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IFFR 2021 Tiger Competition

Norika Sefa • Director of Looking for Venera

“I didn’t want the film to exploit the poverty of Balkan countries”

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- We talked to the Kosovar director, whose feature debut played in the Tiger Competition of International Film Festival Rotterdam

Norika Sefa • Director of Looking for Venera

Prague-based Kosovar director Norika Sefa presented her first feature film Looking for Venera [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Norika Sefa
film profile
]
in the Tiger Competition of Rotterdam’s IFFR. Her coming-of-age drama was shot in Kosovo with an ensemble composed of mostly non-actors. She wanted to show a picture of Kosovo far from exotic stereotypes, and told us about the main challenges in producing the film and how she worked with her actors.

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Cineuropa: How did you develop the story? What was your inspiration?
Norika Sefa:
I wanted to tell a story based in Kosovo, but that wouldn't reproduce the stereotypes for which the country is known abroad. So basically, I didn't want to show some traditional costumes nor evoke an exotic feeling. I didn’t want the film to exploit the poverty of Balkan countries. However tradition itself is the very core of the story and so is family. I, myself, grew up in a big family and so this is a topic dear to me. Living for many years abroad, I was nevertheless a bit insecure about what my approach would look like. I wanted the film to have a lot of layers, but with a focus on relationships. Everything from the outside such as nature, for example, would appear only through the characters. I was curious about what would appear from the development of the characters and how the actors’ interpretation might influence the film.

Was it difficult to get the film funded?
We got some funding from the Kosovo Cinematography Center, but it was not enough. That is why we also needed the co-production with Macedonia. That was very important, since it made the post-production process possible.

How did you find your two main actresses?
We saw a lot of girls, around 1000, by visiting different cities. At some point, the girl that would play the role of Venera was singing loudly outside the school and that was how we found her.

In Kosovo, people have a difficult relation to the camera. The country and the people are very present in the news, so the press often points cameras at them. It was important that when we started with the film that we didn't let them think too much about the camera first. We lived in the house where we would be shooting, rehearsing, making the actors feel at ease with their new surroundings. At the beginning, the camera wasn't on. I wanted everything to be kept very grounded.  And to accentuate this, I also asked my own grandmother to play the grandmother in the film. 

How did you form the ensemble of the boys?
I was living with my cinematographer in the same place where we would shoot and observed the reactions of the young people there. We approached them afterwards, not mentioning the film in itself or telling them about the exact script at first.

Where did you shoot exactly?
We shot in a small town in Kosovo, at the border with Macedonia.

You choose to place the camera very close to the protagonists. Why was that important?
Some would say that being close to the characters shows a documentary approach. For me it was more important to be near the girls and follow their logic. I was adapting to their age, following their curiosity and recreating their reactions, which can go from one extreme to the other. Before the camera was actually on, we worked on their energy, building the reactions and the characters, and then we filmed what followed. I stayed curious about what happened when the camera went on and was excited.

What was the aesthetic concept of the film in general?
The most important thing was that everything could be explained from the point of view of the main character. She is aware of what happens around her, but we don't necessarily see all of it. This concept applies to the surroundings such as nature, but also when it comes to the sound mix. 

What was the most important message you want to transmit with your film?
I wanted to tell the story of a girl in a traditional and patriarchal society. It doesn’t have to be she that changes, rather the other people around her can change because of her reaction to them. My wish was that it wouldn’t be so much the protagonists who would develop and change throughout the film, but rather the audience. The viewer goes on a journey and ideally feels the emotions of the characters.

What were the biggest challenges you faced while making this film?
In the first place, it was difficult to find funding for the production. Then, it was a big challenge to avoid everybody in the country learning about the project and trying to influence it. I had to protect the film crew and the actors so that they would not be exploited. I didn't want their energy to be compromised. Such a topic could have easily led to misunderstandings. When we talk about sexuality, there is a tendency for people in Kosovo to think about preconceptions and I didn't want the characters, and therefore the actors, to be victimised.

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