Antoneta Kastrati

Growing up in Zahaq, a village in Kosovo, where higher education for women was not a given, filmmaking has never crossed Antoneta Kastrati’s mind. And then, the war happened and changed many things for her. She didn’t want to be on the path she had imagined herself on before; she didn’t want to be a doctor anymore. Her personal tragedy and the war in general altered the way she saw life and in order for her to find hope and a new meaning to it, she could no longer live it as a bystander. She had to participate actively in the change her own society was undergoing. Consequently, she got involved in a youth video project where she was briefly trained in filmmaking and made her first documentary about gender inequality. Seeing the power that moving images have in informing and/or changing perceptions, she felt hopeful again and kept making documentaries that addressed post-war social issues. She was dedicated to making films that broke taboos in the Kosovar society and sparked in-depth discussions that were missing in the public discourse. Kastrati holds a Master’s Degree in Journalism from the Kosovo Institute of Journalism and Communication, and has attended the American Film Institute Directing Workshop for Women. She has directed the short documentaries “Seeking Magic” and “She Comes in Spring.”

“Zana,” her feature debut that premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, is a tense family drama where mysticism and modernity clash in a Kosovar Albanian woman’s struggles to overcome wartime trauma and conceive a child.

 

 

 

 

Zana is inspired by your experiences during and after the war when you lost your mother and sister. Why was it important for you to tell this story?

Antoneta Kastrati: My experience during the war was the motivation for me to get involved in film in the first place. I knew from early on when I started to make documentary films that someday I will deal with my painful past in my films, but I needed time to reflect and find the best form to tell it. Fiction offered me a certain distance and the freedom to delve deeper into questions that I had since the war. From all that I have experienced as a war survivor, the thing that has troubled me the most, that I cannot accept as a mother myself, is how war renders mothers powerless to protect their children. In what other situation do you come to a point where you stand by and watch as your child is being killed? How and can you overcome such a thing? Starting from my own personal dealing with grief and continued nightmares since, after I became a mother myself, I could feel what it must be like for mothers. Thus, I knew that was the story I wanted to tell. I wanted to explore the existential dilemma of post-war motherhood and how our culture deals with mental health. As part of my research, I did a lot of in-depth interviews with mothers who had lost children in the Kosovo war. In telling this story of war and recovery, it was important for me to talk about patriarchy and society’s constructed beliefs that further imprison women. Furthermore, I do not see oppression and brutality at home as separate from violence and brutality in war.

You explore the deep and everlasting wounds of war. Is the post-war generation still tormented by this past? Is Zana a way to reconcile with it?

A.K.: It is hard to speak on behalf of a whole generation. We all experienced the war in different ways, some worse than others. But we are all affected by it in a fundamental way.  War is one the most terrible things one can experience because we are talking about the disintegration of entire societies. Destruction of all known values that keep us together as a society.  For my generation, it happened at a very sensitive time – as teenagers. Witnessing the world as we know it shatter has a deep impact and the trauma from it is embedded in every facet of our lives in ways that we are not even conscious of. And you can see it expressed in our post-war society that has had a very difficult time re-creating and upholding values and leadership that are benefiting the wellbeing of everyone and themselves for that matter.

If by reconciling we mean letting go of the past and moving to the future, no, Zana does not offer that kind of reconciling.  If by reconciling we mean looking at the past and traumas, asking questions about what happened and what it did to us, how it changed us, then yes. What Zana can offer to people in Kosovo is an entryway to process our collective trauma that is lurking underneath, not able to come to the surface.

In that sense, was it difficult to work on the film?

A.K.: In a sense, it was not difficult because I have been living with the loss – it is a part of me. I was not exploring a new territory that I was suppressing or was afraid to look at. But the difficulty has to do more with time – the long time it takes from the script to the finished film that requires active participation; you really need to live in the world you are creating and Zana is not an easy world to be in. There are particular scenes in Zana, scenes that come directly from my own experience such as nightmares and the graphic bits. I had to do lots of real-world research, of children, victims of war, to the smallest harsh details and dwell on them longer and that aspect was emotionally very heavy for me. But, when I was in production, I was able to keep a distance for the most part.

You explore motherhood in wartime and the mother-child connection as well as the dynamics of female power and endurance of women. Can you delve into that and the conservative roles that are assigned to women in Kosovo?

A.K.: Just like everywhere in the world, the roots of patriarchy are strong. The war in some ways was a catalyst for women to take more power and make a change in that direction, especially young women. But there are high contrasts in Kosovo between the city and the village, between older and younger generations.

Is the mysticism that is depicted in the film connected to a gender aspect? Is mysticism common in Kosovo? What is the role of magic in Kosovar society? Why did you choose to portray this particular aspect of Kosovar society?

A.K.: The reality in Kosovo is such that there is a stigma around psychiatry. Kosovo is progressing rapidly and is quite a modern society, but it has one foot still deeply rooted in mysticism. A large portion of the population still believes in curses and black magic and it has become commercialized after the war. If someone has any psychological issues – mental or even physical – they are sent to magical healers out of desperation. And, of course, it is always women. There have been so many cases, especially from my village, where young brides who were sent to live at their husband’s house, start to experience anxiety or paranoia and even become schizophrenic. The standard given explanation is that they are cursed and possessed. But this is not limited to women or mental issues only. It was the gender aspect I was most interested in and that’s what motivated me to shoot a documentary in 2009. It was intriguing and troubling at the same time. Ultimately, as a filmmaker, I am drawn to mystery. I tend to make films that have elements of mystery in them and that explore the world of dreams and memories. I did not want Zana to be a straightforward drama.

Demonic possession is a sort of stand-in for PTSD in Zana, which in turn serves as an exorcism of your own, a release of unutterable suffering. Would you agree with this assumption?

A.K.: I do not see it as an exorcism of my own. What I wanted to do with Zana was to offer a narrative with a unique perspective that speaks to a side of our unarticulated collective trauma that women and mothers specifically have been carrying for centuries.  War has been always narrated by men; there is little of women’s experiences in that narrative. For women, there are no heroes and incredible feats, which is something History books and a male narrative have always been about. I wanted to give a voice to that perceptive, and yes, starting always from my own understanding and experience and then that of my mother, my sisters, my grandmother and all the women that came before us. Regarding demonic possession, it is just another way that it has served historically as one the ways for patriarchy to devalue women’s internal voices and silence them.

Can you elaborate on the title, “Zana”?

A.K.: Zana is a common Albanian name for girls and in the film, it is the name of the daughter Lume lost. Although Zana is not visible throughout the film, it is her presence that colors every frame of the film. The decision for the particular name however is stems from the mythological figure of the Zana in Albanian culture. Zanas are invisible fairies that bathe in the clean waters of the mountains and are the protectors of fertility and life. It resonated with me and it stands as a metaphor for the spirit of life that is killed and destroyed in a war.

Can you talk about the shooting process?

A.K.: We shot Zana in the area of the village we grew up in, which is very beautiful. I really wanted to capture that beauty that I experienced growing up.  It was very special to be back there with my sister and make the film. Zana was a challenging shoot and we worked with a very small budget. We had two different shoots – one in winter and one in spring. Winter was challenging, with night exteriors and it was very cold.  But we had so much support from my family, relatives and the whole community. Many of my fellow villagers came to work as extras.

What was the experience of working with your sister, cinematographer Sevdije Kastrati, on the film like?

A.K.: We both started to get involved in film at around the same time. It is a very special feeling to be working with someone who shares my aesthetics and sensibilities, and she is a great cinematographer. Sevdije has a way of capturing such intimacy with actors and creating realistic yet haunting images. Apart from that, she is also my biggest supporter, always pushing for the utmost quality, even when the conditions are bad and everyone else just wants to move on. She does that with every director she works with.

Are you a feminist? If so, how does this inform your filmmaking?

A.K.: Feminism for me is not a choice. It’s something I simply am by the mere fact that I was born female and live in an unequal society. Otherwise, I would be going against my own self and wellbeing. I grew up in a very patriarchal society and I had to fight for my rights since I was a little girl and I continue to do so. Unfortunately, gender inequality is deeply embedded in every facet of our personal, social and political life; it has been so for so long and it will take generations to transform it. All art is personal as it carries a point of view and approach, and as such, feminism, for me, is embedded in my storytelling.

Who is your favorite female filmmaker and your favorite film by a female filmmaker?

A.K.: I have many favorites. I will only talk about the ones that have deeply impacted me. One of them is The Piano by Jane Campion. It is a very sad and yet beautiful film about womanhood that has stayed with me for a long time. I admired how it conveyed so much with images and very few words, and how poetic and mysterious it felt. How it was carefully constructed, specific, and detailed, yet it felt ambiguous and open to interpretation. How it evoked so much emotion and it touched the unconscious and unknown. It is truly amazing when films can do that. Other favorites I have to mention are Monster by Patty Jenkins, Ratcatcher by Lynne Ramsay, After the Wedding by Susanne Bier, and Boys Don’t Cry by Kimberly Peirce.

There has been a lot of talk about the situation of women in the film industry these past two and a half years. What is your take on the matter? How is it in Kosovo?

A.K.: We are in a time of change regarding women in film. Things are finally starting to happen. Film funds are becoming more gender aware and respectful of gender equality. Film festivals are accepting more films by women. We still need more financing opportunities besides grants. Kosovo has a very small film industry that has stagnated because of the war, but is now finally starting to move and grow again. In Kosovo, we have a new wave of films by female filmmakers that are having international success. I belong to the first generation of female filmmakers and we are all supportive of each other; it is a very inspiring time! In the past years, the film fund has given funds equally to films made by both female and male directors.

What are your next projects?

A.K.: I am in the early phase of writing and developing a feature film in Los Angeles. I am also developing a documentary film in Kosovo.

 

 

 

This interview was conducted in partnership with:

and:

Tara Karajica

Tara Karajica is a Belgrade-based film critic and journalist. Her writings have appeared in "Indiewire," "Screen International," "Variety," "Little White Lies" and "Film New Europe," among many other media outlets, including the European Film Academy’s online magazine, "Close-up" and Eurimages. She is a member of the European Film Academy, the Online Film Critics Society and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists as well as the recipient of the 2014 Best Critic Award at the Altcine Action! Film Festival. In September 2016, she founded "Yellow Bread," a magazine dedicated entirely to short films, ranked among the 25 Top Short Film Blogs and Websites on the Planet in 2017. In February 2018, she launched "Fade to Her," a magazine about successful women working in Film and TV and in 2019, she was a member of the Jury of the European Shooting Stars (European Film Promotion). She is currently a programmer for live action shorts at PÖFF Shorts, Head of the Short Film Program and Live Action Shorts programmer at SEEFest and Narrative Features Programmer at the Durban International Film Festival. Tara is a regular at film festivals as a film critic, moderator and/or jury member.

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