- Bosnia and Herzegovina
- All Balkan Countries
It was planned as the first Hollywood feature on the Kosovo conflict, but ‘Guests at the Sofra’ has landed its producer – and two former ministers of culture – in a battle of their own.
The film had the support of Kosovo’s major political players, including the former Prime Minister Agim Ceku.
The co-producer of the Oscar-nominated film Hotel Rwanda was on board to take up the same role, as were several well known international and local actors.
Some 100,000 euro had also been transferred to the account of producer Armond Morina to begin work on the first feature film based on the war in Kosovo.
But five years on, the script remains on paper, and Morina, who is famous in Kosovo for his role in a popular soap, faces charges of fraud.
Two former Ministers of Culture, Astrit Haraqija and Valton Beqiri, also face charges, of abusing their official positions for signing illegal contracts related to the film and awarding funds for the film without an open competition.
Last month Pristina Commercial Court ordered Morina to repay the Ministry of Culture 120,000 euro, including 20,000 euro interest.
Food for thought:
South African filmmaker Cheryl Johnson stumbled across a story in the early 2000s about a young Kosovar, now a restaurant owner in Pristina, his love for food and his relationship with his father as war broke out in Kosovo.
On her return home she turned the story into a script and began working with Morina on turning it into a feature film.
Delphine Depardieu, Gerard Depardieu’s niece, agreed to act in the movie, as did two well-known Albanian actors, Luan Jaha and Luisa Xhuvani.
Izidor Codron, South African co-executive producer of Hotel Rwanda, the award-winning film that shaped the world’s view of the African genocide, was also signed up.
In 2005 Minister Haraqija invited the producers of the movie, which now had the working title of Guests at the Sofra, to talk about the project.
A contract was signed with the Ministry of Culture in 2007, but the money failed to flow and troubles began.
The PM intervenes:
In 2007, Agim Ceku, then Prime Minister, met Morina, who told him that various persons in the Ministry of Culture were demanding money before the funds agreed in the contract could be disbursed.
Haraqija had authorized his subordinates to sign a contract on January 30, 2007, under which the film, projected to cost 5 million euro, was to receive 350,000 euro from the ministry.
But the transfer had been delayed and Morina blamed “unprofessional” civil servants at the Ministry.
Blerim Limani, now communications adviser to Ceku at the Ministry for the Kosovo Security Force, said that with this information, Ceku “talked with Culture Minister Haraqija and the latter assured Ceku that the allegations [about demanding money] were not true”.
After this discussion, Ceku says, he heard nothing more about Morina’s project.
The Ministry finally transferred some 100,000 euro to Morina’s Films’ account in 2008, when Valton Beqiri took over as Minister.
The money was given for the “first phase” of the project following the signature of an annex to Haraqija’s contract.
The annex, which Balkan Insight has obtained, was signed by two parties, Beqiri from the Ministry and Morina from Morina Films.
In case of failure of the project, Morina Films was to return the 100,000 euro to the Ministry within six months.
Four years since the signing of this annex, more than five years on from the basic contract, the project has not yet been completed and the money has not been returned.
The film did not find other financial backers.
Morina also submitted no progress report on the project, which he was obliged to, the indictment says.
The Pristina Commercial Court consulted a cinematography expert, Agim Sopi and a financial expert, Saban Bahtiri, before concluding in April that the terms of the 2007 contract had not been met.
The judgment said Morina had spent more than 95 per cent of the 100,000 euro allocated for the first phase and had since found no other donors.
Morina argued that the legal deadline for the start of the movie does not apply when external producers are part of the project.
He may now appeal to the Supreme Court. He declined to discuss the case with this newspaper.
Kosovo’s Law on Cinematography, adopted in 2004, says the deadline for starting to shoot a film following the signature of a contract is six months.
But Fatos Berisha, director of the Kosovo Cinematography Centre, says the law does not, for example, specify how much time should be given to a producer to raise funds.
“Many people here don’t realise that film production takes a lot of time because the main part of the film is not the shooting or editing but preparation,” Berisha explained.
“Fundraising can take years because film is expensive.”
Gaps in the contract:
As mentioned, the annex contract drafted by Beqiri obliged Morina to return the money to the ministry in the event of the failure of the project.
But the original January 2007 contract, signed by the Ministry of Culture, represented by Alberta Troni, and Morina, did not mention a time limit.
The director of culture at the ministry, Troni, had no written authorization from minister Haraqija to sign the contract. Troni had only verbal authorization, according to the indictment.
The contract was also signed without an open competition, which is against public procurement laws, it is alleged.
The contract was also not officially recorded in the ministry archive, according to the indictment.
It is as a result of these alleged transgressions that Haraqija has been charged with abuse of his official position or authority.
The indictment is expected to go soon before a confirmation hearing. Haraqija has refused to speak with Balkan Insight.
The planned producer of the film, the South African Johnson, told Balkan Insight that Haraqija had backed the project without even reading the script.
|Haraqija, Morina, Cordon|
“The script was ready from the beginning, but Haraqija never asked for it, only Valton [Beqiri] asked for the script,” she recalled. “Valton read the script first before deciding to proceed with the project,” she added.
Beqiri says contract was legal:
Beqiri meanwhile remains convinced that he has done no wrong. The prosecution accuses him of signing the new contract even though the original was illegal.
But he answers that the first contract was not unlawful “because it was signed by an authorised official of the Ministry with the authorisation of the Minister and had the stamp of the ministry”.
Beqiri also believes he was obliged to sign the annex contract in order to honour the financial promises made by his predecessor.
“The contract was transferred to us as the ministry’s debt, and there was also 800,000 euro debt to various other cultural projects that we had been legally obliged to fulfil,” Beqiri noted, referring to other projects that the ministry had promised to fund but had yet to.
Beqiri added that he believed he had achieved a good deal for Kosovo, as some 7 per cent of the profits of the film were to go to the Cinematography Centre of Kosovo.
He added that he was proud of his achievements as minister and was convinced that his colleagues from the legal office had made no mistakes in the advice provided to him, when confirming that he should sign the annex.
Beqiri was unable to explain why the 100,000 euro was transferred to Morina Film when the contract stipulated that a special account should be opened in the name of Guests at the Sofra, however.
All withdrawals from this account also ought to have required two signatures, those of the producer and a representative of the Ministry of Culture.
Johnson said she is puzzled as to why this did not happen. “I told Armond to do this, and if he had listened to me he would not be in such trouble,” Johnson said.
“The money was transferred to Morina Films, but it was specified what this money should be used for,” Beqiri said.
Morina and the other co-accused are expected to appear before a District Court in Pristina for a decision on whether a full trial will be held against them. All have denied wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, the same indictment also alleges that another director, Nehat Fejza, also failed to produce his proposed fim after receiving 180,000 euro in public funds.
However, the owner of Concordia Pictures has since announced that Power Cuts will soon be premiered.
This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.
The band from Bitola describe their approach to music as an irrational process of creating a ‘private folklore’ out of their impressions and dreams, and their latest album as a tonic for apathy and depression.
Is everybody in? The ceremony is about to begin…