Albanian director Gentian Koçi is at the Sarajevo Film Festival for the world premiere of his first feature film, “Daybreak,” an intimate drama about an impoverished and desperate young mother who, with her child, moves in with an ailing and bedridden elderly woman. The film tells a powerful story of desperation that, according to the director, explores the moral compromises all people have to make in their “ceaseless struggle for economic security, or even survival.”
Koçi spoke to Variety about “Daybreak” ahead of its premiere Sunday.
What motivated you to tell this story?
“Daybreak” is a fictional story. It is not based on real events, but it is somehow distilled from my everyday life observations, intuition, and imagination of other people’s day-by-day struggle to keep going on in a society very “productive” of insecurities. I’m more and more convinced that this system of insecurities to which most of us are exposed is creating a grey zone of human relations. In the so-called modern life, I believe there is a very subtle line between desperate motivations of lost souls and human tenderness. I wanted to tell a powerful and emotional story of a young single mother fighting very hard to keep her job and new roof, at any price. Feeling constantly insecure is very familiar to practically all of us.
The main character is situated in a context where today’s political and economic system, sometimes absent and sometimes overly present, functions like a vice jaws mechanism – it is constantly pressing on people’s lives, cutting out all possibilities for them to live worthily. It is precisely due to these implicit mechanisms that people instead of fighting together for a better life, they fight against each other.
To what extent is the film a social commentary on Albanian society in general or a reflection of life in modern-day Tirana?
“Daybreak” is set in today’s Tirana. I believe a story must be universal, appealing to large audiences’ attention. As paradoxical as it may seem, the more a story is deep-rooted in a specific place, enriched with local memories, stories, flavors, etc., the more it communicates with different cultural contexts. Tirana is progressively growing into a large city. Albanian politicians never had the sensibility to relate to people’s problems. People are becoming more and more indifferent to what is happening around them. In their everyday life, they rush, trying to keep their jobs, to earn money, to watch television, losing progressively their political nerve and the awareness of belonging to a very vital society. In this sense, I would say that “Daybreak” is also a reaction to what is going on in the city I where I was born, where I grew up and where I choose to live.
Ornela Kapetani is amazing in the film – she is able to express so much without saying a word. Did you want her for this role from the beginning or did she convince you in the casting process?
For me, the character of Leta represents the film itself. Since I began to write the script and at the same time to envision the way I wanted to shoot this story, I was looking for an actress whose magnetic portrait could discreetly and wordlessly express her inner tumultuous world. I did a lot of casting interviews with Albanian actors living in Albania and abroad. Ornela Kapetani was living and working in London at that time. I asked her to send me a video audition and when I saw it, I said to myself, “She is Leta, my main character.” We worked together very closely to create this very challenging character. I also think that her performance in “Daybreak” is an amazing one.
You developed the film at Sarajevo’s Cinelink as well as Connecting Cottbus and the Euro-Mediterranean Co-Production Market. How important and helpful were these co-production markets for the project?
Presenting the project at these three co-production markets helped me to develop it from the artistic and production perspectives. These markets gave to the project an international visibility. I personally better understood the actual trends of the European and regional film industry. I got in touch with [Greek production company] Graal Films and my two co-producers Konstantina Stavrianou and Rena Vougioukalou after I came back from Cinelink in 2014. They read the script and liked it a lot. Since then, they have supported the project unconditionally. I consider myself very lucky to have collaborated with them. They have been supportive during all the process.
How important was it for the project to have an international partner?
Beside the fact that in the last three years, film budgets and film productions in Albania have increased, our film budget is still small. It remains difficult for Albanian cinema to compete with high-budget films in European and international markets. International co-productions are still vital for film productions to reach a successful conclusion. From my personal experience, I can say that without an international partner, in this case a Greek one, I could not have managed to finalize this project. Half of my artistic crew members are Greek. Sound and image post-production services were accomplished in studios in Athens. I strongly believe that European film production policies encouraging international co-productions and cinema public funding guarantee the artistic quality and authorial independence.
How do you feel about the film having its world premiere in Sarajevo?
I’m very happy to have the world premiere at the Sarajevo Film Festival. The project was internationally presented for the first time in Cinelink in 2014. The festival trusted in my film for the second time and this is always very gratifying. It is hard to be part of Sarajevo’s main competition, since they usually select up to seven or eight films. I feel very honored to share this competition with such talented directors and I’m looking forward to discovering their latest work.
“Daybreak” is your first feature – your last two projects were documentaries. Do you have a preference, non-fiction or fiction, and why?
I don’t have preferences. I choose to approach a story either in fiction or in non-fiction style depending on the way I perceive the very truth of the story to be achieved. I don’t consider fiction and non-fiction as two different cinema genres, but as inherent elements of cinema. They have a common economy, which determines the prevalence of fiction elements compared to non fiction ones and vice versa. When I made my documentaries I wanted the camera to be as direct as it could be in order to capture the raw reality of things. When I made “Daybreak,” I tried to create a world which seems to have been extracted from reality, but in fact it remains a fictional one.
Would you say the documentary style has influenced your filmmaking when it comes to making feature films?
Yes, I would say so. When I shot “Daybreak,” I tried to stay close to my characters to faithfully follow their stories. At the same time, I wanted to give the audience the possibility to follow the story with their own eyes, without the intermediacy of cinema language artifices. I didn’t want to add unnecessary filters to my storytelling. For all these reasons, I decided not to move the camera at all, avoiding artificial impressions as much as I could. I aimed at balancing what we see and what we don’t see, whilst adopting a realistic approach. Of course, this made my job, my DoP’s and actors’ very difficult, but I believed this directing vision could tell Leta’s story in an authentic way, giving the audience the impression of watching real people in real situations.
The Sarajevo Film Festival runs Aug. 11-18.
This interview has been edited and condensed.