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.”
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