nature to do so?

You Won’t Be Alone is somewhat of a horror folk-cautionary tale and its ending is as open as the waters of a riverbank that may seem to follow a path on the surface but still run free underground. Old Mary shows the girl what might happen if she stays with the humans: she would be burned as a witch, she would be forced to keep taking care of men that would abuse her in any possible way. However, there was also a glimpse of love and happiness, there was also pleasure in sex, there might be the chance to birth her own child instead of stealing someone else’s. Finally, if life is chaotic, maybe something good may happen, who’s to say? Coming back to the song that is quoted throughout this text, “When she was out she was a tiger / And a tiger in the wild is not tied to anyone.” So, regardless of what the future might hold for her, she just wants something or someone to be tied to instead of roaming in the woods. Again, who’s to say what path she should’ve chosen, or what creature she should’ve turned herself into?