Independence Days: Kosovo Stages Dokufest
By Doug Whyte
Prizren, Kosovo--perhaps the only city in the world with a film festival...but without a regular working movie theater. Dokufest, billed as an international documentary and short film festival, was started seven years ago by Festival Director Aliriza Arënliu and Programming Director Veton Nurkollari. After the war they wanted to bring culture back to the devastated city, and with no working movie theater in Prizren, they decided to launch a film festival to bring cinema back to Kosovo. And now, when movies finally do grace the big screen in Prizren once a year, they are not Hollywood blockbusters, but intense documentaries about politics, war, refugees, faith and recovery. Every August hundreds of Kosovo citizens swarm the makeshift outdoor cinemas to watch stories of Israeli women in war, English brain surgeons and love between blind people. It is an inspiring sight to see.
Having just declared its independence earlier this year, the newly formed Republic of Kosovo is still under the protection of KFOR, a UN-mandated NATO-led peacekeeping force. In spite of this widespread military presence, life in Prizren is surprisingly laid back. Cafés are filled all hours of the day and night, and espresso and raki (a grape-based brandy) flow freely. The relaxed attitude of the people and the festival in general were welcome changes from my "busy" American life.
Dokufest, presented last month, boasts two open-air and two indoor cinemas. In addition to feature documentaries, there is also a strong program of both fiction and nonfiction short films. The open-air cinema screenings at night are unquestionably the highlight of the festival, as the 100-degree heat finally fades along with the sun, and a cool breeze gives Prizren a much needed energy boost. The indoor cinemas run only during the day and don't have air conditioning, resulting in small audiences of hardcore filmgoers (and jury members) sweating out the screenings.
If not having a fully operating movie theater isn't enough of a hurdle, power outages contribute handily to the complicated logistics of Dokufest. There is only one power plant for all of Kosovo, so every day the electricity goes out for hours at a time. Thankfully, KFOR provides the festival with massive generators to keep the films running as smoothly as possible. Support for the festival seems strong with many sponsors, including the US Embassy, which made my trip to Kosovo possible. I was invited by Veton Nurkollari to be on the International Jury, but I have to admit that I didn't know much about Kosovo and was hesitant at first to attend due to stories I had half-heard about violent conflicts with the Serbs (who aren't crazy about Kosovo's independence). But the festival is located in southern Kosovo, where it is as safe as any region in Europe. And though the unemployment rate is very high in Prizren, crime seems almost non-existent. The locals couldn't have been friendlier, and I spent countless hours at the cafés talking politics, life and film. Even more surprising was the love Kosovans have of Americans and American culture. Kids in Prizren know more about my hometown basketball team, the Portland Trailblazers, than I do.
Since I was on the International Jury, the majority of my time was spent watching and discussing the international submissions (and I unfortunately missed many of the regional films). There were many great international films in competition including Geoffrey Smith's The English Surgeon, Phie Ambo's Mechanical Love, Eric Daniel Metzgar's Life Support Music and Astrid Bussink's The Lost Colony. But in the end the jury all agreed on the film with the most heart-To See If I'm Smiling by Tamara Yarom. This film is a disturbing look at the actions and behavior of young women soldiers in the Israeli army. Israel is the only country in the world where 18-year-old girls are drafted for military service, and the women in the film--veterans who have tried to bury the past for years--speak openly about their experiences. This film is simple on the surface: talking-head interviews with archival b-roll. But the vulnerability of the women, and their obvious trust and connection with the filmmaker, make for an extremely intense and personal film that explores in depth the impact war can have on the human psyche.
One film out of my assigned international competition films that I did happen to see was Ben Kampas' Upstream Battle, winner of the Dokufest Human Rights Award. It was strange to be halfway across the world in a dark theater in Kosovo watching a German film about an issue and story in my own backyard: Native Americans on the Klamath River in Northern California and Southern Oregon fight for their salmon against an energy corporation, perhaps triggering the largest dam removal project in history. It's a great documentary that covers both sides of a universal issue, and it's having its North American Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 8.
A unique solution to the lack of cinemas in Prizren was to bring in "A Wall Is A Screen," a traveling road show of films put on by young cinema activists from Hamburg, Germany. After meeting in the town square, they took us on a tour through Prizren, screening short films on the sides of buildings and homes. The program ended with the audience sitting on the cement in a dark playground watching a short film about kids in a playground scheming for ways to get into a movie theater. A beautiful cinematic experience.
Dokufest is a special festival that is about nothing more than the passion of film. To produce such a successful event against such remarkable odds is an impressive feat. Now with Kosovo's newly realized independence, I imagine that we will see Dokufest continue to grow and flourish in the coming years.
Doug Whyte (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the director of media arts programs for KDHX Community Media, the creator and producer of the International Documentary Challenge (www.docchallenge.org), and a documentary filmmaker (www.fullmindfilms.com). He lives and works in Portland, Oregon.