In-depth | Culture

Beyond the national

By - 26.06.2020

Revisiting films from the diaspora.

Film is always somewhat grounded in reality, transformed into an assemblage of images held together by a crafted narrative. Once released the film has a life of itself. This is the freedom of artistic maneuvering, the space in-between when creating a to-be-perceived experience unfolding into multiple ways of interpretation. 

When contextualizing a film to a history and society in real time, however, one goes beyond spectatorship toward configuring it within cultural ramifications. As simple as it is, cultural experiences shape films and films in turn shape our perception of culture. As it is common since the rise of globalization, national cinema is perceived as providing a unique view into the national culture of “others.” 

But what if authorship, production and narrative cross borders and cannot be easily located into a national realm? Not only do circulating images and sounds shift spectatorship on a national cultural identity, filmmakers equally cannot be defined as speaking from and to one particular communal belonging. 

However at the same time our transnational age is marked by an increasing exchange of people and images that travel and traverse national boundaries, making it difficult to speak of an authentic national culture as being different from others.

Throughout the past years, Kosovo’s diaspora has begun to use the theme of their exiled and diaspora condition through filmmaking.

Reconceptualizing national cinema as transnational means shifting the focus away from the imagery of a homogenous national community toward viewing society as fragmented in class, gender and ethnicity. Reading films through a transnational lens means to multiply the view on how the experience of being an “ethnic other” is implicated in the creation and distribution of a film. 

Throughout the past years, Kosovo’s diaspora has begun to use the theme of their exiled and diaspora condition through filmmaking. In what way do these speak back to the experience of being Kosovar in the West? What do they offer in terms of understanding the nexus of migration, the relation to Kosovo, lying at the borders of Europe, and the Western European life? Can we already speak of Kosovar diaspora film as a genre? And if so, to whom does this genre speak to?

The émigré

The undoubtedly most prominent filmmaker thematizing Kosovar exile is Visar Morina. Living in Germany, Morina migrated with his family at the age of 15 in 1995. When making his debut film “Babai” (Father), which premiered in 2016, Morina was surprised that the reviews categorized the film as an émigré film.

Set in prewar Kosovo in the 1990s, the film tells the story of 10-year-old Nori and his father Gezim, who migrates to Germany in search for a better life without notifying his son. Angry about the betrayal, the determined child embarks alone on the dangerous migration route to find his father.

For Morina, the plot revolved principally around the betrayal of trust in a father-child relationship, rather than telling the story of a refugee. In general, Morina has difficulties with the description of his filmmaking being defined by his “ethnic background.”

 “I cannot make sense of terms such as cultural and national belonging, although in my films my experience of dealing with such descriptions is prominent, it is something that comes from the outside, an outer description,” Morina says. 

Following a Kafkaesque approach, Morina views stories as individual battles amid societal forces that confront them with challenges to overcome, yet, he adds that as a filmmaker it is important to tell stories that he has a relationship to, rather than having a clear message. In this sense, his films are never purely autobiographical but are still heavily influenced by personal experiences, mainly the position of an “outsider” that as he says “is inflicted into the details in the films reflecting back to his position in society.” 

In “Babai” we alternate between two worlds, in the first half of “Babai” Morina depicts village life in Kosovo as extracted from emotional memories of his upbringing in Southern Kosovo, the second half influenced by his own experience of living in asylum shelters.

Visar Morina does not want to be defined by his ethnic identity. Still from “Babai” by Visar Morina.

By that time, inspired by the cinema of neorealism — a genre marked by a compassionate view without making larger moral judgments. Morina adds that it was important for him to work with vignettes, facets of each society, rather than presenting a representation of each society as a whole. Shooting on-location, his characters are clearly from the working class, rural areas with little means of communication in ’90s Kosovo, who are then exposed to a bureaucratic country like Germany. 

It is from this perspective that Germany is presented in a claustrophobic and cold mise-en-scène. A typical iconography of diaspora cinema, where the representation of life in exile tends to stress claustrophobia and temporality, constricted to sites of confinement and control, to narratives of panic and pursuit. 

This tense pursuit of redemption can be traced in the second part of the film, where the father, played by Astrit Kabashi, struggles with the strict rules of the asylum shelter surrounded by fences, almost appearing as a prison in the promised land of freedom, which becomes a restless place for the characters on-route, fitting into Morina’s vision of chronotypes that capture the tensed cyclical process induced by a system. 

This appears hostile due to its sharp otherness from the familiar one in Kosovo, “I paid attention to portraying individuals in Germany as friendly, who just abide to the rules as anyone else,” Morina said.

Reflecting on racism toward Kosovo-Albanians in Germany, Morina finds himself in a moral dilemma, the thin line between well-meaning commentary on his ethnic background and latent discrimination when being reminded of his otherness and outsiderdism although he has an established name in the German filmmaking industry. 

Already in the making of “Babai” staying neutral to outside ascriptions in the industry proved challenging, demanding Morina to balance Balkanizing fantasies with firsthand experiences, as when production donors and costume designers were disappointed in the footage from Kosovo, that ran counter to their imagination as not rough and poor enough. 

Morina’s latest film “Exile,” premiering in Kosovo in August 2020, seems to bundle these liminal experiences. Catalyzed into a psychodrama, “Exile” let’s the viewer delve into the mind of an assimilated Kosovar-German who finds himself exposed to discrimination at his workplace. 

Morina makes films from his own personal experiences. Still from “Exile” by Visar Morina.

Throughout the film the liminality lies in that one does not clearly know whether the protagonist, the well-earning integrated expat Xhafer, is confronted with racism or just imagines it in his own paranoia. Expanding on this thin line, a space of interpretation with uncanny feelings arises, leaving it open to what is an actual attack or a projection of Xhafa’s mind. 

Unlike with “Babai,” this time writing the film came in a three month stream of consciousness writing period in 2015. Things added up for Morina, after the “New Years Incident” in Cologne, Germany, when migrants and refugees were accused of attacking women, was instrumentalized by conservative politicians and the media sparking xenophobia against “Muslim migrants.”

Irritated by this atmosphere, Morina did not want to leave the community’s right wing political shift without commentary, “When I am alone, I am not read as foreigner, but when I am with my parents for instance, some looks from a server in a restaurant, leave the realm of insignificant casualness at the same time one cannot identify them as xenophobic hatred.“

As in the other film, “Exile” is not an autobiography but a sum of dramatized experiences where Morina had to negotiate between fantasies over being a cultural “Other” and a self. Yet again, instead of giving one ideological message, he invites viewers to zoom into those uncanny moments between paranoia and racism, a portrait of a man with a damaged self-image, seeing himself “through the eyes of the others.” 

Morina concludes “those said to come from somewhere else, usually had to fight hard for belonging, and are thus more vulnerable, more prone to questioning themselves with the slightest insecurity arising, no matter how grounded.” 

With “Exile,” Morina communicates the problem of the hyphen, the partial status of a fractured identity as opposed to a complete one, a liminality communicated in the cinematography by Metteo Cocco of claustrophobic long corridors followed in tracking shots amplifying Xhafer’s distorted sense of reality and a camera scrutinizing the protagonist facial expressions in curious long details. 

With this stylized narrative told from a Kosovar diasporan position, a distorted sense of being and belonging in Western Europe is expressed for the first time, for the first time exposing and questioning the view of Western Europeans on Europe’s peripheral Kosovars, the liminality in the film fitting into the liminal position of Kosovars between whiteness and non-whiteness, of Kosovo images as almost but not quite European. 

Morina’s film is an example on how films can still subversive within the commercial industry of filmmaking. 

The hyphenated identity

Another alternative mode going against dominant ideas on culture and identity, is presented by the young avant-garde filmmaker Dea Gjinovci. Born in Switzerland, Gjinovci never visited Kosovo before the age of 25, where she completed her first self-made film “Sans le Kosovo.” In this 30 minute experimental documentary, Gjinovci together with her father retraces the route of his exile. Asllan Gjinovci fled Prishtina due to his involvement in the 1968 Yugoslav protests, his escape keeping him inexorably away from his family and homeland for more than thirty years. 

Guided by the question to retrace what it means to physically move from one place to another, and what kind of memories are left in certain places, the film follows her father slowly coming to terms with his suppressed past. With each intermediate stop “making the film was really cathartic, seeing my father opening up psychologically, but also for me it was a discovery of a part of my identity that was always kept silent and therefore missing,” Gjinovci says, whose journey to find home is held together in poetic documentary images, capturing nostalgia and melancholia. 

Dea Gjinovci had to come to terms with her identity. Still from Waking up on Mars.

Fictionalized elements interrupt the claim of an outsider’s objectivity, and fulfill the function to remind the spectator that the film presents her own take. In “Sans le Kosovo,” words and text guide the viewer over the contemplation of images, this epistolary nature accentuating Gjinovci’s accent as a filmmaker proactively exposing her liminal position as a diaspora filmmaker, who needs to fill the gap of her father’s spotted memories with Gjinovci inserting archival footage symbolically telling the history of Kosovo’s forced exile. 

Trained in ethnographic and documentary filmmaking, for Gjinovci it is important to direct the lens not to the study of “other cultures” that seem the furthest away, but to reflect on the complexity of the society one lives in. She is building a diligent objectivity within herself that is meant to confront her own haunted past of uprootedness and exile to deal with the bias toward Albanians that she experienced while growing up in Switzerland. 

Defying the strictures of identity

For a long time, Gjinovci preferred to hide her Albanian background to escape from prejudice. She tired of always having to justify her background and defy stereotypes, it was only in London, where she went to high school and university, that Gjinovci realized the potential of her hyphenated identity, the possibility to be both of outer ascriptions and to work from within this in-betweenness in order to question conditions of exile, citizenship and migration. 

Today, she identifies as Kosovo-Albanian and Swiss, working from within being positioned in-between dominant ideas of national belonging. Alternating between these realms, Gjinovci consciously is drawn toward using the twilight zone between documentary and fiction, objectivity and subjectivity. 

Aware that national identity is constructed, Gjinovci reconciles her identity struggles by catalyzing her position of being both or neither into her filmmaking.

The enduring situation of being dislocated by exile and arriving from somewhere else triggering elements of trauma and escapism recur in another setting in Gjinovci’s second film “Wake up on Mars.” The documentary tells the delicate tale of a Kosovar Roma family in asylum in Sweden, with two daughters affected by the sleeping “resignation syndrome,” a dissociative illness affecting children and adolescents traumatized by the harshly policed asylum seeking process with depressive symptoms similar to a catatonic state. 

Following the family’s situation over the course of a year, Gjinovci intentionally introduced the metaphorical element of a spaceship, with which the youngest son of the family, Fukran, was imagining to escape from earth wanting to live on Mars where there is no rejection toward his family. Introducing this fictionalized element meant to humanize the dehumanizing aspects of exile and asylum, to go beyond despair into a space of hope. 

Be it in a reflective manner as in “Sans le Kosovo” or indirectly making her presence in the film visible, Gjinovci has no hesitation in including her voice as a director for the bigger cause of amplifying feelings of displacement in a world of national borders and dominant narratives. 

For her next film, Gjinovci plans to be more prominent as a diasporic character recreating her ties to Kosovo. “Now that I have been to Kosovo, I also connected to the avant-garde scene in the visual culture, exploring the themes that touch me as well,” Gjinovci says who’s own filmmaking initiative reconnected her to Kosovo, the same spirit of initiative from “below” instead of tied to big institutions, that she finds courageous and shares the same energy. 

Aware that national identity is constructed, Gjinovci reconciles her identity struggles by catalyzing her position of being both or neither into her filmmaking, films that delve into tales of migration, loss of memory and diaspora to remind that the consequences of being not yet or never fully part of a society has material and psychological effects on those who migrated and their children. 

Morina’s approach, revolving around the human battle with life, points out whose material effects are one-of-a-kind. Morina, who will lead a production at the Kammerspiele in Munich in Winter 2020, wants to initiate plays and continue to do films that work outside the Kosovar-German identity, and hopefully one day will be the case for his German audience and colleagues.K

Feature image: Courtesy of Maxime Kathari.