Independence Days: Kosovo Stages Dokufest

Prizren, Kosovo--perhaps the only city in the world with a film festival...but without
a regular working movie theater. Dokufest, billed as an international
documentary and short film festival, was started seven years ago by Festival
Director Aliriza Arënliu and Programming Director Veton Nurkollari. After the
war they wanted to bring culture back to the devastated city, and with no
working movie theater in Prizren, they decided to launch a film festival to
bring cinema back to Kosovo. And now, when movies finally do grace the big
screen in Prizren once a year, they are not Hollywood
blockbusters, but intense documentaries about politics, war, refugees, faith
and recovery. Every August hundreds of Kosovo citizens swarm the makeshift
outdoor cinemas to watch stories of Israeli women in war, English brain
surgeons and love between blind people. It is an inspiring sight to see.

Having just declared its independence earlier this year, the newly formed Republic of Kosovo is still under the protection of
KFOR, a UN-mandated NATO-led peacekeeping force. In spite of this widespread
military presence, life in Prizren is surprisingly laid back. Cafés are filled
all hours of the day and night, and espresso and raki (a grape-based brandy) flow freely. The relaxed attitude of
the people and the festival in general were welcome changes from my
"busy" American life.

Dokufest, presented last month, boasts two open-air and two indoor cinemas. In
addition to feature documentaries, there is also a strong program of both
fiction and nonfiction short films. The open-air cinema screenings at night are
unquestionably the highlight of the festival, as the 100-degree heat finally
fades along with the sun, and a cool breeze gives Prizren a much needed energy
boost. The indoor cinemas run only during the day and don't have air
conditioning, resulting in small audiences of hardcore filmgoers (and jury
members) sweating out the screenings.

From Tamara Yarom's To See If I'm Smiling, which won the International Jury Prize at Dokufest. 

If not having a fully operating movie theater isn't enough of a hurdle, power
outages contribute handily to the complicated logistics of Dokufest. There is
only one power plant for all of Kosovo, so every day the electricity goes out
for hours at a time. Thankfully, KFOR provides the festival with massive
generators to keep the films running as smoothly as possible. Support for the
festival seems strong with many sponsors, including the US Embassy, which made
my trip to Kosovo possible. I was invited by Veton Nurkollari to be on the
International Jury, but I have to admit that I didn't know much about Kosovo
and was hesitant at first to attend due to stories I had half-heard about
violent conflicts with the Serbs (who aren't crazy about Kosovo's independence).
But the festival is located in southern Kosovo, where it is as safe as any region
in Europe. And though the unemployment
rate is very high in Prizren, crime seems almost non-existent. The locals
couldn't have been friendlier, and I spent countless hours at the cafés talking
politics, life and film. Even more surprising was the love Kosovans have of
Americans and American culture. Kids in Prizren know more about my hometown
basketball team, the Portland Trailblazers, than I do.

Since I was on the International Jury, the majority of my time was spent watching
and discussing the international submissions (and I unfortunately missed many
of the regional films). There were many great international films in
competition including Geoffrey Smith's The English Surgeon, Phie
Ambo's Mechanical Love, Eric Daniel
Metzgar's Life Support Music and Astrid
Bussink's The Lost
. But in the end the jury all agreed on the film with the most
heart-To See If I'm Smiling by Tamara
Yarom. This film is a disturbing look at the actions and behavior of young
women soldiers in the Israeli army. Israel is the only country in the
world where 18-year-old girls are drafted for military service, and the women
in the film--veterans who have tried to bury the past for years--speak openly
about their experiences. This film is simple on the surface: talking-head
interviews with archival b-roll. But the vulnerability of the women, and their obvious
trust and connection with the filmmaker, make for an extremely intense and
personal film that explores in depth the impact war can have on the human

One film out of my assigned international competition films that I did happen
to see was Ben Kampas' Upstream Battle, winner of the
Dokufest Human Rights Award. It was strange to be halfway across the world in a
dark theater in Kosovo watching a German film about an issue and story in my
own backyard: Native Americans on the Klamath River in Northern California and Southern Oregon fight for their salmon against an energy
corporation, perhaps triggering the largest dam removal project in history.
It's a great documentary that covers both sides of a universal issue, and it's
having its North American Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival
on September 8.

A unique solution to the lack of cinemas in Prizren was to bring in "A Wall
Is A Screen," a traveling road show of films put on by young cinema
activists from Hamburg, Germany. After meeting in the town
square, they took us on a tour through Prizren, screening short films on the
sides of buildings and homes. The program ended with the audience sitting on
the cement in a dark playground watching a short film about kids in a
playground scheming for ways to get into a movie theater. A beautiful cinematic

Dokufest is a special festival that is about nothing more than the passion of
film. To produce such a successful event against such remarkable odds is an
impressive feat. Now with Kosovo's newly realized independence, I imagine that
we will see Dokufest continue to grow and flourish in the coming years.

Doug Whyte ( is the director of media arts programs for KDHX Community Media, the
creator and producer of the International Documentary Challenge
(, and a documentary filmmaker ( He lives and works in Portland, Oregon.