In South Eastern Europe, the Republic of Kosovo continues to struggle with its autonomy, with now seventy-seven UN states recognizing its independence since 2008. Resistance and persistence have shifted its position and shaped its cultural identity within the Balkan region – and recent war has left a mark that shapes most everything.
On July 27th, violence erupted at a Northern Kosovo border point. A number of KosovoSerbian youths set fire to a border crossing in protest against a Kosovo secret police unit instated to control the embargo placed on Serbian goods just days before. The riot resulted in the shooting and killing of an Albanian officer. Down south, in the picturesque town of Prizren, rows of unassuming guests and filmmakers celebrated the documentary form in a country all too familiar with politically motivated violence. Several Kosovar filmmakers and journalists attending the festival were hardly fazed by the shooting, but rather exhausted from the continuing clashes between ethnic Albanians, Kosovo-Serbs and their respective governments. And tensions have been on the rise again recently, bringing UN talks to the table once more. Yet tucked within the lush mountains of Prizren, seated in front of romantic outdoor projection screens beneath the stars, consuming excellent programming and local Peja beer, and witnessing the camaraderie between the cultures of cineastes, it is difficult to imagine anything less than peace.
“To speak about the contemporary aspects of documentary filmmaking in Kosovo is not an easy task,” wrote Veton Nurkollari, artistic director of DokuFest, in an essay for SEEDOX about the documentary situation in Kosovo. After Milošević reduced Kosovo’s autonomy in 1989 and applied oppression to the ethnic Albanian population, Albanian students were excluded from the state-run film school. The Albanian staff of the regional broadcaster, Radiotelevizija Prishtina, also suffered under the oppression, along with the prominent production company Kosovafilm. With documentary production halted altogether – most documentaries having been previously produced through TV and film schools – there was little room to move forward and few options in terms of crew, equipment and facilities. Thus, the demand for docs dissipated. It was not until after the Kosovo War in 1999 that film schools were ignited again. In 2000, the Department of Film Directing at the University of Prishtina was re-launched, while other private film schools sprung up in the capital and in Prizren. Kosovafilm also took another swing, along with a number of other independently run production companies forming between 2001 and 2004.
«until only a few years ago, no film funds existed in Kosovo»
Though having come a long way, Veton Nurkollari attributes the main problem to the lack of a clearly defined funding policy in his country. Until only a few years ago, no film funds existed in Kosovo. Even now, there is a tendency among the funds that do exist – like the Ministry of Culture – to bypass docs and shorts, instead gunning for a ‘feature hit’ that will put them on the map. So the majority of documentaries in post-war Kosovo are largely produced independently, with little support from national institutions or TV stations. In the past, NGOs such as UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund) and UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) have, however, made up for a great deal of documentary production, particularly following the war when they commissioned films for their campaigning needs. Along with production, the NGOs have also offered workshops for regional filmmakers to instruct them on shooting techniques and story development.
After the war, standard Kosovar documentaries typically took the shape of what Nurkollari calls, “homemade movies: amateur war movies, movies about martyrs, and reportage-style documentaries.” When Nurkollari and his colleagues first began DokuFest, these were the only films they could acquire. “Because there was no film school, there was no real film production, not even student films,” says Nurkollari. Bringing it back to basics, Nurkollari puts it simply: “We started DokuFest because we wanted the cinema back.” Before the war, Prizren had three cinemas, which gradually deteriorated from more mainstream films to afternoon porn shows, until ceasing altogether. The initial idea behind DokuFest was humble: organize a few local screenings, a mini-festival of sorts, to get the community excited about movies again. In no way did they expect it to transform into the international cinema summit it is today. With so much involvement from Serbia, Kosovo and the rest of the Balkans, I felt this sort of obligation to bring to our audience what is being made and produced in these countries.”
Four years after the war, Nurkollari and his fellow organizers made a crucial decision: to screen the first Serbian documentary at DokuFest. The film, Mrtvi Putuju directed by Vladimir Jesic, follows a truck from Prizren that carried 60 dead bodies into Serbia and disposed of them in a lake, truck and all. “I felt that these kind of stories need to be shown here. That’s when the idea came to start the Balkan section, which we introduced by the fourth or fifth edition and it’s slowly became the main section of the festival,” says Nurkollari. “The other filmmakers from the Balkans are also in a similar position. They too are searching for some kind of truth about what happened.” In 2004, Boris Mitic’s film Pretty Dyana was awarded Best Balkan Film at DokuFest. Critics and journalists at the time scoffed at the win by a Serbian director. Nurkollari admits the festival took some abuse for the decision, but in retrospect, “I think we have overcome that kind of fear now,” he says. “I like to provoke a bit, but only if it brings some positive reaction.”
Though Nurkollari refrains from using the word ‘trend’ to summarize a Kosovar documentary aesthetic, he does see a great many filmmakers transpose the outcome of the war through social stories and portraits, such as Shota Bukoshi’s short documentary Two Love Stories, which visits two Roma couples at the margins and in the midst of Kosovar society. The film won the Best Short Documentary at Viennale 2008 and a Special Mention at DokuFest 2009. Sami Mustafa’s documentary One Sun One Nation also follows Kosovar Romas, this time through the youth culture of Plementina, a camp that provides emergency accommodation to some 1,300 displaced people from minority groups in Kosovo.
«one can say that politics influence[s] everything in kosovo. the subjects of documentaries have been no exception,»Veton Nurkollariv
“I think there was some small trend of glorifying warriors or people who were in any way involved with war. I think it’s a normal thing in a post-war country. We have seen films about generals, heroes and post-mortem portraits, though not really creatively done. Because TV doesn’t show good documentaries – and the only place you can see a quality documentary is at DokuFest – I believe it will take a couple more years before the TV stations get on board and the whole structure starts to somehow change.” Nurkollari cites a few examples of Kosovar filmmakers who do, in fact, follow the pure documentary form, such as Antoneta Kastrati and her American-born husband, Casey Cooper Johnson, who continue to be the most prominent and productive filmmakers working in Kosovo over the past 10 years. Their film Kingdom of Coal, about the fifth largest lignite deposit on the planet, located in Kosovo, won the Green DOX prize this year at DokuFest. Their 2007 documentary, Weddings and Diapers, which follows four Kosovar couples and how they deal with life, leisure and parenthood, is one of the most awarded and internationally screened Kosovar documentaries of all time. Kosovo has also given rise to a number of filmmakers who mix genres between narrative, documentary and experimental. Probably the most well known is Yll Çitaku, a graduate of the Academy of Arts in Prishtina. Co-founder of the media arts company Koperativa in Prishtina, Çitaku’s films have screened at past editions of DokuFest – his short Should I Stay or Should I Go won first prize at DokuFest in 2001 – and several other European film festivals.
Though Nurkollari admits that these days he is looking in a more experimental direction, he’s hesitant to define what constitutes experimental: “I feel that it’s important, after 10 years, to start exploring different forms of filmmaking. It’s for the benefit of our audience and especially the young filmmakers, because they don’t get to see them. At the school they don’t teach this. Again, it’s somehow the obligation of us at the festival to introduce new forms and new ways of filmmaking.” This year’s UnorthoDOX section was an example of genre-bending, with selections like Putty Hill by Matt Porterfield, The Arbor by Clio Barnard and Son of God by Khavn De La Cruz and Michael Noer. Perhaps the only upside of conflict is the attention it draws to Kosovo. With a status that is in constant flux, Kosovo offers stories with immediacy and a potential to proliferate across borders. Looking at the films produced in the recent past, one can see how the collective history serves its very young tradition of documenting. And watching exactly how that history is remembered and recorded makes the evolution of Kosovo’s film culture worth waiting for.