Separation Anxiety

in 50th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

by Pamela Cohn

Babai At its international premiere at this year’s Jubilee edition of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, Visar Morina’s intense and immediate father/son drama, Babai (The Father) was awarded with a jury prize from the Europa Cinemas Label. Along with our FIPRESCI jury, the ECL was one of four non-statutory juries with the task of awarding a film from the Official Selection Competition and speaks to a film’s potential to stand up to the grandeur of the big screen.

As well, this year’s International Jury awarded Morina its Best Director prize for his inaugural feature, an intensely sweet victory for a project that took its writer/director eight years to make, and a significant consortium of funders, co-producers and commissioning editors – twelve, to be exact – to help realize the film’s completion. Its dark subject matter and rigorous adherence to cinematic storytelling in all of its aspects would not have made this an easy film to make in the current landscape of derivative adaptations that conform to the kind of trivial dross that passes for competent storytelling in many quarters.

Morina was born in the capital city of Prishtina in Kosovo in 1979, just one year before Josep Broz Tito’s reign over a united Yugoslavia came to an end. Tito diluted Serbian power by establishing autonomous governments in Serbian provinces, including Kosovo, the major province to the south. That autonomy – at least formally – was fairly meaningless until, after many brutal wars throughout the 20th century, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) was founded in 1990, one decade after Tito’s death. (Morina would have been eleven years old at the time; he and his family immigrated to Germany.) To this day, the fragile, young Republic continues to face substantial emigration, its population rapidly dwindling. It is estimated that about a third of the people of Kosovar descent currently live outside the country, the vast majority of them in Germany.

Babai tells the story of 10-year-old Nori, played by Val Maloku in a subtle, and powerfully contained performance. The small but sturdy boy chases after his dad who has gone to Germany without him. In the father’s first bid for “freedom” by leaving everything behind including his only son, the boy literally throws himself under the bus that is about to take his father away from him, a clear sign that this is a child that will not be deterred. As the boy is recovering in hospital from a head gash, his father has just gotten on another bus and left.

After stealing the money he needs from his uncle, Nori embarks upon a harrowing journey, one that is urged on by sheer will and a not insignificant amount of choking rage at being abandoned by a passive and feckless father. Gezim, sensitively played by Astrit Kabashi, is a lost and bewildered man who has also been abandoned by his wife, and Nori’s mother. Their individual escapes – along with that of so many other men, women and children – take place in the period of the third largest phase of Kosovo’s emigration, during and after the devastating war of 1997 – 1999.

For the last five years or so, I have been living in Berlin and working in the country of Kosovo. Both cultures continue to hold much puzzlement and misunderstanding for me, but, in essence, through friendships with Kosovars both here and there, I have come to have a deep and abiding sense of pathos and respect for their continued battles for sovereignty and independence, both as a nation, and as individuals seeking a better destiny. I have seen many, many films out of the region about the war and its effects – in fact, it seems as if there is no other topic sometimes – and Babai is one of the most transcendent pieces I’ve come across where the issues of unending post-war trauma, ancient tribal customs that are embedded in the population’s DNA, and the wild and violent temperament that accompanies those customs dictates not only the ways they learn to navigate in the larger world, but in the ways in which they view themselves and one another outside of the confines of their small country. In Morina’s fine and spare script and in the performances of his lead actors – first film roles for both – there is a forthright and unabashed nod to the ways in which survival requires constant vigilance and an unchecked brutality, even when it’s between father and son. Both Maloku and Kabashi give superbly nuanced and naturalistic performances, yet another sign that an assured and brilliantly talented writer/director is at the helm.

In its social constructs and familial contracts, this is a completely patriarchal culture, but one that has been emasculated by constant war, trauma and deprivation. In the head-on negotiations and collisions of Nori and Gezim, we see the stoic way in which a male must navigate, never showing doubt, fear, or trepidation in the face of adversity. But when all that you face is adversity – financially, physically, emotionally – you learn to fight like a street dog for what’s yours.

The major part of Nori’s visceral chase after his father is enhanced by highly proficient and urgent handheld camera work by cinematographer Matteo Cocco who uses the black of night to appropriately suffocating affect, and exceptional sound design by Malte Beiler and Igor Popovski. The boy’s secret and relentless journey towards the only stability he knows is so fraught with betrayals at every turn that by the time he reaches his destination, his suppressed fury at his abandonment explodes and we realize that any vestiges of the child he was are gone, replaced by an utterly defiant and deeply damaged and haunted persona, most likely assuring that the boy will enter a manhood that may very well resemble his father’s – an existence that is harsh, aggressive and unforgiving, the newest betrayal at the hands of friend or foe (oftentimes indistinguishable), loving and hating, in equal measure, who and what you are. Not even the escape of an exhausted slumber can keep the nightmare of a barely-coherent existence at bay, particularly when your sole guardian’s perverse and misplaced sense of pride fails you time and time again.

Pamela Cohn