Situated in the heart of Europe, yet locked into an astonishingly lonely existence, Kosovo remains unknown for many. At times, there is depressing news from the country such as the occasional shootings between Serbs and Albanians, staggering unemployment rates exceeding 50% or corruption. This only reaffirms the not-yet-healed image that Kosovo has carved into the psyche of the international community.
Despite the gloom, however, there is one bright spot that has almost single-handedly succeeded in dispelling some of the pessimism that shadows the country: Dokufest. Kosovo’s most prominent event and an internationally acclaimed documentary and short film festival, Dokufest has, in just eleven years, developed into an inspiring model for the documentary world. The festival has a holistic approach towards what constitutes a festival experience that goes far beyond the mandate of strong programming. Indeed, it provides a stunning example of what documentary can accomplish in terms of bringing healing to a society, holding up a mirror to its people, and putting a country on the map.
“We still don’t have a functioning cinema.”
With its genesis in the aftermath of the Kosovo War (1998-99), Dokufest arrived at a time of recovery with a very simple idea: to resurrect the cinema heritage of Prizren. Despite being Kosovo’s second biggest city and a cultural capital that had survived relatively unscathed over the centuries, Prizren had been unable to enjoy a renaissance of its film culture after the war due to neglect by government authorities, who had deprived the city of cinema.
Asked about his own part in the Kosovo War, Veton, who finds it crucial to confront history, responds: “What did I do in the war? I didn’t fight. I had no chance. But I worked in a refugee camp with children. I was trying to be of any kind of use.”
“It’s so easy to be useless in a war because you don’t know what to do. I was able to cross to Macedonia, stayed with relatives, and since I couldn’t imagine being of no use, I sought help from my relatives to get me into the refugee camp in Macedonia. When the war was over, I entered the city the day the NATO troops entered; I came with the first convoy,” he explains, “the horror of war motivates me to do whatever I can do so that I don’t witness war anymore. One of the worst things you experience is war. People become crazy. I could do anything to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
“Would I ever use a gun if I have to? I don’t want to use a gun. As long as I can use cultural tools I would use them. But you ask me if I would take a gun and protect; yes… I’ve been in situations where I wished I had a gun to be able to protect myself,” he says.
Still, cinema can be a more powerful weapon than mere guns, and it is to cinema that Veton turns as a tool to ensure that he never has to witness war again: “Cinema is one of the most powerful mediums.”
The absence of year-round cinema in Prizren prompted a group of photographers and documentary filmmakers to launch a film festival. Artistic Director, Veton Nurkolları, born and raised in Prizren and one of the founders, explains how the festival came into being:
“We started very simply, I should say naively. We believed in the idea of bringing back the cinema to the city through a series of film screenings. If it wasn’t for Kino Lumbardhi, which I consider a heritage, I’m sure we would never have started the festival. We were emotionally attached to this specific space and the love for cinema that it nurtured. We started with a small number of films from Kosovo and the region, and called it a festival.
Without any previous film festival experience, the team struggled to chart an effective course for their brainchild. Veton remembers those early days vividly:
The first thing we learned was to have a catalog. Then came a website and we eventually started going to festivals. At the beginning, we didn’t know much about programming, so we hired a selector, our first programmer I should say, from national TV since we didn’t trust ourselves.”
After the second year, Veton had gained more confidence in programming and started working towards structuring the selection. From 32 films in 2001, the festival has grown to screen 171 films from 40 countries in 2012, in 20 different programmes including six competitions.
Dokufest began from humble beginnings, with the founders mostly paying from their own pockets:
“The government didn’t even consider our application first, suspecting our intentions”, Veton explains.
However, the team soon managed to overcome government suspicion. There was a realisation that the festival offered massive potential vis-à-vis the youth as well as the publicity resulting from the existence of hundreds of teenage volunteers.
There was also recognition of the fact that the festival offered an opportunity to promote Prizren as a popular tourist destination. Dokufest consequently evolved to include several creative screening spots including a venue at a castle on a hill, a historical Ottoman Hammam (bath) and a makeshift platform on the Bistrica River. Realising that Dokufest had significant revenue potential, the team soon convinced international organisations, NGOs, big banks, telecom companies and eventually government bodies to support the festival.
The city has now become one with the festival: posters, signposts, and hundreds of white t-shirted volunteers are visible throughout the city; shops stay open until the early morning hours, catering to all the festival-goers. Encouraged by the over 300 international Dokufest guests who visit, as well as the hundreds of tourists from all over Kosovo and the Balkans, more hotels spring up each year, new festivals mushroom and the city enjoys an increasing confidence in terms of economic investment. In fact, Dokufest generated EUR 3.2 million last year, and given the festival’s stable growth of 10-15 %, Veton expects this year’s figures to reach EUR 4.5 million for the city:
“A lot of bad news is coming from Kosovo, and our government spends money to create a fake image, and we’re achieving very good results with very little investment.”
Certainly, none of this would be possible without Dokufest’s intrepid programming, which made the festival a facilitator of peace and reconciliation since its earliest years. The festival has brought recognition to several talented filmmakers who don’t shy away from facing up to the war-torn past of the Balkans, including Serbian director Srđan Keča, whose film A letter to Dad was awarded Best Balkan Documentary at Dokufest 2011. In the film, the filmmaker asks his late father, a soldier, what he did during the war:
“It’s proof that a clever and brave filmmaker can make a film that helps healing,” Veton says, “and we need more films like that. It’s so easy not to talk about what happened. Until we start asking what happened, there won’t be peace. To our children we need to answer what we did in the war “[see also article page 15].
Veton is interested in finding a way to use cinema as an educational tool to talk about the past:
“What we’ve been hearing and seeing in the past 20 years is a terrible falsification of history by both Albanian and Serbian sides. Particularly, history books are fantastic examples of the over-glorification and simplification of important events. Discourses like “We’re the oldest people here” or “Everything belongs to us” need to be challenged.In order for future
generations to peacefully find reconciliation, history needs to be told as it was. We need to ask: Who started the war? How was it started? Who came first?”
This very desire to show history as it is encouraged Dokufest to expand its operations in order to influence a bigger audience year-round, and the idea of reaching out to the youth was a natural progression: since 2011, Dokufest has invited all high schools to screen films dealing with issues crucial to Kosovar society. For Veton, a good example of youth outreach is Cinema Komunisto by Mila Turajlic. The film, on the Yugoslav film industry, made recent history accessible to young people, presenting historical facts in a realistic, unpretentious tone.
Veton is happy with the educational impact achieved by school outreach. Indeed, the Festival has ended up inviting outstanding students to film workshops, mentoring them in developing ideas, helping them with equipment, shooting and editing.
Along with its outreach, Dokufest has organised several workshops, including one last year, “Stories from the Kosovo Margins”, where it teamed up with Albanian and Serbian filmmakers for the first time:
“Helping people connect, creating a peaceful atmosphere, promotes peace, Veton adds with contagious enthusiasm.”
The six films from the workshop premiered at Dokufest this year, with the prospect of a series of screenings in Serbia, Skopje and Sarajevo in the fall.
Throughout its journey Dokufest has also followed the careers of local filmmakers from their earliest works. One notable example is the talented Albanian director Genti Koçi, a former Dokufest winner, whose Not a Car Wash demonstrates the relentless fight of a film director to keep open the pioneering film school he established in Tirana, threatened as it is by corporations and government forces eager to shut it down. [See bundled DOX DVD and also the critique at page 44]
Koçi’s film was presented at Dokufest in accordance with this year’s central theme: Protest. Similarly, Blockade by Croatian director Igor Bezinović, deals with the longest-running student protests for free education in Croatia’s history, which resulted in the blockade of the University of Zagreb’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in 2009.
“history books are fantastic examples of the over-glorification and simplification of important events”
“With these films we want to show that protest is your democratic right. Equally, in our programs, we try to create a debate around a theme and highlight the issues we as a society are undergoing,” Veton says.
The main issues he points out include restriction of movement, visa problems and the difficulties faced by illegal immigrants in Europe.
“We are unable to travel and we suffer a lot. Kosovo is the only country in the region that has no visa liberalization within the EU, and honestly the difficulties we go through to get a visa are very embarrassing..”
Despite Dokufest’s laudable efforts, the lack of exposure to film outside of Dokufest remains a significant impediment to making a marked difference through film:
“Ten days of screenings are not enough, therefore the impact of the films is not as much as I want to have,” Veton admits.
“We still don’t have a functioning cinema. We spend 355 days without cinema. We need it to plant a seed for love of cinema and cinema culture”.
Yet there is light at the end of the tunnel. After a long struggle, Dokufest finally succeeded in lobbying the Kosovar government authorities to construct a multi-purpose cultural venue: the newly renovated Kino Europa. Dokufest hopes to utilise the building as a year-round venue for cinema. “It used to be an old, rundown cinema showing partisan movies, Western, and kung-fu films, and it was our idea to rebuild it as a cultural center,” Veton says.
As to why Prizren had to wait so long to bring back cinema:
“It’s very difficult to find a common language with them as 95 percent of decision-makers in the city are not from the city, so they don’t understand what cinema means to Prizren,” Veton states. The same mentality is represented in the failure to open an art school in Prizren.
All in all, Veton is happy with the success Dokufest enjoys:
“We never encountered any direct censorship, and always tried to remain as independent as possible. I think we were lucky that some things clicked so we were able to find a good combination of bringing powerful cinema and generating a high revenue for the city,” he reiterates, “Prizren has always been an open, tolerant city and one of the goals of Dokufest is to make Prizren open again, like it was before.