“The interesting stories are yet to come”: how Kosovo’s female directors went global

Hive (dir. Blerta Basholli, 2021). Image: Alexander Bloom.

“The youngest nation in Europe”: this epithet is applied to Kosovo so often that it has become something of a calling card, almost an advertising slogan. Like all shorthand labels, it conceals as much as it explains. Fifteen years after declaring its independence from Serbia, Kosovo remains poorly understood, its identity still reduced in the imagination of most outsiders to the war of the late nineties, with little insight into the complex processes of (re)construction that have been pursued since.

Until recently, the same could have been said of Kosovan cinema. But a flurry of festival wins and critical plaudits in recent years have caused a sudden surge in attention. Blerta Zeqiri’s pioneering queer drama The Marriage (2017) was nominated at a handful of American festivals, before being followed in 2021 by four internationally acclaimed titles: Blerta Basholli’s Hive (winner of all three World Cinema awards at Sundance), Norika Sefa’s Looking for Venera (winner of the Jury Prize at Rotterdam International Film Festival), Luàna Bajrami’s The Hill Where Lionesses Roar (which premiered at Cannes), and Kaltrina Krasniqi’s Vera Dreams of the Sea (nominated for the Horizons Award in Venice). These five films had something in common beyond their country of origin: they all evidently spoke to the audiences and juries at western festivals; and they were made by, and about Kosovan women.

To casual observers, this sudden surge no doubt seems puzzling. Is it a case of hype and festival trendsetting? Has this apparent “Kosovan Wave” crested; how long until it breaks? It would be more productive to look at the identities and the stories of these directors and to build our understanding from there. What exactly does the success of these female filmmakers tell us about the history and present tense of Kosovan cinema and its burgeoning place within the European landscape?

professors would tell us, ‘You’re very talented but you’re a woman. Making films is a very difficult job. One day you’ll be married, and you’re just taking the place of someone who could actually have a career.’

However unexpected these moments feel to outsiders, their roots run deep.  When I spoke with Krasniqi recently to mark the entrance of Vera Dreams of the Sea into the Klassiki library, she pointed out that the apparent coincidence of the near-simultaneous release of her and her compatriots’ films was no historical accident. Rather, it marked the conclusion of a decades-long process within Kosovo. A national cinema, centred around the Kosovafilm studio, was developed from the late 1960s within the federated Yugoslav film industry, but was stymied by Kosovo’s remaining bound to the post-socialist Serbian successor state after Yugoslavia’s disintegration. Slobodan Milošević’s repression of Albanian-Kosovar political and cultural identity in the nineties saw Kosovans expelled from state institutions, meaning, in Krasniqi’s words, that “most education took place in people’s private homes for ten years” – a decade that culminated in brutal warfare. Following Serbian withdrawal in 1999, Kosovafilm and Albanian-language film training were re-established.

Krasniqi takes up the story: “what took everyone by surprise [at that point] was that women were very interested in studying film. I often hear this story from my girlfriends: professors would tell them, ‘You’re very talented but you’re a woman. Making films is a very difficult job. One day you’ll be married, and you’re just taking the place of someone who could actually have a career.’ But most of us studied at the Academy because they couldn’t get rid of us, basically.” The restricted opportunities forced this young cohort further afield in search of experience. “All of us ended up doing other studies in other countries. I studied at UCLA, Blerta Basholli studied at NYU, Blerta Zeqiri went to Paris. We were just seeking any opportunity to educate ourselves further in film.” On returning to Kosovo, however, Krasniqi and company faced further frustration. The scant funding available largely went to established older filmmakers, who had trained at Yugoslav institutions in Belgrade and Zagreb.

Krasniqi credits a shift in management that coincided with Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008 with transforming the young state’s attitude towards domestic filmmaking talent. “All of a sudden, there was this opportunity for us to present our scripts and our stories. Even though the institution itself had a very low budget, they really tried very hard to accommodate us and to create opportunities, which were small but real, to present our works internationally.” Lack of funds meant that progress was painstaking, with many directors, Krasniqi included, labouring for years over feature debuts. One unintended consequence of this hardship, though, was a cohort of young directors, many of them women, all completing films at roughly the same time. From this burst of activity flowed the remarkable recent run of festival triumphs.

Looking for Venera (dir. Norika Sefa, 2021)

The significance for this cohort of Zeqiri’s The Marriage and its Sundance success should not be underestimated; coming several years before the 2021 “wave”, the film helped to set the tone for international engagement with new Kosovan cinema. “That was the main opening for us,” Krasniqi says. “She set some idea about where we come from. That’s very painful: if you’re a filmmaker and you have to do that, it interrupts your storytelling. The explanation of the context interferes with the nature of the story you want to tell. However, she did sacrifice herself for us. [Now] people were aware where Kosovo is and what has happened in the last 20 years.” Thematically, too, The Marriage predicted the kinds of stories that were about to emerge from Kosovo. Telling the story of Bekim and Anita, a young couple whose impending nuptials are threatened by the return to Kosovo of Bekim’s friend and secret former lover Nol, the film reflects on the conflicting impulses of a patriarchal society born of collective trauma and a younger generation looking to break free from inherited restrictions.

Each in their own way, the four films of the 2021 “women’s wave” tackle questions of female agency, patriarchal inheritance, and the painful steps taken by Kosovan citizens to assert their selfhood in the years since the war. The personal is profoundly political in these films – a cliché lent fresh power in the Kosovan context. Basholli’s Hive is based on the true story of Fahrije (Yllka Gashi), a beleaguered war widow living in a remote village. Struggling to provide for her family, she rallies together other bereaved women from her community to make and sell preserves, prompting condemnation from those who see any attempt by women to live independently as a threat to hallowed hierarchies. Krasniqi’s Vera Dreams of the Sea likewise contends with the pernicious, persistent influence of networks of male patronage. Inspired by the experiences of the director’s own mother, who was forced to fight in court for her financial freedom following her divorce, the film follows the titular sign language interpreter (Teuta Ajdini Jegeni), whose middle-class Pristina life is upended by the sudden suicide of her husband, a respected former judge. Vera must reckon both with her grief, and with the predations of the menfolk of her husband’s home village, whose spurious claims to his family home put not just Vera’s dreams for the future, but her very life at risk.

Bajrami and Sefa, on the other hand, are concerned with the inner lives of the generation to have come of age since independence. The Hill Where Lionesses Roar, made when the French-Kosovar actor Bajrami was only 20 and fresh from her supporting role in Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, is a reimagining of the adolescent coming-of-age drama in which a trio of girls turn to crime in an attempt to break free from their abusive village families. Sefa’s eponymous Venera (Kosovare Krasniqi) likewise chafes against the frustrations of village life and her cramped family home, until a blossoming friendship with the rebellious Dorina (Rozada Cefaj) opens her eyes to a world beyond the petty bullying and denigration of domesticity. It is telling that all four of these films lean so heavily into the experience of life in rural Kosovo. It is as if the countryside represents a canvas on which to depict in vivid detail the forces at work in Kosovan society, away from the runaway development of Pristina and its international influences.

we made some interesting stories, but the most interesting stories are yet to come – there is another generation coming. I think you will be seeing Kosovo a lot in the future as well.

These films have transformed the cinephile’s image of Kosovo almost overnight, and there is a danger that the country and its industry will be typecast. The extent to which 2021 can act as a stepping stone to future success may not be down solely to the quality of the films produced. Kosovo is unusually circumscribed when it comes to distribution. In a recent interview for Cineuropa, prominent producer Valon Bajgora noted that audience numbers and the talent available for domestic productions belies the youth of Kosovo’s film industry; however, the fact that five EU member states do not recognise the country’s independence locks it out of continent-wide conventions like Eurimages or Creative Europe, making co-production and international distribution a laborious process.

When it comes to the films themselves, though, Krasniqi for one is optimistic that the emergence of her female cohort stands to benefit Kosovan cinema more broadly. “We take a lot of pride in the representation that women have had in [Kosovan] cinema, mostly because we were not used to seeing ourselves and our stories onscreen. That also produced quite a lot of hope for other communities, especially the queer community and people of colour, because now they feel there is an opening. I think we made some interesting stories, but the interesting stories are yet to come – there is another generation coming and they are interested in completely different [stories]. I think you will be seeing Kosovo a lot in the future as well.”

Watch Kaltrina Krasniqi’s Vera Dreams of the Sea on Klassiki from 10th August.