One-on-one | Film

Blerta Zeqiri: Our Romeo and Juliet is love between people of the same sex

By - 23.12.2017

Kosovar filmmaker discusses forbidden love, the process behind her films and women in cinema.

In its world premiere, Blerta Zeqiri’s first feature film brought her two awards, but it was a moment after the screening that gave her the most satisfaction.

A woman from the audience approached Zeqiri and the team, and with teary eyes said: “My father abandoned our mother, and me and my sister for this reason. I was always mad at him. I never wanted to talk or hear about it. This is the first time that I am understanding what happened.”

“Marriage” (“Martesa”) directed by Zeqiri and written by her and her partner, Kreshnik “Keka” Berisha premiered at the Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn in Estonia, winning two awards at the closing ceremony on Dec. 2. The film was competing in the ‘First Feature Competition’ category, where among 15 other debut films, it won the Fipresci Award. It also won the Special Jury Prize for the Cast Ensemble. It immediately attracted the attention of the critics, who have labelled it one of the finest debut movies in European cinema this year.

I made this film about an impossible love between two persons of the same sex, because, for me, wanting to stop love in the name of some social norm is ludicrous. Love is not a crime. Forbidding it is though. So I want to dedicate this prize to the most beautiful feeling of all: Love,” Zeqiri said while receiving the award.

The film explores a love triangle between Bekim (Alban Ukaj), Anita (Adriana Matoshi) and Noli (Genc Salihu). Anita and Bekim are preparing their wedding, as Anita waits on news of her parents who went missing in the Kosovo War. Their plans are complicated when Bekim’s ex-lover Noli returns from abroad.

For Zeqiri, it is the love between persons of same sex that represents the Romeo and Juliet of our times. She says it is love, impossible love, that is the movie’s crucial idea.

“We got comments from the audience saying that they didn’t see it as an LGBTI movie, but as a movie about love,” Zeqiri says. “This made me very happy because this was the aim.” She explains that instead of reducing people to their sexuality, she wanted to show the person.

Being a storyteller was Zeqiri’s dream ever since she was a young girl growing up in Suhareka. She replaced her initial aim to study literature with the decision to tell stories through film, but a conversation at the Faculty of Arts in Prishtina stopped that from happening for a long time.

“Directing is not a profession for women, because it requires full time commitment. You might get married tomorrow and leave it half finished,” she recalls a professor telling her, when she went to ask about the application process.

Discouraged, she went into studying playwriting, and initially wrote scripts for her colleagues in filmmaking. But because of her desire to see her own stories transformed into film, and a push from her filmmaker sister, Lendita Zeqiri, she went to Paris to continue her studies with a focus on filmmaking and screenwriting.

Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

She co-directed her first short movie, “Exit,” in 2004, opening the path to other short movies, including “OK,” “The Dinner” (“Darka”) and “The Return” (“Kthimi”); the latter brought Zeqiri the award for the best international fiction short film at the Sundance Film Festival, establishing her as one of Kosovo’s best filmmakers.

She says that Kosovar cinema has entered into a new era, one in which women filmmakers are given opportunities in terms of funding by the Cinematographic Center of Kosovo, and are making beautiful art.

K2.0 sat down with Zeqiri after her return from Tallinn to discuss the inspiration behind her first feature film, love and the emergence of women in Kosovar cinema.

K2.0: “Martesa” (Marriage) made its debut at a festival and won two awards. Were you expecting this?

Blerta Zeqiri: Not at all, because we worked on the film for a very long time. It’s been five years since we started and by the end of it we had sort of lost the sense of what we had been doing, and didn’t know what we had made. Did we make something good? Would people like it? We couldn’t wait to see whether or not the public would understand it, or how they would receive it.

In Tallinn, the audience was foreign, and we didn’t now whether or not they would understand Kosovo’s situation and what the film represented but it was well-received and this made us very happy.

You’ve said that “Martesa” is your best film yet.

I feel this way because it was realized in the best way. Maybe it’s not the best, but it was realized in the best way. I am very satisfied with the work the actors have put into this film, I am very happy with the lighting, the editing, everything. I think technically it is my best film to date.

This is your first feature film, and you probably found yourself dealing with many themes while thinking about such a project. Why did you choose the subject of love between people of the same sex?

Love is the most beautiful feeling that we share as humans. When I started working on the film, it was sort of… to put it simply, the world was opening up more, whereas in Kosovo nothing was happening. In Kosovo, at the time, there was a darker period, regarding this subject.

I started working on this film after being inspired by true stories, events experienced by two friends of mine. Then I made up the story, but that was the starting point. A friend of mine found out that her husband was gay after having two kids with him. The whole experience was very difficult for her.

On the other hand, I had a gay friend who faced these kinds of issues as well. He is a very open person who doesn’t like lying to people or hurting them. He simply wants to live life the way he feels it, but society was putting so much pressure on him.

In fact, this really pushed me to tackle the issue. He would say: “right after the war, society started opening up and we started hoping that things would change, but now, 10 years after the war, it has started to become more closed again, and people are becoming more closed.”

Then it came to the point where he said “I either have to leave Kosovo or get married.” Naturally, he left Kosovo, which is a very good thing for him, and we started working on the subject.

I think that love, being the most beautiful emotion, cannot be forbidden. Violence must be forbidden, war must be forbidden, hate speech… when you love someone, the world looks better, all the trash that you see outside looks better. You become a better person, so the world will not be damaged if we allow people to love one another.

This really influenced me to make this film, and it also kept me motivated and energized even after 5 years. If it wasn’t about something which I strongly believe in, I would have got bored.

So you’re saying that, just like in the film, love in Kosovoour country is defined by imposed social norms.

That’s the message that I tried to convey, because other forms of love are not accepted in our country. People still do not accept other kinds of love, unless it suits others: the mother, the father, him or her. We only accept love between heterosexual couples, and it is even more problematic when it comes to marriages or loving people of different nationalities. It becomes such a big issue! They say things like “what language will their children speak.”

In an interview in Tallinn, you mentioned that the process of screenwriting lasted five years and that you did it in cooperation with the actors as well. Is screenwriting for you a work in progress, which is shaped by the participation of the actors?

Initially it was just a narrative, a synopsis, a situation. We just had the idea of a man who was being forced by society to marry a woman despite the fact that he loved someone else. So we had that closing moment when he decides to abide by society’s norms, thus killing himself and the other person — the other person is collateral damage.

We only had this. Initially I worked with Adriana [Matoshi]. I called her because she knows my style of work from past projects. The film “Kthimi” (The Return), which we worked on in the past, was also created in this way. So we had a narrative, then we built the characters together.

We recorded scenes and actors improvised. We gave them different situations. We told them “go to this point,” then a few other points for them to hang on to, and then they built it and made the dialogue by themselves. I really liked this process.

I like to mix genres or boundaries between things. I like when boundaries are blurred.

But, you can’t secure funding for feature films if you want to do it in this way. Because you need to have a script, since the level of required funding is quite big. To achieve this, we had to conduct the process of improvisation during the screenwriting process.

So Keka [Kreshnik Berisha] and I wrote the script, then made a first draft. Then we gathered the actors and made a sort of retreat or workshop. We went somewhere for a couple of days and worked intensively on the script.

We would make different situations, in which we asked the actors to play out some sort of scene, and they would react with their own ideas. We recorded them with smartphones and whatever else we could get our hands on. Later we returned and continued to write the script, and this process happened a few times, until we finished the screenwriting process.

For me it was of the utmost importance to seek reality through this film. To make it as real as possible, so that it could mimic a documentary as much as possible — something that was not planned, that happened spontaneously. This was what we sought. To achieve this, I had to go through this process.

The actors didn’t hold anything back throughout the years, and I am very happy that they stayed with us. Especially Alban [Ukaj], with whom I worked before. He has had quite a career.

Alban sacrificed a lot because he traveled from Sarajevo every time. He set aside two extra days to work on this project because we were unable to pay for his ticket, so he came especially for the sake of the project.

Initially we did not have a budget, since it was only an idea. The first drafts of the script were not the best. And after each meeting I was afraid that they would say “this is senseless, how do we get out of this project,” but they continued and stayed with us. The same goes for Genc [Salihu], who was playing in a film for the first time. I am very thankful that they continued to trust us even when I started to have doubts.

The process didn’t end there because we got used to working with each other in that way. The research continued throughout the shooting stage as well. Even when we had the script, we still asked actors to improvise and find new things. So their contribution has been very, very important. That is why I am very happy that they got an award for the actors’ ensemble because they truly gave everything they had.

Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

That documentary approach, which is reflected in the shooting style, is notable in both “Kthimi” and “Martesa.”

I like to mix genres or boundaries between things. I like when boundaries are blurred. I like documentary films a lot, but I also like feature films, and I tried to make a fusion between documentary and film.

Although this is a feature film, the idea was to have a mobile camera, so that the shooting and editing styles would conjure feelings of a documentary film. On the other hand, we wanted to have the colors and warmth of a feature film. I like when it is mixed, when there are no thick lines between genres.

Did you think you would face issues in finding other actors — besides Genc and Alban — and that people would find it difficult to play gay characters without prejudice?

I think that if I didn’t have these actors, this film would have come out differently. They gave a lot of themselves.

It is very important to find actors who share the same opinions about the issues that I deal with, actors who do not have prejudice about certain issues. During the process of selecting actors, I am often most impressed by the conversation, the way an actor or actress sees an issue that we deal with, rather than their skills and talent.

I think that actors are much more talented than us. The best part of the industry is the actors, so whoever I would have picked would undoubtedly have been good, but I think that they made the film.

During the process of selecting actors for “Kthimi,” it took a long time for me to find a suitable person to play the role of Adriana’s husband, because I met many different actors and could not find a person with enough sensitivity for that role, until I found Lulzim Bucolli. He completely understood the role. We were on the same wavelength.

The same happened with the actors on “Martesa.” We were on the same wavelength regarding the subject we were dealing with. We had very similar core opinions, then our ideas were quite different, and I think that this enriched the film and made it what it is.

I met different people, heard different stories. I talked to a lot of people from the [LGBT] community, and I tried to understand, until I did at a deeper level.

I met with different actors and in general everyone would say “I would do it,” because they see it as just a role. On the other hand there were actors who were intrigued by the idea, but when they started talking about the subject, you could see that they had prejudices.

Along the way this would have changed, because they would have started to work with the character. But I needed not to have any barriers. I couldn’t work with their mindset then work with the roles afterwards. I didn’t need to do this with Alban and Genc. Both are very brave and enjoy challenges. Alban likes challenging work, whereas Genc completely changed artistic medium to challenge himself.

In one of the opening scenes, Bekim (played by Alban Ukaj) is seen playing with a dog. In an interview you said that while building the narrative and characters you tried to include issues that are neglected in our society, such as the maltreatment of animals.

Most of the things we wrote were things we, Keka and I, feel and experience in daily life. A few years ago we got a dog, and we have become much more empathetic towards animals. That is why that scene is there.

When we worked with characters, we wanted to portray Bekim as a person who was being dealt a great injustice by society, but is still selfless and finds time to help a dog in need. So although he had to show strength throughout because of a patriarchal society, and despite these shields that he needed to keep up in order to be respected in our society, he also has empathy and does not have trouble showing it.

When two activists ask Bekim to organize a closed party for LGBTI people, Bekim doesn’t even consider accepting this offer. Does Bekim have an internalized homophobia?

Bekim is a ‘self-homophobe’ who does not want to accept himself, because what society wants from him is embedded very deep inside of him. He cannot escape what society has told him. So in a way, he hates himself for what he is, and wants to be how others want him to be. He dare not listen to himself. For this reason, he gets married and he abides by the rules, because he is afraid to come out. He is ‘self-homophobic.’

He never wants to hurt Anita. In fact, he goes into the relationship because he wants to be a sort of saviour. That is why he deals with it and why he helps lonely dogs in the street. And in this case, Anita is very lonely. Although she is a strong woman, she is lonely because she experienced a great tragedy and has no family.

[Bekim] thinks that he is doing something good for the relationship, that he is helping her as well. On the other hand, because of her loneliness and the fact that she has no family, [Anita] does not notice the small nuances that show that he is not 100 percent in love. We thought this was the best way to portray how these two people, who are both strong and independent, fall into this kind of trap.

Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

“Martesa” also deals with the issue of missing persons. Although the film is not about the war at all, the war is seen in the context, as a consequence. The same is true of “Kthimi,” although it deals with the consequences of war more directly. It seems that researching the effect that war has had on shaping people’s lives is important to you.

I preoccupy myself with the things that surround me because I know them best. The war influenced my life a lot, although thankfully none of my close relatives lost their lives, but still you cannot forget what happened very easily.

I see that the war is still present in our society. If you sit with someone for longer than an hour, the war is bound to come up in conversation. At the very least [someone] will say “this happened before the war.” It is like something that splits time in half. All people are preoccupied in this manner. As I wanted the film to be as realistic as possible, I had to involve the war. It always comes up somewhere. Because I think it preoccupies us and is a part of us.

It is definitely a part of me. I am from Suhareka, where some of the worst massacres were committed. And many people which I knew before are no longer with us or have disappeared — friends, neighbors. So it is definitely a part of me.

Going back to Anita and Bekim. Had Anita’s parents not been killed in the war, would Bekim still be with her?

I think that Bekim would have found it easier to leave her. And I don’t know if Anita would have fallen for Bekim, who does not love her fully. That is the feeling I get, that the misfortune in her life led to other misfortunes.

We found it very hard to find a balance which would make all three of them lovable, but also all three of them victims. In fact they are all victims, and they are all lovers. They are human. They have their good and bad sides.

It was very hard because as you would spend a bit more time with Anita, you’d start to hate Bekim, then you’d spend time with Bekim, and Anita would start to seem naive. On the other hand, Noli, with all his love for Bekim… when you’d spend time with him, he’d start to seem like the bad guy for ruining their relationship.

We worked for a long time until we decided on how to work with the film. Maybe it is not the best way, but we were unable to find a better way to make all three seem like victims — very human — without making one look nice and the other look evil. We tried to find the humane side in all three.

How do you keep yourself focused creatively throughout the working process?

When I start something, I cannot stop until I finish it. This is what I find fascinating about films. Especially the research part, delving deep into a subject, trying to be in other people’s shoes. I do this continuously.

Maybe it is also a professional deformation. I see a person walking in the street and I hear what they are saying, I try to imagine what they are feeling. So the research that I did was very interesting. I researched this situation within myself in the last five years. I also met different people, heard different stories. I talked to a lot of people from the [LGBT] community, and I tried to understand, until I did at a deeper level.

Now 50 percent of projects are being given to women, and not because of some quota, but because women are working hard and making good films.

During this time, I realized one thing: in the first two years, I approached this subject in a very bad and superficial way. I saw it as love between people of the same sex, and I saw that I did not understand it well enough, that I didn’t grasp it. It was neither in my hand nor in my heart.

Later I understood how wrong I was, because the idea is not to make a film about love between two people of the same sex, but to make a film about love — forbidden love. And it just so happened that the forbidden love of our time, our Romeo and Juliet, is this [love between people of the same sex].

At that moment I realized what the issue was with my script so I had it much easier from then on. I had references because many of the things that happen in the film are things that have happened to me throughout my life.

They are things that Keka and I have taken from our relationship, periods of separation and getting back together, periods through which we went. In some cases I am Alban, and in others I am Genc. Sometimes Keka is Alban, and sometimes he is Genc.

Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

What narratives or characters which are lacking in cinema would you want to see more of in Kosovar films?

There are so many narratives. For example, I think that we should see more female characters. Some female directors are making films that deal with such issues. For the first time we are going to see women as they are on the big screen, not as men imagine them.

I’ve seen a few projects and I am very happy when I see situations that men have never had access to. I think this will influence a situation in which men get to know women better.

So male directors do not manage to portray women as they are?

It is not that they do not know how to do this, they just need more research. And usually women are not their focus. They are more a function of the narrative. Now we have Lendita Zeqiri’s film, Antoneta Kastrati’s film, which has a great narrative about a woman in a rural area. Then there’s Kaltrina Krasniqi’s film. They will all be great films.

Even in world cinema, you notice that sensitivity in films made by female directors. Even in books, if the author is male, you notice a sort of romanticization. They don’t portray the everyday woman.

It seems that we are living in a time in which female directors are being given more space.

It is a new era of film in Kosovo. This has started gradually and I think that the foundation lies in the support of the Kosovo Cinematography Center. They have changed their policies in the last few years. They have started to increase their budget, to support more films and to give funds to female directors as well.

Before… in fact someone reminded me that the first feature film made by a female director to be financed by the Center is “Martesa.” Now, 50 percent of projects are being given to women, and not because of some quota, but because women are working hard and making good films. They are making good short films, and they are adequately translating that sensitivity of ours into the language of film. They have been successful, and now they are making feature films as well. So the first step was institutional support, which aided us greatly.K

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.