Watch Films, Not War: Kosovo’s Dokufest 2014

Dokufest is nine days, 237 films, six cinemas, and 13 thousand participants in a country I know almost nothing about.

While sitting in a cinema waiting for the start of Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portait, a film about the Syrian Civil War, two Austrian soldiers in camo uniforms sit next to me. This is not an ordinary thing to see in the cinema, but then, this is not an ordinary cinema. We are in a movie theater located in Europe’s youngest nation, Kosovo.

There are still more than 4,500 troops from around the world (739 from the United States) participating in a NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) peace-support operation. Camp Bondsteel, the biggest US foreign military base built since the end of Vietnam War, is just about 40 miles from this cinema.

Many might remember Kosovo from the CNN coverage 15 years ago. It was the first NATO war; some say it was ‘made’ just to cover Clinton’s impeachment trial and the Levinsky affair. The violent dissolution of Yugoslavia ended four years earlier, but still there remained this small, troubled region that nobody heard of.

It was inhabited mostly by Albanians, who felt insecure under the Serbian nationalist policy of Slobodan Milosevic. So, when the ethnic conflict re-escalated with massacres and bloody retributions, NATO bombed Serbian forces for 78 days, forcing them to retreat. The UN took over, and then, in 2008, Kosovo declared an independence that was recognized by some nations (US, UK, Germany, France) but not others (Spain, Russia, China, Brazil).

But I’m not here looking for war (it’s inevitable anyway), I’m here to participate in the documentary film festival Dokufest. Nine days, 237 films, six cinemas, 13 thousand participants and a country I know nothing about. I tried, first, to understand Kosovo by reading Claudio Magris’ Danube and Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon beforehand, and watching the BBC’s Death of Yugoslavia, PBS Frontline’s War in Europe, and finally, reading The Observer’s special report about the Milosevic trial. It was so much to absorb. Too much. I hoped the films at Dokufest would expand my understanding.

Prizren, the second biggest city in Kosovo and site of the Dokufest, is a beautiful medieval city. It’s set in the Sar Mountains, and clings to the steep slopes of the Bistrica river valley. The main square and its surrounding streets are packed with people sitting in the outdoor bars eating kebabs and pizzas, drinking tea or cold sodas (they rarely drink alcoholic beverages). There’s a heavy noise coming from the disco nearby, playing European summer hits you can hear all around the continent. While mostly a Muslim country, the people are wearing western clothing. Sometimes it’s almost indistinguishable from other Mediterranean countries like Greece, Italy or Spain.

The Dokufest is far from a dull meeting of cinephiles and unknown film directors. Reuters declared the event ‘the largest cultural event in Kosovo’ and it sometimes feels like a pop music festival. Three years ago PJ Harvey was here. There’s a special camping site for visitors. You can participate in a workshop about rakia (local fruit brandy) or learn how to brew craft beer. There are DJs spinning until 7AM.

The line-up of films is good, but I don’t expect premieres; Dokufest is far from Sundance and Cannes. You can choose from popular, mainstream documentary films such as the Nick Cave pic, 20,000 Days on Earth, to really obscure Balkan cinema. A part of the fest is dedicated to films about music, showing the death metal scene in Angola, a rural punk festival in Serbia, and a Pulp reunion gig. There’s an Armenian section and a posthumous retrospective of Michael Glawogger’s work.

The biggest section by far is Focus America, funded by the US Embassy and showing a very wide spectrum of films. Documentary behemoths such as Barbara Kopple (Harlan County USA), Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Life Itself) and Richard Pearce (Hearts and Minds) have sections of the festival dedicated to them. But there’s also a little known documentary, 1971 about whistleblower-wannabes in Pennsylvania during the Vietnam War, included in the main competition.

The variety of films is really indeed good, but they share similarities. War and immigration is omnipresent. New violent documentaries about Syria (Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait, Return to Homs) feature disturbing footage of executions, rape and warfare. Watchers of the Sky covers the history of genocide. Even an upbeat black comedy, The Forest, tracing Romania-Yugoslavia political relations, ends with blood and massacres. Its director explained that you cannot tell the story of the Balkans without telling of the violance.

Many films cover immigration. We have Albanians moving to Italy in Anija. Romanians living in Italy in Waiting for August. North Africans trying to reach Cyprus in Evaporating Borders. Armenians in exile in Endless Escape, Eternal Return, Iranian filmmaker Mania Akbar living in London in Life May Be. And of course, the aforementioned Syrians.

Not every screening was well attended. For example Kosovar or Albanian films are often sold out, while early showings of the American classic movies (Harlan County USA, Hearts and Minds) were almost empty (five to ten people in a cinema with 300 seats). Cave’s film saw a nearly full audience, while seats at the Syrian movies are half-empty.

After a couple of films I’m starting to recognize archival footage used multiple times, repeating itself: The Trnovo execution (part of the Srebrenica massacre) video where Bosnian Serbs are shooting people in the back and; Albanians trying to use ropes to climb ships leaving for Italy in 1991 (black and white footage that looks like its from the 60s, not 1991). I saw the same shots in a couple of movies. This has to be an important part of the Balkan history.

Dokufest started modestly in 2002 with a grant of 2,500 Deutsche marks (around $1,100 US) from the Soros Fund. It was just three years after the war, when Kosovo was still a UN-protected region, not an independent nation. There was just one outdoor cinema at the time, which showed 30 films and 500 visitors. Now there are six cinemas, including the scenic Kino Kalaja, built in a ruined fortress set on a mountain overwhelming the city, or Kino ne Lum, incorporated into the river bank.

Today, Dokufest brings around three million Euro to the struggling Kosovar economy, an indispensable help for a place with a 35 percent unemployment rate (55 percent among the youth). One of the results of the event is Doku-kino – the only full-time working cinema in the city, maintained by the same people who are responsible for the festival. It opened in 2013 (cinemas were closed in Prizren in late ‘90s), and is now one of the only two working cinemas in a country with a population of over one million (the second one is in the capital, Prishtina). At this writing the theatre has a poster of Guardians of the Galaxy outside, and it invites audiences to enjoy its premiere of Deliver Us from Evil.

Just as the festival grew, Kosovo also developed quickly, too. Now it’s not that easy to find remnants of war in Prizren. Apart from the aforementioned Austrian troops, I saw KFOR (the Kosovo Force) only two more times in the form of German soldiers drinking beers in a café (yet again, in full camo outfit) and a passing-by car filled with Italian Carabinieri. Historic buildings are renovated, often from US or EU funds. Only the Christian buildings are in a pretty bad shape, as a mostly Muslim population is not really taking care of them. Kaljaja, a Serbian castle, is ruined (there is a renovation underway). Our Lady of Lejvis, an orthodox church, the only UNESCO heritage site in the city, is in a miserable state. In front of the Church of St. George is a 24/7 police patrol and there are signs banning vandalism and the use of handguns.

Kosovo Albanians understandingly don’t like to talk about the war. They blame it for the lack of funding for their own cinematography. They see it as a reason why shops are filled with foreign products. Not just Coca-Cola and Unilever, but due to the extinction of their own industry, they have Croatian Podravka ,or chocolate from Macedonian Vitaminka. Beneath the happy atmosphere of the festival, you can often see amongst the locals a grim pessimism. Many Kosovars are complaining about the lack of possibilities for youth (unemployment rate among youth is 55 percent). I had heard multiple times that Dokufest is ‘like a fairy tale’ and you cannot judge Kosovo as a whole from it.

I heard that after the Dokufest, the city of Prizren is not very entertaining. My Albanian friend described the city as poor and devoid of young people (according to her, young Kosovars can only be found in two places – in Pristina and abroad). I will have left Prizen with fond memories of an entertaining film festival and a city that defies the odds in spite of its rough history.

On my return trip, I have to change planes in Serbia’s capital, Belgrade. One of the first things that greets me at the airport is a big map showing Kosovo as part of Serbia.

Jakub Mejer is a journalist from Poland. He’s a recipient of the European Parliament journalism scholarship.