Amidst all the horrors of a war-torn decade that she would largely like to forget, one memory stands out for Kosovar filmmaker Kaltrina Krasniqi: the day her mother surprised the family with a VHS player. “We were so, so excited,” she tells Variety. “We really didn’t believe until she opened it that it was true.”
Beginning with the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in 1991 and ending with the conclusion of the bloody Kosovo War in 1999, Krasniqi and her family spent much of the ‘90s holed up in their apartment, occasionally venturing out to the 007 video club across the street to rent movies. “It wasn’t really safe to be out,” she says. “We spent the entire decade using that VHS player to watch films.”
It was the start of the director’s love affair with cinema, and the first step on a journey that this week takes her to the Venice Film Festival for the world premiere of her feature debut, “Vera Dreams of the Sea,” which bows in the festival’s Horizons section.
It caps a breakout year for the budding Kosovar film industry, which began with Blerta Basholli’s feature debut, “Hive,” winning three awards, including the Grand Jury Prize, at the Sundance Film Festival. Another first-time filmmaker, Norika Sefa, followed that triumph by taking a special jury prize in Rotterdam for “Looking for Venera.” And in Cannes, French-Kosovar actress-turned-director Luàna Bajrami, known for her breakthrough role in Celine Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” bowed her directorial debut, “The Hill Where Lionesses Roar,” in the Directors’ Fortnight section.
Under any circumstances it would be considered a remarkable year for a country of two million that only opened its first film school 20 years ago. But against the backdrop of a devastating war whose aftershocks can still be felt, the rise of the Kosovar film industry is one of the unlikeliest success stories in world cinema today.
It’s a rise largely being led by women, who in recent years have begun seizing on the opportunity to bring their own lives and stories to the screen. In the past, says Krasniqi, “we were not seeing ourselves and our stories in films,” noting that women in Kosovar cinema had long been relegated to supporting roles. After the war, however, female filmmakers began to rewrite the script. “Being treated as a second-class citizen all of your life gives you access to particular types of stories.”
“Vera Dreams of the Sea” centers on a middle-aged woman whose husband’s sudden suicide leaves the ownership of the family’s village home in question. A parade of menacing relatives seeks to stake their own claims. Mysterious underworld figures emerge. Soon the woman, played by Teuta Jegeni Ajdini, is forced to confront the gender biases and inequities of a legal system that continues to privilege men.
Written by Doruntina Basha, it is a movie that was partly inspired by Krasniqi’s mother, who divorced her husband in the 1980s and spent four years fighting a court battle to keep the property that was rightfully hers. In the end, she was forced to abandon the fight when it proved too costly for her to continue. For Krasniqi, the story is emblematic of how the women of her mother’s generation “had to negotiate their freedom on an everyday basis.”
Much has changed in the years since, with the disastrous war of the 1990s exacting an incalculable physical and psychological toll on a country that is still trying to pick up the pieces. In many cases, it was women who were left to rebuild, after thousands of men were either killed or went missing during the war.
They’ve made steady gains in Kosovo since – including at the highest reaches of government, where the president and nearly 40% of Parliament are women – something Krasniqi credits to the sacrifices made by her mother’s generation.
“Our society has gone through some seriously dramatic changes in a very short amount of time. I can’t imagine a life where I would have to negotiate my freedom at every step,” she says. “For me to feel as I feel, to be as free and independent as I am, that is the war my mother fought.”
That war has allowed a younger generation of women to find their voices through film and bring their own experiences to the screen. “Hive” is based on the true story of a war widow who fights against the stubbornly patriarchal attitudes of her village in her search for independence. In “Looking for Venera,” a young woman grappling with her budding sexuality tries to find herself in a small town where a girl is expected above all else to protect the family name. And “The Hill Where Lionesses Roar” tells the story of three free-spirited young women struggling to imagine a future beyond the stifling traditions of their homeland.
Though their stories are rooted in contemporary Kosovo, they’ve struck a chord at a time when the wider movement for gender equality has brought more and more women’s voices to the fore. “Women and other marginalized groups…have always been sidelined,” says Krasniqi. “Patriarchy was not invented in the Balkans.“
Arben Zharku, the former director of the Kosovo Cinematography Center, notes that the industry’s sudden success is in fact testament to a decade-long effort to lay a foundation that allows those filmmakers to flourish. The KCC has been instrumental in giving the small domestic industry international reach, establishing partnerships with the likes of Prague’s FAMU film and TV school, the EAVE producers workshop, the Les Arc Film Festival, and the Rotterdam Lab to boost education and training opportunities for all Kosovar filmmakers. “It’s not that we thought we should support women more or less,” says Zharku. “It just comes naturally, if you build a good system.”
For their part, Kosovar filmmakers are looking to build on that framework, with efforts underway to establish a directors association to lobby on the industry’s behalf. “It’s a small community, and I think we’re connecting even more now,” says “Hive” director Basholli, who worked as A.D. on Blerta Zeqiri’s “The Marriage” and Sefa’s “Looking for Venera.” “It’s not like a competition. I think we’re just happy for each other’s successes, and we’re trying to help each other and push each other to go forward.”
“What is the most beautiful thing about now is that we really had a golden year of cinema,” adds Sefa. “It’s our moment. We should not let it go.”