Bos/Hrv/SrpShqipМакедонски 28 Oct 15 Festival Struggles to Revive Troubled Kosovo City

Pec's/Peja’s Anibar animation festival needs more cash and support to rebuild its decaying arts and film scene, organisers say.

Idro Seferi
Vullnet Sanaja (24), the director of the Anibar film festival in Pec/Peja, Kosovo

The city of Pec/Peja in western Kosovo is not widely seen as arts hub, although it was back in the 1970s, when some of the most important artists of the former Yugoslavia called it home.

Since then, the 1999 war and sporadic inter-ethnic violence between Pec's/Peja’s ethnic Albanians and Serbs have tarnished its image. The arts scene has also taken a hit as a result of extreme economic difficulties.

There is not much to cheer up or occupy people, notes 24-year-old Vullnet Sanaja, who has bucked the trend by being one of the few youngsters to stay in town.

Most leave as soon as possible, seeking better opportunities and brighter futures beyond Kosovo’s borders.

Sanaja did not stay behind for lack of ambition. Far from it.

Six years ago, he and a group of friends, including Rron Bajri and Petrit Gora, all then aged between 16 and 18, launched the Anibar Animation Festival, an international animated film event aimed at reviving a once thriving arts scene.

Sanaja and friends came up with the idea after watching the annual Dokufest event in the southern Kosovo city of Prizren take root and revive that city’s cinema after 15 years.

The Jusuf Gërvalla cinema in Pec/Peja

Back in 2009, Sanaja and his fellow organisers had to make do with a budget of 500 euros and 80 films obtained from friends and acquaintances.

This year, they selected 200 movies to screen from 1,800 applications and the six-day festival was financed on a budget of more than 10,000 euros.

Anibar continues to grow as an international festival, with thousands of Balkan and international directors and producers applying for their films to be screened each year.

This year’s festival in August even attracted special guests such as Mike Reiss, an acclaimed writer and producer of The Simpsons.

Resurrecting the cinema

Sitting in the city’s only cinema, the Jusuf Gërvalla, which lies near the bridge crossing the polluted Bistrica River, Sanaja is surrounded by dusty movie posters dating back to what many regard as the “golden age” of Yugoslav film.

“Organising an animated film festival in Pec/Peja was not originally about the festival per se but the resurrection of the city’s cinema,” he says as he wipes dust from a 35 mm cine-projector that is just a year older than him.

For Sanaja, the key to reviving Pec's/Peja’s cultural and artistic heart lay in reopening the old movie theatre that had not functioned for years before Anibar took it over in 2013.

While a festival could put the city on the map, a busy local cinema showing everything from Hollywood blockbusters to domestic arthouse classics would help bring the city’s cultural side back to life.

Anibar organisers screen two films at the Jusuf Gërvalla each day. For just two euros a ticket, locals can see whichever films Sanaja and friends can get their hands on, as long as they can be screened using the theatre’s dated equipment.

       Enthusiasm is not enough

Chiara Magri, a professor of animation in Italy who visited the Anibar festival this year, says that despite the enthusiasm of young people, systemic efforts are needed to establish festivals and support the arts over the long term.
Financing cultural events and just holding them, Magri told the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, is not enough to end the marginalisation of culture in society, and this is also relevant for places like Peja.
“Anibar is an extraordinary event but I can see that here arts and culture are marginalised in reality. The motivation of a few youngsters is not enough to escape from this,” she notes.
Magri says that that while festivals can play a positive role in emancipating society in terms of arts and culture, greater organisation and support is needed.
“We should appreciate the courage of these youngsters who work to restore the cinema to the city, and oppose the indifference towards this,” she says.

The cinema was built in 1955, and it worked successfully until the 1990s. During this time of ethnic conflicts, Albanians did not go to the cinema, which was run by the Serbian community. After the war in 1999, it was controlled by political parties, but they did not care about culture and just used it as a work place.But, while the festival is increasingly popular with foreigners, the festival does not attract many locals and the cinema is still far from the thriving movie house of Anibar’s ambitions.

The cinema was brought back into life in February 2011 and two years later a new mayor gave it to Anibar to administrate.

“When we opened the cinema two years ago, we could not understand why the venue was under protection. Everything was a mess and we were unable to comprehend what happened here,” Sanaja recalls.

He highlights the fact that Pec/Peja was not always a black hole on the cultural map of Kosovo, recalling the cultural splendour of his hometown in the 1970s.

Back then, people like Faruk Begolli, the famous Yugoslav actor, contemporary artists like Erzen Shkololli and the Brooklyn-based Sislej Xhafa and one of Kosovo’s main conceptual artists, Sokol Beqiri, all walked the streets. 

Pec/Peja also raised the famous guitarist and pedagogue Luan Sapunxhiu and Ilir Bajri, who today is a well-known jazz composer, pianist and director of the Prishtina Jazz Festival.

Turbo-folk trumps cinema

Pec/Peja has gone through enormous economic and social changes during the past decades. More than 10 factories that used to be the city’s industrial heart have now been privatised and turned into shopping malls, supermarkets and housing projects.

Meanwhile, locals don’t really seem interested in renewing the cultural life of the city.

Sanaja says they would rather stick to marking traditional war anniversaries and national holidays with performances from traditional and pop artists whose work rarely strays beyond the limits of turbo-folk. Epic speeches by officials draw larger crowds than the cinema.

Several of the youngsters who helped Sanaja launch the Anibar festival have given up and taken off to Pristina or elsewhere to study, unwilling to spend their time at turbo-folk shows or hang around the cafés wasting time.

“Somebody has to stay here and give life to these activities,” he says, going about his daily chores.

But he admits he finds it tough organising a festival whose basic needs  are hardly met and where there is little else to occupy him for the rest of the year.

Festival changes Peja’s reputation

Vesa Qena, a young playwright from Pristina who was a jurist at this year’s festival, visited Peja for the first time in August. She says the city was not what she had expected.“Whenever I thought of Peja, I thought of assassinations and the wonders of the Rugova highlands, but the arts never crossed my mind, although my father used to tell me his memories of many recognised artists from the place,” Qena says. Peja is one of Kosovo’s more notorious cities. The scene of numerous murders after the 1999 war, a feeling of insecurity still pervades the city.

During the 1998-99 war, it suffered a large number of casualties and saw much destruction. The killings continued after the war with rival political and criminal camps fighting each other, creating a highly unstable environment.

“Although Peja now has a music festival, Into the Park, and a theatre festival, MONOAKT, I did not feel like coming before. But Anibar has made a change to the gloomy image of Peja,” Qena says.

The festival needs more financial support and a serious development strategy to grow, not to mention that Sanaja and his colleagues earn no income from the festival. Despite this, he is not going to give up.

“I have decided to stay in the hope that we will create a series of events from one [festival],” Sanaja says, knowing he faces an uphill struggle.

The locals, he explains, are not exactly arty types and for a long time they nicknamed Anibar the “Tom and Jerry Show” and rarely visited.

While the festival was popular for its after-parties and DJs, those were often interrupted by power cuts, angry neighbours and the police.

The festival is not only about the arts, however. Recently, the organizers along with their guests and volunteers, decided to clean the section of the polluted river by the cinema.

Although this was a welcome development, the organisers feel that their work was not much appreciated.   People still throw garbage in the river and no one cleans it. 

Not enough support

“We are often ignored by Kosovo’s cultural institutions, not to mention by people, who see this as a secondary activity,” Sanaja says.

He says the cinema needs an upgrade and complains that they do not have enough visitors or modern equipment, especially a DCP projector to replace the 25-year-old 35mm projector, a retro system seldom used in the film industry today. 

“It is tough to maintain because technology has advanced and people have forgotten the sensation of going to the cinema,” Sanaja says.

Starting from left: Vullnet Sanaja, Mike Reiss, and Vullnet Gusija open the festival at the press conference

Although the municipality considers the festival a project that benefits Pec/Peja, and has handed the old cinema over to the organisers, Sanaja still believes Anibar is marginalised and seen as unimportant.

The local government does not agree that Pec/Peja marginalises the arts. The municipality argues that the city is now a cultural hub as never before.

“Eight successful festivals take place here and PIGF [Peja International Guitar Festival] and Anibar are international events,” Engelbert Zefaj, head of the Culture Department in the municipality, says.

“For the first time, there is a cultural festival of high schools, with 950 young artists in the genres of theatre, poetry, singing and dancing. Concerts are held on important days, on independence day, liberation day and on the day of the flag,” he adds.

He goes on to mention the museum, the public library and other venues and events, which he believes make Pec/Peja an arts and culture destination.

“Lack of money is the reason why many projects by young artists cannot be supported. Municipal budgets are small and central government policies are not that supportive  of the arts,” Zefaj explains.

He says the municipality has done its best to help Anibar and will continue to do so, explaining that, apart from its artistic importance, the festival brings economic benefits to the city.

Still, Sanaja is not satisfied. “The financial support we receive just covers the basic needs  of the festival,” he says, meaning the cost of hosting guests, their travel and accommodation, printing posters, electricity and water, renting the projector and other things needed to stage events.

“Everything else is covered by people’s goodwill but that is not enough to push the idea forward, it’s just enough to hold yet another edition,” he says.

 “It is extremely difficult to bring forth a modern cinema due to lack of finances,” he says, stressing he hasn’t yet lost hope that his fellow citizens will come to understand the importance of the festival.

“It is about creating a more conscious society with more opportunities for social development,” he concludes.

This article is funded under the Invisible Art project, supported by the Prince Claus Fund.

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