Catching the Kosovar Wave

in 50th Rotterdam International Film Festival

by Veronika Zakonjšek

This year’s online edition of Rotterdam’s IFFR offered a wide collection of visually and thematically diverse films, the majority of which focused on marginalised stories of queer identities, otherwise overlooked women’s narratives and societies affected by dark histories of colonialism and fascist governments. One of such surprises among 16 titles presented in the Tiger Competition proved to be a delicate coming-of-age drama set in a small Kosovar town, where any manifestation of female individuality still ends in immediate suppression by the governing patriarchal mentality. After Aga’s House (Lendita Zeqiraj, 2019), Zana (Antoneta Kastrati, 2019) and the most recent Sundance hit Hive (Blerta Basholli, 2021), Kosovar cinema seems to be catching an unexpected wave – one that, despite having its roots in such a profoundly patriarchal environment, manages to put female stories front and centre. In this regard, Norika Sefa’s debut feature Looking for Venera (Në kërkim të Venerës, 2021), which took home a Special Jury Prize, is no different. But while the above-mentioned films still ponder over the traumatic consequences of the country’s war-torn past, Sefa stays focused on the present and its new generation’s quiet fight to break free from their community’s rigid conventions and domestic boredom. 

Venera, a teenager on the brink of womanhood, feels trapped in a stifling village of rural Kosovo, a place still devastated by recent wars, failed economic transition, and rigorously imposed gender roles. The confines their enclosed society puts on women feels unbearable, almost claustrophobic – an atmosphere further heightened by the cramped reality of three generations living under the same roof and Luis Armando Artega’s impeccable cinematography, almost entirely relying on intimate close-ups. Living in an over-crowded space with no room for privacy and independence is the only reality the naïve and inexperienced Venera has ever known, yet she’s yearning for something more. Frustrated by the limited possibilities of her existence – one that anticipates her placidly resuming her mother’s role of a homemaker, miserably trapped inside an unloving marriage – she starts seeking the company of a somewhat older and hedonistic Dorina whose sexual liberty and openness to fully experience life is unlike anything Venera has ever thought possible for a woman to embody.

Sefa’s compositions often cut parts of Venera’s body and relegate her to the bottom of the frame, implying both her limited freedom and her assigned place in the family’s invisible hierarchy. Moreover, other people’s action often finds itself just outside the frame, further suggesting Venera’s powerlessness to fully grasp life’s possibilities as she’s entirely dependent on her father’s stern will. But the narrative never turns towards victimisation of women in their search for autonomy and sexual expression, nor does it make the male authorities surrounding them one-dimensional misogynistic monsters. And while the women of Looking for Venera never achieve the liberation they’re dreaming of, they still subtly defy the rules and provoke the age-old sexist beliefs about women’s place in society. Venera thus never stops looking to discover herself – her individual expression, agency, and sexuality. Step by step, she negotiates the space of her rigid surroundings and fights her way into fully entering the frame. She fools around, flirts with men, eagerly listens to Dorina chat about sex, and visits the only rock bar in the village where guys still scowl at women coolly ordering a drink.

Venera sure does not move any societal mountains, nor does she achieve anything close to gender equality in a place where music and dance stop the moment a man enters the house. But by her stubborn questioning of patriarchal tradition that sees women as nothing more than cooks and child-bearers, she quietly starts to change her family’s dynamic. Her melancholy and overworked mother has never ever attended a party – but through her daughter’s adolescent curiosity and rebelliousness she starts to embrace the fight against women’s invisibility in Kosovar society. When she joins Venera in a lively and carefree dance in the middle of the kitchen, it’s clear this is the freest she’s ever been; but for Venera, such a break from the confines of constant mindfulness for what is proper and acceptable is only the beginning.

Veronika Zakonjšek
Edited by Robert Horton