One-on-one | Film

Veton Nurkollari: We want to alarm, the situation is alarming

By - 13.08.2022

This year’s Dokufest asked “How to survive?” The answer is difficult.

On the evening of August 4, the wall near the entrance of Prizren’s Kino Lumbardhi transformed. When the ladders were removed and the people who were working there dispersed, all that remained was a painted wall, black with a raised fist. Next to the familiar symbol of the fist, seen at protests around the world was written: Dokufest.

More than anything else, the painting on the wall, completed almost ceremonially, indicates that the International Documentary and Short Film Festival Dokufest is here.

The next day as the paint on the wall dried, Kino Lumbardhi hosted the opening event of the 21st edition of Dokufest. The surge of energy that this festival brings to Prizren every year is accentuated by the volunteers who wear yellow T-shirts with black text as they buzz about like bees around Dokufest’s home, the city of Prizren.

With 109 films competing, this year’s Dokufest was committed to entertaining like never before after two years of isolation and the festival being largely online due to the pandemic. On the waving flags and written throughout the city is the question, “How to survive…?”, which is the theme around which Dokufest’s activities take place this year. This edition includes exhibitions, discussions, workshops and a special program for the little ones, Dokukids.

According to the artistic director of Dokufest, Veton Nurkollari, this year the situation is alarming the crisis of global warming, wars, violence and destruction are severe challenges for the planet. For him, Dokufest is the platform through which they want to communicate this urgency, and above all, the need for mobilization.

Nurkollari has been with Dokufest since Dokufest began. In this conversation with K2.0, as Dokufest was wrapping up, he talked about another successful edition of Dokufest and the festival’s efforts to raise questions about the issues that preoccupy the planet and its inhabitants. Nurkollari also talked about the work of Dokufest, which, despite putting Prizren on the map of cultural and cinematic events, still is not welcomed by support from the city.

K2.0: This year, in contrast to other editions, the topic is posed in the form of a question. For some, it may seem like a fatalistic question, because it does not speak beyond survival. You ask the question: How to survive…?

Veton Nurkollari: I don’t think that it is fatalistic, it is alarmist. Our intention was more to alarm because we think that the situation is alarming. And of course we intend to use the potential and platform of Dokufest, which can influence at least someone, to stop and think about what they are doing, what I need to do in order to survive. If we don’t do this then someday the question will reach a level or moment that will be fatalistic. Now it is alarmist.

I think that many people are not fully aware, or are taking for granted that “it will pass,” “it is just heat.” But we are witnesses to the fact that for at least the last 10 or 20 years it’s been getting hotter and hotter and no one is doing anything about it and if we don’t do something… Now, I don’t know what exactly needs to be done, what I do know is to try and use this thing that we have to ring an alarm. I’m happy to accept someone calling me an alarmist if that brings about something that can change behavior.

We need to change our behavior. A lot of people think that all it takes is a man up there that presses a button and it’s not hot anymore. But, in essence, it depends on many people. It depends on the behavior at home, in society, do you turn off the light when you go to sleep, consume less electricity, and so less electricity needs to be produced. Many things, the war, inflation, all these have worried us and instead of deciding on a topic that is probably not very relevant, we at one point decided, okay, we will decide on something, which we will try to answer.

With your question it seems you are leaving it open to people to decide what it is they need to survive. For example: How to survive… homophobia? People can decide what is the pressing issue they need to overcome and survive.

If you noticed, there are three dots before the question mark. it can be understood in many ways and that was the intention. It’s not like we have the answer. If we had an answer, maybe we would have put something else. Even when we saw the films even the filmmakers are preoccupied, concerned with what is happening, especially the documentary filmmakers.

There are films from the Amazon jungle, from the war in Ukraine small survivals, large survivals, so a certain motif of part of the program is survival, and it came naturally to us to include those. Besides there being some movies out there that are talking about different forms of survival, we as a society, this planet, are in a critical phase of survival. And if it goes on like this, I am sorry to say, things will not be good.

Do you think that the films and the festival in general are managing to really alarm people, especially those who have the power to make more radical changes about the issues that this edition of Dokufest highlights?

I’m not so optimistic that the films and the festival can reach a level that will influence or convince those in power that they need to do something. Maybe, I’m repeating myself, but the goal is for ordinary people that come to the films, debates, lectures, to understand that there is a possibility that they also be part of a circle that can make changes. The changes need to start from us, they cannot be found in the president of the United States, or Russia, or China, or India, and if even they decided to make some [change], then things would not change radically, immediately. It’s not like that.

For river pollution, we are responsible. We shouldn’t throw waste. The president of the United States cannot come and tell Aulonë or Veton “don’t litter.” There is a lot we can do. If we go on a picnic, it’s better not to leave litter there, but yet we do. There are some steps that ordinary people can take in order to benefit and not create harm, because we are harming ourselves.

Dokufest has always been known as a people’s festival. Is this edition an effort to mobilize the people you have around you every day?

The festival is a good platform. There are many ways in which you can convey something, just like you doing interviews, or in debates, lectures, film screenings, or from bringing volunteers, you can convey a certain message about what you stand for, how you see things. We cleaned the river 15 years ago, we had an initiative to clean the river. The river is ours, there is no one who cleans it. Someone can say we need a company to clean it, but that hasn’t happened, so what can you do? There are ways of civic activism that are useful and not so difficult. We often try to do such activism.

Even beyond the festival days?

We have a solar cinema. We promote clean energy with what we do. We do not manufacture solar panels, but we have a cinema with solar panels.

Kosovo is currently hosting many festivals, Manifesta is taking place, Sunny Hill, Anibar. Now Dokufest. How has this large presence of festivals and eventually, the increased presence of the public, affected Dokufest? Has there been interaction between all these festivals or initiatives?

We have been cooperating with Anibar for at least 10 years. They are our friends and cooperate and exchange. But this year, what has happened thanks to Manifesta and Sunny Hill is an increased interest from abroad about Kosovo, so there are curators, people who deal with contemporary art who came for Manifesta and continued to be in Kosovo for several days to visit Dokufest, or even from Sunnyhill I believe. But what we have noticed is an increased interest in the contemporary art scene in Dokufest because a part of our program has some connections, especially with the visual scene, visual art.

So we have a lot of experimental films, exhibitions and artists who are somewhere between visual art and film. I think that they were the reasons why some of the people who came for Manifesta came to Dokufest, but also the people who came to Dokufest went to Manifesta. I know people who have gone from here, at least for half a day or a day, to visit the Manifesta exhibitions.

In the opening speech, it was said that Dokufest is also struggling for survival. I am interested in how the institutions’ support has been this year and in the past and how Dokufest managed to hold on for so long?

I have to repeat it, things I repeat often because I am forced to do so. I must repeat that, unfortunately, the support is not fulfilling or satisfactory. This year is especially disappointing, but we still haven’t made it public that the Ministry of Culture rejected us for administrative reasons and because of technical errors in their software.

We promote this city decently and we find the low level of support we get from the city incomprehensible.

Veton Nurkollari

We have filed a complaint, we are waiting for it to be examined and we hope that it will be examined positively because otherwise it would be an extraordinary scandal. Of course, we are not satisfied with the support from the city and our main concern is insufficient support from the structures of this city, because we give a lot to this city. Prizren is the main beneficiary of Dokufest and not only in economic terms, but also in other aspects of promotion. We bring thousands, thousands of people here, create an environment and atmosphere, which is difficult to recreate. This is something that a city cannot do even if it wants to, even if it invests ten-fold, fifty-fold more than what we get from this city.

We give it a lot and promote it. I and many others think that we promote this city decently and we find it incomprehensible the low level of support we get from the city. We have an understanding with the ministry that they are in the process of digitalization and we have some information that the complaint will be examined, that it is not only Dokufest that has not received support but also other festivals and organizations. Therefore we think that it is a technical problem that can be solved.

But in my personal opinion, events like Dokufest should not be applicants in public calls because Manifesta proved to us that there are opportunities. Manifesta did not apply to any public call. Manifesta received 800,000 euros from the Ministry of Culture, several million from other public funds of Kosovo without any public appeal. We have to prove every time that we are able[to organize a festival.

This year we were rejected because some bureaucrat from the Ministry replied that we did not provide enough evidence that we are capable of organizing the activities. But please, what kind of evidence do we need to offer, how should we prove to the ministry or to this city that we are capable of organizing. Even without the funds of the ministry, we will manage to organize it. We will be at a loss of 100,000 or 150,000 euros, probably, but we held this festival. These are the disappointments.

For the past two years, you have been forced to organize the festival in a hybrid way. Certainly, there are many lessons, but also losses. How did things go this year for Dokufest?

It has been difficult, not only for us, but for the whole society. We have learned a few things. First, we have realized that many things can be done in other forms, which we did not think it could before, because we were not forced to. The invention of Zoom, before the pandemic no one even thought of it, it was a kind of Skype, but no one thought about Zoom and immediately everyone uses Zoom. So we were also forced to learn, or understand how something works beyond Zoom, how to make an accessible online festival, both for this country and beyond.

We learned it quickly, it wasn’t a big problem. Of course, it required a little commitment, but it also taught us some other things, for which we had ideas, but we didn’t have time or we didn’t think them through to the end. We have created an online platform for teachers, for the whole of Kosovo. Even more, we have designed it and it has a lot of films with manuals on how the films can be used in classes, schools outside the curriculum. It gave us enough time [isolation during the pandemic] to build, design and launch and now it’s online, 150 to 200 films are in it and manuals on how to use the films. We have also learned other things, in addition to learning how the festival can be done online, we have managed to completely digitize a platform that is ours and we are working on digitalization or other forms of managing the organization and the festival.

Dokufest has dealt with the issue of the visa regime in Kosovo before, an inevitable topic when thinking about art and people and movement. Other local festivals are integrating this issue into their programming too. 

That problem is a common problem. We have tried to deal with it even by being a little alarmist about the need and we still voice it. I was a speaker three days ago in a panel where I highlighted again the need for liberalization and opportunities especially for young people to travel, because it is a basic need, a basic right. The right to freedom of movement should be inviolable.

Dokufest is a window for people in Kosovo to see the world.

I still have trouble understanding how someone can violate that right, it is such a violation. Austrians or Germans can travel anywhere and in any way. We have difficult obstacles and problems. Those obstacles are then the source of other issues and problems. People are isolated here. They spend all day on Facebook or television, their sources of information and maturity depends on what they see either on Facebook or other sources. They don’t have personal meetings, they don’t have the opportunity to see a museum, to see a work of art somewhere. That’s why there is so much fascination with Manifesta, because people don’t currently get to see anything similar and so it should be brought to Kosovo.

The same is true of Dokufest, it is a window for them to see the world, they meet some people, and it’s a single contact. We can travel to Albania, Montenegro, and North Macedonia or visit the sea in Turkey. Beyond that? Maybe the lucky ones can get a visa and travel. Everyone must have the right to travel. That 15-year-old should go to Finland, or to the Louvre.

Is this being addressed in this year’s films?

No. The problem is now isolated to us. If our filmmakers don’t deal with it, Germans will not come and deal with our freedom of movement because it’s not their problem, the problem is in us and I think we have dealt with it to some extent. There have been films about the lack of free movement since the beginning of Dokufest, it’s not that it hasn’t been dealt with, but the ball is now on Europe’s side.

I don’t know what else we should do to convince them that there is no danger from even two million Kosovars that travel, when there is no danger from, as far as I know, the millions from Colombia, for example. They can come to Europe without visas, but we cannot go to Germany without visas. Absurdity. And I think that this absurdity should end as soon as possible because it is also to the benefit of Europe. Ukrainians can travel to Europe, they had the right to travel even before the war. How many people does Ukraine have? Why are 2 million Kosovars a problem? I still don’t have the answer to that question.

Since Dokufest asked questions that are alarming and urgent, is there any hope of finding any answers to the questions you raise?

I think that some answers, however small, will unfold by the end of the festival because there have been enough and there are enough people perhaps smarter than us who have taken this question seriously, we have had a number of conversations, debates that have touched on this major, existential question.

I don’t know what we are going to do with that question. It’s not that we asked the question in order to get a final answer and for them to tell us “this is the final answer, now this will change everything.” No, the idea was to ask the question and try to get an answer. Yes, a certain constellation of those answers could somehow help many of us. That’s it. This has been the ambition. It is not that we expect a definitive answer, to say that “Dokufest has found an answer.” Maybe the answer doesn’t exist…

This article has been edited for length and clarity. The conversation was conducted in Albanian.


Feature Image: Agon Dana / K2.0.