Kosovo (2019) Dir. Antoneta Kastrati

Suffering might be a universal concept, yet we can never truly know what somebody is feeling in the wake of a personal tragedy. Pain can be similar physically and mentally but psychologically it is always going to be an individual experience none of us will ever understand, which can add fuel to the fire.

Kosovo, after the war for independence from Serbia, and the marriage of Lume (Adriana Matoshi) and Ilir (Astrit Kabashi) is fraught from Lume’s inability to sire a child after the death of their daughter Zana during the conflict. Fed up with the constant miscarriages, Lume’s mother-in-law Remzije (Fatmire Sahiti) decides the doctors are useless and takes Lume to see local faith healers instead.

After seeing a variety of spiritualists, fortunetellers, soothsayers and holy men, one of them, Imam Murat (Mensur Safaqiu), concludes Lume has been possessed but demons called Jinn and recommends an exorcism. Lume knows this isn’t true but with the constant visions of Zana and other horrific apparitions, her grip on reality begins to loosen whilst her family fail to recognise the true depth of Lume’s suffering.  

East European cinema is very much a flavour in its own right – often drab, sparse, quiet, raw, yet very open in reflecting the flaws of its society, laying bare the truths many would rather were kept locked away. Kosovan documentary maker Antoneta Kastrati broadens her output with this first foray into fictional cinema, strains of her previous job being very evident in the style and presentation of Zana.

Just as I suggested above, this is an unfussy film with no pretence of being anything but a stark statement on the lasting effects of the aforementioned war, along with a stinging indictment against the hidebound mentality of small village communities. It might be a story told many times before, but Kastrati is keen to share some of her own pain from the war, having lost her mother and sister to it.

Clearly a cathartic project for Kastrati, this not a self-indulgent film, rather her opening her arms to everyone who lost someone during and is continued to be haunted by it. The village presented here is a strange place, tied to the old beliefs of the powers of shaman and witch doctors yet Lume can consult YouTube videos for domestic tips. Such clash of cultures can only end in disaster but in this context, nobody really seems any the wiser about this, accepting it as the norm.

It is, naturally, a patriarchal community except rather ironically the women do all the work, implying they either don’t understand how a patriarchy works, or they have really taken it to its most chauvinistic conclusion. One unchanging facet is the women as the possession of the men, posited as a cook, cleaner, and carrier of their seed, although there are more signs of marriages being based on love than couples forced together, with hostilities between Lume and Ilir an irregular occurrence.

Where this attitude shows itself in a shocking fashion is in the idea the male is entitled to replace his wife if necessary. Lume is told a story by a friend of a childless couple where the man took a fertile second wife who begat two kids. Later, when a distraught Lume turns to her mother for help, her angry father confronts Ilir for dumping his daughter on his doorstep, telling him to man up and pull Lume into line, before giving him permission to find another woman to have his baby.

Maybe I am becoming oversensitive in my old age, but I found this more disturbing than the Kafka-esque visions haunting Lume at night. From a severed cows head drenched in blood, to a silhouette possibly of her deceased daughter, and even Lume witnessing a screaming bloodied Zana being sacrificed by a monk, it is no wonder Lume is unable to stay on the rails.

The audience will recognise this is a form of PTSD and Lume is still grieving over losing Zana which those around her are ignorant about, having decided black magic and demonic possession is the cause. How can Lume get better in the face of such unhelpful interference masquerading as concern, or more likely about maintaining the status quo per their blinkered non-progressive societal mores.

From this we can infer Kastrati is using Lume’s plight as a metaphor to present her view on how Kosovo needs to find a way to move on and rebuild with a plan that isn’t mired in the past. Crucially, she is highlighting the severity of the mental and emotional effects of war on women, specifically mothers, whilst paying tribute to their indomitable spirit in keeping it together as the so-called weaker sex.

You can’t read this a misandry on Kastrati’s part since Lume is surrounded by unhelpful women as much as men, who by far are depicted as rather lost without their women to pick up the pieces for them. It is as if Kastrati sees her homeland as feminine, implying equivalence to its independence from Serbia to Lume’s struggle against harmful archaic values.

Leaving the documentary style of filmmaking behind appears to be hard to do in a first scripted film, and Kastrati is not immune from this, as found in shot compositions and the matter-of-fact way some of the scenes play out. This adds gravitas to the drama even with the supernatural element and a raw edge to its emotional clout, bolstered by a remarkably haunting performance by Adriana Matoshi, almost alien like in her subtle, protean approach to Lume’s descent into mental hell.

Discerning film fans will conjure up a list of directors they notice traces of in Kastrati’s style in Zana, but the potential for her finding her own voice is already present. As far as telling powerful, allegorical stories, Kastrati is already there yet her most important achievement is getting Kosovan cinema noticed on a global scale, affording us a rare look at this beleaguered country.