Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Playing the Fool in War's Shadow

Kosovo film exposes some awkward home truths about the nature of post-war society.
By Jeta Xharra

The bomb scare which halted the premiere of “Kukumi”, Kosovo’s first feature film in 17 years illustrated how long-anticipated celebrations in the break-away territory can still go badly wrong.

The bomb was placed under a vehicle in the ministry of culture’s car park, forcing the police to evacuate the neighbouring ABC cinema where the film, produced by Kosovafilm, premiered on September 30.

The film itself raises the awkward question as to whether Kosovo’s undefined future status together with an absence of the rule of law is undermining personal freedoms.

Kukumi is a story of three lunatic asylum inmates - Mara, Hasan and Kukumi - who escape during the chaos of June 1999 when Serb forces pulled out of Kosovo as NATO peace-keepers advanced.

The film won the special prize at the Sarajevo International Film Festival as well as the Regione del Veneto award at the Venice International Film Festival this year.

The film charts the voyage of the three characters against a backdrop of returning refugees, post-war liberation euphoria and the breakdown of law and order in which thieves, looters and rapists flourish.

It comes as no surprise that from the perspective of the former inmates, the world outside their asylum appears far madder than life inside their old institution – and a great deal more uncertain.

Kukumi portrays Kosovo as a land of idyllic hills, beautiful woods, purple skies and pretty wooden cottages inhabited by harsh and backward peasants.

The villages themselves have a character of their own which threaten to crush any sign of individuality and original thought.

The old men of the Albanian village in their plis - the traditional white hats - take on the appearance of a gang of mafia dons, eager to find someone to crucify instead of their more traditional role as pillars of the local community.

The 56-year-old director of Kukumi, Isa Qosja, has made an unusually brave film which questions the nature of freedom and liberation itself at a time when most Kosovars expected that their first film would deal with their suffering under Serbian forces.

Instead of focusing on ethnic particulars, this film is more concerned with asking the difficult universal questions about what happens to human beings when anarchy descends.

What happens in the film is that men rape their brothers’ wives, thinking they can get away with it because no-one is watching.

In another scene, the village thug erects a checkpoint and extorts money from returning refugees, demanding cash for every tractor that passes by.

The film is about much more than simply post-war Kosovo, rather it appears an accurate portrayal of how when food, shelter and law-and-order disappear, some men will use the situation to get away, quite literally, with murder.

For many Kosovars, the looting and brutality that followed in the wake of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans was reminiscent of the chaos that engulfed the territory when the NATO bombing campaign ended.

But if the mob is an established tradition in the United States, the casual brutality that emerged in post-war Kosovo stemmed from an older set of patriarchal laws which were used as an excuse to rob property from the weak and deny care to the vulnerable.

The violence encountered by Hasan, Mara and Kukumi in the film is fictional, but there were plenty of genuine experiences endured by real people who are still haunted by the post-war legal vacuum and the return of archaic and backward traditions.

Shyrete Berisha is one of the survivors of the Suva Reka massacre where 57 members of Berisha family were killed by Serb troops in March 1999.

Shyrete’s four children and her husband were among the murdered and she herself suffered shrapnel wounds, pieces of which are still lodged in her body.

But the source of her present woes stem from traditions which were cited by her brother-in-law, Xhelal Berisha, to seize her home while she was a refugee.

Xhelal took the house on the grounds that it was his father’s before it was his now deceased brother’s and that according to Albanian tradition, property passes down the male bloodline and not to the wife.

Shyrete found it impossible to live in the property, mirroring a similar situation encountered by Hasan and Mara in Kukumi.

Reality also mirrors the film in the village of Krusha e Vogel, where 114 men were massacred in 1999. There, a ten-year-old remains parentless, because the father has been murdered and the mother marries a man whose family, according to tradition, cannot raise another man’s child.

Kukumi also makes fun of the Kosovo’s institutions which have failed to rectify injustices such as these.

It is particularly refreshing to see the film’s main character mock old politicians’ stereotypically stern speeches about the “intelligent people of Kosovo” while the camera focuses on a dull and ignorant crowd of men, clapping their hands without actually understanding the politician’s words.

The reaction of Kukumi, brilliantly played by actor Luan Jaha, is to show his genitals at the precise moment the politician launches into a tirade about freedom and the motherland.

Importantly, the film also questions the relevance of NATO peacekeepers in contemporary Kosovo.

At the beginning, the presence of the troops brings some benefit, but by the end they are portrayed as being more prone to causing fatal accidents than serving any useful purpose.

Towards the close of the film, the viewer is left with the idea that the characters were better off in their asylum rather than having to endure the uncertainties of reality in post-war Kosovo.

At the premiere, that feeling was accentuated amongst members of the audience who had to evacuate the cinema 20 minutes before the end because of the bomb scare thus reinforcing the continued uncertainty coating day-to-day reality in Kosovo today.

Although efforts were made to add glitz and glamour to Kosovo’s first feature film premiere, the reality intruded to make the end result far less appealing.

The microphones used for the film’s presentation and speeches did not work; the film’s projection began with a black line down the middle of the screen and the lack of any seating plan ensured that many in the audience were left to stand.

The film ending with a bomb scare only added to the feeling of a dysfunctional land waiting to explode.

Jeta Xharra is director of BIRN Kosovo, a localised IWPR project.

More IWPR's Global Voices

Georgia: Perils of the Enguri Crossing
With the checkpoint closed, some residents of Abkhazia are risking their lives to access services.
Georgia: Perils of the Enguri Crossing
Trapped in Eastern Ukraine