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Shell shock cinema: how a new wave of films from Kosovo is processing the pain of war

Shell shock cinema: how a new wave of films from Kosovo is processing the pain of war

Kosovo's nascent film industry has produced a string of films dealing with the bloody war that tore through the country less than 20 years ago. For many of the people involved in making them, they are a cathartic experience

11 July 2016

“War happens at your doorstep,” is a line that is spoken in a virtual reality world called This War of Mine, created by 11 Bit Studios in 2014. Designed as an “empathy” game, the player moves through a war-torn landscape rendered from the siege of Sarajevo in which the player can hear, see, and feel what it might have been like. When I discovered it recently, it made me think of the small troupe of Kosovar actors who play characters like themselves (or their parents and grandparents) in films dealing with the 1998-99 Kosovo War. Those same actors also play the roles of their (mainly Serbian) oppressors in the Yugoslav National Army. I think about how painful that must be, but also how much catharsis that could provide.

Most of the films produced in Kosovo are presented as fictional accounts, but many of their creators and portrayers really did go through the horrendous experiences played out on screen, or know many people who did. In his book Shell Shock Cinema, Anton Kaes reads Weimar film in the context of the First World War, arguing that it is best understood as a means of psychologically working through the emotional turmoil of witnessing constant death and “unspeakable events”. The same principle can be applied to Kosovar film today. In the ex-Yugoslav lands, the battles took place inside people’s homes and those of their neighbours where there was, more often than not, a mere hair’s breadth between victim and perpetrator.

Kaltrina Krasniqi is a Prishtina-based filmmaker, writer, producer, and editor, who trained in Copenhagen and at UCLA. In her early career, she worked as a fixer on Danish director Birgitte Staermose’s Out of Love, which was shot in Kosovo in 2010. In Staermose’s elegiac short film, children recount personal memories of war while staring straight into the camera. Krasniqi worked with her own protagonists in a similar vein for her 17-minute short, Kanarinët e dine (The Canaries Know) (2014). “I have always been attracted to hybrid film; it simply feels more true to me,” she says. “There are particular topics I’m interested in and then I shape them according to research and endless interviews with people that went through experiences that correspond with the topics I’m interested in. Therefore, often I avoid working with actors; I rather work with people that were faced with similar issues and try to inform my script with what feels true to them.”

Krasniqi is now preparing to shoot her first feature film, Vera e andrron detin (Vera Dreams of the Sea), which will begin principal photography at the beginning of 2017. Written by Doruntina Basha, an award-winning playwright and a childhood friend of Krasniqi’s, it is based on the story of a 60-year-old woman who, like most women of her generation, has lived within the suffocating space between a violent marriage and a society in continuous transition. “Kosovo is a small country with a very complex past and it isn’t just the war. … Everyone here has been affected differently depending where they’ve stood politically,” says Krasniqi. “I feel that internationally we have introduced just a small portion of stories that are ‘hidden’ here.”

Urgent in its tone and timbre, the Albanian language can recount the most heinous things in hypnotising, poetic rhythms. This dichotomy can also be felt in the camerawork of certain films. Isa Qosja’s 2014 feature Tri dritare dhe një varja (Three Windows and a Hanging) is a story of several wartime rapes shamefully kept under wraps by the inhabitants of the small mountain town where they took place. When one of the victims talks to a visiting reporter and decides to reveal what happened to her and other women, she is humiliated and victimised all over again by the men in the village. The framing of cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki’s camera remains static in interior spaces, rendering them claustrophobic; there is no room to breathe. We are trapped, as are the people on the screen.

But in films such as Blerta Zeqiri’s Kthimi (The Return) (2012), a 20-minute portrait of a couple reunified after the war or Visar Morina’s Babai (Daddy) (2015), which follows a young Kosovar boy on the trail of a father who has abandoned him to seek refuge in Germany, the camerawork is unsteady, always catching its breath. The cutting has a brutality and immediacy to it; everything is off-kilter, as reality and waking nightmares converge. Zeqiri, who is currently finishing her first feature, The Marriage, told me: “I feel that the only way to approach any sort of topic is with the utmost respect and humbleness, and then choose the appropriate actors and collaborators that can follow and work with that approach…When I started thinking about making [The Return], I was terrified of not being able to do justice to victims of sexual crime and families of the missing. I felt that if I didn’t do it right, I would only be adding insult to injury.”

Almost everything shot in Kosovo is funded, in part, by Qendra Kinematografike e Kosovës (QKK), the brand for the government-subsidised Kosovo Cinematography Centre. Acting as funder, producer, PR machine, and representative in major film markets such as Cannes and Berlin, QKK went into full swing in the past year to promote Jamie Donoughue’s Shok, which was nominated for Best Short Film (Live Action) at the 2016 Oscars, a first for Kosovo. Donoughue, a British director, producer and writer, discovered the country in 2010 when after the eruption of the volcano in Iceland that year, he was unable to get a flight out again for five weeks, during which time he met the protagonist of his film. “It was personally very difficult to ask cast and crew to be involved in this production as many of them had experienced the war first hand,” Donoughue told me. “However, we felt this was something that could actually be embraced… This is no truer than with the role played by Eshref Durmishi, whose [childhood experience] the film is partly based on. Emotionally, it was difficult, but I believe no one else could play that role more effectively. Eshref also personally felt that it brought a degree of closure to his experience.”

It is mostly the women who carry the heaviest burden since many were gang-raped as de facto casualties of war, and then forced to witness the deaths of their fathers, husbands, and sons. “In Kosovo, there’s a new war every 50 years,” says the main protagonist in Gazmend Bajri and Shkurte Dauti’s 30-minute black-and-white film Ferdonija (2016). Ferdonije Qerkezi, in a luminous performance, recounts the story of losing her husband and all four of their sons in the Kosovo War. Only two of the sons’ remains have been found and were given a proper burial in 2005. This film, more documentary than fiction, portrays the aural and visual testimony of someone recollecting and re-emerging through palimpsests of memory. This successful realisation of cinematic nonfiction is perhaps a sign that a corner has been turned.

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