To 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 160kph, and the 10cm 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.
On 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'.
Dokufest'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.
The 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.