The ride from the Kosovo capital of Pristina to the picturesque town of Prizren is about a two-hour stretch on the region’s main highway. Along the side of the road, against lush mountainsides, locals of all ages wash cars at numerous auto service stations and sell husked corn from ramshackle stands. Entering Prizren through a labyrinth of narrow cobbled streets and corridors is like uncovering a buried treasure in the sand, as the city opens up to a rolling scenic landscape and café-lined streets.
In its 10th year, the International Documentary and Short Film Festival DokuFest (July 23 – 31) in Prizren is the only event of its kind in Kosovo, with open air screenings of international and Balkan documentaries from both the masters and the minor leagues, all taking place within a country in transition.
DokuFest is regarded by many as the ‘people’s festival.’ Indeed, the largest film summit in Prizren – and likely the biggest cultural event in the country, according to co-founder and artistic director Veton Nurkollari – DokuFest has opened local doors to doc-makers and doc devotees alike. With those intentions in mind, Nurkollari has managed to nurture a personable and professional vibe for the past decade.
After the Kosovo war in 1999, Nurkollari says there was an ambition amongst cinema lovers to re-instate their filmmaking tradition. “When we started we simply wanted the cinema back,” he says.
With no clue as to how to get a film festival off the ground, Nurkollari looked towards his festival idols for guidance, citing Tine Fischer of CPH:DOX, Sean Farnel of Hot Docs and Thom Powers of the Toronto International Film Festival as major inspirations throughout the years. After positive reactions from the first edition, Nurkollari says there was an obligation of sorts to the cinema community of Kosovo to keep it running, expanding to include more participation from venues and volunteers.
This year’s edition featured 180 films from 55 countries, including an open-air screening of Leonard Retel Helmrich’s Position Among the Stars, Mona Nicoara and Miruna Coco-Cozma’s Our School (pictured), and a special presentation of a music video project for PJ Harvey’s latest album, Let England Shake, which paired Harvey with photographer/director Seamus Murphy. Both Harvey and Murphy made the trek to the festival for the screening.
This year’s DokuFest also offered a number of workshops and public discussions. The panel “Cooking in Progress,” moderated by writer and curator Pamela Cohn, invited programmers from astute international film festivals to talk about what it takes to cook up and dish out the fine dining of documentary. Amongst the panelists were Hussain Curimbhoy (Sheffield Doc/Fest), Sara Garcia Villanueve (Play-Doc, Spain), Peter Taylor (Rotterdam, Netherlands), and Nurkollari himself.
As a connoisseur of the culinary arts, Nurkollari admits that he applies similar techniques to both cooking and film curation. “We serve to an audience, so we have to think about people’s tastes and about the ingredients,” said Nurkollari. “When we go to festivals we search for films, like going to the market every day to search for a ripe tomato. I find it very inspirational to put up a film festival program, as much as I find inspiration in cooking for someone.”
With the programming moving in the direction of experimental filmmaking, Nurkollari admits he’s been dubbed a radical programmer. “I think it’s a big challenge that drives me, so I’m testing the audience on how much they can endure,” he says. Indeed, after enduring such conflict as a nation, the people of Kosovo seem open to embracing what began as a modest vision, and has now evolved into a cultural celebration for filmmakers, fans and friends.