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Commemorating Biljana Garvanlieva, a Macedonian Filmmaker Who Gave Voice to Marginalized Women

Biljana Garvanlieva holding the award Heart of Sarajevo in 2010. Photo by Samir Ljuma, used with permission.

Biljana Garvanlieva holding the ‘Heart of Sarajevo’ Film Festival award in 2010. Photo by Samir Ljuma, used with permission.

Macedonian social media users connected to alternative culture reacted with astonishment to the news that filmmaker Biljana Garvanlieva, 43, had passed away in Berlin due to illness.

Germany-based Garvanlieva is mostly known as director of award-winning documentaries focused on the lives of underprivileged women in Macedonia. She is also the script writer for the feature film “The Golden Five,” due to premier in a week, at the closing of the Manaki Film Festival in Bitola.

Her friend and collaborator Jovan Balov broke the news via Facebook, and it was then spread by independent news portals SDK and Okno.

Some of Garvanlieva's human rights-centered films are available online, subtitled in English. One of them is “The Seamstresses,” about female textile workers in Štip.

Another of her films posted online is the “Tobacco Girl” about fourteen-year-old Mümine, member of the Yörüks, a Turkish ethnic group from the mountains of eastern Macedonia, struggling against traditions that impose early marriage on teenage girls.

In a 2010 interview for Radio Free Europe about this film, Garvanlieva explained the gist of her approach:

Kao angažovana dokumentarna autorica motivacija mi je bila da skršim sliku koja postoji o ženi u Makedoniji. Uvijek je predstavljana kao seksualna žrtva, objekat, kao domaćica i prostitutka ali nikad kao heroina. Stoga sam željela predstaviti ovu moju heroinu koja se bavi veoma napornim poslom – bere duhan kako bi mogla platiti školarinu. Sa svojih 14 godina Mümine zrelo razmišlja da napusti selo jer ne želi da cijeli život provede sušenjem duhana i rađanjem djece. Naprotiv, želi se emancipovati i otići u grad, završiti školu, postati učiteljica i, jednostavno, osjećati se slobodna.

As an engaged documentary author my motivation is to break the existing image about women in Macedonia. They are always represented as a sexual victim, an object, as a housewife and prostitute, but never as a heroine. Therefore I wanted to present this heroine of mine, who works in a very hard job – picking tobacco so she can gather money for school expenses. At her 14 years of age, Mümine has very mature plans to leave the village because she does not want to spend her whole life drying tobacco and giving birth to children. On the contrary, she wants to emancipate herself and to go to the city, finish school, become a teacher, and simply feel free.

Cultural expert and activist Iskra Gešoska wrote:

Билјана Гарванлиева – драгоцена жена, со многу дарови и со копнеж да му ја покаже на светот скриената и премолчената приказна за жените… пред повеќе од 15 години, мислевме дека ќе го менуваме светот, ако ништо друго овој овде, во Македонија… мислевме дека ќе создадеме нов јазик врз кој ќе ја градиме инаквата социо-културна вредност… ама овде тоа не го биѓава, така ми рече еднаш… и си замина во градот на слободата… и од таму, борбена, храбра и доблесна ни покажа како е овде… благодарна сум ѝ… нека си биде слободна каква што беше секогаш…

Biljana Garvanlieva – a precious woman, full of gifts and longing to show the world the hidden and the untold story about women… Over 15 years ago, we thought that we would change the world, if nothing else this world, here, in Macedonia… We thought that we would create a new language to serve as basis for building new social-cultural values. But it won't do here, she told me once… and she left to the city of freedom… From there, in her defiant, brave and virtuous manner she showed us how it is here. I am grateful to her. Let her be free as she always was…

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