When the waiter at Te Nazi, a popular gjelltore (canteen) in Prishtina, approaches the table to take our orders, he probably doesn’t know that Daniel Mulloy has just won one of the world’s most prestigious film awards, but he does know that the British filmmaker and screenwriter will order pasul (a bean stew).
Last month, Mulloy brought the iconic BAFTA mask statuette to Kosovo, after his 20 minute short film about refugees, “Home” — a UK-Kosovo production, won the prize for Best British Short Film at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards. However, while in Kosovo, Mulloy tends to spend his time among the people, in the gjelltore, and the kitsch underground cafe at the National Library, where he does a lot of screenwriting.
Mulloy studied fine arts at the Slade School in London and his career in filmmaking started by chance. As a young man he would go clubbing, and felt appalled by the way people would treat the attendants who worked in the toilets. His first film, “Dance Floor,” was a response to that.
“It was about seeing things from, her name was Rita, seeing things from Rita’s eyes,” says Mulloy about the protagonist of Dance Floor, a Nigerian woman who worked in restrooms in nightclubs in central London. “It was about a night in her life basically.” The film won Mulloy awards and immediately distinguished him as an exciting film newcomer. His sister would send “Dance Floor” to film festivals, but he didn’t anticipate the successful career he would forge.
After nearly 15 years of filmmaking, including premieres at some of the world’s most prestigious film festivals like Sundance and Berlinale, and multiple awards, including two BAFTAs for Best Short Film, Mulloy sat down with K2.0 over some pasul and speca te mbushur (stuffed peppers) to discuss “Home,” cinema, and his experiences in Kosovo.
K2.0: What were your first impressions of Kosovo when you came here?
Daniel Mulloy: The first thing that came to mind is that there are so many stories to tell here, and so many kinds of people to tell them with. There are a lot of stories about what it means to be a human being living in Kosovo now. There are many stories about war, and stories that will be somehow touched by war, because people were touched by war. Making stories about war is very important because it is something so significant and so terrible that happened to many people.
But I think you can tell any story here. You could make an amazing comedy, you could make an amazing horror film, you could make pretty much anything. Any film you could make anywhere else, you could make in Kosovo. I think that there will be all sorts of films coming out of Kosovo during the next decade. I see it as a place where lot of stories will grow and come from different people.
Was it one of the stories you heard in Kosovo that inspired “Home”?
In part. Actually, it wasn’t when I was here, but when I went back to the UK. It was some posters I saw, which I thought were very racist. Even in the multicultural community I am from [the posters] were not even ripped or graffitied. I just thought ‘how the hell can this exist as a new normality, where racism is allowed on the street and people don’t just go and fuck it up?’
I was in shock. I thought that somehow, in the culture where I am from and the place I am from, something had really shifted in what is acceptable. I guess [“Home”] was the response to that. That was the main trigger.
Then the prime minister of the UK [David Cameron at that time] started talking about swarms of people coming across. For me, swarms is a word used for rats or locusts. It is related to animals, not humans. I found that to be problematic and decided to address that and fit it in with what was happening here, in Kosovo.
Aliriza Arenliu had thought of migration as the theme for DokuFest, and Nita Deda asked me to do a video. I thought of this short idea — 30 seconds, a minute — about a family fleeing into a war zone, because for me the idea that anyone would want to stay in a war is ridiculous. Obviously, if you are going to get killed, you will leave. If your children are going to get killed, you would want to leave. I wanted to make something that showed how ridiculous the idea of wanting to stay in war would be. I wanted to create empathy for people who were in war and fleeing the war, for refugees.
It began as this small idea for DokuFest but then Shpend Qamili from the U.N. heard about it, and we realized we could make this into a much bigger project together. I knew I could bring on board an amazing actor, and Shpend could potentially raise some finance, and it began like this.
People were migrating from Kosovo, beginning to journey through the Balkans, and were being joined by a growing number of refugees leaving Syria. I think it was just before the mass migration in Syria happened. It seemed like an appropriate way to respond to the situation.
There is no time or space mentioned in the movie.
No, we get that it is a British family. But we have no idea where they are going. We don’t know whether it was last year, next year. When they get to the refugee camp there is no identification about where they are.
Was that an attempt to make the topic more universal? That it can happen to any family, anywhere in the world? Did you think about making the characters Syrian?
I did think of that. But the thing I wanted to address was this growing sense of racism in Europe. I have a lot of friends who’ve made films about refugees crossing the Mediterranean. I made a film about refugees from Cuba trying to escape the politics of their own country and go to America. But I wanted with this project to really address the nature of the growth of right wing politics within Britain and Europe. I thought the best way to do that is by making the film that we made, as opposed to making a film about Syrians leaving Syria. In a way I wanted to make a film where large portions of the audience would not necessarily realize what they were watching at the outset.
It is about what can really change people’s attitudes. I think all over the world people relate to their own neighborhood, and race comes into that a lot. It’s an ongoing issue that we humans have got, especially white humans from the West with a strong history of racism. People often care more about what is happening to their neighbors than about people who live in other cities. People from a country may care more about people in their own country than what is happening in neighboring countries, or countries across the world.
Part of what triggered the film is that this kind of racism is going on, and the desire to make something that addresses that — in a way that acknowledges the reality, as opposed to pretending that it is not happening.
I wanted to make viewers reflect on the fact that the people who are fleeing war zones are you. These people are you. There is no difference. You don’t know what your future holds. Right now you are safe and have food, you don’t know what is going to happen next week. I think that is why there was so much support for the film here, because a lot of people understood that.
Stylistically in “Home,” the camera is very close and personal. You almost feel like you can touch the protagonists’ faces, that you are there…
I like intimacy and I like vulnerability. I think when you peel back the skin and you see what people are about, it makes us lean in as viewers. When an actor is being very brave on screen we respond to that, because we respond to bravery, we respond to intimacy. We appreciate that in the people we are watching. I think some of the greatest actors of all time were very brave people, who allowed the audience into what is happening in their head.
So you like your films to focus on the close-up rather than the wide angle?
I think the subjective exists with more light when it’s contrasted with the objective, so both are important to me. When I write, I am quite intimate with the characters, when I am telling the story I am there with them, feeling and breathing.
I look very strange when I am in the library because I start reading the lines of the script I am writing out loud, and I don’t realize I’m doing it. Now I find a seat away from people. That way I feel less self-conscious about it.
Is the library where you usually write?
Yes, or in a cajtore [teahouse]. Anywhere old people go, where it is quiet and you’re not going to know anyone. Those are the kind of places I look for when I am in Prishtina, or Prizren. I used to write a lot in Mitrovica too.
Any particular cajtore in Prishtina?
Anywhere that I haven’t been kicked out of! I like going everywhere. I like changing, sometimes I like to work where it is noisy. Sometimes I work in this kafiq (cafe bar) underneath the library. No one understands why I like it so much. To be honest I don’t understand why I like it so much. I just like places like that.
What do you think of the library?
I love it. I really love it. It feels like a very spiritual place with all the light coming down in the middle of all the different rooms. All of the students are very respectful of each other, and very quiet. It has a very nice atmosphere.
Judging by the press conference that the Kosovar team behind “Home” gave at ABC Cinema last week, it seemed as though you had a lot of support from ordinary Kosovars, as well as a lot of Kosovo institutions like the municipalities and the police…
They weren’t just helping. They made the movie. Literally, they made the movie. I was just one person among many people that made the movie, and all of these people share the success of the film. Everyone gave their heart and time and passion and I think that is what brought success.
That’s why the future of filmmaking in Kosovo is so strong, because you have all of these people who have the love of culture, and love for other human beings. There are people with big hearts and a lot of empathy who want to tell stories. It is a great place for filmmaking. Everyone who comes here loves Kosovo because of the people. It’s the nature of this place.
What about you as a filmmaker? Were there any movies that inspired you to enter the profession?
I didn’t want really to make movies. What I really liked were comics and graffiti. I was dyslexic and I couldn’t read or write very well at all, so I used to draw things. I used to draw stories. I guess it evolved from this desire to tell stories, and to paint portraits of people.
The films initially became portraits in my mind. I was making portraits of people but with film, instead of with painting. I used to paint people and I really liked that interaction. It feels similar to how it is to work with actors.
Do you still draw? When you write scripts?
I do still draw. Sometimes I draw on the side of the script, it helps me to simplify things and communicate in that way. But now I’ve become so much better with using words. I feel I understand words a lot now, compared to before. I had a really good teacher, Fiona Cheese, who taught me how to read and write. She really understood dyslexia and taught me phonetically. I still use drawings, but normally it is the next step after writing the script now.
And what about the people in your films? Many of your characters are non-British characters put in problematic social contexts…
My family is an immigrant family, and the community I come from is made up of people from all over the world. I guess that comes into the work. I think in retrospect I make films about things I feel strongly about, that I have taken issue with. It is my way of personally confronting that issue through a form I know and love, which is film.
Are there other contemporary filmmakers whose work you enjoy?
There are some films that I haven’t seen yet and I really want to see. I feel very privileged to know some amazing people who I admire and respect, and who are making brilliant films. I really love Ryan Coogler, and I want to see Ralitza Petrova’s new film “Godless.” I also really want to see “Moonlight” by Barry Jenkins.
There are a lot of talented people around now, a kind of new generation of filmmakers who are doing something completely fresh and new in cinema. It feels like a really good time to be making films.
Have you seen any Kosovar cinema? What stood out?
I’ve watched many films from Kosovo, more than from anywhere else I think. One of my favorites, actually I would say my favorite film full stop, is “Kthimi” by Blerta Zeqiri. I think this film is really incredible. It really touches me. I’ve seen it maybe five times and every time it really touches me. Adriana Matoshi is just amazing in it, so natural, so brave.
Both of the actors are incredibly brave and open, and the camera really captures something. I just think that it is an incredible piece of cinema. Not just for Kosovo, but for the world it is a great piece of cinema.
And now a group of Kosovars have been onstage in London collecting a BAFTA! How did it feel to accept the award with a Kosovar team behind you?
It made it very beautiful. I think Shpat [Deda] said something similar, but when you share happiness and success it makes it that much stronger. It was really beautiful, and it was really nice to share that success with a team that was so passionate and hardworking.
But, in a way, we are just figureheads. We accepted the award but we received it for everyone who made the film. For all of us that’s really important because very few films are made by one or two people. A film succeeds because of literally everybody who works on it. If you change any one person you will have a different film. This exact combination created this film, and everyone is congratulated with this award. It is an acknowledgement of what everyone has done.
We were trying to tell a story that resonated with audiences and created a discussion. We wanted to provoke a debate about what it means to be from the West. What does racism mean? What is its face in terms of the refugee crisis? We don’t have the answers, but you can create a story that begins the discussion, and begins a debate. For us, that is the most important thing.K
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.