Interview with Eroll Bilibani, executive director of DOKUFEST, Prizren, Kosovo.
DOKUFEST is an unusual member of Green Film Network. It is not dedicated to environment. It is big International Documentary & Short Film Festival, the most important cultural event in Kosovo and in Balkans. Having strong Green Dox Selection, every year they bring the best recent films of the topic.
Eroll Bilbani is also not ordinary film festival director. He came to organization as a photographer and stayed until running the whole event. But what is the most important is his attitude to the festival as a chance to make a change, to promote Balkan filmmaking internationally, and culture locally, to boost education and to build a better reality. He is a great example of ambitions.
In this detailed and sincere interview, Eroll guides us through life and work in Kosovo, festival plans and important moments of his work. Green Film Network continues a series of interviews with film festival directors. This time let us introduce you DOKUFEST.
How did it all start? How was DokuFest born?
DokuFest started as an initiative of a group of friends– all coming from different professional backgrounds but connected through one common dream: love for cinema and love for their city. The main idea behind the initiation of the first film festival in post-war Kosovo was very simple: TO RETURN THE CINEMA BACK TO THE CITY.
Not that they only lived their dream, but through hard-work the festival that started 15 years ago, with some 20 films from the region – with no external funding, but with large dose of passion, consistent work and dedication turned DokuFest into the main cultural event in Kosovo and one of the most important film festivals in the region and beyond, to be ranked as one of the 25 top documentary film festivals in the world.
Turning this dream into a success story and the philosophy behind it was based on three things:
- Love for cinema and the city
- Nothing is impossible approach
- Blending of the entire city in the organization of the festival
This is perhaps best illustrated with the paradox of DokuFest organizing a film festival in the city without a functional cinema, nor technical capacity to support such a venture. But, the persistence of DokuFest founders and their passion for film and love for the city, has mobilized an army of young volunteers to turn this dream to reality.
Do you remember your very first festival?
I joined the festival team in 2011 – as a desktop publisher of the DokuDaily newspaper and as a photographer. I was lucky to be actively involved in 10th, jubilee edition – and to meet some great filmmakers as Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Marshall Curry, James Longley and artists as P.J. Harvey – who were the guests of the festival that year. I remember that at daytime I would linger in the office working on the design and layout of the newspaper and familiarizing myself with the films that were on the program, so I could attend the screenings that had Q&A’s. I remember to have slept only few hours each day, something that has trailed me for every following year at DokuFest.
However, I attended the very first edition of the Festival in 2002. I remember that the organizers put their hearts into making the festival possible, and despite the heavy rain on the opening night, the festival turned into a major success. And yes, DokuFest was one of the main reasons for me to take my annual leave and return to Prizren each August or September, as it made me feel really special in my own hometown. The second edition’s T-shirt is still my favorite t-shirt.
What is the most difficult thing in your work now?
Hmmm, I haven’t really thought about it. Organizing such an event in a country like Kosovo is by itself a challenge. There is no real infrastructure that would meet all the standards, when it comes to increasing the number of screening venues or places to host workshops and master classes. Luckily, we run in the month of August and therefore use the public spaces that city has to offer: a beautiful river, city castle, old Hamam and other historic facilities. Most importantly a very vibrant youth, eager to learn and a population known for its warmhearted hospitality.
What do you like the most about your work?
Day when I meet all the Festival staff and volunteers – some 200 young and striving people that remind us how important our work is – so, working with the most amazing team in Kosovo is the most rewarding feeling, full stop!
What was the film festival among ones you visited that you remember the most?
2012, Nordisk Panorama in Oulu, Finland. This was the last year of Nordisk Panorama as a travelling festival before settling permanently in Malmo, Sweden.
This was also my first film festival after DokuFest, and maybe that’s the reason why it has remained so dear at heart. I was mesmerized with the way the festival was organized, and how receptive the Nordic people are. Here, apart from watching a film that went to win the Oscar for best documentary later, I had a chance to attend the Forum and see a pitch of a documentary about Kosovo-Serbia negotiations in Brussels. I met some of the most amazing people from the industry, filmmakers, producers, festival organizers, and many have remained great friends to date.
What can you advice to other film festival organisers? Some word of wisdom.
Each film festival is unique and specific. Behind each film festival there is a dedicated team behind the curtains that makes it possible, and these people have to be recognized, one way or another!
And courage! Loads of courage to experiment, try new things and bring diversity to the film festival program.
I personally enjoy the festivals where everything is in walking distance and where all guests are equal. It is an awful feeling to go to an event of the festival to be told that your accreditation is not valid for that particular event.
Why did you choose films as a tool to give environmental message? Why do you think is a good media?
We live in Kosovo. The main energy source comes from a coal-based power plant. The pollution from the excessive car use combined with the fumes released from old cars is high. Combine this with the lack of awareness for environmental protection the results can be catastrophic. We have therefore identified that environmental issues in Kosovo need further awareness rising, in particular to issues of exploration of renewable energies instead of exploiting coal for electricity production. In addition to presenting a prize to the winner of the Green Dox Category, we have expanded our activities throughout the year with the screenings of Environmental films that address particular emerging environmental issues in Kosovo within a TV Program of a national TV broadcaster as well as utilizing local broadcast channels that broadcast on national level.
We have also included the environmental component to our School of Documentary by utilizing existing Kino Clubs in production of environmental films through filmmaking trainings and workshops to high-school students. This new component of video activism is also including campaigning for better environment in Kosovo.
As such, we try to build partnerships on local and international level. One of such partnerships is with Green Festival Network, which is a great platform to exchange experiences. On local level, we try to address the issues that are often neglected. DokuFest being the main cultural event in Kosovo each year offers space for discussions. For example, last year we had a talk on Climate Change – a common challenge in the Balkans. The Balkan region has many common challenges that are not being targeted due to social and political divisions. But one of the most important challenges that transcends political divisions is the environment, respectively, its protection. Despite this, the Balkans, remains a polluted region in Europe and this may happen due to many reasons. It’s precisely these reasons related to the preservation of the environment or climate change that were discussed at the panel.
What are other ways that work the best in your experience?
Education, education and education! It is very important to work with younger generations, those who will be the future’s decision and policy makers. Our generations have found the world in much better condition – but have failed to at least preserve it for generations to come.
Do you believe that you are partially “saving the world” with your work?
You know, once we start convincing people give time and energy, to take part, rather than just being audience members we can change one thing at a time! And if we manage to empower people to take action through powerful stories, utilize modern technologies, creative risk-taking may to lead awareness and stronger social movement, and all these may just save the world.
What are your ideas about the future? How do you think is gonna look like?
The festival will continue the trend of the qualitative growth. This is why we have undergone a major restructuring in the organization and have appointed a new festival director Ms. Nita Deda, who will be working to further strengthen festival platforms and build synergies between them. We have included a major novel technological event to the festival (DokuTech), the children festival DokuKids is becoming major platform to inspire creativity, music strand DokuNights is diversifying our audiences and many other events are becoming significant to festival’s growth. Nita will be working on fostering synergies between all of these festival platforms.
On the other hand the organization will be focusing on developing educational programs for high schools and young people to encourage them to take action and be active agents for social change through storytelling and filmmaking. Our plan is to become a center that supports young documentary filmmakers through knowledge, equipment and access to funds. We intend to keep on travelling to villages and screen films, and we dream to do this through a self powered solar cinema. We will continue advocating and encouraging more airtime on national televisions for powerful documentaries. We will use documentaries to advance discussions on social issues, human rights, life in community, daily youth struggles, diversity, education, violence and of course environment, which is, and will remain in the core of our organization.
By Anastasia Laukkanen