Housekeeping for Beginners: Director Goran Stolevski on balancing the specific and the universal

Housekeeping for Beginners: Director Goran Stolevski on balancing the specific and the universal
  • PublishedMay 14, 2024

Housekeeping for Beginners is the third feature in as many years and genres from celebrated Australian Macedonian director and screenwriter Goran Stolevski.

In 2022, he debuted with eerie folk horror You Won’t Be Alone, followed by the aching queer romance Of An Age. Now comes Housekeeping, a family drama that last September won Venice Film Festival’s Queer Lion award for the best film with LGBTQIA+ themes or characters.

Stolevski’s newest film — a story of a chosen family creating a cocoon in hostile surroundings — has been a long time brewing.

The film’s nexus is a photo the director saw in 2016 of filmmaker Tony Ayres and his then-partner living in a house with eight lesbians in 1970s Melbourne.

“[That] was when I was the most unemployed and failed filmmaker that was ever unemployed and failed,” Stolevski tells ABC Entertainment.

“No-one was going to give me money to make a period film anytime soon.”

Over time, Stolevski changed the setting of his script to current-day North Macedonia, where he spent the first 12 years of his life before his family moved to Melbourne’s outer suburbs.

Headshot of Stolevski in a white collared shirt, smiling closed mouth towards the camera.
In addition to Housekeeping for Beginners winning the Queer Lion, Goran Stolevski’s prior film Of An Age won the $100,000 Best Film award at CinefestOz in 2022.(Supplied)

“I was a lot more excited about setting this story in Eastern Europe than I was about setting it in Melbourne,” he says. “[These] gays don’t get seen as much.”

The film centres on Dita (Anamaria Marinca of 2007 Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), a queer social worker living in the capital, Skopje, in an old, creaky house, with a tendency to take in displaced people she meets through work. That’s how she met her partner Suada (Aline Serban), a Roma woman who, after learning she has terminal cancer, makes Dita promise to look after her two children when she dies.

A shot of a woman from the shoulders up in public. The background is blurred, she wears a cream blazer and looks concerned.
As neither Anamaria Marinca (pictured) or Aline Serban speak Macedonian, they learned their lines phonetically.(Supplied: Viktor Irvin Ivanov/Focus Features)

But with same-sex marriage illegal and partnerships not recognised, Dita has no legal ties to rebellious teen Vanesa or the irresistibly cute six-year-old Mia. In order to keep her promise, Dita plans to marry gay housemate Toni (Vladimir Tintor), and pass off the children as his, ideally whitewashing them with his last name to avoid the discrimination Suada faced.

Toni, however, has little interest in being married, let alone becoming a father. He’s more invested in sleeping around, including with Ali (Samson Selim), a Roma 19-year-old who sticks around after a one-night stand, finding the house far more welcoming than Shutka, a majority Romani section of Skojpe.

While Stolevksi is aware that most audiences won’t have much, if any, prior context of the racial, gendered and geopolitical complexities at play in the film, his script avoids spelling out these tensions. Instead, he lets them bubble up and over.

“I never made this film for the 900 people in Macedonia who were gonna watch it,” he says. “But I also didn’t make it to avoid them, so I wanted it to feel true to day-to-day experience but still legible internationally.

“For example, Dita is Albanian, which is not ethnically Macedonian, and in itself is a very oppressed minority. A lot of Western audiences miss [that].

“There are hints of it within the script, but the hints are a lot bigger if you understand Macedonian and know she speaks with an accent and has an Albanian name. I wondered, ‘Oh, is it worth emphasising that so the international audience would get it?’.

“But not every facet of the story needs to be fully 100 per cent legible, as long as enough of it is.”

Filmed exclusively with handheld cameras, Housekeeping is frenetic and spontaneous; the teens and children are played by non-actors and encouraged to play loose. (Stolevski jokes that it’s impossible to give a five-year-old actor direction, instead embracing the chaos.)

A small girl wears a white dress and headband in a bar car, standing on the lap of a woman.
Dzada Selim plays Mia, and is the five-year-old daughter of of Samson Selim, who plays Ali.(Supplied: Viktor Irvin Ivanov/Focus Features)

Dialogue overlaps, as do emotions, with laughter and singalongs to Eurovision tracks poking through moments of mourning.

“In the same way that I don’t really use colour filters to prioritise one colour, I wouldn’t want to just have one feeling dominating to that extent,” he says. “I try to make sure that we have the whole full emotional spectrum, from joy to sadness and tragedy, reflected in the work.

“Music and dancing is a great way to inject the joy in a way that feels very spontaneous and true to life.”

Without the stern, unifying force of Suada and with the sudden wildcard Ali, the house struggles to stay a home; Toni and Dita are unsure how to play mum and dad.

But underneath the inevitable fights and frustrations are the characters’ great appreciation and love for one another, despite difficult circumstances. Stolevski hopes all audiences connect to that struggle, even if they don’t pick up on every cultural nuance.

“I don’t even want people to come away from this thinking they’ve just explored an issue,” he says.

“I’m just a lot more drawn to those stories of people who are in a situation they can’t really escape from very easily. But they still have to live their best possible life. And how do you do that?”


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