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A nine-year-old boy raised in a house full of women is determined to find his missing father, a man who he believes vanished after the Kosovo War. The five women he shares a home with meanwhile carry the burdens of their own wartime traumas, finding common ground in the stories, songs and jokes they share. But even in a house bursting with life and laughter, the country’s dark history of ethnic tension and violence threatens to rise to the surface — bringing with it painful memories and secrets long buried in the past.

“Aga’s House” is the feature film debut of Kosovo’s Lendita Zeqiraj, whose critically acclaimed short “Balcony” world premiered at the Venice film festival. Starring Arti Lokaj as Aga, along with a powerful ensemble cast including Rozafa Celaj, Adriana Matoshi, Basri Lushtaku, Shengyl Ismaili, Melihate Qena, and Rebeka Qena, the film opens the East of the West competition at this year’s Karlovy Vary Intl. Film Festival. It’s produced by Pristina-based N’Art Films, in co-production with Woof Films (Croatia), Sacrebleu Productions (France), Ska-ndal and SY13 Films (Albania).

Zeqiraj spoke to Variety about the stigma facing rape survivors in Kosovo, the struggle for women’s emancipation in a patriarchal society, and the importance of portraying the complexity of women’s lives on screen.

“Aga’s House” is the story of a boy’s search for his father, as well as the story of rape survivors who have rebuilt their lives in the years since the Kosovo War. What inspired you to tell these women’s stories?
This theme is really a big Kosovar wound that is unspoken. It’s somehow hidden. From the research that I did before, they say that there are more than 20,000 cases, and here we have only four cases [where the victims] were willing to talk [publicly] about the truth, and what happened to them. They were somehow anonymous. I thought it was very important to work on this theme and to make it seen, and to open the debate.

To me it was very important to show real women on the big screen. It was very important to show the actors as normal people living their lives. Of course, my inspiration is that I’m surrounded by those women everyday in Kosovo. My intention was to present those women without the victim label from the beginning. Those women, they need help from society, because it is not their fault.

“Aga’s House” deals with a difficult and important topic in Kosovo today, but it’s a film that’s also very funny and bursting with life. The movie opens with a long scene of the women working in the yard, telling bawdy jokes, sharing their sexual histories. Why did you use that scene to establish the tone of the movie?
I began writing [the script] with this scene. To me, it was crucial — this scene of the women together at the beginning. It was so important to give voices and to show women as they are. Somehow, there is a misconception of women in Kosovo, and the Balkans, because of this patriarchal society. To me, it was very important that the women have sexuality, and this was so important — especially in Kosovo. That is the most important thing I had in mind while writing the scene.

The house seems to offer the women a sort of freedom — not just the physical freedom from the violence they’ve experienced, but a freedom to talk and act in a way that perhaps isn’t sanctioned by society as a whole.
I think Kosovar society needs to open more. Women, even though we have [made gains] – 30% of women in parliament, etc. – they have to emancipate themselves with help from society. Even if a woman is executive director in a company, at home she’s a woman who has to do this and that. This kind of mentality that a woman is a second-class citizen. In Kosovo, I think freedom goes with [women’s] emancipation. A society can be judged on how civilized it is, through the emancipation of women. And we need that a lot here. We need to give women a voice, and they have to know to defend themselves. They have to know their rights, and how to get their rights.

Last year, the government in Kosovo gave wartime rape survivors the official status of war victims, enabling them to receive a monthly pension. But because of the stigma, and the pressure from family and society, few women are willing to speak out. What do you think has changed, and what needs to change, in terms of how Kosovar society deals with this part of its past?

Twenty years later, it’s a bit too late to have the right that they should have had long ago. I hope with this movie, women will open up and speak about their truth, knowing it’s not their fault. To me, that was important. To show that it’s not their fault how their families and society judge them. To me, this is absurd. The film itself comes out of something that I question myself, and I couldn’t find the answer to: how come if someone is wounded, we can put the blame on the wounded person? This is totally absurd to me. We have so many cases [of rape survivors] everyday. This is a collective issue. To me, making a film was the least I could do about it.

Nine-year-old Aga is searching for his father in the film, and the only male role model for him, Cera, is a tough guy and hustler who has a very particular view of what masculinity should be. Aga has a great absence in his life that he’s so hungry to fill, and you seem to raise the question of what type of person, what type of values, might fill that absence.
For me, Aga represents innocence. He’s just coming of age now, and he wants to become a man, so that’s why he needs this father figure to grow. In his [father’s] absence, there is Cera [Basri Lushtaku]. [Lokaj and Lushtaku], while reading the lines, were working on the past of the characters and the future of the characters, but not much of [the period] that we show in the film. I didn’t want to tell them what was the future or past, but they were finding out themselves. They came to the conclusion that maybe Cera and Aga are mirroring each other in the future. Maybe we can presume how he will grow up. For me, it was important to show that this patriarchy is not something we are born with, but we created it in the small boys, maybe even from the education by family and society.

Is there any conversation, or enough conversation, happening in Kosovo about manhood — what it means to be a man, whether or not these sorts of attitudes are perpetuating the culture of violence that’s a backdrop to “Aga’s House”?
You just discovered my next film. [Laughing.] We need to work on that as well, because we cannot go further and try to make a better world for women — it has to be for everyone. The emancipation is not only women’s emancipation. It’s everyone’s emancipation, as well.