Blogbox | DokuFest2018

‘Sarabande’: On the universality that can’t be defeated by visa regimes

By - 08.08.2018

Kaltrina Krasniqi’s new film crosses centuries and cultures.

Ávila is a city of walls — raised with both, fear and pride. It is home to some of the most important mystics and saints of the Christian empire. And cops, lots of them.

Located northwest of the Spanish capital Madrid, in the vast autonomous community of Castile and León, the historical city of Ávila was also the city chosen by the Kosovar classical guitarist Petrit Çeku to record his personal take on Johann Sebastian Bach’s unaccompanied Cello Suites.

An essential composition better known for the cello than guitar, it was a Catalan cellist, Pau Casals, who rescued an edition of the scripts from oblivion when he found them while perusing a shop filled with musical scores. He eventually recorded them, decades later, with the Spanish Civil War in the background and his interpretation became, and remains, one of the most memorable accounts of Bach’s suites.

Casals was a vocal Catalan, who after receiving the Peace Medal at the heart of the United Nations in 1971, with his country still under the hands of Franco, delivered the speech “I am a Catalan,” in defence of Catalonia as a peaceful nation.

Whether he’s a fan of Casals or Russian cellist Rostropovich, Çeku is himself a guitarist. In 2014, he decided to record Bach’s Cello Suites, as arranged by Valter Dešpalj, for Eudora Records, a Spanish independent label. To register this moment of his career, Çeku invited along a Kosovar filmmaker and a dear friend, Kaltrina Krasniqi, to witness and document the creative rollercoaster of his enterprise.

The recordings were to be made in the auditorium of the Church of San Francisco, an acoustically perfect space for the sound of a guitar, only a few meters outside of the 11th century walls that protect Ávila’s old town.


Home to the National Police academy, the small city of Ávila receives around 3,000 trainee policemen annually. This setup was to become the scenario for a clandestine filmmaking experience for Krasniqi, who is only in possession of a Kosovar passport — a useless piece of paper for the Spanish authorities, that to date do not recognise Kosovo, to the point of not dispatching visas to Kosovar citizens.

Krasniqi’s film, “Sarabande,” is one filmed while being illegal. But if a guitarist can bring Bach and his universality back from the dead, can the force of a state really stop the force of people moving their whole being across continents?

Sarabande | Trailer from Kaltrina Krasniqi // Works on Vimeo.

While Çeku was in possession of a Croatian passport alongside his Kosovar one and could legally travel to Spain, for Krasniqi the cost of documenting the intimate process of Çeku’s recording involved taking the risks of an illegal journey. Her trip to Spain could have had a number of different, untested consequences: from a passport ban, to time spent in a detention center, to a forced deportation or, at the very least an unwanted early “voluntary” return if things went south. But, if nobody noticed, perhaps two cultures would meet.

Armed with a Schengen visa that clearly stated “–ES” (which means, the visa does not allow you to travel to Spain) the pair departed from Prizren to Zagreb and arrived to Lisbon, Portugal, in November 2014.

After an arrangement with a local Portuguese friend to pick up a rented car and pay for it with a Portuguese credit card, Krasniqi and Çeku drove northeast and arrived at their hotel in Ávila, where Krasniqi lied about having forgotten her passport in the country of fado to avoid any identification. The luxuries of travelling across the EU: no borders, you just drive in.

Filming in these circumstances, Krasniqi tells me, was uncomfortable. Lies and extreme caution became part of the journey, as eager young policemen in uniform are highly present and, being in a world heritage city, licenses to film are mandatory. Requests for documentation were a real possibility, not just a product of the paranoia that clandestinity can cause. Filming in the streets was reduced to early morning and late evening.

Despite these circumstances, the viewer shall notice that “Sarabande” is not a film about clandestinity.

Delicately pieced together with smooth editing and close up camera work by Krasniqi in Spain, shots of Çeku’s native Prizren easily blend with the Iberian peninsula, and a country left to become Europe’s ghetto finds its path to universality in the Spanish church, where Bach’s cello suites are revived through Çeku’s guitar.


Through the film and by witnessing Çeku’s recording, the viewer will also learn some unhidden stories behind the composition: Did Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena Bach, actually co-write or write the pieces?

The controversy surrounding this question has raised fury among scholars for decades, something that, for Krasniqi, is simply a reminder that #TimeIsUp and #MeToo stories, and the similar debates on the imbalanced relations between men and women and gender identities outside the norm have been happening across centuries and cultures, and are as timeless as Bach and the closing of borders or the underlying reality of the saraband itself.

Indeed, the saraband dance, as Krasniqi says, hides an underlying story of superiority within its transformation.

With still unclear origins, the saraband is traced back to a Panamanian poem of the 16th century, and it seems as though Spanish colonists danced it in Central America and brought it from there across the Atlantic. A Spanish Jesuit priest writing about public amusements once described it as “a dance and song so loose in its words and so ugly in its motions that it is enough to excite bad emotions in even very decent people.”

The fast and dynamic dance eventually became slow and contemplative, and the slow court dance would arrive in the hands of Bach in the early 18th century, when he wrote several sarabands as part of his unaccompanied Cello Suites. Sarabands would also be transformed and composed by other geniuses up until the modern age: from the baroque Handel, to the impressionist Claude Debussy, and the avant-gardist Erik Satie.

Talking about the transformation of the dance, especially in its early years, Krasniqi is clear: “It’s a position of superiority that brings that logic into place — where a particular piece of music is taken from one continent to another and this one is much more conservative and feels that if you want this in public it needs to be treated by our own rules…”

Talking with Krasniqi about her journey into Spain, we cannot avoid talking about Catalonia...

Back to Ávila. Çeku’s revival of Bach with guitar and Krasniqi’s interpretation of contemporary problems, from Trump to Catalonia and from Kosovo to Spain, as well as their subtle reflections in “Sarabande,” all bring me back to the cellist who miraculously stumbled upon Bach’s forgotten suites in a scores shop, the Catalan, Casals.

In 1936, when Casals decided to record the suites for the contemporary world to hear, General Francisco Franco was rising up against the Spanish Republic and starting a civil war that was followed by 40 years of ruthless dictatorship. Over this period, all languages and forms of expression outside of Spanish  — and Franco’s fascist line — were repressed, in an attempt to erase them.

They say though, that you can shoot a bullet but you can’t kill an idea.

Spain, which happens to be this writer’s country, has repeatedly rejected recognizing Kosovo and its citizens passports on the basis that it does not recognize unilateral declarations of independence. Talking with Krasniqi about her journey into Spain, we cannot avoid talking about Catalonia, one of Spain’s unquoted (and unfair) reasons to be this tough with Kosovo and its citizens.

But her warnings go beyond recognitions. As a Kosovar, she tells me about how important it is that the people are heard above the voices of politicians and corporations. To this date, and despite having followed the Catalan issue closely, she admits she still hasn’t been able to comprehend what the people want — neither have I — because all debates are blocked, and the elephant remains in the room — obviously now enlarged even further.

"You can close your borders as much as you want, but things will just burst out there and inspire people.”

Kaltrina Krasniqi.

While Krasniqi insists that she did not intend to make a politically loaded film, the context of Ceku’s and Krasniqi’s journey is unavoidable. Edited at the end of 2017, the three years over which Krasniqi worked on the film were also years in which the issue of Catalonia’s independence literally blew up in the faces of citizens.

Today, several politicians and activists are still imprisoned or are in self-imposed exile, accused of crimes including rebellion, sedition, and misuse of public funds (for the purposes of the Catalan independence), facing what may be life in prison. The overall context of Spanish politics is not exactly a field of roses nowadays.

“How do you reconcile the fact that sarabands were domesticated or appropriated in Europe, with the fact that Çeku is now playing them as Bach composed them?” I ask.

“Bach did not really have any other option in such a conservative Europe,” she says, “and the only reason the saraband exists today is because of the classical musicians of the West that were recorded in history and have brought it to the 21st century. Sometimes you’re in that position of superiority, as a society, where you feel that you can take things from other cultures and appropriate them and make them look like you think they should look like… The beauty of it is that today we can talk about it.”

Once out of the country, leaving behind five days of illegality in Ávila, Krasniqi’s feelings were of relief. But another feeling remains with her still from the experience. “You had people coming there wanting to do something quite nice, and if it wasn’t for the Spanish treatment of the guitar, that instrument would never be a part of classical music. You can close your borders as much as you want, but things will just burst out there and inspire people.”

Let it resonate, then.

‘Sarabande’ will be screening in DokuFest’s Balkan Dox competition tonight (Aug. 8) at 20:00, at the Lumbardhi Outdoor cinema in Prizren.

Feature image: Still from “Sarabande.”