The Long Way Home
The past will forever remain a foreign country. Such a sentiment rings true not only when quoting esteemed historian David Lowenthal who paved the way for heritage studies to become a discipline of its own. Film’s material flesh is embossed with the insignia of pastness, as inevitable as the flow of time documented on celluloid, and it is this temporal (and spatial) scission that endows cinema with an inherently nostalgic character, fit to reflect memory’s perambulations.
With twenty shorts grouped under four strands, Internationale Kurzfilmtage Winterthur pays tribute to Kosovar filmmakers both young and acclaimed by selecting Kosovo for its 2021 Country in Focus. While the films differ in their approach, visual style, and subject matters, many of them are committed to telling the story of Kosovo in reverse, making use of cinema’s aforementioned temporal lag. Therefore, all the films become contemporary with the viewer paying attention to them in the here and now, regardless of the production year. A survey of five documentary shorts here exemplifies the attempt to bridge the insistent gap between past and present.
In ‘she asked me where i was from’, Bruges-based, Kosovo-born filmmaker Aulona Fetahaj recounts a conversation she once had with an unnamed girl, inquiring about her origin. Small talk or not, “Where are you from?”, is a question every immigrant dreads all the while secretly taking pride in the self-evidence of the answer. Yes, the universal answer no one dares phrase as definitively, saying: “Not from here.” Ambivalence is the tissue of memory as the notion of ‘home’ causes a lifelong ache in every person who has uprooted their life in search for a better, albeit foreign one. The film’s (voiceless) narrator, Aulona herself, seems insistent to share the ambivalence she feels in as many ways possible. Making use of the desktop documentary form, she pokes at the screen with her cursor, also zooming in and out, guiding the viewer’s eyes throughout her screen recording without ever uttering a word. Communication is done through English subtitles and typed in notes, as the cursor pointer explores an unknown vastitude painted in bloody orange. The extreme close-up of this object is grainy and holed and a crackling sound (as if a fireplace was warming up a house) sinks in the background of a most mysterious opening.
With a few clicks, the image shrinks to scale with the desktop, revealing a spheric, familiar object – a planet, is it Mars, Venus, or the Moon? Since it’s already Other to Earth, it does not matter. When the past is concerned, the only way to gain perspective, to behold and caress it, is by stepping back, and contemplating it from a distance.
Fetahaj repurposes memories by mixing digital and analogue – with scanner copies of family albums, the 90s Kodak shots are then magnified with scrutiny. Once contextualised as just a few of the hundreds of files in a browser tab, the overwhelming amount of moments captured teeters on the verge of turning into a motion picture (or a GIF?) in themselves. This quasi-mobility is aided not only by the digitised archive’s cornucopia, but also by the proximity, the cluster of JPEG images that have translated the tactile past into zeros and ones to fit on the filmmaker’s laptop.
With ‘she asked me where i was from', Fetahaj visually expands on an imagined conversation, one which occurs again and again without the need for an external stimulus, or querier in the first place. The process of turning the question in one’s head is aided here by the act of browsing, the fleeting-yet-staged arrangement of the screen recording itself, the process of wandering through memories that aren’t yours. Google Maps also plays an important role in the attempt to localise the ache of one’s past, as if the street view would show us where it hurts, while mediating the experience of an absent physicality through digital means appears to be the only way to get closer to a home that never was. For Aulona Fetahaj and her family, Flemish is “a language that doesn’t know how to pronounce [us] correctly”, and this linguistic chasm reflects another layer of ambivalence: between belonging and self-annihilation.
Another short, also to be found in the Rebuilding Identities strand of the Focus, titled ‘Sans le Kosovo’ also portrays memorial peregrinations, but does so with the help of voiceover and spoken French. Both the Swiss-Albanian filmmaker Dea Gjinovci and her father Asllan converse in French, the language itself instrumental to achieving ethical distance. The film tells the story of a literal journey, but backwards, retracing the exile route of Dea’s father to Switzerland in the 1970s. French, like the film form of a travelogue, becomes the necessary tool which elicits storytelling and also secures a safe space for such intimacy. Since it’s the story of the father, he is granted moments of silence and solitude on his way back ‘home.’
In 1968, Asllan took part in the student protests demanding the autonomy of Kosovo in Yugoslavia – an act of bravery and assertiveness that caused him to later flee the country. His three-year journey from Pristina to Geneva is the subject of ‘Sans le Kosovo’. The filmmaker’s attempt to share the unshareable burden of intergenerational trauma and to support a taciturn sibling in his own journey of reconciliation with the past, has shaped the project as somewhat of a road film in reverse. Setting off from Geneva to an Italian refugee camp, the barracks in Padriciano, where memorials still stand, to a hiding place in Croatia, the journey takes the Gjinovci family back to Kosovo, to Asllan’s birthplace. The contained tone of voice in interviews and voiceover suggests the undercurrents of exile trauma and their tight grip on memory.
The film uses news footage of the Kosovo war in the 90s to splice up the journey in a parallel editing, combining the objective and the subjective view: what the world has seen through TV coincides with what the filmmaker herself has seen and known. Such a collision also suggests that her own second-hand trauma – of not having born witness herself – which is an overlooked phenomenon, or a cultural diagnosis even, amongst children of the post-war generations in all of Eastern Europe. However, ‘Sans le Kosovo’ is careful not to impose one generational trauma onto another, but instead allows a synthesis, an amalgamation of mutual understanding and support. After all, whether Gjinovci was making the film for her father, or for herself, is an irrelevant question to ask.
When remembering his times at the triage centre, Asllan describes it as dominated by ‘human osmosis’, and the mental image of cohabitation and collective suffering is later reinforced by close-ups of a memorial made out of scattered stones that act as depositories for messages written by the progeny of refugees – words of gratitude and appreciation that may have never reached the people on the run. The peculiarly layered relationship between past and present shines through in ‘Sans le Kosovo’ which stylistically plays out as a more conventional interview-based documentary and travelogue, but the intimacy granted by the shared silences and an attentive, floating camera that inhales the ghosts of the past, revisits the conundrums of political exile in a deeper way precisely because of the film’s formal simplicity. As a tribute to a state of mourning without a telos, ‘Sans le Kosovo’ synthesises the pain of sacrificing one’s present, past, and future for the possibility of an oh so fragile world as an alternative: be it a pastless one.
Samir Karahoda addresses that specific kind of stasis which characterises the intergenerational traumatic gap in his short film ‘In Between’ (Në Mes) – a series of out-of-sync interviews and shots of people who’ve built identical houses for their children to one day return to. In contrast with the shared journey in ‘Sans le Kosovo’, here the sons and daughters of Kosovar fathers (yes, only the father’s point of view is present) – are absent, living abroad. Economically-fuelled migration is a decisive factor in the way Kosovo’s population is shaping up today, while also playing a role in the geriatric tendencies of many Eastern European countries since waves of young and able people flee in search of economic fortitude (and hopefully non-exploitative fair-paid labour). There is a dissonance to belonging, in both the ways the fathers imagine their children’s futures, and the actuality of their absence: all the houses portrayed in the film are empty, uninhabited, often still in construction. However, the ‘homes-to-be’ are uncompromisingly identical, an insistence on such uniformity revealing not so much a totalitarian strive for equality, than remnants of a pre-war idealism.
Another type of dissonance offers a way to fold back into an imagined past while dreaming about a future which brings the whole family together and no one is away. While voices and their confession don’t usually match with the medium shots and close-ups of the people being interviewed, the result is less jarring than soothing, since this artistic decision undertaken by Karahoda mimics the families’ impossible togetherness, the homes being mere houses, and the family members absent. Is unity impossible? Can we ever become whole again?
In order to seek out consolation, we turn to a documentary made half a decade ago and found in the Thicker Than Blood subsection. In ‘117’, pioneer Besim Sahatçiu has documented a past now lost, and its historical status testifies to the irretrievable and evocative qualities of the past. A record from the times before industrialisation changed both the life and landscape of the corner of Yugoslavia that would be Kosovo, ‘117’ intimates a rural way of life that is fully cinematically present precisely because of its absence. Screening this film now, watching it alongside the works of filmmakers belonging to the next generations, conjures a rich tapestry of memories seen and imagined. The film’s ethnographic qualities can, in theory, feel both welcoming and intimate because of its portrayal of family life, as well as invulnerable as a museum artifact. In a documentary portrait like this, about a family of 117 cohabitating in one estate, anonymity is a natural consequence. The film opens with an elderly man, the supposed patriarch or one of the many – who brags about numbers, since after the recent birth of four boys, the family now amounts to 117. When, however, he tries to name the boys in question, his memory fails him. It can only hold so much.
Gladly, cinema can capture and retain so much more. Even if the camera lingers on situations and relations, rather than faces; more often over long shots than close-ups, its still presence recording a reality that’s already inevitably slipped away, mercilessly abstracting a personal story into a building block of a nation-building myth. It’s not the film’s fault – this is how it works around here. However, watching the film now, coupled with its programme-companions, revisits the primordial urge to construct an already-ossified myth. A milestone for Kosovo’s documentary filmmaking, the voiceover-less ‘117’ can be regarded as the most readily apparent piece of history within the whole programme. Community is inscribed in historical documents more readily than individual stories are.
If the other documentaries discussed here are imbued with personal trauma and treatment of microhistories, the gravitational force of ‘117’ encourages the expansion of our ambulation through the past’s endless fields. Whose past then, if Kosovo, as the self-governed entity it is now, did not ‘exist’ back then? Since everything captured by the camera on film is communal, lived life, whose portrait can the film truthfully offer? Is it everyone’s? Or no one’s? Questions of possession resurface again and again because of how contested the notion of a Kosovar identity has been, whether seen as fluid or as purposefully solidified.
To balance out the historicity, we turn to youthful optimism, inadvertently tinted with nostalgia – found in ‘Kiss Me, Now’, a six minute experimental documentary composed out of 8mm home video footage that could be anyone’s property. Norika Sefa, whose feature film ‘Looking for Venera’ has been doing the festival rounds this year, presents a charming study of human gestures and ahistorical intimacy. In the repurposed footage, one can see a big party, with its many guests greeting, exchanging kisses as a hello, as a sentiment, or just a habit. Indeed, these scenes could be shot at any family home in Kosovo, and any time. Or could they?
The film’s command of intimacy stems from, firstly, the tenderly suspicious way it deals with the primary material, the kisses exchanged, but another layer of the closeness wraps the frames tightly in the refuge of anonymity, and respectively, the war in absentia. By the looks of the home video, it can be dated anywhere in the 90s. Could it be that this happened just before the bombings started? Could it be that these were the last kisses these people would give each other? Maybe the last times they saw each other? And yet, the pecks, the smooches, the unsolicited touch of that old auntie’s lips, they stay and persist, timeless.
One could even say that the film exposes our more recent process of estrangement, the forceful detachment from kissing as a means of communication, and the subsequent transformation of kisses and corporeal intimacy into an exotic taboo during the COVID pandemic. In addition, the nostalgia embedded in the yellowish grains of this festive home footage invites space for speculation and curiosity, as if the film will, by deconstructing its subject matter, help us learn anew something about ourselves we’d have forgotten in the not-so-distant past. Past, present, and future, superimposed in every film frame, in every celluloid strip, in every pixel of this screen – there are myriads of ways for Kosovar filmmakers to come home, and what’s a journey if its detours don’t ache and heal, ache again and heal again?
1 ‘Në Mes’ (Samir Karahoda, 2019)
2 ‘she asked me where i was from’ (Aulona Fetahaj, 2020)
3 ‘Sans le Kosovo’ (Dea Gjinovci, 2016)
4 ‘117’ (Besim Sahatçiu, 1976)
5 ‘Kiss Me, Now’ (Norika Sefa, 2020)