I Am From Titov Veles (Jas Sum Od Titov Veles)
The film begins with a visual icon of the industrial world: the factory’s spires rising like a cathedral, emitting billows of smoke into the sky. Then, a woman’s legs, wrapped like a present in ribboned slippers and a skirt of delicate fabric. She is walking quickly along a wall; she is hurrying. Behind her, out of focus, a man rides on a machine in the factory yard. It becomes obvious that she is surrounded by a workers’ strike, and she sits down and suddenly notices a tiny bug on her hand. She is delighted, in awe. Her absorption with this tiny creature drowns out the noise around her, and she tilts her head back, breathing deeply.
I Am From Titov Veles is a film written and directed by Teona Mitevska, a Macedonian artist who graduated from NYU Tisch and now co-runs a family film company called Sisters and Brother Mitevski with her sister Latina, actress and star of Titov Veles, and her brother Vuk, art director and painter/sculptor who studied at Bennington college in Vermont. The film has won over fifteen international festival awards, and they are well earned. This is a precious film, a rare work of visual intensity and beauty as well as infinitely rich content.
It appears obvious that Teona Mitevska loves this film, these characters, and most of all this place. The film is “patriotic” in the truest sense: it expresses joy at the joyful parts of the place, and horror at that which is horrible. It is truly a film which replaces patriotic guns with a camera, and goes forth with purpose.
The story follows the youngest of three sisters, Afrodita (played by the sister Latina Matevska) who has chosen not to speak since they lost their parents when she was young. She lives with the two older sisters, one of whom works at the factory and suffers from drug addiction, and the other who is obsessed with gaining a visa to leave Veles as soon as possible.
Their relationship is intense and tenderly erotic, full of love but first and foremost at the service of survival. Their bodies are fiercely controlled by boundaries: boundaries of their citizenship, boundaries of marriage and connections to men, boundaries of drugs and substance addiction. They push against these boundaries, struggling to transcend, but ultimately they have little to help them. They are middle-aged, single women, without a father or patriarchal lineage to sustain them. There is little hope to escape this city, whose factory is slowly suffocating the city’s inhabitants with menacing fumes.
This film is beautifully wrought from all directions. The direction is very fine, walking along the razor’s edge to elicit both deep visual pleasure and emotional turbulence. The soundtrack is stunning; at certain points, the music is allowed to soar and take charge of the film in a powerful way (original compositions by Olivier Samouillan). The acting is both controlled and absolutely joyful, the actors breathing fully in the space they inhabit, embracing the contradictions of their characters: especially Latina’s performance of Afrodita, which is simply unforgettable.
The painterly quality of the film undoubtedly comes from Vuk’s art direction, as well as Teona’s training as a painter. There are, throughout the film, fantasy sequences with color so stunning and forms so ghastly, that they will not be easily forgotten. Careful framing and composition is a constant: the collective eye of the creators is tremendously successful at creating not only a political, challenging film, but also a remarkably beautiful visual feast.
The film is not easy to watch. The assertion of bodies is sometimes gruesome: the painful sexual encounters, the splitting episodes of drug withdrawal, the suggestion of rotting odor and burning flesh, the omnipresent suggestion of the oppressive fumes from the factory. However, the tenderness of the sisters in certain moments undoubtedly triumphs. The beauty and love that somehow prevail despite their chaotic context allows the film to float out beyond its difficulty. This film absolutely hovers in the mind at the same time that it is physically daunting to experience. There is a balance between pain and love that is completely real and completely felt. Beautiful.