I don't visit too many places where I meet a third-generation carpenter carrying on the work his grandfather started refurbishing the wooden staircase that leads up to the bell tower in an Orthodox Cathedral. This particular church is in the center of the town of Prizren, Kosova and is guarded by armed policemen. It was badly damaged during the ethnic riots of March 2004 and is almost fully repaired, but is still not open to the public. However, they let me in to take a look in a casual, friendly manner.
I don't visit too many places where I, and my young, female guide, can interrupt three ancient men engrossed in conversation on a bench in the garden of a mosque (one of several in the town) to ask if they will let us inside the locked sanctuary. (Oddly, there is a modern LED display board on the side of the building like the ones you see at train stations and airports that informs passerby of daily prayer times.) With a slight downward tilt of his capped head, one of them shuffles to the front door and unlocks it, gesturing for us to slip off our shoes, but not concerned that our heads aren't covered or that our arms and legs are bare. He leaves us to take in the beautiful and peaceful interior, caustics of soft sunlight bouncing on the walls that reveal the private spaces where men meditate and pray.
I don't visit too many places where a waiter in a restaurant that I frequent becomes a friend, someone I look forward to seeing every morning. He calls me Miss Pamela and I call him Mr. Love, not because his name is Ashkan which means "my love" in Turkish, but because he just is Mr. Love. A small group of us adopts him as our Balkan mother and he feeds and fusses over us several times a day, only asking for a bit of sympathy when his hands go numb from carrying too many hot, heavy plates of food. He tells us next week is Ramadan and people in the town are celebrating in a frenzy--several wedding processions pass by every day, there is much eating and drinking, and much promenading in the streets, disco music thumping everywhere. The place pulses like Ibiza, but it is calm, calm, calm. I have never met lovelier people. (Pictured, Ashkan serving breakfast to grateful filmmaker, Rowland Jobson, director of the outstanding short fiction piece, A Girl Like Me, filmmaker, Michael Palmieri, who served on the Balkan jury, still sleeping behind his RayBans. Unbeknownst to their owner, said shades fell under the table one night, but were found and returned by--you know it--Mr. Love.)
I don't visit too many places where I stay up until 6:00 a.m. every morning, the recorded call of the muezzin at a bit before 5, when the sky's black starts to turn a deep violet, announcing that a new day has begun. We find ourselves still glued to our chairs around a table in the town square engrossed in conversation, eyes sparkling, faces smiling, nonstop laughter, the proprietor patiently bringing us glass after glass of homemade raki and, occasionally, something to eat--bread with cheese, a plate of spicy meat, pommes frites with lots of salt--nary a sign indicating that he wishes us to get the hell out of his place so he can go to bed. Instead of stumbling off to our own beds, we slide by our hotel to grab our cameras and go exploring, no one awake in the still-sleeping town except the occasional baker pounding dough to the accompaniment of Arab pop softly playing from a small radio, or the wild pack of dogs that roam the streets, occasionally stopping so that a couple of them can hump for a few seconds before the group moves on. We refrain from retiring just yet, not because we're that keen on taking pictures (although we are), but because we simply aren't ready to give up one another's company. Not just yet. It feels like the beginning of a love affair when you can't stand to be out of someone's presence for a moment.
Okay, raki, or "rakifuel," as Miss Sonja calls it: we're puzzled. Normally, when one stays up all night drinking alcohol, especially something as pure and strong as this anise-flavored spirit quaffed in Turkey, Bosnia and the rest of the Balkans, also known as Lion's Milk (!), one gets completely blotto, right? Barely able to speak, let alone climb a steep hill to the fortress overlooking the town. (To be honest, we were a bit wobbly when we reached the top.) But because we fortify ourselves regularly with food, a local assures us that yes, one can stay up for days drinking raki, carrying on one long, rambling conversation, a mad dialog that fuels the imagination and the soul, that makes everyone as witty as Dorothy Parker, as wise as Socrates--a regular gathering of geniuses, I tell you. At least that's how it seemed to us.
I don't visit too many film festivals, like Dokufest, which staged its ninth iteration this year, that marry both its program and its surroundings so perfectly. Executive director, Aliriza Arënliu, and artistic director, Veton Nurkollari, presented an amazing program of international feature and short documentary work, one of the best I've encountered. And Samir Karahoda's short fiction program was a revelation. Ironically, since there are no cinemas there besides the ones created specifically for the festival, you can see audiences grappling with how to watch a movie. They, literally, don't really know how. So there is usually a lot more going on than movie-watching. But, somehow, because of the open air venues--on the river, up on the fortress wall, the big outdoor amphitheatre in the middle of town--it only adds to the celebratory quality of the proceedings. The directors of Hamburg-based A Wall Is A Screen used this to glorious advantage and presented a fantastic shorts program that floated through the town one evening, projecting films on the walls of a bank, a mosque, a restaurant, a residential building, to great effect, a large crowd following along for the 90-minute program.
It was a very special week and I can only offer up these quixotic and scattered impressions to describe the spectacular experience it truly was. What I can offer up in a more concrete fashion (more or less) are future posts which talk about some of the films. In my next installment, I'll start with the stand-outs in the Balkan competition program, some selections from the international competition which I was privileged to jury along with AJ Schnack, Doug Block, Sonja Henrici and Adriatik Kelmendi, and other fare that played in the five competitions, as well as in other special strands. Stay tuned.