Alban Ukaj’s new short film “Kali (Horse),” set on the streets of Prishtina (the current capital of Kosovo), tells the story of three student protestors trying to evade the police. RIIFF had the chance to conduct an e-mail interview with Ukaj, who wrote and directed the film.
RIIFF: Could you give us some of the historical background needed to fully understand this film?
Alban Ukaj: Prior to gaining independence in 2008, Kosovo had a decades-long history of street and student protests. After 10 years of peaceful resistance against the Slobodan Milosevic regime, and after the wars in former Yugoslavian republics Slovenia and Croatia—as well as one of the biggest atrocities in modern Europe, the Bosnian Genocide—Kosovo Albanians organized a mass protest on the streets of Pristina, in October 1997.
RIIFF: What drew you to the events of October 1, 1997 in particular? Do you have a personal connection to these events, or to the war in general?
AU: Most of the film crew, including myself, directly participated in the protest. The film itself is a reflection of our own experience.
RIIFF: There are a lot of contrasts in this film—between movement and stasis, sound and silence, young and old, citizen and state. What effect did you mean this to have on the audience?
AU: It is somewhat like surviving a serious car-crash, in terms of the way in which we remember traumatic events—in slow motion. We tried to emulate that intimate feeling in the film.
The contrast between young and old is a more subtle commentary, where, after years of organizing resistance to the regime, my generation seems to have felt that the older generation had given up. They were tired, devastated, after sacrificing a lot. In the film the older people are slow like zombies, and there are these young kids waking them up.
During the protests, the state was always there to block the roads. It was like a labyrinth with no way out. And this state is also represented by the older generation—locked in the basement mindset, oblivious to the fact that these could be its children. We aimed to show two radically different ways of seeing the world.
RIIFF: The ending—in which the authority orders the protagonists to repeatedly slam themselves against the wall—is clearly meant to have multiple interpretations. Did you have a specific intention in leaving it so open-ended? What do you think the ending says about the rest of the film?
AU: The peculiar violence they endure is a reminder of how creative humans are when it comes to violence; unfortunately much more so than when it comes to, for example, showing affection. The ending of the film is also about the energy of these young men, their resistance, as well as the adrenaline that comes from experiencing violence. First you feel pain and then it becomes like a trance ritual, which turns into anger. In that absurd, vicious cycle, the ending of the film is a form of revolt. During the film the space in which they find themselves becomes gradually smaller and smaller—the ending is about physically and metaphorically going against the walls.
RIIFF: Student activism has been particularly prevalent in America lately, especially in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, Missouri. This film tells the story of a trio of young protestors. Do you think these situations, in Kosovo at the turn of the millennium and America today, speak to each other? What place do you think young people have in effecting social and political change?
AU: Absolutely. The context is naturally very different, but it raises some similar questions. For example, what is the dynamic between the young, marginalized people and the authorities, particularly the police? How do we move from raising awareness to making changes? And many others. This is one of the main aims of our work in general—to highlight the universal struggle.
RIIFF: Do you believe this is a political film? What “statement,” political or not, do you believe it is making?
AU: Our intention wasn’t to make a political film. I could say that the film is about friendship, about trauma… But that would not be the only truth. We cannot escape the political context. It can be dangerous and unfair to ignore it, in the Balkans as well as the rest of the world.
RIIFF: If the viewer can only take one thing away from this film, what do you want that to be?
AU: In the world where the protagonists’ generation is obsessed with self-promotion and self-glorification, I hope the film serves as a small reminder that their generation also exists in a world outside the Instagram filters. Of course, I am always exited to hear what the audience took away from the film, even when it is completely different from how we see it.