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SAINT — AND SISTER — HOOD

One of the buzz films to emerge at this year’s Rotterdam Film Festival has been Teona Strugar Mitevska’s How I Killed a Saint.

The 29-year-old director attended the MFA program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and on one level, her film could easily fit within the American indie “dysfunctional family” tradition. It tells the story of Viola, a young girl who returns home after travelling abroad for three years, having left behind a family secret and returning to tense relationships with her out-of-it parents and alienated, delinquent brother. Except in this case, Viola is returning in 2001 from the U.S. to a NATO-occupied Macedonia at war with Albanian rebels, the brother’s delinquency involves arms smuggling and terrorism, and the film uses its family drama to make broader comments on the confusion of civilian life in times of conflict.

Says Mitevska, “I made How to Kill a Saint in reaction to the corrupt politicians, war profiteers and international organizations everywhere that don’t always end up protecting the interests of the people. The film is also a call for a world free of peacemakers with guns.”

I talked with Mitevska and her sister Labina — who both starred in and produced the film — on a shuttle bus following the Cinemart closing-night party in Rotterdam. The director told me that their shoot was initially financed by a government grant from the Macedonian film board. But just days before shooting, the funding was delayed, so their parents and cousins all mortgaged their houses so the sisters could proceed with the shoot. Later, Labina, who as an actress has appeared in Before the Rain as well as Michael Winterbottom’s Welcome to Sarajevo and I Want You, got the rough cut to the British director, and he helped find a French producer, Paris-based Silkroad Productions, who secured finishing funds. The film is nicely shot by the Belgian Alain Marcoen (La Promesse and Rosetta), Labina’s performance is passionate and involving, and Teona tells her story in a straightforward, efficient style that’s perfect given the chaos of the movie’s backdrop.

Somehow, the typical indie tales of guerrilla shooting are a bit more dramatic when they take place in a war-torn country. “Our shoot was stopped by NATO soldiers and our crew was held at gunpoint for more than two hours,” Mitevska says. “It happened on the day we shot the first scene of the film, when [the brother] positions the ‘NATO Go Home’ banner over the highway. Some NATO soldiers unaware that a film was being shot took offense. Some 50 soldiers surrounded the crew. Labina sneaked away with the film footage while me and Alain, the d.p., drove away with the camera. The whole crew was interrogated and the footage was demanded for examination. While the incident was not so shocking for the Macedonian members of the crew, the international ones were quite scared. Being held at gunpoint in a foreign country doesn’t happen everyday. But in the end, everything turned out fine. NATO headquarters apologized the following day and promised never to bother us again.”

How to Kill a Saint should make its way to some of the various U.S. festivals in the coming months.

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