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‘Willow’ Director Talks About Telling a Tale of Medieval Motherhood With a Foul-Mouthed Witch (Video)

North Macedonia’s Oscar contender tells three stories about the resilience of women over the centuries

Milcho Manchevski is a New York-based filmmaker from North Macedonia, who has made several films about motherhood and its impact on women. His latest film, “Willow,” takes that theme and tells it through the eyes of a shared experience of sacrifice that spans centuries.

“Willow” is a triptych of three stories, each about 30 minutes in length, which ripple subtly into each other. It’s a format of storytelling that Manchevski has favored during his career, especially in his acclaimed 1994 drama “Before the Rain,” which won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival and earned an Oscar nomination. “Willow” is North Macedonia’s official selection for the 2020 Academy Awards.

The filmmaker was asked about his preference for three-act structure during an interview as part of TheWrap’s Awards & International Screening Series. “I guess it goes back to my film school days in Illinois and [learning] avant garde cinema and structuralism and even conceptualism,” Manchevski told TheWrap’s Joe McGovern. “Picking apart the work you’re doing, like in visual arts, in painting, with cubism. Same thing with literature. You can tell a story in many different ways. This [format] is a way of exploring other ways to tell a story, finding other qualities and other nuances. What happens when the story is connected inside the viewers head?”

He adds, “Maybe it’s a bit of rebellion against the dictate of ‘begining-middle-end’ of story structure. Ideally, this creates a new and richer quality.”

The first section of the film is set in medieval Macedonia, in which a childless couple (Sara Klimoska  and Nikola Risteski) visit an elderly witch-like woman to be blessed with fertility Рthough with a devastating quid pro quo attached. The second and third segments are set in the present-day. One tells the story of a couple (Natalija Teodosieva and Nenad Nacev) who attempt to get pregnant via in-vitro fertilization; and the last follows a supporting character from the second story (Kamka Tocinovski) whose five-year-old adopted son appears to be mute.

In an interview with TheWrap, both director Manchevski and actress Klimoska had high praise for the veteran performer Ratka Radmanovic, a local legend who steals two early scenes as the wicked, foul-mouthed crone Grandma Srebra.

“Ratka is fantastic,” Manchevski said, who has cast Radmanovic in four films, including “Dust” and “Mothers.” “She’s a retired stage actress and she’s not as old as she looks. She just has this fantastic, expressive, wrinkled face. And underneath she’s very modern and very unlike most of the characters she’s played in my films. She was one of the few actors who I knew was going to play the part before the film.”

He continued, “There’s a line in ‘Mothers’ I keep coming back to, where the character that Ratka plays is asked about girls and virginity and what was it like when she was young. She goes, responds, ‘Oh, child. There was no one to dick.’ And this was a line that was actually recorded in the field, an actual grandmother said to an anthropologist when they were recording. A lot of what you see in ‘Willow’ comes from our research from folklore and the way somebody in her position would speak, which is unexpected. And that is our prejudice.”

When shooting “Willow,” Klimoska had to shoot her story before the present-day segments, but did her best to look through the script and emphasize which parts of her character’s story were most in common with her modern counterparts.

“When we were working on the movie, I tended to look at the film as a whole. So I tried to create a role that would be connected with the others, and I tried to look at the whole movie as an art piece and fit into that story,” Klimoska said.

Watch more of Milcho Manchevski and Sara Klimoska’s interview in the clip above.

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