Venice 2023 review: 21 Days Until the End of the World (Teona Strugar Mitevska)

“Offbeat but exceptional, the film offers us unfurnished insights into the life of someone whose impulse during a time of crisis was to create art.”

For nearly two decades Teona Strugar Mitevska has been working laboriously to establish herself as one of the preeminent voices in contemporary Macedonian cinema, which has been sorely underrepresented on the global artistic stage. Telling stories about the society in which she was raised, and exploring the country and its people in terms of both past and present, she has been doing solid, meaningful work for several years. Her most recent offering is one of her most ambitious, since we see the director turning the camera on herself. This gives us the astonishing 21 Days Until the End of the World, which chronicles three weeks in the life of the director and her family as they sit isolated in their home during the COVID-19 lockdown. We watch as she speaks directly to the camera (or in some cases beyond it), allowing every thought, whether insightful or intrusive, to emerge on the screen. This coalesces into a striking examination of an individual teetering dangerously close to a complete breakdown, which is only worsened by the sense of panic that comes when realizing the future is not particularly certain. This was a universal experience that we all encountered over the last few years, and which Mitevska has used as the foundation for a challenging and insightful documentary about the narrow boundary between sanity and delusion, as well as the triggers that underpin both of these concepts.

From its first moments, it is clear that 21 Days Until the End of the World does not intend to follow any logical conventions. Mitevska notably refuses to structure it in a way that would adhere to any known traditions and instead uses this film as an opportunity to experiment with both form and content. The film straddles the line between being a video diary, a day-to-day account of her routine while under a strict lockdown, and a detailed psychological breakdown, in which every fear and insecurity she felt over these interminable three weeks is put on display. It is an immersive experience, one that plunges the viewer into her life – even if the audience is not familiar with Mitevska or her prior work, or is perhaps not well-acquainted with her style, we can easily understand the deeper implications that a lockdown brings for any artist, especially one who has made her career through insightful, methodical analyses of society. Suddenly, the focus shifts to the person behind the camera, and we see the insecurities and anxieties manifesting in bewildering but passionate monologues in which the director, who is now the focus of her own work, discusses her experiences during this time, which reflects the situation for many people. No longer a director commanding a larger production with several moving parts, Mitevska is reduced to a single individual with a camera – and the fact that she wove this together to create such a curious document that captures the global zeitgeist, albeit in a small way, is quite an accomplishment.

21 Days Until the End of the World proves that even the most seemingly simple projects have a deeper meaning, and while it is easy to look at this film as just a series of vignettes in the life of the director, strung together to create a coherent portrait of her experiences during the lockdown, there is something more profound simmering beneath the surface. Mitevska truly bares herself, both emotionally and physically, speaking to an audience that she wasn’t even sure existed when she turned on that camera. She expresses herself boldly and without any hesitation, engaging in a fearless testimony of her innermost fears and questions, not purely about this period and the uncertainty it brought to her life, but her existence as a whole. This film feels like we are given the chance to peer into her daily routine, become voyeurs observing her gradual descent into isolation-fuelled madness, which is extremely resonant for anyone who has had similar experiences. The director may not see herself as doing anything brave or unique, since she’s only telling her story and expressing herself, both through her verbal testimony and her innermost thoughts, which appear in the form of jumbled words that flash on screen at different times, emphasizing certain points she is attempting to convey. It’s a fascinating documentary that takes a very simple approach to a complex subject, and the lack of structure makes it a far more engaging depiction of a reality Mitevska encountered, and felt impelled to record on film for posterity.

A strange and disquieting work that unsettles the strictly mandated conventions for documentary filmmaking in a way that is uncomfortable but effective, 21 Days Until the End of the World is a fascinating project about the feeling of isolation and the paranoia that emerges when someone is detached from reality for any length of time. It is often quite crude and unfiltered, but this is part of the appeal, since the lack of resources forces the director to be more creative, as well as removing any need to curate these moments to fit a narrative. Instead she takes this raw material and crafts a different kind of story from fragments of unhinged psychological ramblings, which are reconfigured into fascinating glimpses into the director’s life. Daring and provocative, and yet another strong indication of Mitevska’s remarkable talent, the film is a deeply personal odyssey that finds truth in the panic. In terms of both artistic resonance and psychological complexity, it should strike a chord with many viewers, and even with the pandemic being less of a global crisis at the present moment, the sense of fear and uncertainty is still enough to propel this film and its often quite abstract but meaningful ideas. Offbeat but exceptional, the film offers us unfurnished insights into the life of someone whose impulse during a time of crisis was to create art, even if it wasn’t done with a particular endpoint in mind at the time, which only makes the striking emotional blows found throughout the film all the more inspiring and impactful.