In-depth | Film

Art and trauma entwine in Zahaq tales

By - 06.03.2020

The real life stories of two sisters behind ‘Zana.’

Zahaq is a simple settlement, to the east of Peja, but it comprises an enormous chapter in Kosovo’s modern history. Its fate has been particularly weaved through two tragic events, forever changing the flow of an ordinary, and previously unheard of village.

The first episode in the devastating Zahaq tales was during the infamous massacres of May 14, 1999. Along with the neighboring villages of Qyshk and Pavlan, Zahaq was attacked by Serbian forces, leaving more than 70 dead. 

The killings and destruction in these villages sent another message that Slobodan Milosević seemed to have no intention of stopping the atrocities, despite the pressure coming from the skies through NATO’s bombs; the villagers here were amongst the few left remaining in the area, as the ethnic cleansing campaign and deportations that had begun in earnest in March had already emptied virtually the whole of the Peja region. 

But Milosević did surrender, less than a month later. The agreement that would bring an end to the Kosovo war was signed on June 9; two days later, Serbia began withdrawing its forces, paving the way for NATO troops to enter on the ground.

The second occurence of the Zahaq tales took place on the intervening day. 

On June 10, after completing their final rounds of raids and robberies, a group of Serbian forces rounded up around 20 women and children, forced them into a house, and fired at them. Four were killed, including an 11-year-old girl. 

– – –

The only thing left unaffected by the scenes of carnage was nature. With the dramatic peaks of the Rugova mountains on the horizon, and its large green fields, Zahaq looks like any imaginable picturesque village in the Dukagjini region. 

The allusion of its landscape and sounds of the countryside are immediately noted in the work of Antoneta and Sevdije Kastrati — the Zahaq-born sisters. 

When the prominent filmmaker and cinematographer chose their locations for their film “Zana,” which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last autumn, their hometown was the inspiration.

The film — a woman’s journey through grief and post-war trauma — opens with flowers and trees disturbing the harmony of grasslands, while the sight of mountains in the distance could be those of Rugova.

“It is what we saw when growing up,” Sevdije says. “It is something we feel and have. The space and fields are the first thing I recall when I think of Zahaq.” 

Antoneta (left) and Sevdije (right) Kastrati have drawn heavily on elements of their own childhoods and tragic wartime past in their latest film, “Zana.” Photo courtesy of the Kastrati family.

They spent a lot of time outdoors, playing, attending to the cattle, or just sitting observing and reflecting. The war deprived them of this experience, as the whole family stayed inside the house so as not to fall under the eyes of Serbian forces. 

With citizens having fled or in hiding, and no one to cut the grass or take care of the gardens and flowers, the sisters recall how Zahaq’s nature became untamed and wilder during the spring of ’99.  

“I remember during the war, everything was more beautiful. In fact it was more beautiful than normal,” Antoneta says. “I remember the first time I went out. It was overwhelming. We were really isolated.”

It’s no coincidence that the protagonist of “Zana,” Lume (Adriana Matoshi), who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder that particularly manifests during the nights, transforming her dreams into nightmares, has only nature to console her. 

While she struggles to cope with the growing pressure to have a child from her conservative husband (Astrit Kabashi) and mother-in-law (Fatmire Sahiti) — she herself seemingly has no desire to get pregnant — the open space beyond the walls of the house juxtaposes her inner turbulence and the suffocating behavior of her relatives.  

“I have used nature as something that enables Lume to live. At least during the day she can have some kind of tranquility,” Antoneta says. “But during the war the worst things happen within that beauty. And nature is indifferent toward all the bad things happening around.” 

Antoneta was 18 during the war, while Sevdije was 15. They grew up in a big family, the youngest of seven siblings — six girls and their older brother.

The lively atmosphere of family gatherings portrayed in “Zana,” with tea and beers and loud conversations in the living room, resembles evenings inside the Kastrati family house. Nights would become proper celebrations when their brother came to visit from Germany.

Antoneta would find it interesting to analyze the power she would detect within her sisters, cousins and other women in the village amidst the rooted patriarchal hierarchies, an independence to act that would arise in certain situations.

Her movie “Zana” is also a story of women’s agency.

Lume is obliged by her mother-in-law to have numerous gynecological check-ups in order to assess her prospects of getting, and remaining, pregnant. Her mother-in-law, herself a guardian of patriarchy, the authority in place of her deceased husband, talks to the doctor in her name, as Lume overhears the conversation while re-dressing behind a curtain.

“Women have agency. They have power. It’s just in different ways.”

Antoneta Kastrati

When she ultimately becomes pregnant, she goes to Kumria (Irena Cahani), the village’s healer — a single woman who is locally outcast and demonized as a “witch” — seeking help.

“She still does what she wants in the movie — she finds a way,” Antoneta says of Lume. “Although she cannot escape her surroundings, she still tries until the end.” 

Perhaps the moment Lume particularly defies all the confining structures is when we understand the starting point of her marriage to Ilir. Her macho, almost hostile, father didn’t want to marry her off to Ilir, so she took matters into her own hands and ran away with him.

“She didn’t dare to confront her father directly, but she still rebelled, indirectly,” Antoneta says. “And it is the same in the village, Zahaq, or any patriarchal society. Women have agency. They have power. It’s just in different ways.

Antoneta herself was the first girl in the family to go to high school, followed by Sevdije. For girls in Zahaq and many other villages it was a rare thing to go to school before the war. Education, particularly secondary education and beyond, was perceived as something that was only important for boys.

“My mother really wanted to go to school. Her brothers and father didn’t allow her,” Sevdije says. “Grandfather, before he died, told me that the thing he regretted most was not allowing his daughters to go to school. If she had gone to school, mother would have achieved so many things.”

Antoneta (center) and Sevdije (right) were the first girls in the family to go to school, something denied to their mother, Ajshe (left), who always regretted being prevented from receiving an education. Photo courtesy of the Kastrati family.

Listening to their mother talking about her unfulfilled wish of going to school has left a mark on the lives of the Kastrati sisters, who see their own schooling as having been essential.

“I never imagined I wouldn’t go to school. I never even thought about the possibility of someone stopping me,” Sevdije says.

Studying medicine and becoming doctors was the future they were determined to build whenever peace arrived, and they were both attending the medical high school in Peja. It was still a time when being either a doctor or a teacher was regarded as being virtually the only proper traditional profession for a traditional society.

But their dreams were soon put on hold; while they had control over their education, war put them on a collision course with a much harsher reality, in which they were powerless. 

On June 10, Antoneta and Sevdije’s world came crashing down. 

Amongst the four people shot dead by paramilitaries in the house just across from their home, were their mother, Ajshe, and their sister, Luljeta.

Hit unexpectedly by the war, seconds before it ended, in its most horrendous way, despair and hopelessness replaced the urge to pursue careers as doctors. They kept themselves busy that summer working as nurses in Peja, amidst hundreds of wounded people, before refugees returned to their newly liberated homes.

“I couldn’t read anymore — I lost all inspiration. I didn’t have any strength. I had [previously] read so much, even though we didn’t have a library at that time in the village,” Antoneta says. “Everything lost sense. It looked useless to me to spend years at the Faculty after the things that had happened. I said, “What’s the point?”

– – –

The sisters joined the organization Balkan Sunflowers as translators and volunteer coordinators, often working with communities affected by war in the Peja region. It was this random new venture that would pave the way to their remarkable careers in the world of film.

The organization created collaborations between young people to work with cameras and make short movies.  

In 2000, Sevdije was barely convinced to participate in a movie project that required 12 people to film each other while each of them told the most important story of their life. She told the story of her mother. 

“I was alone with a camera. And that was the first connection. It was interesting to film, something that would remain and that others could see,” she says. “It seemed powerful. I was 16 and at that time. After the war I found it powerful.”

“I just continued filming. And never again thought about doing anything else.”

Sevdije Kastrati

The movie ended up at the Sundance Film Festival, and Sevdije made her first ever trip to the U.S. 

“I didn’t know what Sundance was. And when the movie was screened people learnt what happened to me and what happened in Kosovo. This was so interesting to me,” she says. “I just continued filming. And never again thought about doing anything else.”

Since then, Sevdije has been involved in a large number of projects from documentaries and shorts to feature films. She has been the director of photography for some of the most distinguished works of film produced in Kosovo, such as Blerta Zeqiri’s short film “Kthimi” (“The Return,” 2012), which won the Best International Short at Sundance in 2012. Another collaboration with Zeqiri was the feature film “Martesa” (“The Marriage,” 2017), which secured Kosovo’s nomination for the 2018 Oscars.

In 2009 she successfully applied for her first and only program of studies at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles; she has lived there ever since, working on projects between the U.S. and Kosovo.

“For me, the camera is very important,” Sevdije says. “The way the viewer experiences a film through the lighting, the atmosphere created by the camera, because every change, each lens, every change in light, impacts what kind of atmosphere you have … a dark, a cold, a bright one.” 

Sevdije Kastrati has been faced with plenty of patriarchal attitudes in an industry dominated by men, but has worked hard to establish a formidable reputation. Photo courtesy of Sevdije Kastrati.

She remains fascinated by the way her job can influence how an audience experiences a story and sees its characters. 

“It’s a place where everything comes together. The story, the actors, and then comes the camera and lighting,” she says. “Then you apply the finishing touches, because in order for everything to look good, you need to light the scene properly, to give the right feeling that the story needs at that particular moment.”

She usually starts working months before filming starts in order to provide the correct light for every frame. 

“What I learnt from school, and how I work, is not to create beautiful lighting, because the photography should not draw the attention. It should just help the story, to move it forward and cannot stand out,” she says. “A film is a good one when all the elements are in their right place. A good filmmaker is one that gathers people who can understand the vision to create the final product.”

But at the beginning of her career, she had to face cultural norms that are learnt in a harsher way than from the classroom or through filming. 

Sevdije didn’t think much about how gender plays out on the ground when working with male dominated film crews. In Kosovo, particularly in the first half of the 2000s, filmmakers in particular were almost all men, while there was not even a single woman behind the camera — to this day, she remains the only woman working as a director of photography in Kosovo. 

“It was painful. It was the first time I cried while filming a frame.”

Sevdije Kastrati

In those early days, she would often be told: “This camera is heavy — are you sure you can carry it?” or “The camera isn’t for you.” While the resistance and doubt she met would eventually be converted into huge respect, she says it required much more hard work on her part than for her male counterparts. Filmmakers working with her would come to refer to her dedication, attention to detail and research. 

When she first read the script of “Zana,” which was co-written by Antoneta and her husband Casey Cooper Johnson, she didn’t have to do any of the usual research. It was her story too. 

“Antoneta writes very visually. You read and you see it,” she says. “I knew the story; still, it took great effort to put myself into it. It was painful. It was the first time I cried while filming a frame.”

Sevdije refers to the scene showing Lume attending a commemoration day, remembering those killed during the war.

“I told the assistant to keep the focus, because I had to walk away from the camera,” she says. “We made that scene for the movie. But this is what happens at the anniversary for real.”

The memorial stone shown includes “Luljeta Kastrati (1974-1999),” as a stark reminder of Sevdije and Antoneta’s murdered sister. It also shows the name Zana Kelmendi, pointing to the reason for Lume’s suffering, because her 4-year-old daughter was killed in the war.

– – –

The war experience became a necessary and unavoidable focal point at the heart of Antoneta’s fiction work. But for a long time she established a fondness for documentaries.

“I didn’t want to just be a bystander. I needed to communicate about things,” Antoneta says, recalling her early experiences of working with documentaries while with Balkan Sunflowers.

Then in 2010, a new avenue opened up. Sevdije, who had already been director of photography for much of Antoneta’s work, was doing a visual essay as part of her studies at the American Film Institute. She asked her older sister, who by now was also living in LA and studying directing at the same institute, to get involved.

“I did co-directing with [husband] Casey and I loved the process and how I developed the imagination. The process of writing, filming, editing,” Antoneta says.

The project, named “Ninulla” (“Lullaby”), is dedicated to their murdered sister, Luljeta: Set amidst the Kosovo war in 1999, a teenage girl seeks refuge from a village massacre in a mountain cave, sharing a surreal reunion with her older sister.

Since then, Antoneta has directed two other short films, dealing with war topics. “Empty Bucket” (2011) has at its heart a young Kosovar bride who is haunted by nightmares of a wartime past and who undergoes mystic treatment to protect her unborn baby. 

Her second short, “She Comes in Spring” (2013), also has a plot related to the war, but this time focusing on a perpetrator: A former member of the Serbian forces, a middle-aged father in a Serbian village, is visited by a mysterious young woman, who forces him to uncover a dark buried secret from his past.

Antoneta Kastrati is still haunted by her own experiences of the war in Kosovo, but has channeled her personal trauma into her latest creative production. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

“Zana” marks her first feature film, one that secured Kosovo’s Oscar nomination last year.

It again features dark nightmares, a recurrent symbol in her creations, showing the deep connection between Antoneta’s life and work and her own experiences of dealing with the wartime past. She listened to many such manifestations of trauma during the recounted experiences of women she interviewed in the Peja region while researching for the film.

“Dreams are something I experienced and I still have very heavy dreams. The film is fiction of course. Many things there are fiction. Dreams are reality. In fact, a filtered version of it,” she says. “I wanted to show this contrast, regardless of how much you try to overcome during the day — dreams are something you cannot control, and they are graphic.”

In the second massacre of Zahaq, when her loved ones lost their lives, an 11-year-old was also present. Antoneta remembers her blond long hair, unusual amongst the generally darker haired children in the village. She thought of this girl very often while writing the script.

The small girl was wounded by the Serbian forces and subsequently died from internal bleeding. She was shot in front of her mother, who survived the massacre. 

“I have two daughters. And this is why I wanted to make the movie from my mother’s perspective. It is something I cannot overcome. It is something I cannot admit,” she says. “My sister was also killed before my mother who lived for another half an hour.”

“Imagine what I feel for my sister and mother, and I can only imagine what I would feel if they were my daughters.”

Antoneta Kastrati

The deprivation of dignity as a parent, completely defenseless and forced to watch the murder of their children, is the kind of dehumanization Antoneta had long thought about bringing to the screen.

“In a normal situation you do everything to help your children. But war makes you so passive,” she says. “Imagine this happens and how hard it is to attempt to bring another child into the world, as happens with Lume in ‘Zana.’”

For Antoneta, Lume’s ultimate ending was unavoidable.

“War is very aggressive. It is a total destruction. It doesn’t compare to anything else,” she says. “When you experience something in the family it is very hard. Imagine what I feel for my sister and mother, and I can only imagine what I would feel if they were my daughters.”

Since the first screening in September, Zana has touched thousands of viewers in Kosovo and the world. The small village has again been cast into the spotlight but now with a different layer being mapped into people’s memories. 

The third episode of the Zahaq tales is that of a proud hometown: A place where two great artists are born.K

Feature image: Collage of photos courtesy of the Kastrati sisters. Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.