The email had apparently arrived at an ungodly hour in the morning. Teenkahon (Three Obsessions), our first feature film in Bengali, had been selected to be a part of the first Bridge Film Festival. My wife, Mona, woke me up with the news. “Congratulations. Time to pack our bags,” she said. “Where are we going?” I asked. “Mitrovica, in Kosovo. Don’t ask me any further questions, because I don’t have any answers.” The next week was spent trying to find at least some of those answers.
Kosovo, a region with an Albanian majority, declared its independence from Serb-dominated Serbia in 2008, but Serbia has never recognised it. We discovered later that India doesn’t recognise Kosovo either, perhaps keeping the Kashmir imbroglio in mind. Ravaged by a civil war that began in 1998, and reduced to a virtual pile of rubble in the 16 months following, Kosovo is relatively peaceful today. The economic situation remains grim, but the people of Kosovo are nothing if not hopeful.
To understand the strategic importance of Mitrovica, a prominent mining town, you need to understand the demographics of the city. Before the war, the city had a homogenous population of Serbs and Albanians, but the conflict created new boundaries, displaced people from their homes and created settlements based on language. Today, to the north of Mitrovica is the Serbian enclave, while the Albanians live to the south. These two parts of the city are separated by a bridge on the river Ibar, and it’s possibly the most controversial bridge in Europe. The Bridge Film Festival is named after this bridge.
The seed of the film festival was laid 14 months ago. Fed up of the enmity between the two communities, some like-minded people from both sides came together to discuss the possibility of letting art do the talking, rather than guns. People needed to learn to respect different ethnicities, which could possibly bring about an atmosphere of tolerance, they had thought. Organising a film festival was a way to connect people, change lives and bring in a new chapter of dialogue.
Fourteen hundred films were submitted from all over the world when the ‘call for entry’ bells were sounded. After a rigorous three months of selection, ten full-length feature films and 31 short films were given the honour. Films were chosen from Germany, Armenia, Turkey, France, Netherlands, Egypt and the USA — Teenkahon was the only Indian film in the fray.
On the first day of the festival, what we discovered was startling. Following a violent clash in June 2014, the bridge had been shut down. Barricades had been put up, and the Serbians had created a garden on their side. People could cross over by foot, but vehicles weren’t allowed. The bridge was constantly guarded by police from either side under the supervision of the UN Kosovo Force. And, next to the bridge, on the southern side of the banks of the Ibar, was the Culture Centre, which had been closed since the war began.
On that day, the 6th of October, a reconstructed Culture Centre was thrown open to the public for the first time since the war. Cinema had already started to bring in change. In a heartwarming ceremony, the president of Kosovo, Atifete Jahjaga, declared the festival open. For the first time in 15 years, a movie played in Mitrovica on the big screen. We had slipped into history, into a moment that would redefine a lot of lives in the coming years.
Teenkahon was screened the next day. Never had I imagined that people from the UN, the K Force, Serbians and Albanians would sit together to watch a Bengali feature film in faraway Kosovo. We made friends — lots of them. German actors, French film-makers, festival organisers, restaurant owners, local film-makers, people from the media, the different nationalities that formed the K Force, the local human rights activists — we were sharing our India with them. A Bengali film, comprising three obsessive stories spread over a century, is far removed from the aspirations of the average Kosovan, but as a human story, people connected with it.
The defining moment came when, as festival delegates, we were asked to cross the bridge. With us came the festival organising team, some of them crossing over to the Serbian side for the first time in 15 years. There were tears of joy, disbelief at discovering childhood homes, walking through long forgotten memories — cinema had started to weave its magic again.
Teenkahon won two awards — best screenplay and a special mention for cinematography — but the ultimate award, for me, was the moment when we became a part of history. In a war-ravaged country, we had all become messengers of peace, of harmony. It’s not every day that cinema manages to achieve this. We left with the hope that by the time the Bridge Film Festival returns next year, the barricade on the bridge would have been removed.