/ 3 September 2019

The Week of the Festival: Struga, Macedonia


A Review of Five Recent Films

Open Door (2019) Albania, Directed by Florenc Papas, Screenplay by Florenc Papas & Ajola Daja

Lemonade (2018), Romania, Directed by Ioana Uricaru, Screenplay by Ioana Uricaru and Tatiana Ionascu

Stitches (2019) Serbia, Directed by Miroslav Terzic, Screenplay by Elma Tataragić

Irina (2018), Bulgaria, Directed by Nadejda Koseva, Screenplay by Svetoslav Ovcharov, Bojan Vuletic and Nadejda Koseva

Aga’s House (2019), Kosovo, Directed and Screenplay by Lendita Zeqiraj

One Albanian, one Bulgarian, one Romanian, one Serbian and one Kosovar film hold a mirror to our reality, from the perspective of authentic female characters who fight often irrational battles with a corrupt system, with tradition, violence or poverty, and challenge their male counterparts, who are sometimes a part of the corrupt or violent systems. Some of these stories are based on true events, and most of them are psychological dramas about life as it is in our times, in our own societies, with our own people and our own problems.

Rudina from Albania, Irina from Bulgaria, Mara from Romania and Ana from Serbia are married women whose struggle is reminiscent of the struggles of single women who take care of the rest of the family (children, parents, spouses’ parents…), while their husbands are ignorant, short-tempered or apathetic outsiders who are not willing to challenge the authority of the power centres in their society. Kumria from Kosovo is indeed a single mother, whose only purpose left is to secure a future for her son, as any possible future for herself has been swept by the war.

These unprotected women are heroines from the lower, underprivileged, working classes, and most of them are faced with toxic masculinity on a daily basis. The societies they live in are dehumanising, burdened by trauma and abuse of power. Moreover, equality seems to be reserved for other people: Men, strangers (Americans, Western Europeans), corrupted officials, authorities and wealthier citizens. Although these heroines are much stronger, braver and more resolute than people in general, they are still trying to find a place under the sun among the more equal.

Rudina (played by the actress Luli Bitri) has to deal with her husband abroad, who often calls her to remind her that he is the breadwinner of the family, and also to make sure that she watches over her in-laws. Her manager at the textile factory in which she works scolds her for taking days off for sick-leave too often; her father-in-law wants to know her daily agenda and how long she is absent from his/her house; her father thinks that the husband should be the only one deciding about family matters. Her son, although just a child full of admiration for his mother, sometimes says bad words – a habit he might have picked up from school, but also from his absent father, who often yells over the phone at his wife. 

Rudina’s sister returns home from Italy, heavily pregnant, and has to visit the father in their old home on the coast of Lake Ohrid. She is reluctant to visit her old home, afraid of the awkward questions about who and where the father of the baby is. But Rudina insists, determined to respect the rules of the family order. The long pilgrimage toward their home gives Rudina the chance to rethink and contemplate the male-female relations in her life and if there is a man with whom she can change her life. 

The final scene of their family reunion, including a fake fiancée and a few closest relatives (their uncle and aunt), is a very poignant display of patriarchal culture in the Balkan context. The father toasts to the health of his new grandson (his daughter does not interfere to inform him that she is carrying a baby girl), the star at the dining table is the new son-in-law and all the man-talk is centred around how decision-making belongs to the head of the family, the glory of fathers and sons, tough guys who drink bottoms-up to show their strength. No one dares to talk about the recently-passed wife who did not give birth to a single son. And when Rudina proposes a toast to her mother, the silence and astonished faces of the relatives speak louder than any words.

The story of the medical professional Mara (Mãlina Manovici), who wants to emigrate to the USA, is also a very painful one, as she is pressured to satisfy the sexual advances of the immigration officer in order to obtain the US Green Card, while the behaviour of her American husband is unpredictable, having in mind that he has a criminal record and loves to play with guns.

The immigration officer is given the powers of a police officer who is trying to unmask the hidden motives certain migrants might have for becoming American citizens. And if the state system does not have solid procedures in place to check the allegations of abuse during the procedure of interrogation, everything is down to the person having those powers. In this case, the officer understands these ;powers’ to mean that he can interrogate the woman about her sexual habits, and of course, since we are already talking about sex, why shouldn’t we have sex? 

Mara is in a hopeless and humiliating situation. It seems like the entire system is against her. But, as in old saying goes ‘When life gives you lemons, make a lemonade’, this brave woman does not give up, but starts to fight the power. She finds an ally in a queer American lawyer (of Bosnian Serb origin) who gives her the hope that she can survive the perfect storm of her American adventure. 

Similarly horrible, and even more monstrous if we know that it is based on true events, is the story of Ana (played by the exceptional Snezana Bogdanovic), who spends her days in her little tailor’s workshop, continuously trying to discover the truth about her missing son, who was declared dead by the hospital and state in an outrageous plot of a powerful network of corrupted bureaucrats. Ana looks at the teenagers, playgrounds and other public spaces in the big city, as if she is waiting for some miracle to happen. And she undertakes a struggle against the entire system. 

Some of the people directly involved in her case are still around, some of the new people in critical positions are not willing to help her, and the support of her loved ones diminishes with each of her attempts to challenge the people who know the truth about her child. The stitches of this Kafkaesque setting are unravelled by one young and uncorrupt person from the public service who gives her back her hope. 

Her husband, too, although apathetic, gives her support in the most critical moments, which makes her struggle more bearable compared to those of the other four mothers presented in these five stories. 

Part-time waitress Irina (Martina Apostolova) works in a Bulgarian provincial road bar where truck drivers and suspicious faces are regulars. Her boss humiliates her and asks for sexual services, her husband blames her for all of his failures and pressures her to be the breadwinner and put food on the table for him and their baby. He is a stay-at-home dad, sometimes blackmailing her, sometimes trying to impose moral authority on her (although she has caught him having sex with her own sister). She just sees through everything, forgives everything, and fights the greater enemy, poverty. 

Her choice to lend her own body to a rich couple from the metropolis is, in a sense, an expected dramatic convention, when you need a fairy-tale ending, but there are many surprises which show us that things are not what they seem.

This list of brave mothers includes Kumria (Shengyl Ismaili) who lives in a shelter for victims of violence and is trying to find peace for herself and her son, Aga, in this cruel and violent world where people take advantage of war to kill, rape and destroy homes and neighbourhoods. She is trying to hide the truth about the father of her son, but she needs to talk with lot of people about the trauma she has endured, and eventually the information reaches her son’s ears. 

Post-socialist film productions in this region have rarely been motivated to take on more ambitious film productions centred on the problems and battles faced by mothers in modern times. Consequently, it is entirely possible that this sudden surge that gives a strong voice to authentic female characters who are both inspiring and touching, is an incident made by young debut directors. 

Nevertheless, any outcome that would involve keeping a keen eye on the stories of the underprivileged, vulnerable and marginal people and the obstacles they face in modern societies, thus giving them authenticity and agency, is highly desirable.

By Slagjan Penev (born 1977), professor of philosophy, journalist and civil activist, with 20 years experience in covering arts topics with writing literature, music and film analysis, reporting from music and film festivals and organizing press relation in the framework of film production. 

Edited by Ana Jovkovska

Photo: snapshot from the film Open Door