“Something unique and strange in some crazy corner of Europe”

PRIZREN, KOSOVO—I had a drama of my own trying to get down to Prizren to meet with directors of DokuFest. My cab driver, who spoke no English and who kept trying to speak with me in German, seemed lost and confused, just driving around Pristina. Then, just outside the Pristina city limits, his car broke down. He tried to explain to me what was going on, but I speak very little German and Serbian (let alone any Albanian, which is the most widely-spoken language in the country.) So I sat in the car at some random petrol station, calling Veton Nurkollari, the festival’s artistic director, and Eroll Bilibani, the executive director, to tell them I would be late for the interview.

After 20 minutes, the cabbie’s brother showed up and we finally got on the highway south to Prizren. He was speeding so, of course, we got pulled over—twice—by police and then, once in Prizren, Twiddle Dee and Twiddle Dumb couldn’t find the main bridge, where I was going to meet Veton. After repeated phone calls to him (the whole time I am thinking he and Eroll are going to wonder about what a ditz I am), we finally arrived at the bridge and luckily, there he was waiting for me. As we walked to the DokuFest offices, we laughed that I should have filmed the car ride and made a documentary short that we could screen at the festival. Damn, my one chance at being selected in a documentary festival and I had missed my chance!

Dokufest, founded 12 years ago and which opens this weekend and runs until August 25, has become not only the most important film festival in Kosovo, but also one of the most important documentary festivals in southern Europe. The festival—which takes place in site-specific locations across the picturesque Ottoman city—will be screening a fantastic array of almost 200 films from across the globe including “Shavi Tuta” from Georgia, “Char…the No Man’s Land” from India and Kenya’s “God is Rain.” The festival also plays hosts to workshops, discussions and DokuNights, which includes DJs and bands from across Europe.

So tell me a bit about how the festival started?

VETON: It started simply. After the war, we found ourselves with no cinema. When I was growing up, there were three cinemas, so it was normal to go out and see a film and then maybe hang out. So after the war, everything died.  So the cinema is still there, with garden, but the problem is that it has remained closed. So some friends and I had this simple and naïve idea to screen something and the cinema would reopen again.  But it still remains closed. That was the initial idea in 2002, so we decided to do a couple days of screenings and called it a festival, though not a real one.  And we tried our best to find the best films, but the only ones available were documentaries made in this country.

dfest_ambientWhy was that?

VETON: There was no production, so the only films being produced were some TV documentaries and some war reportage. So we started asking friends from around the region—Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia—to help us find more films. So we were to make a  And the success was great.  people stated asking, “Why is the festival only three days? And when are you going to do it again?” So there was an appetite. And the next year, it was slightly better, and on third year, we started searching  on how can we put on a festival. So we started a website, catalogue and making more and more connections in Europe and globally. So we slowly started to build from that so that now it is a huge festival, with seven screens, over 25,000 people attending and nearly 200 films being screened. But we still have no permanent cinema. (laughs). So whole festival has a punkish energy. In fact, it was called that very early, a punk festival.

EROLL: But it is quite serious in terms of the organization, programming and guests and the importance it has to the filmmaking community. So has become one of the largest documentary festivals in the whole Balkans.

I did a story about the history of Yugoslav filmmaking and it’s fascinating that, before the breakup of the country, it has one of the largest and most important filmmaking centers in the world. Do you think people in Kosovo today understand that historical importance?

VETON: I would like them to a little more. The younger generation does not know much about the history of filmmaking in the region. We showed a film about the Yugoslav Black Wave and we did a retrospective on Želimir Žilnik, with simple aim to show there was a history and legacy. So though young filmmakers not know, there is something there. Personally I think it is an interesting and important part of the culture of what was once the same country. Teachers do not use those references anymore, they talk about places like Hollywood instead.

This is the 12th year of the festival. How did it grow from this small, local idea  to being something that is an important date on the European film calendar?

VETON: It grew naturally, though maybe that sounds like a lie. (laughs).  But think grew naturally, there was this first big impulse. People were excited, they did not know what to expect. In three days, it became like small cultural explosion in the city. And from being small, it was like appetite, it just grew bigger, it grew even better, more interesting and maybe, in my opinion, there was a big shift when we introduced some very unusual screening locales.

04-kosovo_bigTell me about these site-specific locations? You use the whole city as a backdrop…

VETON : We bring city landmarks into cinema. Behind our building, there is a former cinema that is no longer there. We asked the local municipality if we could use the walls to show films. They said no the first year but the next year, they said it was fine but it had to go back to being a broken wall the day after the festival. Okay, sure, so we did that. We made an installation, chairs, screen and voila. And then we had first open –air alternative cinema in Kosovo. So there is a screening on the river, one on top of the castle, one on the walls of the castle. We invited friends from Hamburg to screen on every possible white wall, once or twice. We invited friends from Sheffield to play live during silent film screenings. And then created a very interesting buzz at festival circuit. Something unique and strange in some crazy corner of Europe in city of Prizren where no one makes films but like filmmaking very much a part of what we are now known for.

And the programming?

VETON: We have a good program, we do not compromis on program. We watch hundreds of films, we watch them all, and then we have a weekly gathering of the staff to discuss and decide. We only want to show the best.  In the end of the day, it comes down to taste. It is not that we have specific criteria we look for, we just have to love the film and want to share it.

EROLL: We recently saw “Searching for Sugarman” and we could not stop talking about it. And it won the Oscar for best documentary at the Oscars. And we screened “Five Broken Cameras” here last year, which was then nominated for an Oscar. So we were happy.

I assume it gets hectic during the festival, as it is growing each year.

EROLL: Last year, on opening night, we had four cinemas with screenings. We were in the main cinema but when I turned on my phone, I had dozens of missed calls from the castle, where they were sold out and did not have enough chairs. So people were standing, sitting on the floor to watch the film. Amazing. Our biggest partner is the city itself. Lots of people say, who have been here for the festival that the entire city turns into the festival. It is like a carnival atmosphere.

VETON: We incorporated the festival into the city and with the city, so you cannot do the festival without the city. Impossible. We could do it somewhere else, but it won’t work as well. Prizren is the backdrop and we use it in any way possible. If there is a landmark and can be used, we use it.

Are most of the attendees from Kosovo?

EROLL: Originally, yes, but now we get people not only from all over the region but across Europe as well. We become a stop for people who are travelling and exploring this part of Europe. And we even get volunteers who help staff the festival from other parts of Europe—Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands. I joined the DokuFest staff quite a bit later but they did something in beginning, introducing volunteerism, which is unheard of in Kosovo. Every department has volunteers, about 120 each year. Not only providing services, but also increasing own capacity. They are 16-19 years old and for them, it is a really good learning and training process before go to university. Many of them we hire, because throughout year we have other projects. We get around 700 applications.

What about the Kosovo film industry? Is that growing too? Blerta Zeqiri, won an award at Sundance last year for her short film, “The Return.”

VETON: Our film scene is getting more international interest. Of the more than 2000 films we are sent each year, about 50 come to us from Kosovo. Both fictional and short documentaries. When we started the festival, we had to call people and ask them to bring their films. We never had enough from here. After five or six years, the quality became high enough that we launched a competition. Now films from Kosovo have become a specific part of the festival and maybe because of our success, it initiated other smaller festivals across the country. So the situation is much better than when we started. Plus we go to schools and communities and screen films. We debate what is in the films, we have initiated  film clubs and have manuals for teachers who show documentaries in the classrooms. And we have invited kids from those film clubs to come here and meet with us. We teach them how to make films. The scene is really starting to take shape.