Unlearning the idea of a typical Balkan family with “Housekeeping for Beginners”5 min read

 In Focus, Review, Reviews, Southeastern Europe

Housekeeping for Beginners is only the third feature film of Macedonian-Australian director Goran Stolevski, yet he already has the steady hand of a seasoned filmmaker. While not as magnificent as his debut You Won’t be Alone, Stolevski’s latest film is an unorthodox and unique portrait of an unconventional family in contemporary North Macedonia.

A different style of family

Housekeeping for Beginners tells the story of Suada (Alina Serban), who is dying of cancer and makes her not-very-motherly partner Dita (Anamaria Marinca) promise to take care of her two children: the teenager Vanesa (Mia Mustafi) and the five-year-old Mia (Dzada Selim).

Most of the film centres around the relationships within Suada and Dita’s ‘unconventional family.’ Suada and Dita live together with Toni (Vladimir Tintor), a middle-aged man in a relationship with Ali (Samson Selim). There are three more inhabitants in the flat — Elena (Sara Klimovska), Flora (Rozafa Celaj), and Teuta (Ajse Useini) — but their reasons for residing there are never explained. 

Unfortunately, in the conservative North Macedonia of the 2020s, LGBTQ+ people being kicked out of their homes and having to find alternative ways to live remains a reality for many. Suada and Dita’s household echoes films like Horikazu Kore-Eda’s Shoplifters or Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers: films about people on the margins of society forming a sort of pseudo-family to survive and even thrive.

Bridging the ethnic experiences in 21st Century Skopje

What is notable about Stolevski’s take on the ‘found family’ is that the household consists of people from different ethnic groups. Suada and Ali, along with Suada’s children, are Roma from the Skopje neighbourhood of Shuto Orizari, locally known as Shutka, the country’s only Roma-run municipality, and the only Roma municipality in the world that has adopted Romani as an official language. Dita, Flora, and Teuta, however, are ethnically Albanian, while Toni and Elena are Macedonian. This type of inter-ethnic relationship is still exceedingly rare in multi-ethnic North Macedonia, but the problematic circumstances and experiences of being LGBTQ+ have led them to bridge their ethnic gaps.

Throughout the film, the ethnic backgrounds of the household are reflected in different ways. Consider Dita’s coworker telling her “I have nothing against Kosovars!” Despite the fact that Dita speaks fluent Macedonian (though not with an Albanian accent, but we can forgive the Romanian Anamaria Marinca as she had to learn Macedonian for the film), she is still not accepted as one of their own. Similarly, Suada begs Dita to have her kids’ last names, a remnant from an earlier marriage to another Roma, changed so they won’t be as mistreated as she was in school. 

Ali, on the other hand, has a gift for making connections with people and moves through his neighbourhood Shutka with ease, being recognised more by the pejorative accompanying his name than anything else. Conservative and Muslim, Shutka is even less likely to accept LGBTQ+ relationships than the rest of Macedonian society. In one scene, Ali takes Vanesa to see her grandmother, who doesn’t recognise them, as she does not know the whereabouts of at least half of her grandkids. She is barely 50, yet has numerous grandkids — indicative of the challenges Roma women face due to the prevalence of child marriage and the general state of their reproductive health and rights.

In some ways, the film is also a period piece for a rather specific time: Skopje in the 2020s. During a dinner conversation, it is joked that Shutka will secede from North Macedonia and become independent, yet it will still enter the EU earlier than North Macedonia itself. Ali’s uncle is a driver for a politician with a lot of influence in the Roma community, which seems to be the only way they can get help with their legal troubles. This existent, albeit small, connection to political power allows him to change the names on the birth certificates of Vanesa and Mia. This decision skillfully reveals the often ethnic-based informal power structures in the country. Finally, the playful dialogue filled with insults and slang captures the vibes of contemporary teenagers and young adults in North Macedonia perfectly.

Queer Lion and other praises

With all these themes, Housekeeping for Beginners could easily be a moralising or feel-good film, but it is neither. It is an honest portrayal of human relationships. That these characters are LGBTQ+ and marginalised does not mean that they cannot be difficult, unlikeable, and problematic to each other (and others).

In fact, their difficult experiences contribute, in part, to their sometimes harsh personalities. Ali, the emotional heart of the film, is a warm person and a mediator. Toni is an unpleasant and difficult man, while Suada is an explosive ball of anger. Dita is distant but grows to be more caring. That LGBTQ+ people in this film can be all over the spectrum in terms of personality is a humanising factor.

Thankfully, the film is never moralising, and the realistic look at difficult relationships ensures it isn’t sappy either. All in all, Housekeeping for Beginners may not be as cinematically inventive as Stolevski’s debut, but it is a hard-to-pigeonhole, very human portrayal of how people can learn to care and survive in difficult circumstances. Helmed by an experienced director and supported by magnificent performances, Housekeeping for Beginners is certainly worth your time, and the various awards, such as the Queer Lion, it is already picking up.

Feature Image: Canva / Housekeeping for Beginners
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