Teona Strugar Mitevska: How I Killed a Saint (Kako ubiv svetec, 2004)

reviewed by Biljana Belamarić-Wilsey© 2015

svetecHow I Killed a Saint is the feature film debut of director Teona Strugar Mitevska, whose work includes the short film Veta (2001), as well as the full-length films I am from Titov Veles (Jas sum od Titov Veles, 2007), The Woman Who Brushed Off Her Tears (2012). Strugar Mitevska also wrote the screenplay for the movie. The film is co-produced by her sister, the well-known actress Labina Mitevska ( Before the Rain, dir. Milcho Manchevski, 1994; Welcome to Sarajevo, dir. Michael Winterbottom, 1997; I am from Titov Veles, The Woman Who Brushed Off Her Tears), who also plays the female lead of Viola. According to Mitevska, the movie is about real events in Macedonia at the cusp of the ethnic conflict in 2001, specifically about the side of war that is rarely portrayed in movies: “reality did not look anything like the war genre films we are used to watch, no brave m[e]n with guns and beautiful nurses that sing patriotic songs. Fear and tension were simply added to the everyday life that went on” (Mitevska, Producer’s Statement).

Capturing this complex experience is intertwined with Viola’s search for her own identity. A Macedonian who spent several years studying abroad in the U.S.A., she returns to her native Skopje in 2001 to find it about to explode into war, while her younger brother, Kokan (played by Milan Tocinovski–Sako), is alienated from her and befriended by the wrong crowd. Viola tries to find her identity within the context that sociolinguistic theorists have termed “third culture” or “third space” (Kramsch 2009)—the perspective of people who have lived in two or more different cultures. They feel both a sense of belonging to and a sense of alienation from each culture, becoming members of an abstract “third” space informed by each of the cultures. Although Viola adamantly denies being an “American,” her reactions to the changes in her homeland portray her as an outsider. During the trip home from the airport, she comments on how dirty the road is. During a bus trip, she inappropriately waves at the police officers that the bus passes on the side of the road, embarrassing her brother, who knows that drawing attention to oneself as an outsider is dangerous. In one scene where she learns about her brother’s shady dealings, she exclaims “I know nothing” in disbelief. Her search for belonging is also impacted by the child she had in secret and that was raised by the family of the U.S. attaché in Macedonia, but this story line is secondary and not as fully developed. Yet, it is to the child that she runs when she realizes everything around her has changed, in hopes that if they are reunited, she will find her identity. But in attempting to find herself, she in fact kidnaps her daughter and puts her in danger by staying with her rather than allowing her to be evacuated with the American attaché should the gun shots come too close for comfort.

svetecThe main character, Kokan, whose voice narrates the film, is also searching for his path, a way to make an impact and feel relevant, to be a hero. He finds a way to be part of something greater than just himself by finding an enemy to protest against: the NATO presence in Macedonia in the late 1990s and early 2000s that was supposed to preserve the peace after the break-up of Yugoslavia. But Kokan, and indeed many Macedonians, sees NATO not as protectors but as invaders, as a foreign interference with Macedonian affairs—the latest instance in a long history of such interferences, the most well-known perhaps being the Western powers’ division of Macedonia among Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Albania after the Balkan wars in the early twentieth century. Kokan exudes this hatred for foreign interference in every breath, every word, every step: he hangs a home-made “NATO GO HOME” sign over a prominent intersection, vandalizes NATO vehicles, and even accidently kills a NATO soldier by throwing a rock at a military convoy. His desire to be a hero and make an impact blinds him. Enabled by his shady dealings with war profiteers and the access provided by a naïve relative, he is able to plant a bomb during a religious procession on the occasion of the repatriation of the remains of a Macedonian saint. He becomes a terrorist.

svetecThe “death” of the saint about two thirds through the movie is ancillary, being shown on a television screen in Kokan’s home while his parents are fighting. All the religious and government dignitaries are present when the bomb goes off, revealing them as the target and not the saint. But instead of becoming the glorious moment that makes him a hero in the eyes of his parents and especially his grandfather, who is himself a national hero, it becomes only the background soundtrack for a typical domestic argument between parents and their young adult children about the children’s whereabouts and doings. Kokan’s parents do not even understand what has happened or that their son was the instigator because they turn off the TV to focus on scolding Kokan. This turn of events implies that there is more to the film’s title than the saint-related terrorist attack. The interpretation that the title is driven by another “saint”, or perhaps an anti-saint, is reinforced with Kokan’s own death at the end of the movie. In searching for a way to become a national hero, like his famous grandfather who fought in WWII, Kokan confuses violence for patriotism and inadvertently self-destructs.

An important although understated subtext for the film is how ethnicity can be mined for nationalism and turn friends into enemies. Namely, Kokan’s best friend and fellow-hooligan is Nadir, an ethnic Albanian. Nadir realizes that the political situation is changing, that their anti-Western ideals are being replaced by inter-ethnic tensions, and that the two of them may soon end up on opposite sides of the gun. This realization makes him doubt who and what he is, underscoring once again the theme of the search for one’s self-identity. When Nadir confronts Kokan about it, Kokan accuses him of cowardice, calls him derogatory names and ethnic slurs, and he storms away to complete alone the money trafficking assignment they received from their mafia boss. This reaction illustrates how quickly political and ethnic tension can alienate friends.

The movie is filmed in the style of a documentary, which is in line with the director’s and producers’ purported strive for realism. The scenes are long and often shot from a single angle, with movement introduced when the cameras closely follow the characters as they navigate through their environment; this contributes to its voyeuristic style. The language is full of slang and sentence fragments, realistically capturing conversational innovations and borrowings that young people insert in their language vis-à-vis the more literary language of the older generation represented by Kokan and Viola’s parents, for example. The dialects of Macedonia’s capital, Skopje, are evident, since the filming took place in and around the capital over the course of six weeks. But it was not without incident: during the filming of the scene where Kokan throws rocks at the NATO convoy, NATO soldiers interrupted, held the crew at gunpoint for more than two hours (Strugar Mitevska, Interview), and caused more than 30 000 euros in damage (Vasilevska 2006). The NATO authorities apologized and promised to allow the filming to continue uninterrupted, but the international members of the crew were particularly negatively impacted by the experience and the damages were not immediately recovered, leaving the producers in search of additional funding to complete the film. At the end, How I Killed a Saint was realized as a Macedonian-Slovene-French-American co-production.

The film participated in several international festivals in Europe, winning the Crossing Europe Award at the 2004 Linz (Austria) International Film Festival. Tocinovski won the best actor award at the 2004 Sarajevo (Bosnia) Film Festival. The movie’s beauty lies in the raw realistic depiction of daily life in a period leading up to ethnic conflict as a backdrop to a young generation’s search for identity and meaning. Moreover, the film demonstrates the emergence of a talented group of native Macedonian filmmakers who use their films as a means of coming to terms with their own experiences of a time of crisis, civil unrest, rampant corruption, and shifting allegiances.

Biljana Belamarić-Wilsey

Works Cited

Sisters and Brother Mitevski Production website.

Kramsch, C. 2009. “Third culture and language education.” In Vivian Cook & Li Wei (eds),
Contemporary Applied Linguistics 1. London: Continuum. 233-254.

Lormand, Richard. n.d. “How I Killed a Saint". Interview. Sisters and Brother Mitevski Production Website.

Mitevska, Labina. n.d. “Producer’s Statement.” Sisters and Brother Mitevski Production Website.

Vasilevska, Ana. 2006. “‘Kako ubiv svetec’ na Teona Mitevska, premierno za dvaesetina dena.”  Dnevnik 2236 (18 March).

How I Killed a Saint, Republic of Macedonia, France, Slovenia, 2004
Color, 82 min  
Director: Teona Strugar Mitevska
Script: Matthew Bardin, Teona Strugar Mitevska
Music: Olivier Samouillan
Cinematography: Alain Marcoen
Cast: Labina Mitevska, Milan Tocinovski, Silvija Stojanovska, Kiril Korunovski, Dzevdet Jasari, Lea Lipsa, Toni Mihajlovski

Teona Strugar Mitevska: How I Killed a Saint (Kako ubiv svetec, 2004)

reviewed by Biljana Belamarić-Wilsey© 2015