In-depth | Film

Kosovo’s new generation of filmmakers have their say

Directors from DokuFest’s National Competition talk film.

This year, DokuFest went AI. Visitors at the August 4 opening of the yearly film festival were welcomed with a theme song written entirely by ChatGPT. But will AI ever be able to replace the creativity of young artists?

Every year DokuFest brings dozens of films from all over the world to Kosovo, experimental and commercial, historical and cutting edge, documentary or fictional. A central feature across the years has been the featuring of Balkan films and Kosovar films for local and international audiences.

This year’s National Competition features 13 Albanian filmmakers from Kosovo, Albania, North Macedonia and the diaspora. The films cover migration, diaspora, urban development, gender justice and the environment.

K2.0 spoke with seven of the filmmakers in this year’s National Competition, focusing on directors or films connected to Kosovo. 

These young and early-career filmmakers are carving out a space for themselves despite funding challenges, lack of equipment, and woes about distribution. Though some of the directors have had premieres or screenings at film festivals across Europe, all the directors felt a special emotion about sharing their work with a local audience in the global yet intimate environment of DokuFest.

But without local or international funding, which only some manage to access, young directors are forced to get creative about pursuing their artistic goals. Faced with what one director laughingly called “catastrophic” conditions for filmmaking in Kosovo, a do-it-yourself persistence and an unquenchable passion defines many of the artists creating film in and about Kosovo today.

The conversations have been edited for length and clarity.

Film screen from “Prishtinë, 2002”

Trëndelinë Halili

Director of “Prishtinë, 2002

The film is about the friendship between two teenagers. It is a story about memory, both collective and personal. It’s a linear film, there’s no big dramatic twist. The narrative is more or less based on real events, and I can say that it is more of a subjective realistic style.

The film has a lot of elements in the background, elements from the environment where the characters’ friendship formed. It is 2002, a post-war environment and as kids in that period, the streets were our entertainment. There were many abandoned houses where children found a place to play and have fun. 

I got inspiration from a K2.0 article about Skender Boshnjaku. His book has photos of aggressive Serbian graffiti from across Kosovo and it triggered an idea to show how we as children played in those places, in our neighborhoods, our whole life was in those spaces, encountering aggressive messages that we maybe did not understand, but which I’m convinced remained in our memory.

I wrote to all my former classmates from elementary school to send me pictures from that time. When I was a little girl, I was a bit distant and introverted, I didn’t participate in school photos, I don’t have any school photos. I texted everyone and asked them to send me primary school photos because I want to see the style, I want to see everything, I want to go back in time.

Then I searched television archives. I wanted to see the architecture of Prishtina. I had it in my mind but I had kind of forgotten it. I was amazed to see the forms of urban life created in Prishtina immediately after the war. Then I searched for all the graffiti. One of the items people remembered from that time were the scrapbooks kids and teens were making.

They inspired the name “Prishtina, 2002.” It’s a diary, in a way, because that’s how we perserved our memory back then. 

It was a challenge to create the film because Prishtina has undergone a terrible transformation, and very few places have remained from that time. 

As for the Serbian graffiti, of course they have been covered, so we had to recreate it. We got permission from the police, but something interesting happened. In Ulpiana, a woman was worried about the graffiti, she didn’t know what was going on. One day before filming, we painted the walls with things like “Srbija do Tokija” and some of the heaviest things that chetniks would say. The next day that lady painted it all white. 

The police had to intervene in the end, to help her realize that we were just doing a film. There I realized how many traces the war has left. I started thinking that we directed hate speech at each other as children, it wasn’t just Serbs directing things at Albanians. One of the elements of the film is that behaviors are transmitted through children and we are not careful about what we are passing down or inheriting.

I think that when the movie is screened in Kosovo people will reflect on it more. It was screened in other places, for example the premiere was at Clermont, and I have the impression that in those places Kosovo, the war and the post-war are exoticized and that they may have prejudiced ideas. I wonder how much they can reflect on that. I do the movie. I don’t anticipate how the audience will feel, let everyone feel how they want, but from the feedback I had, to me it looked like they exoticize a bit.

It is a catastrophe to make films in Kosovo. We had support from the Kosovo Cinematography Center and a little from the Municipality of Prishtina. I was used to student films that I made myself, and this looked like luxury to me. 

The problem is distribution and promotion. To make the film is one thing, but the movie cannot see success if you don’t promote it. No matter how good your movie is, I feel sorry for the people who have done very good movies, but they didn’t reach a lot of people because of the promotion. 

People who work in the movie industry have other jobs in order to live well.

Film screen from “The Future is Better, Comrade”

Blerta Haziraj

Director of “The Future is Better, Comrade”

I am a researcher and filmmaker from a small town called Runik. 

I produced my most recent film for an exhibition at the Autostrada Biennale. The exhibition features research about the Women’s Antifascist Front, which was a Yugoslav movement which in Kosovo functioned in certain respects like an alternative school.

My research focuses on books women workers wrote during the period of socialist Yugoslavia. In the pazar once I randomly found a book published in Gjilan in 1981 by a group of women textile factory workers and it made me think that there must be more like it. I started going to the National Library, where I saw mention of Buletini and Agimi. These were the first Albanian-language journals published by the Women’ Antifascist Front. I thought, wow, I need to find these.

Seeing this political organization that was active around 11 years in the late 1940s and early 1950s, what fascinated me while I was reading Buletini were the reports covering what women were doing in the cities and in the villages. 

There are these statistics about women being involved in public life for the first time in Kosovo. Women spending X number of hours building the railways. X number of women joined some cooperative. We don’t have this kind of information today, we don’t see what is happening with women in villages. 

I really wanted to meet women who live in the village and see what they are doing, what their lives and dreams are, to do a film project. The only way I could see what is happening was to go there.

The first film I made a couple years ago, a short called “How I failed filming male gaze.” I made it through Kino Armata’s Neo_School program. Even though I feel like I still don’t know filmmaking, Kino Armata and Neo_School have given me a lot of space to explore.

Growing up In my village, me and my friends always were followed by this grumpy man who stared at us. I wanted to use the camera to play with this male gaze. I went to my village and the idea was I would make a simple film on the topic that featured two pairs of girls walking through town.

I wanted the camera to play the role of this male gaze, but then I went to my village and I started to shoot, all the men of the village, the ones who once terrified me, were now interacting with me. 

I realized that as a woman, it was the camera that was giving me power. In the editing room I saw that this experience of having men look at you with the male gaze is something very internal, something that’s hard to document and capture with a camera. Once I was the prey, but now behind the camera it was different.

For “The Future is Better, Comrade,” I only had the camera with me. I was just going to a village, stopping the car, taking the camera and knocking on doors.

Most of these women have either finished fourth grade or eighth grade of school, and most of them are illiterate. I’d sit with them and they offer me a coffee and then we talk. One thing they always talked about was school, how they wanted more, about why they couldn’t finish school. It was about the abandoned dreams that they had.

One of the women says at the end of the film, “I learned the alphabet by myself on the internet. I learned it recently.” 

“I had a strong will,” she says. It’s the same woman who in the end tells me to never stop reading and writing. It was a message to all girls. It’s such a universal message but it’s just me there in the kitchen. 

Don’t ever ever stop.

Nowadays there is a loss of visual poetics. Films have great sound. I would love my film to have a better sound. But my film shows how the film itself was made. I didn’t have the proper conditions. I didn’t have proper equipment. If I had, it would have been great.

I don’t think there’s a moment when you’re making a film that you’re like, I am ready to do this. That’s why only the first film I did had the proper shooting with the help of Neo_School. These other two films I’ve done, I just borrowed a camera and got to it. 

There’s never a right moment to wait for the conditions to be met for making a film. It’s a matter of, “I have to do it.” And I want to do it so bad. 

Film screen from “I kemi varros baballarët”

Hekuran Isufi

Director of “I kemi varros baballarët

I came to France when I was eight. In 2018 I started studying at CinéFabrique. In my last year of studies, I had the opportunity to work on a movie and I wanted to make a movie in Kosovo because I had a story to tell. I am very connected to Kosovo; my cultural baggage comes from Kosovo. I wanted to speak about migration, about how after coming to France, going back to Kosovo is not the same anymore, because I am not from there anymore. 

The movie is about Dardan, who, before going to France, wants to see his father’s grave, but his nephew does not want to go, because there is something, I am not going to spoil it, but there is something that happened and he doesn’t want to tell Dardan. The movie speaks about migration, how migration separated these two nephews, how now their lives are different — one is in France wanting to be in Kosovo and the other is in Kosovo, but does not know his nephew anymore.

The film is very personal. The whole story is not true, but it connects to the fact that I too separated from my family. It is difficult to make a movie that is more personal to me than this one. 

A more recent film I made is not as personal and it was much easier for me to edit and to watch it. This movie is more difficult for me. Sometimes it feels like I do not have the courage to watch it. It is not embarrassment, it is like, being afraid about what I told. 

I go to Kosovo almost every year, to create links with my family, with my country. This made it easier to go and make a film there. It was also great to make a film there because I got to be with my family and have them be part of the movie. There is a scene where all my family is in the film. 

When the nephew gives some wood to the father — he is in fact my real father and then there is a scene in the living room where a family is seen — that is my real family, my uncle, my nephews, my aunts and my mom.

It was the most difficult scene I made. Not because it was difficult to have them play in the film, but it is difficult to make a very personal film with your family, because you expose yourself a lot. In the end, they had fun, they acted very well. They had fun because they met my friends from France, friends whom they did not have the opportunity to meet earlier. It was also a good way to tell them what I do in France, what my job is and what my life looks like. And now I am even happier that it is being screened in Kosovo, at DokuFest. 

DokuFest is distinctive because it is in Kosovo and it means the film is returning to its place. I made the film in Kosovo, it went to festivals in France but what I wanted the most was that my film return to Kosovo and here it’s returned to the best festival. I was happier when it was selected for DokuFest than I was for Clermont, which is one the most well known festivals after Cannes in France. Of course I was very happy to be in Clermont, but when it was selected for Dokufest I was happier, because I knew I’d go there with my family and I knew it returned to its place.

As for the theme, AI scares me a lot. It will steal my job. I hope it helps us in cinema, but I am more scared of it. When I want to write something, I have an emotion and I want to write something… so in this sense it is good because I don’t think it will be quite easy for AI to steal my job because it doesn’t have my emotion, it doesn’t know what I went through. 

Film screen from “Concrete Couriers”

Vesa Shahini 

Director of “Concrete Couriers”

I’d say that as human beings we are so prone to adapting to changes. Because this adaptation comes easily to us, sometimes we take these changes as normal, regardless of whether they are good or bad. Because of this, these changes go to our subconscious, meaning that we are not even aware of these changes or these realities we face daily. 

With my film, which tackles urban chaos in Prishtina, I want to bring this issue to our consciousness. I want to bring to our consciousness this chaos that we’ve been presented with without everyone’s approval. It is something we deal with everyday, something that is ugly and impacts our psyche. It is something we see daily, we face it, but we do not deal with it. Through the film, I simply wanted to highlight this, to say that this is not normal even if it has been normalized. 

Through the footage and sound design I wanted to recreate the feeling of discomfort we have during our daily confrontation with these buildings.

As a sociologist, I always wanted to use film as a medium, but what gave me the courage and confidence to enter this field without prior experience were two workshops, one held by DokuFest in 2022 and the other through Kino ARMATA, a program called Neo_School

I think that the best directors are those that don’t necessarily come from a filmmaking background, but those who bring to film their field of expertise from another area.

Prior to shooting, you have an idea of what the film will look like, but without being in the field, without taking the footage you don’t know which elements will come together. My team was really great and our cooperation was perfect. One of the difficulties was time, as we only had one day to shoot the film, but this also made it beautiful, because despite the difficulty we made it.

I am overjoyed to have been selected for DokuFest. I am grateful that my work is being valued, particularly as I am at the beginning of my career. There is also this discomfort, because you always have a critical eye towards yourself, but still, the feeling is good. 

As for this year’s theme, there is a lot of discussion that AI will steal people’s jobs and that the magic of creativity won’t be the same as before. I think that AI is unavoidable during our evolution as humans, always seeking to improve, always seeking more. We can use it as a tool, but in movies, specifically documentaries, for those that truly want to do what documentaries do — portray reality — I don’t think AI can intervene a lot. For as long as you are the one with the camera, you have the footage, you have the story you want to tell.

There is a lot of material in Kosovo, a lot of unsaid, unspoken, untackled issues. I think Kosovo is an ideal place to develop as a filmmaker interested in social issues. 

Film screen from “Hana e Re”

Jehona Berisha

Director of “Hana e Re

“Hana e Re” deals with a woman’s situation that a man cannot experience. The pressure of social expectations and the difficult decisions a woman has to make when life takes unexpected turns is too great.

Not only are the characters in my film women, I tried to build a crew that consisted of women. I really needed the girls to feel comfortable, the actresses. I felt very good and I have never worked harder, with more will and life, than those four days and I don’t believe that any film crew in Kosovo had more women on the team.

I put effort in because I didn’t want to treat them only as characters. The actresses chose their own character. I had four actresses on the set, four characters, and I said to them, here is the script, read it, and then come and tell me which one you choose. 

Each actress came to me and they each wanted a different character. I was surprised because I expected everyone to want to play Hana, the main character. Though Hana is the main character, this movie could not have been made if it wasn’t for the three other characters, because they give life and meaning to what I wanted to say.

I don’t go and tell the actor/actress, look, this is what I wrote and this is your character, you have to play it. 

I really want the actor to give life to the character in their own way. No matter how much I explain what I want to show or what I want to express, it is very difficult for the actor because they have not seen it. That’s why I really want him or her to add their experience to the character. I usually have a character profile, I take the character and write down the name, how old their parents are and when they were born, if he/she is the first or second child, what they enjoy doing, and like, what would they do if they won 1 million euros.

There are some questions that I ask my character, and then when I give it to the actor, I ask them what they would do, not me. 

The film has an open ending. Hana is confronted with a big decision. Whatever decision she makes is neither right nor wrong. There is no good or bad. The public does not know exactly. When the film ends, everyone in the audience has to make their own decision. I didn’t want to determine Hana’s decision because I am different from her and I didn’t want to dictate what is good for my character because I cannot decide for her. But for Hana, every decision she makes is her own.

As for this year’s DokuFest theme, AI, I think that I am a bit hazy personally, because while it has its good things, there are also negatives. Work may start to lose originality, individuality, the human element, and these I would not like to lose. 

In cinematography I stick to the emotional because I think that no one except an actor, a face, a close-up can show the emotion and I think that for me it is the only thing that draws you to a movie, from the beginning to the end. No matter how beautiful every frame of an AI film is, you still need to connect with a story, with something that keeps you tied to the screen. 

Film screen from “Mut me lule”

Mona Rizaj 

Director of “Mut me lule

I was born and raised in Austria, Vienna and my dad is from Kosovo from the Deçan region. I studied fine arts in Hamburg and now I’m back in Vienna studying critical studies. This is the first film I’ve done. Before I studied time-based media but I was doing installation and sound pieces.

I was thinking about doing something with my family and about the history of my dad and my mom and how they met, all from the perspective of my grandparents. The film focuses on my grandma on my mom’s side, who was living in a small village in Austria, and my grandpa on my dad’s side, who lives in a small village in Kosovo. The villages are similar in some ways, but not in others.

The title of the film is “Mut me lule,” which you could translate as “Shit with a flower,” but implies a flower growing from shit. My dad taught me the phrase and told me the meaning is that if something bad happens, something good can grow from it.

Through the film you get to know my grandparents from my mom’s side and dad’s side, who have never met each other. Everyone’s always so surprised to hear that, but for me it is totally normal that they have never met. They’ve never really tried to get to know each other actually. 

My grandma, in Austria, she’s a person who was never going out, never seeing stuff. Always behind the walls of her house. Always working, working, working. I was talking to her a few weeks ago about the 32 hour work week that is being discussed in Austria, and she was like, “Hey, this is too little. Why would they do that? What will people do with their time?”

And I’m like, “Having a good time? Doing something nice? Having hobbies?” 

And she’s like, “No, I don’t understand.” She’s a person who, we would say in German, is always “pulling everything out of her nose.” It was hard to get her to open up for the film. With my grandfather in Kosovo it’s different, maybe because he’s male. When I asked him something, he couldn’t stop talking. 

For this film I wrote a proposal to get graduate funding from my university. I put down all of my thoughts on paper and came up with the application. Eventually I had to present the idea to this panel of rich older people who were donors, to give this five minute pitch and it was really awkward.

I ended up getting the funding, 5,000 euros, which was really a lot for me. I tried to really do something with it and to try to always pay people when they helped me with this project. There were not so many people involved in this project. It was just me and Zacharias, my partner, shooting it. 

It’s really amazing to have a film here at DokuFest. I’m really proud and emotional. Every time when I’m in Kosovo, I’m coming here to DokuFest. It’s really nice to see the Balkan films and the Kosovar films, and to see different positions. And also to see films that are willing to be critical of the history of Kosovo and history of the Balkans, it’s really necessary.

Film screen from “we were, however, able to see the construction”

Visar Berisha 

Director of “we were, however, able to see the construction

I was born in Janjevo, Kosovo and emigrated with my family to a small town in Sweden in the 1990s. We returned after the war every summer. So obviously, I have this close connection to the village and to Kosovo. 

Education wise, I’m an engineer. Filmmaking, it’s really not my profession. I work for the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency through a bilateral project with our Kosovar counterpart at the Ministry of the Environment. I’ve been based in Kosovo for a year and a half now.  

The idea for the film came out of frustration, I think, because I returned to Janjevo one summer and I found they had made this big wall lining the river that goes through town.

My father always used to call it a river but for me it is just a creek, though when it rains it can get quite big. But anyway, I returned one summer and I saw these gigantic walls lining the river, concrete walls that were very, very ugly.

So for me, it was just like, what has happened here? It’s not right. I tried to call around, I wanted some answers, some accountability about who had made this decision, why they made this structure. I couldn’t get through to anyone; no one responded to my emails or calls.

One option I had was to go to the Municipality and start demanding answers, but that’s not really my personality. So I was like, you know what, I’m gonna make a film. My intention was never to be in any festival or anything, it was just fun for me to just make this thing. 

I started filming the river, walking along it, and just seeing this big, concrete construction go through the village looking quite out of place. 

Then I decided to put narration over the footage, how I feel and so on. So I wrote a text one evening, kind of a semi-poetic text, and I thought it was quite nice. I talk about the non-responsiveness from the municipality, what it’s like as a citizen to not be able to get through to the authorities and ask them and get some assistance. As a Swede, it comes naturally to me that I can ask and that somebody will answer.

I talk about a lack of functioning in Kosovar society, but then the film turns, it becomes something else. It became sort of this personal relationship that I have to the river, through my father’s stories about it. In the end there’s this turn towards this realization that there is no real culprit, no real reason or answer. And underlying the film is the love I have for Janjevo and Kosovo.

It means a lot to me to have the film here in DokuFest. It’s my first film and my first festival. And to do it all in Kosovo adds to this feeling. I made the film for myself. I think there’s room now to tell stories that go beyond the war, to tell other stories. There are other serious issues.

I think we need Kosovar films and Albanian films that are not strictly about things that hurt. That’s kind of the Kosovar Albanian traditional storytelling, maybe also across the Balkans, to focus on difficult and heavy stories. But then you have life here which is quite often easygoing, and very happy in some regards. And that’s interesting to me too.

Feature image: K2.0.

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  • 24 Aug 2023 - 08:57 | Flakrona Rexhepi:

    La ringraziamo per il suo commento. Per quanto concerne la proiezione dei film, le consigliamo di contattare direttamente i registi. Sul sito di Dokufest, il cui link trova all’interno del nostro articolo, trova una sezione dedicata alla descrizione di ciascuna pellicola che include i contatti del/la regista.

  • 12 Aug 2023 - 22:16 | Guido:

    Tutti lavori molto interessanti e di grande effetto. Sarebbe piacevole proiettarli in Italia, o c'è la possibilità di vederli in rete? Guido Zentile - Vicenza - Italy