In-depth | COVID-19

DokuFest goes digital

Behind the scenes of the unusual preparations for the 19th edition of Dokufest.

By - 07.08.2020

Usually at this time of the year, Art Dana, 20, would hurry to the airport in Prishtina to pick up people arriving from all across the globe to experience the most eclectic Documentary and Short Film Festival in the region — DokuFest.

Born and raised in Prizren, Dana has experienced two decades of DokuFest filling his picturesque, cozy city with an exciting atmosphere and refreshing energies. Dana is one of numerous volunteers who normally help the DokuFest organizers so that everything runs smoothly. But this year, he will probably be enjoying the program from his computer screen just like thousands of others. 

This year’s edition carries the name “Transmission,” alluding to the transformation of our times.

Due to uncertainty over the spread of COVID-19, DokuFest adjusted their far-ranging program to the health and safety measurements recommended by the government. DokuFest will take place through the digital sphere this year. It will premier virtually on August 7 with a program running until August 25. 

How does a festival that has operated for two decades organizing physical festivals adjust to the virtual world? What will the audience be excited about and what excitement needs to be postponed till “normal times” return? How do the workers and citizens of Prizren cope with the loss of thousands of visitors who usually boost the economy? Kosovo 2.0 talked to those involved to give you a behind the scenes view. 

First the theme

Choosing the theme of this year’s DokuFest was reactionary, artistic director Veton Nurkollari explains. He adds that DokuFest lives from its carefully curated theme giving the festival its true colors. A theme chosen by the organizers on an annual retreat held after the festival ends each year. The planning for the next festival usually begins immediately after the previous one ends. But this year with the new restrictions taking effect by March, the crew hesitated to make decisions.

This year’s edition carries the name “Transmission,” alluding to the transformation of our times and as simple as it is, it is the main way DokuFest is operating this year, transmitting films onto the screens of its loyal audience. 

This theme also reflects the working atmosphere over the past months, constantly changing and adjusting all the time. Knowing that this year would not be “normal” the organizers initially curated a “hybrid” festival. It would be partly online, with some physical screenings in one of many open air cinemas that Prizren offers. But because of the ban on all cultural activities and gatherings issued on July 19, this became impossible.

There were a number of challenges, but the major challenge was how to transform and transmit a spirit and artistic vision of a program into the virtual sphere.” Nurkollari says. 

Apart from changing the theme, entering the digital sphere also meant reducing the number of films from usually 250 to 150, running a competition in seven categories, all available online from August 7. Every film is available with a rental fee of 2 euros for each one or in special packages with prices ranging from 5 to 7 euros.

“The system runs like it would in physical cinema venues, not all films can be seen at the same time, there will be a schedule, a time slot for when the screenings become available and then they can be streamed for a duration of 30 hours.” DokuFest’s producer Alba Cakalli explains, who adds that there is a maximum of 500 visitor views, so those who want to see a film should buy tickets early.

DokuFest had to figure out how to put their famed festival completely online, artistic director Veton Nurkollari said. Photo by Elmendina Arapi.

Unfamiliar rules, for an unfamiliar set up of a festival. To help navigate the platform the team has created a manual and FAQ section. 

The online platform was created in collaboration with Festival Scope and Shift 27.

This year also features the new competition program “Truth,” that screens investigative journalism documentaries that seek the truth and facts of issues. 

Beyond the films there will also be eight panel sessions called DokuTalks held on Zoom, accessible for free by everyone around the world. Moreover, there will be eight music performances, beginning with the young rapper and singer Rinescane and DJ sets from Berghain Berlin. Programs like DokuTech and DokuKids featuring workshops on technology and programming for children workshops will also happen, but will be moved online.

Unfamiliar rules, for an unfamiliar set up of a festival. To help navigate the platform the team has created a manual and FAQ section. 

The online platform was created in collaboration with Festival Scope and Shift 27.

This year also features the new competition program “Truth,” that screens investigative journalism documentaries that seek the truth and facts of issues. 

Beyond the films there will also be eight panel sessions called DokuTalks held on Zoom, accessible for free by everyone around the world. Moreover, there will be eight music performances, beginning with the young rapper and singer Rinescane and DJ sets from Berghain Berlin. Programs like DokuTech and DokuKids featuring workshops on technology and programming for children workshops will also happen, but will be moved online.

Streaming despite Geoblocking 

The program had to be reduced because of the difficulty of juggling film rights and server providers. Despite initial hesitations, Nurkollari explains that most filmmakers and producers showed solidarity and made compromises in granting their film rights. What proved to be a major challenge however was finding out that Kosovo has no national IP address, making the streaming procedure complicated to handle. 

International filmmakers and producers were shocked when they heard that Kosovo has no IP address. 

“I did not know until now that we were still so isolated … I realized that once again for so many in power our borders are just thin dashed lines.” Nurkollari said.

Who would have thought that Kosovo would become visible in the screening world only because of a pandemic? Dealing with these matters was a completely new experience for the festival organizers.

DokuFest worked with IPKO whose servers are in Albania and Vala who has servers in Montenegro, North Macedonia and parts of Serbia. DokuFest had to negotiate all of this with the participating filmmakers and distributors as well. While some showed solidarity, others have not given them the rights, film is still a business. 

We don’t have the rights to show all the films virtually everywhere, that is impossible.” Dropping films was painful, as the program was chosen carefully over the last year.“ Nurkollari says. 

Cakalli and Nurkollari faced a major challenge in explaining to the international filmmakers an absurd reality that some initially thought was a bad joke. It was challenging to convince them to allow for a screening if Kosovo does not exist in the digital sphere. This has severely impacted the schedule of the films, depending on what distributor has geoblocked what country.

The organizers realized that Kosovo was not recognized at all in the virtual world but still managed to bring 150 films on streaming to Kosovo, Albania, Serbia, Montenegro and North Macedonia. Screenshot from “The Metamorphosis of Birds.”

As a consequence, the 150 films can be seen in Kosovo, Albania, Serbia, Montenegro and North Macedonia. To be responsive to the large Kosovo diaspora audience in Germany and Switzerland, films falling under the category of national films from Kosovo can be streamed in Germany and Switzerland too. 

“For me in terms of artistic direction the major challenge was how to transform and transmit a spirit and artistic vision of a program into the virtual sphere. “I was somehow afraid that it would end up only as a list of films, but I am proud and content with our end result,” Nurkollari said.

The physical world, left behind

Contrary to initial fears a few months ago, the financial impact for the production of the festival was lower than expected for the DokuFest team. Since there was no hosting, travel, and performance expenses involved, the cost of this edition is less than half of what is normally spent.

The whole festival also required less employees than usual, reducing its staff from 80 to 25 people at the Prizren offices. Yet in the long run the organization will face large problems. It is counting on a share of the 5 million euro emergency fund the government promised in April for cultural organizations and has yet to be distributed, Nurkollari worries about the year ahead. 

“When the winter comes, it will be difficult to maintain the team. There are some indications from the government, but it will be a tough year, I know that.” 

The tourism and festivals business is also the second biggest sector affected by the restrictions after small businesses and restaurants. 

Reflecting on the economic consequences to his hometown Prizren, Dana, the volunteer, gets to the core of the downside of an online DokuFest,not only do young people profit from DokuFest, but also older generations who lead small businesses and restaurants … they are financially dependent on the influx of people,” he said.

One of Prizren’s bar and cafe owners is Alban Asllani. His bar Qarshia is a hot spot for many DokuFest visitors meeting for a beer or two or more before moving to the musical performances of DokuNights. For 10 years, Asllani has welcomed hundreds of guests from all around the world: Australia, America and the Kosovar diaspora from across Europe. For Asllani the financial loss is high and will probably not be recoverable.

“There is no doubt that we are lost or in other words bankrupt.” Asllani says.

But what raises his temper more is the lack of support by the authorities who show no commitment to small business. They change working hours regularly and leave small business owners tapping on the uncertainty of the future.

The films can be rented from 2 euros or in packages ranging from 5 to 7 euros. Screenshot from “65 Roses.”

“It is not only that we lack financial support but also moral support,” Asllani said, noting the severe consequences on the mental health of his staff and colleagues. 

Asllani joined a group of gastronomy owners in Prizren, who gathered to pressure the government for supportive measures. Robi Delhysaj is also in this group, he has managed the bar Destill for the past four years.

“During the past two months we had several meetings with restaurant and hospitality owners, where we discussed how we could overcome this crisis and we voiced several demands to the government. Some of them were to revise the conditions for a loan, [provide] rent for at least three months, minimization of the VAT tax to at least 3 percent, postponement of the tax declaration for at least three months and support for electricity and water costs.” Delhysaj says.

As of this writing, neither the municipality of Prizren nor any other public authority has responded. Many restaurants, cafes and pubs in Prizren have running costs with weeks of no profit, making losses every day. “Many do not close yet, despite losses, and accumulating more debts everyday, because they are waiting for the subsidies as promised by the government” Delhysa said, who this year made extra investments in his bar in preparation for DokuFest. 

The COVID-19 measures introduced in mid-March severely impacted Kosovo’s tourism sector, particularly the hospitality and gastronomy sectors.

The Association of Gastronomy conducted a study with the Institute for Free Market Economy (IETL) in April to estimate the impact of the pandemic on the hotel, restaurant and cafeteria businesses (HoReCa) in Kosovo. Their initial findings found that 76% of Hospitality, Restaurant and Catering business in Kosovo would go bankrupt if the COVID-19 situation continued until June. 

In early April, the Ministry of Finance and Transfers (MFT) approved and published the Emergency Fiscal Package including an Operational Plan, foreseeing a partial subsidization of small and medium enterprises, for example, covering salaries. 

No rooms needed

Government assistance has also not reached people like Barije Bytyqi. 

Bajrije Bytyqi lost her husband 14 years ago, a business man in Prizren. It was 12 years ago when she decided out of necessity to renovate and rent out her house close to Shadervan square in the center of Prizren.

DokuFest’s forced movement to the virtual world has left many in Prizren without the income they usually have this time of year. Photo by Elmedina Arapi.

Since then, Bytyqi has lived off the income generated through rent payments by students and tourists visiting Prizren throughout the year. A large contribution was the income from DokuFest’s hospitality organization. DokuFest arranged beds in private houses for thousands of visitors across Prizren’s neighborhoods each year. 

“Of course these 12 days [of DokuFest] were linked to a lot of physical labor, preparing the beds, making everything suitable for international guests, but it contributed to a very huge part of my income, I could live on it for months and survive the fall and winter “ Bytqyi says. Now for months, her two upper floors have been empty. 

Whether DokuFest continues is no longer a question but how it will continue beyond this edition will be unanswerable as long as this pandemic rages forward.

This month, Bytqyi had to ask her brother-in-law to cover her water and electricity costs; a position she feels uncomfortable with but it is the only solution otherwise she would be sitting in a dark house without running water. 

Bytyqi has applied for a widow and orphan pension, but she never received any money from the state. Like many other hospitality owners, Bytyqi is registered on the list of HoReCa businesses. She applied for the HoReCa business assistance fund, expecting to receive at least 100 euros a month. When she went to pick up the money the authorities told her they ran out of budget. Now Bytqyi has no idea how she will survive. 

Thinking of DokuFest beyond entertainment but in terms of an influx of tourism and customers comes to mind only as a second thought for outsiders. A study by the GAP Institute measuring the economic impact of DokuFest has shown that DokuFest on average increases economic activity by over 4.7 million euros per year.

Local businesses in Prizren such as renters and coffee bars profit roughly half a million euros each year because of the festival. Reacting to the dim prospect of no support for DokuFest, Nurkollari only hopes that the government will recognize the importance of the festival culturally but also economically. 

The Festival continues

Whether DokuFest continues is no longer a question but how it will continue beyond this edition will be unanswerable as long as this pandemic rages forward.

“It was the most challenging edition to organize, but we also learned a lot as a team, digging into matters of the digital world, we saw that it is possible to transmit a spirit via the internet” Nurkollari says. He hopes to go back to livening up the city of Prizren with the upcoming edition. 

But while the pandemic may have changed our world in ways that are unimaginable to us even now it has also given all of us the opportunity to invent new ways of doing things and challenged our assumptions. However, there is still a long way to go in making sure everyone benefits in the new world.

Feature image: Elmedina Arapi.