A sweet and welcoming country, with shadows of the past still looming: this is Kosovo for those who visit it for the first time. In the tranquil avenue of the Prishtina promenade, the eyes of beautiful girls in shopping training meet those of young men busy competing at brass knuckles. A few meters away, some poor, disabled man lying on the ground shouts heartbreaking tales of the horrors he suffered to scrape a few coins. This country’s cinema and the entire Balkans show similar faces hungry for the future but burdened by dark memories that are still very close.
The International Film Festival in Pristina (Prifest) program offers the audience the newest films from Europe, Balkan, and the world every year, with some additional special programs that promote human rights, tolerance, and acceptance for marginalized groups of society. It is the only festival in the Balkans with a particular program of LGBT+films, in partnership with Outfest in Los Angeles. Besides films, the festival has an excellent regional development platform that offers training, lectures, inspirational masterclasses from distinguished guests, and other opportunities beneficial for filmmakers from Kosovo and the neighboring countries.
Beyond the qualitative observation, the eye of an external (and cinephile) observer won’t miss the exciting network of themes and stylistic features that characterize the region’s lively cinemas. In particular, the Balkan Film Competition presented a high-level selection, which made it very difficult for the Fipresci jury (of which the writer was honored to be part) to identify only one winning title, painfully excluding the other deserving movies. A not insignificant past united the selection of very different films: the war, which until twenty years ago or so has bloodied long-standing ex-Yugoslav friendships, kinships, and affinities with the most brutal and senseless violence.
One could say that the example of that terrible civil war in the heart of Europe served as a spur for the rest of the continent towards the perfection of that natural and irreversible union, unfortunately still hindered by too many local interests. An even higher example is given by the Republic of Kosovo, which, despite a still-fragile economy, chose the Euro, even if it was not part of the Union in all respects, demonstrating a firm will to sit at the peace table, whatever it takes. Today, young Kosovars live the paradox of having to buy their lives in euros but needing a visa to travel to Europe (since it is seldom released).
One can feel the generosity, the passion, the youthful impetus of a glorious and contradictory land in all the films of the Balkan selection. In practically every movie, there is at least one narrative reference to the war and its various legacies, which often turns out to be the real engine of the action. The centrality of the father figures emerges strongly from many of the films seen in Prishtina, a theme psychologically and anthropologically connected to the war. Above all, fathers are those with whom the young protagonists of these stories have to deal. They can be loving, almost maternal fathers like the one in Andromeda Galaxy (Galaktika Andromedës, 2020), played by an excellent Sunaj Raça, directed by his daughter More Raça, who comes to an extreme act of self-harm trying to secure a future for his little daughter. They can also be father-masters like the one we see in Luàna Bajrami’s The Hill where Lionesses Roar (Luaneshat e kodrës, 2021) a character with whom an adolescent daughter has to struggle for a long time to assert her fundamental right to freedom and self-determination.
Also intriguing is the gaze that a father (and a mother), devoted to love and art, turn to the miserable and materialistic world of their children and spouses in Bolero in the Elders Villa (Bolero Në Vilën E Pleqve, 2019) by Spartak Pecani. Here it’s the parents and not the children who show greater open-mindedness towards those who are different and discriminated against (however, a sign of an educational responsibility that falls on themselves). Also highlighted in other films are the adaptive problems of the children of those who made the war. The protagonists of After the winter (Poslije zime, 2021) by Ivan Bakrač seem to live day-to-day and buzz like barflies without a precise direction, in the total absence of significant parental ties. Even more terrible is the disorientation of a son traumatized by the same father he reveres in Silenced Tree (Ceviz Ağaci, 2020) by director Faysal Soysal. In the end, the audience learns the father and son’s reasons for their personal life decisions through the most disturbing visions that a child can undergo.
Even more rich and multifaceted is Full Moon (Pun Mjesec, 2019) by Nermin Hamzagić, an almost Scorsesian tale of the “after hour” night shift that a police officer is forced to do as he awaits the birth of his first child from a mother who is perhaps too mature. This portrait of a new father and policeman was unanimously elected the Section winner by our jury. Between beatings, investigations, blackmail, and perhaps angelic visits, the man prepares to become a father by dribbling with difficulty the shit of the world ready to swallow him. It is an intriguing and touching film, compelling and intimate at the same time.
Finally, Hive (Zgjoi, 2021) by Blerta Basholli, already crowned with three awards at Sundance, was presented almost “morally” out of Competition. The film stars a mother-courage who must use all of her resources to survive alone in a patriarchal society, paying for the “guilt” of being a war widow who chooses not to have a new husband.
Whoever wants to know something real and profound about the life of the people in the former Yugoslavia, beyond TV news, should look for these seven good movies, wisely selected by Vjosa and Fatos Berisha (excellent directors of the PriFest Festival). It will allow you to make an authentic journey in the beautiful and contradictory Balkan lands.
© FIPRESCI 2021