One of the finest films we’ve seen at London Film Festival was Babai, the first feature film of Kosovo-born director Visar Morina. Visar is in Vienna when we talk to him. His girlfriend lives there; he has to visit her from time to time he adds jokingly. He asks how London was and if the sound was loud enough. ‘It’s never loud enough’, he explains. ‘It has to be loud!’
‘Pretty loud’, we reassure him
Babai tells the story of Nori, a ten-year old kid who, together with his father Gesim, sells cigarettes in the streets of Kosovo. It’s the early 90’s, somewhat before the conflict with Serbia and life is tuff.
Because his mother recently ran away, they live-in with Gesims older, dominate brother Adem and his family. The small house is packed and there is little privacy. With Adems oldest son due to marry, the small room Nori and Gesim use will soon be taken.
In Babai we experience the world from the eyes of Nori. From the child’s point of view we walk the streets of Kosovo, meet his incompetent father and watch adults’ discussing serious matters. And same as Nori, we only hear fragments of their conversations. We see troubled faces, frustration and sadness. Clear is that something is about to happen, but what exactly is hard to understand. Political tension, the economic situation, the lack of space and privacy or simply all of these elements combined.
Gesim manages to escape Kosovo and try his luck in Germany. Nori, already left by his mother, is determined to find back his father. He steels the wedding money his uncle saved and, competent as he is, buys himself a partnership with Valentina, a cold blooded friend of the family who wants to go to Germany as well. Together they make a long dangerous journey.
RMA: You were born in Kosovo and currently live in Germany. How do you relate to the characters in your film?
VM: Many people think the film is very personal. It is, but it is not in the sense of the characters and storyline. I was born in Kosovo and I left when I was 15 years old. I came to Germany as a refuge, but in a much nicer way than Nori. Also my family situation is very different. I have my brothers and parents.
It was however important for me to tell a story that was close to me. It took me eight years to finish this film. That’s a really long time. You face many obstacles, so you need have to have a strong connection with your subject.
The time in which Babai is set was a tuff time. Politically it was all very complex. Many film have been made about this period and I watched them as a child. Films with partisans, terribly nationalistic. There was one guy who killed hundred fascists with a very small gun. So even in a political context it was important to me to make a personal story.
RMA: Was the political point of view also important to you considering the refuge issue?
VM: Honestly I don’t know how to deal with that now. I mean, the media has put a spotlight on it but there have been refugees ever since there are human beings in this world. I’m not sure if it’s really helping the film because it’s changing the interpretation.
"In my story the father is a system of values. Gisem has killed himself as a father. That is the subject of the film. Not refugees. I would have made a complete different film. I mean completely."
For me, from the beginning it was very important to expose the father/son relationship. I have a brother in Kosovo and he has two kids whom I have a very strong connection with. When one of them was 3 years old I went to visit them. It had been a year since I had seen them, but the child responded crazy happy to see me. While he was three years old! He hadn’t seen me for a third of his life. I mean, for me that would have been for over ten years. And I realized he was just copying his father. This is how children learn to understand the world: trough the eyes and trough the feelings of their parents. It is very much based on trust. And therefore my question became: what would happen if this trust does not exist anymore?
In my story the father is a system of values. Gisem has killed himself as a father. That is the subject of the film. Not refugees. I would have made a complete different film. I mean completely.
RMA: But don’t you think the fact that you didn’t make ‘a refuge film’ makes your film much more valuable? It gives us a sincere view on the matter and that’s very refreshing now. The film is not about refugees; it’s about human beings.
VM: You know, I had a really, really weird experience coming back from Gent Film Festival. I was in a bus going to Dusseldorf and there was a guy sitting next to me, with his son. When we made a stop he asked me: ‘Is this Germany?’ And we were in Holland. It was the exáct same line as I have in the film. When Nori asks if they are in Germany and the man answers: ‘No, we are in Switzerland’.
And after we arrived in Dusseldorf he asked me about a city I never ever heard of. So I asked him to show me the written name and it turned out they came from Iraq and had no clue where they were. They just had a ticket from Iraq to this city I never heard of. I took them to the train station and I helped them to find the platform, which is in fact quite complicated, but I tried to explain. It was…. It was… They were so grateful. Like I… I don’t know. And this story is not even an answer to your question.
RMA: It was actually and amazing answer to my question.
"Really if I were to shoot on water again, I need to have like millions. I mean seriously: just for the water scenes."
RMA: What was it like to make a first feature film?
VM: Honestly when I think back I realize I didn’t know what I was getting in to. I was still a student when I wrote the scenario. But all those water scenes, they were like hell. [Sighs deeply] Really if I were to shoot on water again, I need to have like millions. I mean seriously: just for the water scenes.
RMA: To heat it?
VM: Yes! Exactly. And it’s also a huge problem just to light it.
But the most difficult thing was to get the project started and to find the right production company. I made an awful decision with a company in the beginning. That was horrible. You are writing, researching, and investing time and money. I was completely broke. And this is a low budget film, but in Kosovo it is the biggest production ever done. Which tells a lot about the industry there: I was afraid everything would go wrong. But eventually it all turned out very well. I was very happy with the creative crew: they helped me a lot.
RMA: How did you find Nori?
VM: The auditions took 5 months. I did a lot of rehearsals during the auditions: it helped me to find the right way to communicate with the actors and to practice the shooting. We had to film on so many locations, spread over Europe, daytime and nighttime. You only have limited time when you are filming, so it was great to be prepared.
We knew finding Nori would be very hard. People who red the script had difficulties imagining where you could possibly find a kid like Nori. It is a tuff role. He is in each scene; it’s violent and wild. From the beginning it was clear that the film would basically depend on him and on how good he would be.
"People who red the script had difficulties imagining where you could possibly find a kid like Nori. It is a tuff role. He is in each scene; it’s violent and wild. From the beginning it was clear that the film would basically depend on him."
In Kosovo it’s still common to have children selling cigarettes on the streets. I did many auditions with those kids. We also made a television commercial in which we asked parents to make a video of their child and send it to us. And we went from school tot school. The first day we met 172 kids. We interviewed all of them. I’m a very strong smoker; I didn’t even smoke one cigarette. Afterwards it felt like someone had been hitting our head for like hours. If you do auditions with children, you have to be really nice to them and careful. You can’t talk to one kid longer than to another kid because you might make the other kids feel bad.
And then we found him. And I was like almost in love with him. In the beginning he was very shy and not talkative at all. He couldn’t be approached like normal kids. My actors even got scared of him! I took some days off with him and the father [red. actor Astrit Kabashi] so we could get to know each other.
He is doing very well now. You know he’s in a Hollywood production, Zookeepers Wife, playing next to Jessica Chastain.
RMA: Are you working on a new film? You must be busy travelling to festivals now.
VM: I just got back from Gent where I only left the hotel room to visit my own screenings. I locked myself up to work on my new script. It feels kind of empty all those festivals. The work is done, everything is done and at some point you ask yourself: what the fuck are you doing? You don’t get to see the city, most conversations are nice but small talk, you forget them literally while you are talking. So I’m trying not to visit any festivals anymore.
"It feels kind of empty all those festivals. The work is done, everything is done and at some point you ask yourself: what the fuck are you doing?”
RMA: Sad news for the festivals…
VM: Do you know Ulrich Köhler? He is a great German filmmaker. He made Sleeping Sickness that won best director. [ed. Silver Bear, Berlinale 2011]. He said to me: “After I made my first film, I had the feeling film festivals are just here to keep filmmakers away from making films.”
RMA: Will your next film be set in Kosovo again?
VM: No. I would love to make another film in Kosovo but not this one. This one is going to take place in just one small city and all I need is a company and a house.
VM: But it’s a big company and a big house! [Laughing] Only compared to the project I just did it will be must easier to realize.
RMA: Your film is very realistic. You are not hiding anything nor exaggerating anything. It is never sentimental. Do you believe as a director or as an artist it is your duty to give a realistic impression of the world?
VM: Wow! [Laughing]
RMA: Is that a hard question?
VM: No, it’s just that I have been thinking about this a lot lately. What inspired me to making films wasn’t realistic at all. I love abstract work and I started my career working in the theaters as an assistant director.
I think the most important thing to me is that I believe in what I am writing and in what I am seeing. It has to make sense to me. In a deeper way. When I write down a scene and I read it back it has to come to me as if it is honest.That is the most important rule to me. When I’m rehearing with the actors I have to see they are sincere. Sometimes I watch a film and I ask myself: whom do they want to convince? They do not even seem to believe in what they do themselves.
"I’m very much into physical cinema. Cinema in the here and now. If people sweat they sweat, if they love, they love, if they eat, they eat."
I need to have the feeling that what I write and make matters for the characters. I’m dealing with humanity. That doesn’t mean it has to be realistic. My next project is about nightmares. I’m stretching the boundaries.
VM: I’m very much into physical cinema. Cinema in the here and now. If people sweat they sweat, if they love, they love, if they eat, they eat.
RMA: That would be realism?
VM: Yes. But I love The Master. This film was on one hand very concrete and on the other hand very abstract. That’s something I’m looking for. And have you seen The Headless Women?
RMA: [both] No.
VM: That’s a very interesting film of a female director from Argentina. [ed. Lucrecia Martel] This film has very interesting shots. They start very concrete and that change into something abstract. This is what I’m trying to achieve.
RMA: We will watch it!
VM: Please do. It got never released here.
RMA: It happens all the time.