The baklava that Vera (Teuta Ajdini Jegen) bought for her husband Fatmir’s birthday had to be served to relatives and friends who came to console her after Fatmir’s suicide at the couple’s Prishtina apartment. “When someone dies, it doesn’t mean that his birthday shouldn’t be celebrated,” she says to the guests. A few days later, a cousin of Fatmir, Ahmet (Astrit Kabashi), knocks on Vera’s door again, this time not to console, but to request the ownership of a one-story house in the village, which he claims Fatmir gave to him for his only son.
Vera, like Ahmet, only has one child, a daughter, Sara (Alketa Sylaj).
Sara also has one child, a daughter, Hana (Arona Zyberi).
“The father does not leave a share to the daughter,” the men of the family say to Vera when she goes to the village to protect her property rights.
Through the personal drama of Vera, a sign language interpreter in her 60s, the debut feature film “Vera Dreams of the Sea,” directed by Kaltrina Krasniqi and written by Doruntina Basha, presents the multi-generational struggle of women for economic equality in a post-war society.
The limited dialogue and the soundtrack of string quartet music, composed by Petrit Çeku and Genc Salihu, leaves room for silence, grief, anxiety and tension. The film creates a realistic picture of women’s efforts to oppose patriarchal traditions, to learn about themselves and to understand each other.
“Most of the film crew was made up of women,” said Krasniqi, mentioning screenwriter Basha and director of photography Sevdije Kastrati. “It was intentional. When I start from a feminist perspective, it’s important for me to be understood by the crew.”
The film had its world premiere in September 2021 at the Venice International Film Festival. So far it has traveled to around 15 international festivals in Europe, North and South America and Asia. Among the awards it has won are the Tokyo Grand Prix at the Tokyo International Film Festival and the Silver Alexander in Thessaloniki.
K2.0 talked with Krasniqi about the portrayal of women in film, women’s journeys through the film industry, the new wave of women directors in Kosovo and the sea as metaphor of tranquility and the unknown.
K2.0: The sea is an important visual metaphor in film. It appears throughout the film, initially calm then terribly stirred up. What is the sea for Vera?
Kaltrina Krasniqi: “Vera Dreams of the Sea” is the screenplay of Doruntina Basha and this has always been the title of the film. In 2014, when she gave me the script to read, the first element that shocked me was the title. It awakened a deep feeling of longing.
I read it in two days and for some reason I really related to the main character. At first, I was surprised that she is a woman of a generation we don’t normally encounter in literature, film or theater. The second element was the main character’s highly layered and detailed personality. Through her I could see the society of Kosovo at this moment in time.
It seemed important to me that she is a type of woman that we never see or think about and who, above all, is a sign language interpreter. This is her mother tongue and she also comes from an already silent community. Vera is the voice of that community, but the platforms for expressing that voice are too small.
In the narration, the sea element is shown as an idea of peace, calmness and family. But after her husband’s suicide, the sea turns into anxiety. It seemed interesting to me to think how an old body that so easily dreams of something so beautiful, so peaceful and so familiar, begins to face something so unknown, so foreign, as the sea. And the story takes place in Prishtina, where there is no sea, where the notion of the sea itself is first romantic, and then unknown.
In film, using the sea as a symbol is very old, it’s used a lot, and sometimes, to some, it’s boring. But not for me, because it helped me develop Vera’s conversation with herself, without creating large scenes of dialogue and drama, which, in principle, don’t interest me.
The sea helped me talk about that character from her perspective. That generation is spoken about only within its own circles, but not in art, theater or literature. When you think of women of that generation, globally, if they are already in a play, they always have secondary or tertiary roles and very often are stereotyped. They are used as tools to create certain situations.
“Vera Dreams of the Sea” gives me the complete opposite feeling; I stay close to a generation, which is my mother’s generation. Women have made giant strides in the 20th century, but they have lived in a context where they could not articulate their victories out loud. Every step they have taken has been negotiated directly with tradition.
Still from the movie “Vera Dreams of the Sea.”
It seems Vera still has to negotiate these structures. The impression she leaves is of an independent woman who works, drives, goes to the theater, to the pub, but the moment she claims her property rights, she is discredited by the men around her as “the city woman who doesn’t know anything.”
Yes, Vera seems to have agency, is independent and does not need to negotiate about her space in the society she lives in. But when something dramatic happens, like the suicide of her husband and the appropriation of property by others, she is stripped of her agency because she has then entered territory exclusively designed by and for men.
It has been interesting to look into the way she is rapidly stripped of her agency. I have been surrounded by women who have been very progressive, but each of them at one point or another has found herself in the position where she was asked to negotiate elementary aspects of her life.
The property aspect has allowed me to create a bridge between the present and the past that is not so distant. At these levels, it has been important for me to see how societies coexist with their past and how, in a very perfidious way, tradition continues to be used to exclude women from the economy.
The scene where Vera tells her daughter Sara that she didn’t inherit property either since her father decided to divide the family assets only among the boys, it reminded me of the concept of the feminization of poverty. Historically women have been poorer than men and this poverty is inherited through generations of women. This seemed to me one of the central themes of the film.
In fact, it has been a key theme for me because women historically inherit poverty. Economic independence allows women to be themselves, to discover what they are. If you are economically dependent, you have no space to explore who you are, you can only pass forward models to the next generation that have been predetermined for you. Economic independence lets you imagine yourself.
The film elaborates a nuanced relationship between city and village. The patriarchal system is not only limited to the village society. Can you talk about this dynamic in the film?
I don’t think that patriarchy lives in the village; patriarchy lives everywhere. It has its own mode of operation in specific contexts, but it lives everywhere. It is very important that women all over the world be aware of this. A woman who lives and works in Copenhagen and watches a movie from Kosovo should not feel relieved and say: “Oh what a pity, what happens to these people in small villages and places,” because I’m sure that two steps after leaving the cinema she will be confronted with a form of patriarchy. Therefore, yes, it was very important for me not to localize patriarchy in the village.
To do so, Vera’s silence had to be communicated. Her silence initially made me feel extremely uncomfortable. Then, when I see how women lived at that time, I started to realize that everything I have today, my rebelliousness, it is all a result of how that woman lived.
What I experience as choices were not choices for my mother, grandmother or great-grandmother, who lived in the same century. My great-grandmother was illiterate, my grandmother knew how to write a little, my mother went to college, then my sister and I got graduate degrees [laughs]. These are dramatic social jumps for women.
I think that now, after all these jumps, it is time to create a platform for dialogue between generations of women and other marginalized groups, the LGBTQ community, people of color, everyone. We need to understand why I don’t have the fear that my mother had and why my daughter will not have the fear that I experienced.
Still from the movie “Vera Dreams of the Sea.”
There are some scenes in the film where we see women speaking with each other, like when Sara confronts Vera and accuses her of not being brave enough. Then, there is the moment when the cousin’s wife, Ahmet’s wife, goes to talk to Vera and her position is quite complex — she fails to hold a more principled role in relation to Vera.
She cannot. Women do not have the comfort of having a principled position. It is difficult to be principled if you have been historically oppressed. For me, it was important that Ahmet’s wife not be portrayed as a negative woman. But, at the same time, not to be artificially portrayed as someone who says: “I want to create a platform of solidarity between us.” No, because she has no room to do so. We need to see and understand why this happens. And not close our eyes and judge why you are not in solidarity, why you don’t go out to protest when your cousin is killed. Because she has to return home after that and to return home after that protest, she could be the next victim. And she knows that. She knows how valuable her life is in the community she lives in.
Of course, Ahmet’s wife has her own opinion on the matter. But a part of that consideration is influenced by the unconscious internalization of patriarchy, which as a woman she accepts in order to survive. This internalization is also very important in the film because the main struggle that women storytellers make in the film, all over the world, not only in Kosovo, is the detachment from the male gaze, which has historically seen and interpreted women. Therefore, we have historically suffered from very deficient representations, which have not spoken from the perspective of someone living as a second-class citizen.
Can you talk more about the effort of detaching from the male gaze in the movie?
There have always been women directors who have challenged that order — Chantal Akerman, Agnes Varda, and others — but never enough, as women have historically been excluded from the industry. It has been a male-dominated industry, not only in America but also in Europe.
Let’s take Kosovo as an example. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the first film productions began. Initially, they were produced with the assistance of cinema centers in Zagreb and Belgrade. Then Albanian-language television started in Kosovo. Immediately, the need to create permanent groups of people living here who know the culture and produce for the needs of the community was felt. Therefore, some generations of men have gone to study in Zagreb and Belgrade and they are the main names in Kosovo cinematography until the end of the 1980s. Some of them have continued to produce films, which are typical examples of excluding a perspective — women’s characters are portrayed very shallowly.
Then after the war the Film Department at the University of Prishtina opened up, run by these same men. The biggest surprise for them was the great interest of girls to study film. My colleagues very often tell me such stories, where a professor said to them, “you have a lot of talent, but it is a pity that you are studying acting because tomorrow you will get married and you’re only taking a man’s place, who one day would become a director” [laughs]. We are now in 2022 and in the last 10 years, the most important voices in Kosovo cinematography have been the voices of women.
This will be the generation that paved the way for another kind of storytelling.
Have any of these important voices had such experiences?
Yes, one way or another they tell similar stories. It didn’t happen to me, but I know that my friends have been in situations where someone has given them parental advice to give up this profession because it is not for women. What do those professors think when they see us going to festivals in Cannes, Venice, Sundance. Festivals they could only dream of being invited to.
This period will remain not only in film history, but in Kosovo’s history. Of course, it will be judged for its perspectives, its mistakes, the problems it has. But it will be the generation that paved the way for another kind of storytelling.
How do you think this shift has been achieved, which is being considered as a new wave in the country’s cinematography from past filmmaking models?
Most of these women directors are my age, some a little younger, some a little older, but about 30 to 40 years old. We were teenagers in the ’90s, in a decade that can be fully described with the word dead, during which you could see a society that was disintegrating. Then the war happened and you experienced a society gradually trying to rebuild. When you live so close to the drama or you are its character, things that seemed impossible no longer seem so strange.
In other words, I think that these dramatic historical and political movements that we have experienced, have created a mentality of survival and sustainability. We all started in the academy, [at the University of Prishtina] but then we searched for education and other platforms, which offered the space to understand what your voice is. I think it has a lot to do with Vera’s generation, women who simply didn’t want you to go through what they went through.
So, yes, I think it is a wave. It has all the characteristics that waves have — from noir film, Italian neorealism, etc. Specific political and social movements produce certain cinematic waves. In our country, of course, this wave was expected to happen because women have been silent in art, not only in the film discipline.
Do you see Vera Dreams of the Sea as a feminist movie?
Yes, it is a typical feminist movie. All of the nuances, all the topics that are addressed — and there are a lot — are feminist.
It is interesting how Fatmir’s figure is elaborated in the film. Early in the film he commits suicide, so we get to know more about him through what Vera goes through afterwards. Although he is honored and remembered in society as a good judge, it turns out that he was a gambler, involved in corruption cases and not so progressive when it comes to the property rights of his daughter, Sara. Can we say that he is the personification of a judicial system that constantly makes problematic decisions — sexist and discriminatory against women — which we are witness to in Kosovo?
Yes, his character is the personification of the corrupt values of a system that has existed for, let’s say, 70 years, since World War II, since we have had a judicial system. Kosovar women, as a part of Yugoslavia, in 1941 gained the right to vote, and in 1945 the equal right to property.
It has all been very personal to me, in relation to Vera’s drama. In the 1980s, my parents separated and my mother decided to go through the separation process through litigation because she believed in that system. But after four years in court, she had to give up her fight after being financially devastated.
Although legally she was entitled to the part of the common property, she couldn’t exercise that right due to the delay of the case in the courts. For her, as for her generation, it was the first time she confronted the fact that the judicial system has never really detached from tradition. That system has been totally patrilinear. Even though she had a right to property, the people behind that system did not believe this. The system pushed her to spend all her financial and human energy just to surrender to that battle. And she surrendered after deciding to invest that money in me and my sister [laughs] rather than in a lawyer.
Therefore, the figure of Fatmir has been very interesting. In the film, Vera, a 60-year-old, doesn’t even consider the judicial system as an option. She tries to negotiate her position through tradition because she knows this is how decisions are made.
Still from the movie “Vera Dreams of the Sea.”
One of the most interesting scenes is when Vera decides to publicly confront and discredit her and Fatmir’s friend. She does this in a café of deaf people, where others cannot understand their conversation. Can you talk more about what the process of creating this scene was like?
The main character was always going to be a sign language translator. I knew that the only way to realize such a character is to approach the deaf community. When I lived with my mother, I lived near the Grand Hotel. And in the middle of the square, along what we used to call the “korza,” there was a very small side street, where the center for deaf people was located.
I remember when after their weekly meetings, they would come out in front of the building, at the square and have a very vivid conversation. As a child, if I was walking by, I would sit down and watch them.
While we were developing the script, I started visiting that center. Then they found a woman interpreter for us. I was initially trying to understand the history of the language. I have learned that people who speak sign language in Kosovo and those in Albania, have a lot of trouble communicating with each other. Albania developed its sign language in the context of isolation during Enver Hoxha’s regime, and since Kosovo was part of Yugoslavia, people in Kosovo know how to talk to all the deaf people in the former Yugoslavia.
Deaf people in Kosovo never had visibility. The only period when they started having a little visibility was during the pandemic. But, for example, their war experiences are utterly horrible because there were no information channels for them. Most of the time they have been in an information blackout. Even education has always been very difficult and until very late the percentage of illiteracy in the community of deaf people has been very high.
During visits to the center, I decided that the key confrontation scene should take place there, and after you see the confrontation, you understand what it means to be part of a community that needs to have a center where it feels safe. It seemed to me the most real setting. There, Vera feels at home.
I have a problem with creating artificial heroes. In a film as feminist as “Vera Dreams of the Sea,” there could be a danger of creating artificial motivational scenes, where women are portrayed as having artificial power. I prefer to research and find ways to really present what I think are the possibilities of a character. Yes, people need a moment of Vera’s explosion, which is big, dramatic. But I think this is the maximum she can do.
Vera needed to discredit that friend, because she saw him as a family friend her whole life. However, she needed this to take place in a public space. If they would have been alone, she would not have been secure, if they are in a place where everyone else listens, he is protected, she is not. She is invisible.
We need to show the audience how much work is done in this world without pay, by invisible people.
In many scenes, we see Vera inside her house — in the kitchen, on the balcony, in the living room, where she tries to overcome grief and pain. These scenes reminded me of the work of Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman. Was this focus on the domestic space intentional?
Yes, for me it has been very important to see Vera in her typical environment, as it is an extraordinary indicator of her life. She has a typical house of that generation; furniture that was bought in the ’70s, very carefully preserved, which has always been cleaned by someone, maintaining the very idea of home.
It has been important to see Vera in the space of home life because we need to show the audience how much work is done in this world without pay, by invisible people. In other words, if it were not for all this unpaid work done by women, the existing global economy would not be maintained.
The house is also the space where she confronts her grief. Historically, this is how women have faced grief, while working. But even there, in her most private space, she does not allow herself to explore what her mind and soul are going through.
Still from the movie “Vera Dreams of the Sea.”
The film also deals with urban chaos. Can you talk more about why Vera’s personal drama is set in such a social context?
It would have been artificial to portray a massive bridge or something like that being built somewhere without first creating a visual and social context that supports such an aggressive construction in such a rural landscape. It has also been an important part of the overall drama because if people live in a country that is constantly undergoing urban reconstruction, this reality also speaks to general cultural and social changes. I have been interested in this aggressive reconstruction that, in principle, treats people as collateral damage.
Recently, there have been discussions about whether film should be treated as an important industry in the country. Have you followed this discussion and what steps do you consider should be taken in this regard?
Yes, of course. Some steps are necessary.
The main obstacle is the current law, which is very old. We need a law that is more progressive and more friendly to creators.
Secondly, it is very important to stimulate formal and non-formal education platforms for film, especially in sectors that we lack, for example the sound production sector, etc.
Also, the integrity of the Kosovo Cinema Center (KCC) must be maintained. The project selection process and maintaining the integrity of that process have always been very important. In the last 10 years, all these women directors have won because of the fact that this process has had integrity. Now, some are saying that there were irregularities. In this case, we have the competent bodies that can examine whether irregularities have occurred.
And of course, the budget needs to be increased. In the last 10 years, every year, the KCC has had a budget of just over half a million euros, which is very little, since a movie like “Vera Dreams of the Sea” costs that much. This in some stages becomes frustrating because you spend years during which in addition to working on the script development and the film, you also need to provide the finances in order to finish the film. I don’t think that KCC should cover 100% of the finances because this doesn’t happen anywhere in the world, but it should be more financially supportive so that it shortens the journey and there is more production.
The main problem is the fact that we are facing a time when the development of the cinematic scene is accelerating, and the level of support is not in line with this development. The scene is progressing despite the sabotage. We need to stop this wave of sabotage, start communicating with institutions and understand that the film industry can easily become profitable. In fact, it was strange that the year 2021, the most successful for our scene, is the year that the KCC was attacked the most. We need independent cultural institutions. Despite all the problems and challenges, the KCC has been independent.
You are developing a new script with Doruntina Basha. What stage are you at with the work? Will it be a feminist narrative again?
It took us so long to make “Vera Dreams of the Sea,” the last two years the whole time we have been discussing the new script, which is called “Bleach.” We are looking closely at class dynamics among women, which is rarely discussed.
In 2020 I did an oral history project with women, who are part of the care and housework sector. I was interested in the dynamics between women who are part of this sector and who help women who are not part of this sector, but aspire to other sectors. We are dealing with economic theories so that this dimension is perfectly included. It seemed important to me to analyze how oppressed groups forget to talk to each other. There are various reasons why this happens. One, because the experiences themselves are very traumatic and they don’t want to talk about it. Two, because within that space of oppression, some slightly more favorable positions are created.
Initially I thought it would be a slower process, but I see that for us it was important to have the film’s premiere and now we are fully committed to the new topic.
This article has been edited for length and clarity. The conversation was conducted in Albanian.
Feature Image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.
This article has been produced with the financial support of the “Balkan Trust for Democracy,” a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Balkan Trust for Democracy, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, or its partners.