In modernist art cinema, there has been a minor tradition of self-portrait films, and naturally they have been as different from one another as their makers. High points of this micro-genre have included works by Jean-Luc Godard, Chantal Akerman, Jon Jost, and Steve Reinke. To some extent, the artistic success of such films rests on the personality of their director-subjects, the extent to which they offer the viewer good company and, perhaps more importantly, the degree to which the filmmakers combine introspection with a consideration of issues beyond their own individual lives. This expansive approach is what has made Agnès Varda’s late work so appealing. By contrast, Kim Ki-duk’s Arirang is nearly unwatchable because of its bitter solipsism and self-pity.
21 Days Until the End of the World, by Macedonian director Teona Strugar Mitevska, lands somewhere in the middle. Shot over a three-week period of mostly homebound isolation, Mitevska’s painfully personal film combines diaristic confession, physical self-exposure, and a general sense of anguish at her own perceived inadequacies. There are moments that are comedic and self-effacing, as when Mitevska films a monologue while sitting on the toilet. Other moments are discomfiting but instructively so, as when she describes her male partner bringing a gay man into their relationship. In this scene, the director films herself topless, covering the screen with blocky, stylized text that details the uneven measurements of her breasts — an embodied metaphor for her feelings of inadequacy.
But there are just as many sequences (or “days”) in Mitevska’s film that seem designed to signify self-exposure but which are highly contrived. In one scene, she lies on a bed and masturbates while an NPR-style radio reports on the rise in hate crimes against Asians in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. At the conclusion of 21 Days, Mitevska rises from a couch in her living room and starts smashing bottles and pottery with a bamboo cane, the onscreen text offering the viewer a wry retort: “what did you expect?” In short, 21 Days is about 45% poetry and 55% cringe, and while its experimental spirit is certainly laudable, its failures of consistency and vision mean it’s unlikely to gain much traction following its Venice Days premiere.
Published as part of Venice International Film Festival 2023: Dispatch 1.