Looking for Venera: Kosovo’s Norika Sefa on patriarchy and the energy of adolescence

Kosovare Krasniqi in Looking for Venera (dir. Norika Sefa, 2021)

When Norika Sefa’s Looking for Venera won the Tiger Award at Rotterdam Film Festival in 2021, it announced the latest bold new filmmaking voice to emerge from the burgeoning Kosovan industry. Transporting the classic coming-of-age tale to rugged rural Kosovo, Sefa’s feature debut sees teenaged Venera (Kosovare Krasniqi) struggling against the constraints of her upbringing – from her cramped, multi-generational household to the patriarchal traditions that govern village life. When she meets the rebellious Dorina (Rozafa Celaj), Venera connects with her burgeoning sexuality and her desire for change. Combining naturalistic performances with intimate, observational camerawork and a strong sense of location, the film was one of several female-directed Kosovan features to make an impact on the international scene in 2021. This renewed interest in the region is reflected in goEast Film Festival’s decision to dedicate a strand of this year’s edition to Albanian and Kosovan cinema.

To mark our screening of Looking for Venera as part of our partnership with the festival, we spoke to Sefa about capturing the energy of rural Kosovo, exploring adolescence on film, and how international exposure is transforming opportunities for directors from Europe’s youngest nation. This is an abridged version of the interview; Klassiki subscribers can watch in full here.

 

Let’s start with the location. Looking for Venera feels like a lived-in film; the sense of place is extremely important to the atmosphere and the characterisation. Can you talk about location scouting – what you were looking for, how you arrived at this location – and how you wanted the setting to feel? The colour palette is very distinctive.

I wanted to make a film that doesn’t necessarily come together in the plot, but rather portrays the feeling of a particular place. By the time I was writing the film, I was living in the Czech Republic, [but] I grew up in such environments. The film is led by Venera, her energy, as she tries to understand who she really is, what surrounds her. Our aim was to let everything that surrounds her be lively. When you haven’t found your space yet, there’s an alertness – everything around you speaks to you. During scouting for the houses, it was so interesting that everyone is on top of one another. In Prague or Denmark, it’s so easy to name the spaces: this is a kitchen, this is a living room. But in houses in Kosovo, you can’t really name what’s going on because of our big families. It’s another system of living. I like this accumulation. ‘Accumulation’ was a word that we followed in the life of Venera. She’s accumulating a lot, by thinking about what she does and doesn’t want. I tried to see this accumulation in terms of textures and colours, vivid spaces.

As for the town: the film is about danger. As a society, we delegate responsibility to moral norms, which creates danger – especially if you’re trying to figure out who you are. Venera is coming of age, but so is the country. Our society is patriarchal, but more than that it’s very hierarchical: the father must provide for the family and the children must be thankful for that. But also, the parents are dealing with their sinkholes after the war, so they are growing up as well. It’s the same as the space that surrounds them. I wanted to space to be full of perpetual surprises.

As a society, we delegate responsibility to moral norms, which creates danger – especially if you’re trying to figure out who you are. Venera is coming of age, but so is the country

You mention the closeness in these domestic spaces. I wanted to ask about working with your cinematographer, Luis Armando Arteaga. It’s really striking, the ways you found to frame what could be simple set-ups, shot/reverse shot sequences: the off-kilter, alienated framing is continuously inventive, and it really helps to capture the sense of transition and accumulation that you describe.

I like the idea that it would have been easy to do everything as shot/reverse shot. For us, that is not easy. Luis and I had been working on the film for a while, living in this town, and because at that time the industry in Kosovo was not very developed, we wanted to do things organically, by ourselves. We found all the locations; I found the actors in that town – most of them are non-professionals. Camera-wise, we really wanted to get at the energy of those spaces. I wanted to be surprised by these people. The first question that comes up [when you ask someone to appear in the film] is: “what’s so special about me?” We wanted the camera to allow them to find that within themselves. We never spoke about the script, but we wanted to generate a feeling on set, where everyone gets to the point where they think, “aha, this is why I’m here.” I like to try and get to what is necessary for the film. Venera is always surrounded by a lot of energy, but she’s not aware of it. This was our aim: to find the particular angle that can show both her, and all the energies that are circulating. I don’t like shots where you film one person at a time, because I don’t believe we’re singular in how we experience things around us. I really appreciate when there are more bodies around. [What with] Luis being a foreigner, I like that he didn’t get the [spoken] language very much. Instead, the language was body language, how people were responding to one another.

Looking for Venera (dir. Norika Sefa, 2021)

You also mention the idea of danger. One thing that the film captures really well is the sense, as an adolescent, that risk and excitement are two sides of the same coin – which is especially true for young women in an environment like this. How do you go about capturing that tension, that back and forth?

This word ‘danger’ was with us all the time. We didn’t name it out loud, but just being in this country is dangerous: how traffic works, how spaces mingle with one another. And it’s dangerous because of how little people know themselves, and how little time we spend on wanting to know ourselves. So, when it comes to a something like desire, something so fragile becomes for Venera almost supernatural; she doesn’t know if she can manage it. We never navigate our desire. The whole film deals with power as well. Desire, not knowing how to express desire, and the need for power: these are the three energies that circulate in the film. The law of the body and social law are two different things. We are a society that is bound to social laws, and I think this comes from our background, the need to show that we know what we’re doing without having the means to do so.

 

Let’s talk about Venera. The central performance from Kosovare Krasniqi is really compelling. It’s a very tricky performance: she’s constantly onscreen, but she’s never really at the centre of the action. She’s to one side, in the background, crowded out. So much of her performance is her observing other people, and we get to watch her recognition and reception of what’s going on around her. Can you tell us about Kosovare, how you found her, and how you went about directing that performance?

As soon as you mentioned Kosovare, I thought of the word ‘observation’, and then you used it as well… We saw around 1,500 girls before we found Kosovare. It was the last school we saw. My producers were going crazy – the film is called Looking for Venera and they wanted to know when we would find her. We had options, but I wanted to find both her and Dorina: she will not be there if Venera is not there, and vice versa. [Kosovare] was leaving school, and she was singing, but for herself. I found that interesting. If you sing, you might be heard, but you don’t necessarily want to be. That is what the character of Venera is about: she wants to be present, but she also wants to be on her own. When I approached her, the way she looked at you, her eyes trying to bond with you, was peculiar. Also, physically, she has strength. I could see that she was ready to deal with life.

in our society, women are used to failure. Men want to make their masterpieces, but we experimented a lot until we reached the point we wanted. We were not fearful, we were adaptive

One of the films we’re really happy to have in our library at Klassiki is Vera Dreams of the Sea by Kaltrina Krasniqi. In 2021, when Looking for Venera was released, Kosovan cinema had this year of international recognition: your film, Kaltrina’s film, Blerta Zaqiri’s film The Hive, Luana Bajrami’s film The Hill Where Lionesses Roar. They all received great notices at international festivals. As outsider observers, we jump to conclusions about film industries based on these kinds of successes. Speaking to Kaltrina, she had a lot to say about the history behind that. I wondered if you had any perspective to offer on that year in Kosovan film, about that generation of female filmmakers, or about what that international recognition says about Kosovo today.

2021 was the year that the explosion happened, but these films were a long time in the making. Look, what I really believe is that in our society, women are used to failure. We are much more comfortable with failing. I think the films we made aim for a new language. For such films, you need new means: of financing, production, the way you find actors, how you approach applications. Men want to make their masterpieces, but [we women] experimented a lot until we reached the point we wanted. We were not fearful, we were adaptive. I don’t want to generalise, but I believe that sometimes women from small countries, working in these conditions, are more adaptive to new means and ways [of working]. We didn’t have a formula to follow. It brought new nuances to the industry and the films we made.

 

Festival success is not the be all and end all – but has that year and those successes changed conditions for filmmakers on the ground in Kosovo?

Of course. First of all, you recognise that these things are possible. I think the Ministry of Culture and the Cinematography Centre are much more mobilised now, because they know there’s a lot of potential. We have a new law now about [funding] applications; as directors, we made a group to comment on the law. Of course, we make films because we want to communicate. But by reaching festivals, we also saw the whole process up to that point differently. We speak with much more confidence. It’s not about making things easy: the easier you make things, the more you conform to a model. I really hope that new generations are willing to experiment with every means of filmmaking. But it’s worth making the industry more sustainable, so everybody can work, so a set designer doesn’t have to work in a coffee shop at the same time. We were working with really minimal budgets. We had to mobilise, to bring the level up. I see there is a light. We know what our problems are and we’re ready to work on them.

Watch Looking for Venera as part of our partnership with goEast Film Festival until 16 May.