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Building a Film Festival from Scratch: An Interview with Nita Deda, the Director of DokuFest

A documentary film festival in Prizren, Kosovo that is helping build a community.
Now in its 15th year, DokuFest in Kosovo, focusing on both Balkan and international documentaries, is one of Europe’s most intriguing documentary film festivals at the moment. Set in the small medieval city of Prizren, it prides itself on a unique atmosphere of intimacy, an easy going pace, resourcefulness, originality and goodwill.
Adored by both the local population and the foreign filmmakers, journalists and other guests who every August flock to Prizren in masses, DokuFest is one of the few major cultural events in a country where the political situation is still a bit precarious. Starting three years after the war in Kosovo, the organizers of the festival had to deal with the lack of infrastructure, such as cinema theaters. The cinema Lumbardhi, named after the river that is running through the city, was one of the two remaining cinemas in the country; and making it the heart of their festival, the team later played a pivotal role in preventing the city of Prizren from tearing it down and building a shopping mall instead. DokuFest plays a political role in the community in other ways, too: for example, by starting a discourse on matters of gender and sexuality in a fairly conservative environment, and by providing a space for reflecting on the war and its consequences.
Nita Deda has been working with the festival continuously for the past six years—managing the music events for DokuNights, working as Head of Communication, and, for the last two years, leading DokuFest as its Festival Director.

NOTEBOOK: Could you tell us a bit about how the festival evolved in its 15 years of existence?
DEDA: It started in 2002, just after the war in Kosovo, when there was an amazing energy of hope. Prizren was known for a very strong cinema culture because of the Lumbardhi cinema, so it was the right moment for a group of friends to come together, wanting to do something for the city. There was no cultural event or anything like that going on, but they had a nostalgic memory of going to that cinema. They were from completely different backgrounds; one was a psychologist, Veton [Nurkollari, the artistic director of the festival] was a photographer, and the others were working in several different businesses. First, they were thinking of doing a photography festival and then decided on a film festival. In the end, they settled for documentaries, because they were cheaper to screen than fiction films. At first, they were only screening 20 of them or so, mostly from the region. They had no idea how to run a festival, so they would go to other festivals to see how a program is curated and how a jury is done. For the first couple of years, it was all done voluntarily and they would even invest their own money. They had no money to pay for the billboards or the posters, so they would all go up on a truck with the dates of the festival and drove around Kosovo. Despite the obstacles, the spirit was there—the spirit of “nothing is impossible,” which has remained with the group through the 15 years—except now, we are screening more than 200 films each year.
When after the war, Kosovo as a country started going in the wrong direction despite the initial hope—the politicians that took office were corrupt, and in a way, they took the hope away—people did not feel a part of the country anymore. DokuFest presented an alternative, a chance to do something. Because of that passion, a community started to form, and it only grew bigger and bigger. It introduced a spirit of voluntarism in the city, so a lot of people joined, especially young ones. Even now, we get 700 volunteer applications every year, and one of the hardest things we have to do is to select just 150. But something amazing happens with the staff, the volunteers, and the people who come here. It’s like an army is being created.
NOTEBOOK: You mentioned promoting the festival by driving around with a truck; how did the festival deal with the lack of cinema theaters and other challenges of the missing infrastructure after the war? The outdoor cinemas you’ve built have seem to become quite trendy now—like some sort of “pop-up” cinemas.
DEDA: Well, you can go wild with ideas if you have no options. If you have no cinemas, you can come up with screening films on top of a river—and then, after 10 years, this cinema makes it into several internet blogs’ lists of the most beautiful outdoor cinemas! But it was originally a result of a necessity and a struggle. We screen films on the walls of a fortress; every year, we do these little experiments to see what works and what doesn’t. This year, at the castle, we have the “sunset cinema.” There was no sun yet so far, but we hope it will be sunny tomorrow to see how it’s working out. Basically, it’s a festival that has to be built from scratch: you have no cinemas, so you have to build cinemas. You have to teach people how to screen a film. It is a continuous work of a whole year to bring something to Prizren for 9 days.
On the other hand, this city is small, but has a lot of options—there’s so many things to do. The beauty of it is that the whole city becomes a festival. The houses open up—our guests often stay with the people of Prizren—and they love it, there’s a sense of intimacy. They are introduced to the city through the people that they’re staying with. It’s relaxed and I think people like that.
The other day I saw there is the hashtag #DokuFest2016 among the locals, and I thought it’s beautiful—because there’s not a lot of cultural events, we go and consume anything there is; people wait for this time of the year, and they grow up with the yearly event, they come here with friends and for them, it becomes a platform for good memories. They talk about seeing a film, going to a particular party, and this is especially important for people who cannot travel—the country remains isolated, even 15 years after the war, we cannot go anywhere without a visa. So in a way, DokuFest is an open window into the world. The world comes here through film, through music, though panel discussions we hold. At the same time, the world that comes in sees what this country is really like, because normally, there’s just a small group of people that represents—or misrepresents us.
NOTEBOOK: Could you tell us about the preservation of cinema Lumbardhi?
DEDA: It’s a cinema that was built in the seventies, and it is the only cinema that survived the war; and for the people living in Prizren, it was very important in a symbolic sense. When there was an attempt from the municipality here to tear it down and build a shopping mall, the festival started a petition which stopped them. After a while, the municipality still partnered with a private company to build either a shopping mall or a parking lot—they saw it as an available space in the center of the city. For the opening night of the festival that year, we screened the documentary film Everyday Rebellion [by Arash T. Riahi, Arman T. Riahi] that has a scene from the Occupy movement in New York with people using the human megaphone. Veton and all of the volunteers went on stage; we wrote a very poetic text about protecting that space, and the 150 volunteers became a megaphone for Veton. It was an on-stage protest to preserve the cinema, and it became a media sensation; everyone started talking about it, including some of the foreign politicians. So the municipality found itself under a lot of pressure and gave up. To re-functionalize the cinema, we brought in several organizations and now it is the cultural center of Prizren that works throughout the year. It’s a beautiful mess of a space—they’ve started renovating it, but at the roof.
Now, we do a lot of documentary film productions there with high-school children and young professionals from all over the region. We hold a series of workshops, from how to develop an idea for a documentary, to its production. We do “traveling cinema,” going to the rural countryside where there are no cultural events at all, and we screen documentaries. Effectively, the festival started transcending the role of the film festival into a catalyst for social change.
NOTEBOOK: So would define DokuFest as a festival of an activist or political nature?
DEDA: The festival itself is a political act, because it’s a constant struggle with the politics and the city that has been sabotaging the festival for years and years. They don’t fund the festival, or they promise us a space and then back out. It’s sad, really, because in the end, it would be great, if the main partner of this festival would be the municipality of Prizren. The festival not only brings about 60,000 tourists to the country, but it also brings a cultural dimension that you cannot measure in terms of economy. And if we must speak about the economy, a year ago a study estimated that the festival brings almost 5 million Euros into the city—which in the end, go to municipality taxes as well. It would be good if the municipality and the ministry would be more supportive. But then again, we do it anyway—with or without them.
NOTEBOOK: Why don’t they support it?
DEDA: It’s quite banal in the end—there’s no systematic support, there’s just an ad hoc politics of supporting culture. If there is a minister that understands the importance of something, they will support it, but they never install a system that would function regardless of who is in office. It all depends on their personal priorities. On the other hand, you do see the politicians traveling outside of Kosovo and taking pride in the festival.
NOTEBOOK: So what are your main sources of funding?
DEDA: It’s a combination of commercial sponsors and foreign institutions and embassies. If we have a Swedish band playing, it’s with the support of the Swedish embassy. Also, sales of tickets, the promotional material, the concerts.
NOTEBOOK: How do some of the more progressive or liberal elements of programming and accompanying events, like panel discussions on gender and sexuality, fit in with the local population? Yesterday, at the screening of Europe, she loves [by Jan Gassmann], quite a lot of people walked out during the sex scenes.
DEDA: The population is a bit conservative, but tolerant—that’s how I would put it. For example, in our workshops, the participants—high-school children—have made documentaries screened under the title “The Future is Here.” Two of them were about transgender people—transgender-themed documentaries, made here, in Kosovo! Two years ago, Ivana Todorović from Serbia won the main award with a film about a transgender woman, who came here, went on stage, received the award, and nobody objected. She was walking the streets here and nobody said anything. It is our way of opening the place up. Not provoking the people in a rude way; things have to be screened and then talked about, they have to be documented in order for change to come. Bigotry is a global, not just a Kosovar problem. There’s homophobia in the most open societies in the world. We set up a platform for dialogue.
On the other hand, this year we are screening an amazing film about the nineties in Kosovo, Dubina dva [Depth Two] by the Serbian filmmaker Ognjen Glavonić [the film that later won the best film award in Balkan Dox programme]. It is about a massacre that happened here, in Suva Reka. These kind of films do something that the media, or the history books, are unable to do. It’s an alternative channel of communication; it offers young people a chance to see that the Other is a human being, too. We live next to each other, but we think of each other as monsters. The change has to come, and it has to start from somewhere. The media—both ours and those of the neighboring countries—just attack each other, there’s just propaganda about how bad the other is. So, we also try to discuss what is painful and not talked about often enough. The nineties in Kosovo is a topic that has not been dealt with, the consequences of those ten years have not been dealt with, what that time has done to us, what the consequences of a whole generation going into paralysis are, when all of the institutions and all the schools stop working. We all lived through it, and we grew through it. At screenings like that, you see the true power of film—yesterday, a lot of people were crying and everyone was participating in the discussion afterward.
NOTEBOOK: Before being a director, you were organizing the music events here at DokuFest. This year, I noticed the entrance fee for some of the shows here was 5 or 10 Euros. By setting those prices, isn’t the festival effectively just keeping the local population out [the average monthly wage in Kosovo is 460 Euros]?
DEDA: No, the music events, like the rest of the festival, are accessible to the local population as well. The opening and the closing night concerts have cost us a lot of money—Omar Souleyman and Yasmine Hamdan are performing—but for the other nights, the price is 2 Euros, the price of film tickets. I think that’s normal. The volunteers and the staff don’t have to pay the entrance fee. This year, we wanted to bring in some names that we liked and show our fascination with the East, not only as far as the films are concerned, but also with the music. To afford it, we had to set the prices that high. But the ticket prices in general have stayed the same, 2 Euros, for years now—both for the film and concert tickets. And all of the other activities are free.

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