Goran Stolevski’s Housekeeping For Beginners is Queer Joy, Human Heartbreak, and All the Definitions of Love

“It doesn’t go away. The needing. Even when you get old. It’s a nasty business.”

– Dita to Vanesa.

For many queer people the “found family” isn’t only a community where they feel comfortable – it is the unit which keeps them alive. Goran Stolevski’s portrait of a mixed Macedonian family in Housekeeping for Beginners is vibrant and lovely – an expression of devotion and solidarity. It is also a reminder how tenuous survival can be in a place where xenophobia and homophobia are routine. Where a short drive out of a metropolitan centre reveals another “country” within the country.

The Balkans states are in political and cultural flux. The Republic of North Macedonia is not yet a member of the European Union. Who is “Macedonian” is defined by exclusion more often than inclusion. Dita (Anamaria Marinca) appears to be the most affluent person in the Skopje apartment she owns and shares with Suada (Alina Şerban), Toni (Vladimir Tintor) et.al. Yet she is Kosovan. Her privilege comes from her late father’s political career – she is considered an outsider in Skopje. No one in the house fits neatly into North Macedonia. Suada and her daughters Vanesa (Mia Mustafa) and Mia (Džada Selim) are Romani. Toni is considered Macedonian but he’s an ageing gay man. The trio of Elena (Sara Klimonska) Teuta (Ajshe Useni), and Flora (Rozafe Celaj) flow in and out of the house with a raucous casualness echoed by their shifting sexual relationship. Ali (Samson Salim), one of Toni’s young hook-ups enters everyone’s lives and the chaotic household shifts once more.

Stolevski throws the audience straight into the household and reveals as he goes. Teenager Vanesa and kindergartener Mia are singing and dancing with Ali. They are boisterous and seemingly free. It isn’t until later that Stolevski reveals the tableau is a snatched moment of playfulness in what will become a darker and more difficult time.

The film then pivots to Dita and Suada dealing with a casually racist doctor. Suada has an aggressive form of cancer, and she is being ignored. Dita, who was her social worker, before she became her lover, is attempting to manage the situation in the office. When the doctor refuses to see an injured Romani woman Suada rips the phone he’s been speaking into for the whole appointment off the desk and dashes it to the floor. Suada is not going to keep on taking crap from Macedonian men, in fact she doesn’t have time to take crap from anyone – she’s dying, and she needs to make sure that Vanesa and Mia are safe.

Suada’s “by any means necessary” approach to ensuring Vanesa and Mia have a family on official paper as well as people to care for them is hilarious and heartbreaking. Dita isn’t ready to let Suada die, and she certainly doesn’t want to be a mother (and later a wife) – but she understands why Suada is pushing so hard. Dita has been able to live her life by politely staying out of sight. The apartment is the sanctuary. Suada’s experience has taught her that even being polite and the best at what she does means nothing when Romani people are treated with contempt. Vanesa and Mia will have a Macedonian surname and Dita will be their mother and that is all there is to it.

Everyone who lives in Dita’s house is dealing with the business of living while Suada is ensuring that includes the inevitable – death. Suada connects with Ali as they are from the same “shit town” Šutka. They joke about life there in a way only people who are from there can. That’s the rule. Insults and slurs can be used by the people who are the targets of them. Sharing more than Šutka, Ali and Suada are mothers. Stolevski defies gendered and biological expectations for what makes a mother. Vanesa and Mia embrace Ali with immediacy whereas Vanesa harbours a quiet resentment towards Dita which gets louder once she no longer has Suada.

What makes a family is the choice to be an active participant – to be there when needed. Toni doesn’t want to be Vanesa or Mia’s father – even on a piece of paper. Suada probably didn’t much want to be a mother to daughters with different fathers (both permanently gone), but she decided to be one regardless of the ‘hows and whys.’ Vanesa doesn’t want to be anyone’s daughter if they aren’t Suada. Mia wants someone she can trust and who will let her bounce off the walls until she needs to curl up and be cuddled.

Vanesa is of an age where she doesn’t know what she wants – she just knows it isn’t “this” – whatever ill-defined meaning it holds. She doesn’t want to be stuck in Skopje when Western Europe is tantalisingly close. She wants to be loved but she can’t work out by whom. She wants… she needs. In some ways she is impossibly young and naïve and in other ways she is already old. At times the audience will forget that Vanesa is in her mid-teens until it becomes painful to recall.

Stolevski is performing a highwire act with Housekeeping for Beginners balancing comedy, drama, and careful commentary. Love is expressed in so many ways – and often they’re not precise or perfect. Dita has loved Toni for twenty years – conditionally and unconditionally. She’s not blind to his flaws – he’s selfish. When he at first rejects being named as the father for Vanesa and Mia she snaps at him, “You can keep living here with a whole harem bleaching your pants. Nothing, nothing, nothing has to change. It’s a piece of paper.” A piece of paper is one bond – the legal one. Showing up is the other.

The film is the Skopje apartment. Warm, crowded, noisy, funny and fractious. Stolevski creates a constellation of characters who are neither their best nor worst actions. Life can be a series of obligations which are determined by the socio-political as much as the interpersonal. Families, friends, lovers – ideally everyone can have access to some of Maslow’s pyramid even if the foundations of it shift.

Dita admitting she is never going to be the mother of her sprawling family isn’t her failing. It is her admitting that it is a family and there isn’t a manual written for them. If the rulebook doesn’t include a lesbian, her lover’s children, a gay husband, his lover, and a trio of polyamorous shes and thems – then rewrite the book and keep rewriting it until the pages are big colourful crayon hearts that can’t be contained in the margins. Housekeeping For Beginners is queer joy, human heartbreak, and all the definitions of love.

Director: Goran Stolevski

Cast: Samson Selim, Mia Mustafi, Dzada Selim

Writer: Goran Stolevski

Producers: Blerta Basholli, Marija Dimitrova, Ankica Juric Tilic, Beata Rzezniczek, Klaudia Smieja, Milan Stojanovic

Music: Alen Sinkauz, Nenad Sinkauz

Cinematography: Naum Doksevski

Editing: Goran Stolevski

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Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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