The setting couldn’t be better. It started right in the heart of Prishtina. As the opening scene rolled. You could feel the echo of one of the characters shouting “NAZ, A KI LLAK?” (“NAZ, DO YOU HAVE THE SPRAY?”) reverberating from the uncalibrated PriFest speakers, right through the audience, into Rugova’s poster, around the Zahir Pajaziti statue and back to the audience again.
That’s the opening scene of “Kosova Calling.” It gives you the chills, you’re left grinning and buzzing with energy as if you’ve taken two bites of a Tullum and washed it down with rice pudding. But it’s only the opening scene as we get introduced to Zeka and Shaban. Two actors, seemingly going about their business as the dust of war settled onto their community. Then Black!
Full disclosure here. I am the little brother of the film director Eki Rrahmani, while Jeton Kulinxha, responsible for the screenplay, claims to be my big sister! This is not a film review, but a mere reflection and a little insight.
Seeing my brother’s work on display on a summer’s evening in Prishtina was inspiring, not least because being his little brother, I have seen the effort, the energy, and planning that goes into making such a film. The hard drives, cables, emails, Viber messages — later WhatsApp messages — meetings, traveling, the ups, the downs, relationships, and a selfie or two. The cocktail of emotions and the perseverance that goes into sewing together a film story. Telling stories is a craft. Telling a story through film is something else altogether.
About three years ago, on a visit to Kosovo, Eki was seeing friends and family when he heard a joke that made him laugh. So much so that he attempted and wrote down a potential script. That little joke, together with his plan, almost three years later would be realized into a feature film. I remember that phone call, speaking to him, and the tone of his voice, he would not let me speak. I was desperately trying to tell him that Arsenal had beaten his beloved Liverpool — I realized then that he was going to take this joke and make a film.
The story, an elaborate joke, feels like an experience at an intersection of a Kosovar road-crossing. It all starts easy with laughter, ‘Look at what this car is doing,’ to ‘Oh my God, we’re going to fucking die,’ and then relief, ‘How did that actually happen? Oh wait, we’re fine again.’
And so does the storyline in the film. One moment you are laughing as you’re introduced to the characters, then bang, you’re slapped with a layer that takes you back to the reality of a post-war community. In this case the people of Kosovo, who returned to their homes after the ’99 war and started rebuilding their lives among the ruins, the dead and the missing.
I grew up trawling through Eki’s VHS and DVD collection. I would often watch films that would see me through the night. Abbas Kiarostami’s “Where is the Friend’s Home?” was a favorite. I remember once watching Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” and later mentioning it to Eki. He would spend time explaining how Stalker’s production unfolded, how the director had to make the same film twice as a result of the film being improperly developed.
When Eki tells you stories, he tells them with huge enthusiasm and energy, sometimes an unexpected cough will hit him, but he will endure it, and carry on with his arms waving up and down. However, when he is in film mode, his inspiration from cinema kings shines through.
In “Kosova Calling” there are no close ups, no reaction shots, no medium close ups, but a series of long sequences shot from distance that deliver theater-like scenes, as the viewer is presented with a succession of events that give a sense of being dropped on set observing what is happening in the story. The hard cuts to black that follow after each scene, reminiscent of curtains during a play.
As I watched the gorgeous cinematography captured by cameraman Jake Corbett and his team, I could not help but remember the many times I sat in the cinema with my big brother. He experienced films in a far more spiritual way than I did, while afterward would go off explaining the clever cinema tactics, the dialogue, the cuts. “It’s all in the art of seeing,” he would say while clapping those big hands of his.
After the war ended, and we could return to visit home, Eki especially made myriad journeys to Kosovo. Meeting people throughout, hearing stories, and making friends.
Some of those stories have made it into this charming film, which has been acted with such camaraderie by the cast, and told in a way that leaves you bursting with laughter while getting stung with sadness as the brilliant script transitions from funny to incredibly moving scenes.
Such scenes as Shaban, the inseparable friend of Zeka, playing Nine Men’s Morris. This time, however, without his friend. The scene, about five minutes in length, sucks every inch of your emotion, even though I tried to put a brave face on, I ended up looking like an idiot at a wedding. Beaming with glee, almost in tears, whilst desperately wanting to burst out a chant – ‘Oh Eki Rrah-maaaaa-nnni!’
“Kosova Calling” delivers a multi-layered story that on the surface makes you chuckle, but like a spicy chili in a mixed salad, it slowly grips you as the aftermath of war and the way such consequences burden society are delivered in this comedy with wings.
These stories have played out in Kosovar films numerous times before but seldom do they get told this way. Not many directors manage to mirror the feel and look of Kosovo, the way KC does. Many directors have tried, and somewhat come up short when delving into the consequences of post-war mental health, sexual frustration, family secrecy. The way Eki and Jeton approach these intensely touching subjects through witty lines, extraordinary beautiful looking scenes — a treat for the eyes — is inspirational.
When Bekim, the son of Zeka, is running away from his burning home, the audience learns that his mother and a friend of hers are burning alive inside. In the audience is my mother, who is watching the real family home burn in the background! This time however, it’s in a film, but the memory is so fresh with us all, we both looked each other in the eye and let out a little sigh. There she was, proud of her son, while keeping away the tears and the memories of what actually happened in that house.
The mise-en-scene, a war building, a burned house left untouched, reused for a film to tell the story that lives in all of us. This, to say the least, was moving.
At this point, a little kid, who saw his opportunity, just like Kema — the cheeky little kid in the film — decided to walk like a mini Al Capone across the cinema, while puffing out his little chest and smiling at the audience.
The crowd reactions to key moments in the film was palpable, roars of laughter, that were occasionally met with watery eyes, and sympathetic facial expressions that said, ‘We know exactly what’s going on here.’
Oh, Eki Rrah-maaaaa-nnni!
Feature image: Hasan Rrahmani.