Filmmakers in the Balkan state of Kosovo are helping to inspire and empower people, and that’s why Switzerland is supporting them.
The country declared its independence in 2008 and is slowly re-establishing itself after a devastating civil war in 1999 and years of neglect before that as part of rump Yugoslavia. Incomes are slowly increasing, but Kosovo remains the third-poorest country in Europe, with youth unemployment at around 60%.
It’s not surprising that so many young people have left to search for work. More than 111,000 Kosovars have made their homes in Switzerland, according to government figures from the end of 2018. Filmmakers in Kosovo are among those trying to reverse the trend and motivate young people to stay and help improve things at home.
Where is 'home'?
Independent filmmaker Ilir Hasanaj is the son of a political activist who fled from Kosovo to Switzerland when Ilir was just seven. Ilir grew up in Winterthur and graduated from the Zurich University of the Arts in 2015. He travelled to Kosovo in 2012 to make a film and decided to stay there.
He was part of 'Termokissexternal link' in Pristina, a community of young activists who got together in 2016, occupied an abandoned building and turned it into a functional community space, raising the money for renovations through concerts. Ilir started a film club there and feels Kosovo has given him fresh inspiration.
Dokufest: bringing cinema to the people
Ilir is part of a wave of new filmmakers in Kosovo who are addressing social issues, environmental problems and giving a voice to young people. The annual Dokufestexternal link in the pretty medieval town of Prizren in the southwest provides a platform for their work.
The festival was started by volunteers in 2002 with almost no funding and very few films. In the 2019 edition, 280 films could be seen alongside musical events and art exhibitions. When swissinfo visited, hotels were fully booked, and bars and restaurants were doing a roaring trade, catering to an international group of clients as well as Kosovars.
Dokufest ambitiously aims to change society for the better. Its 'Cinema at Your Doorexternal link' project takes film to the people, using a solar-powered pop-up travelling cinema in towns and rural villages. The films shown focus on democracy and human rights issues, ecology and preservation of cultural heritage.
The Swiss foreign ministry supports films and cultural activities in Kosovo because they are thought to facilitate transition, helping in efforts to fight poverty, prevent or resolve conflicts and ensure good governance, freedom of expression and democratisation.
A green touch
The Dokufest programme department, Dokulabexternal link, develops online teaching resources to explain complex issues to school children and promote social development. It also trains young filmmakers through workshops and camps. The Lab recently organised a travelling film event featuring documentaries on how urban spaces have been developed around the world, for better or worse. The filmmakers attended the screenings and discussed development issues with their audiences.
Head of Dokulab, Eroll Bilibani, said, “These areas where we are urbanising without any solid plan affects climate change. We wanted to inspire our mayors and civil society leaders to take action. Mayors can provide bike lanes, they can provide more green spaces”.
Dokufest received €30,000 (CHF32,000) from Switzerland in 2019. Pierre-Alain Eltschinger from the Swiss foreign ministry explained why: “The organisation has become one of the main catalysts when it comes to addressing important social issues through art, documentary films and photography. It organises debates focusing on subjects such as war and its consequences”.
Save our cinemas
Alongside all this talk about social issues, there is also a growing focus on the value of tangible heritage as young people, artists and filmmakers fight to wrest old cinemas from the clutches of property developers. In 2007, the mayor of Prizren announced that the Lumbardhi Cinema was to be torn down to make way for new development. Thousands of people signed petitions to save the cultural centre.
A similar battle is being fought in the northern city of Peja, one of the largest cities in Kosovo located at the foot of the Albanian Alps. In 2010, a group of young filmmakers started using the cinema for the Anibar International Animation Festivalexternal link. They acquired a 15-year lease but soon found out there were plans to “repurpose” the building. Anibar organised a successful public resistance campaign to keep the bulldozers at bay.
In 2019 the Swiss doubled their funding for Anibar to €25,000. Eltschinger explained the increase: “The festival managed to transform animation into an important medium in Kosovo by encouraging the production of animated film and organising the screening of animated films throughout Kosovo”.
The 2019 edition of Anibar featured more than 300 animated films from around the world. The theme was “Hopes and Fears” and addressed the insecurities of young people.
Anibar director Vullnet Sanaja says one of the biggest concerns for Kosovars is restrictions on travel. “They can’t go and see the world, so we bring the world to Kosovo”, he explained.