State and religion have a long history of fighting for the top position in the power hierarchy. The formal status of secular state that is valid for every country in the European Union, however does not end the power games: church tends to exploit the legacy of previous times, still remaining an influential institution, that supports particular social areas and competes with the law. When a direct power conflict occurs that influences lives of ordinary people, those involved in it may remain in vacuum depriving them of support from any of the sides.
This can be further exacerbated through power distribution practices of a patriarchal society, that is the perfect framework for church and state. Macedonian director Teona Strugar Mitevska sets her new film GOD EXISTS, HER NAME IS PETRUNYA right at the intersection of religion, law and the normalized patriarchal order in a small town in rural Macedonia. The film had its world premiere in the competition of the 69th edition of Berlinale and has been awarded by the Ecumenical Jury.
Every winter, the day of the Orthodox Epiphany a traditional ritualistic competition takes place in outskirts of Stip, a place in the eastern Macedonian that does not offer many opportunities for self-fulfillment. A group of men jump into the ice-cold water to catch the sacred cross that is supposed to bring luck to its owner for the whole year. One day, however, the situation takes quite an unexpected turn: a random woman grabs the cross and now the community has to decide whether she has the right to keep it. Strugar Mitevska uses a true story that happened in 2014 and develops it in her film, shifting the focus from the ritual gone wrong to the image of the woman, whose personal story exists beyond the role of a system breaker.
The film explores a day of life of Petrunya (Zorica Nusheva), a 31-year-old woman, with a university education, struggling to find a job in a country where only 15% of women have graduated from a university, Only 35.3% of women are employed and political participation of women is severely frustrated.
This day Petrunya attends another job interview, and leaving her house turns into a ridiculous theatrical performance thanks to her own mother, who does her best at giving advice to dress up, pretend to be obedient and to hide Petrunya’s real age. Despite Petrunya’s low expectations and initial attempts to play along, the interview turns out to be disastrous, as she is openly assessed by her looks, mocked for having education and no job experience, and rudely rejected for not being attractive or young enough to please the potential employer. On her way home Petrunya gets in a crowd of men, who head right to the river and follows them by jumping into the water, where she catches the cross – for luck is what she really needs herself. Here the trouble starts: while there is no real case from the legal side and the priest acknowledges Petruniya’s achievement, the men go berserk and in order to calm them, local police department and the priest have to convince the heroine to give the cross back.
GOD EXISTS, HER NAME IS PETRUNYA is the fifth feature of Strugar Mitevska, who constantly works with the context of contemporary Macedonia and often roots her work in real-life events. This time the film uses Macedonian reality as a setting for a story about female experience in a world dominated by patriarchy, supported and normalized by both state and church. Together with the scriptwriter Elma Tataragic, Strugar Mitevska introduces her female characters through a range of situations that take a comical – almost absurdist – direction. The hilarious sequence of Petrunya catching the cross works quite carefully with the material of original video, and presenting the serious attitude of the participants from the side deconstructs it and allows to go beyond its order. Than the heroine is placed in several important contexts – family, society, law – and the viewers get the opportunity to observe how Petrunya’s image is constructed by these contexts even when she does not want to participate.
The film uses the camerawork by Virginie Saint Martin to highlight the variety of level where the main character exists: close-ups allowing the audience to take a close personalized look at Petrunya, in contrast with long shots where she is either alone or gets lost in a crowd of people. The editing created by one more female member of the team, Marie-Helene Dozo, follows a jumpy, slightly neurotic tempo, that never allows the viewers to stay relaxed – because Petrunya herself never does.
One of another notable details in the film is the relations between Petrunya and other female characters: her mother (Violeta Sapkovska) and a journalist from Skopje (Labina Mitevska). Despite the fact that they both want to support her in their own way, they never do it in a proper way: Petrunya’s mother starts blaming her daughter for all the caused mess, while the journalist is trying to look for a media sensation, although what the heroine really seeks at the moment is personal support. All the women of the film are trapped into the existing norms and have different strategies of coping, that do not help them to communicate easily. But once Petrunya realizes her power to step out the games, she switches the roles and is no more angry with them. At this moment she is no more bearing the cross, giving it away together with all its heavy symbolic implications, because she is not the one who needs them.
Strugar Mitevska‘s film may not turn out smooth, but it offers an empowering message and a distinctive look into female experience, seasoned with humour and lively energy. As well it leaves room for discussion beyond the level of personal experience, exploring the place where women stay regardless of their abilities and efforts in present-day Macedonia and in bigger world.