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10th edition: Dokufest, Prizren, Kosovo

Dokufest no 10To get back to Kosovo this year I flew to Tirana, Albania, which has a brand new airport. I’m told it’s at least a 2.5 hours drive to Prizren, “if the traffic is good” on a newly built motorway which winds through the mountains for a journey that used to take up to 8 hours. I’m assured the driver “used to race rally” and relax into my seat – never mind the Italian car which later blocks us from over-taking by hogging the line, at 160km/h; and the 10 cm which separate the bumpers of our cars. I ask the driver if he’s seen “Senna”, the documentary – as if that might alleviate my sweaty palms, or distract him from pursuing the chase. (He hadn’t.)

After some considerable road rage involving honking horns and middle fingers, I arrive in the serene old centre of Prizren with wonderful memories of last year’s trip, and a long list of films I want to see, and people I want to meet. Veton Nurkollari (artistic director of Dokufest), assembled over 200 filmmaker guests & jury members this year, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the festival in style.

CobblesOn first impression I notice that things have changed in the town – new hotels are being built in the centre, old streets and forecourts have been cobbled and cleaned up, some buildings, mosques and churches have been renovated. The ethos of watching the films “open air” hasn’t changed, however. The river bed cinema is still there, as well as the cinema at the castle wall and Cinema Bahçe, in the city centre. And some indoor venues for day time screenings.

Last year was a good programme, but this year Veton definitely pulled out a bumper issue; around 180 docs and short films: it included a spotlight on Mohsen Makhmmalbaf and James Longley’s work, both in attendance; a new section “Unorthodox” for those boundary defying films like Empire North and Le Quattro Volte, I’m Still Here, Son of God, etc.; a Balkan section; Artists on Film; Dox Fests at Dokufest and a few more, including the International Competition.

One of my highlights was finally watching the festival favourite Leonard Retel Helmrich’s Position Among the Stars high up on the castle wall. To take part in an Indonesian family’s life for two hours – “POV insect” included – is a privilege. Helmrich’s fluid camera work is key to his cinematic language; his gaze does not dwell on poverty, but on humour, surprise and universal relationship struggles within a family.

Another stand out screening and part of the Cities on Film programme, was watching the classic Man with a Movie Camera on the river bed cinema with live accompaniment by the Sheffield duo In the Nursery. What an endlessly modern film, with a smooth electronic/ambient score. I had forgotten there was a graphic birth scene, and some breath-taking montages that could have been edited last year as far as I’m concerned.

Other new films I liked was Nicholas Geyrhalter’s Abendland, looking at Europe by night on a big Gursky-type canvas; Gabriella Bier’s Love During Wartime, a love story between a feisty Israeli dancer and a Palestinian artist and their struggle to be together; and Mona Nicoara’s Our School – a subtle film about three Roma children from a small Transylvanian town who participate in a (EU) project to desegregate the local school. The film denies us the more common journey towards “hope”, but shows the systemic inability in people’s hearts and minds to embrace difference and the emotional & psychological effects it has on the Roma children who cannot even begin to consider to celebrate their “diversity”.

PJ Harvey - Let England ShakeDokufest’s big star guest this year was English singer PJ Harvey who came to present her album Let England Shake on the big screen, with videos directed and shot by renowned photographer Seamus Murphy. To hear her haunting music, projected in the middle of Prizren, with the pop music of the local bar wafting in, made for a special moment – along with the cat who was chasing a mouse underneath the cinema screen.

Beer & Poltics & PrizrenThe main plaza full of restaurants and cafes was once again the centre for gathering guests until late at night, dawn even. The Dokufest bubble engulfed us in endless conversations about film and politics, the smoke of the kebab grill wafting upwards, among the raising of glasses of beverage, the sound of the call to prayers and the disco beats. Dokufest variety.

“If you drink from the well in the market square it means you come back.” Veton tells me. Well I’m not sure I did last year, but I’ll be back for sure. I heart Prizren.

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Dokufest: Prizren, Kosovo 31/7-7/8


After a stunning flight over the Swiss Alps, Venice and the Croatian coast, the weather turns hazy and I can see numerous farm fields on fire and it starts to rain. At Pristina airport I realise  my luggage didn’t make it through in London and that I’ll have to wait for 2 days for my suitcase. Oh well! I share a lift with filmmaker Rowland Jobson who is here with his Venice-premiered film Girl Like Me. I’ve been invited to be on the jury for the international competition, and we’re screening Peter in Radioland by Johanna Wagner, Unearthing the Pen by Carol Salter and Amy Hardie’s The Edge of Dreaming at the festival. It takes us two hours from Pristina airport to Prizren, a beautiful town in the South of Kosovo, in stop and go traffic. The sun is setting and the light is stunning, looking across the mountainous countryside – houses half-built, abandoned cars on the side of the road, a traffic accident…and we pass the German army barracks as we enter Prizren; around 2000 soldiers are still stationed here we’re told.

We make it just in time to go to the opening night film, Into Eternity by Danish director Michael Madsen, which deals with a unique solution for nuclear waste: how about we bury it 500 metres deep in the north-west of Finland for 100,000 years, in a “permanent depository”? But how do we prevent future generations from thinking they have found mystical burial grounds, a hidden treasure? How do we communicate the “invisible” danger of radioactivity to future humans who will not share the same signage as we do now? The film provokes and meditates on these issues and plays with the notions of time well beyond the human imagination. The audience is captive, the screening is open air and around 10pm the local mosques’ call to prayer add to the film’s powerful soundtrack. Slightly surreal!

Prizren is buzzing – it is holiday and wedding season, and scores of young people (and a vast majority of men) are out and about and partying until late at night. Tomorrow I pick up my pass and start watching films.



Today I had breakfast with the lovely Pamela Cohn (check out her documentary blog still in motion) and tackle the first films in the afternoon – Day of Darkness by Jay Rosenblatt, a moving film about suicide told through found b/w footage, and The Mouth of the Wolf, the most talked about documentary coming out of Italy right now, which chronicles the relationship between a macho ex-con and his lover, a transsexual former junkie. Afterwards we meander along the river towards a festival dinner with local food on the menu and meet October Country director Mike Palmieri, and Doug Block, who is here with his film The Kid’s Grow Up.  Just as the sun is setting over Prizren, Mike and I head up to the castle walls, where one of the three open air screens towers high above the city.

An appropriate film to watch from above: David Needs to Fly by David Sieveking (produced by Lichtblick Film) – is an unconventional expose film about David Lynch and Transcendental Meditation, or “TM” (made famous through The Beatles and Donovan in the late 60’s), centred around the director’s search for his own “truth”, as Lynch suggests to him early on. Little does he know quite what the truth will reveal, besides a hefty charge for his own initiation into TM. With many twists and turns, the film keeps surprising the viewer in its increasingly epic scale. Perhaps only a German filmmaker could have made this film – and it rightly opened the Berlinale Panorama/Dokumente section this year. I salute the first festival in the US to programme the film…


Today I used the small but fine videotheque to catch up on some films and chased my suitcase, the first delivery of which was thwarted due to an incomplete address (and a brandnew hotel which hasn’t even opened its doors officially yet), thus the luggage had travelled back to Pristina one more time. We had an official invitation from the municipality today and were escorted to the mayor’s “white house” for a reception, apparently a first in the 9 editions of the festival! We walk past plenty of bridal shops and clothes stores full of festive wear and shake ten officials’ hands upon entering the gardens. The tables are heavy with food, wine, cheese and the media is on standby with cameras. (The media sponsor prints and distributes a daily festival newspaper in English every day during Dokufest.) The mayor suggests the fest is well on its way of becoming the “new Cannes” and announces his pride in the increasingly international reputation of the festival. We eat plenty of food and mingle. I speak to Sven from A Wall is A Screen who is preparing for his screening programme in the centre of Prizren tomorrow evening. With more than 500 shorts in their archive they select interesting and relevant locations to project short films onto walls as part of guided city tours of a different kind. This is the first “performance” in Kosovo, and there have been quite a few technical difficulties.

View from Castle

The nightlife in Prizren is astonishing. With an average age of 25, Kosovo bears the Saatchi and Saatchi marketing strapline of “The Young Europeans” (a fancy ad campaign tells us before every film). Since Kosovo’s independence has not been declared illegal last week, the passport situation has actually become worse for “normal” Kosova people – until general visa restrictions are lifted, especially in those countries which have acknowledged Kosovo (including UK and Germany for example). So for the moment Kosovo finds itself in an interesting situation: Somewhat independent, but also locked into their own region; lots of young people trying to get out to make a living. The population in the summertime rises by about 1 million Kosova who come back for an extended holiday, a Swiss-Kosovo-Albanian tells me.

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