Alban Ukaj’s director’s debut short film is a deeply intimate story that leaves a striking and painful impression. The story of three young men at the 1997 protests in Pristina and their arrest transcends the local, and while it faithfully conveys a specific socio-political moment, it also speaks of the present and goes beyond the meridians it is located on.
Kali consists of two parts: the first, shorter, is a partially stylised portrayal of the protests focused on the experiences of the young men, and the second, that can freely be named the central part, is where three teenagers in custody face the sadism of a Serb police officer (Izudin Bajrović). Reducing the space to a single room for most of the film makes heavily concretises the feeling of social claustrophobia faced by the protagonists. In the first part of the film, which has a somewhat formal function of exposition or introduction, the authors use image stylisation using slow-motion effect, as well as sound distortion in depicting the experience of three young men from the protest. In that way, one gets the impression of a concrete experience of the atmosphere in the streets, blurred by adrenaline, which becomes familiar and with which the viewer quickly strongly identifies. In film editing, the directorial duo Ukaj-Citaku establishes a somewhat disorienting film space that progressively narrows, in which the protagonists flee from the armed police, raising the level of tension and adrenaline. While the three young men (Florist Bajgora, Ermal Gerdovci, Fatlum Berisha) are in constant frenetic movement and flight, the old man they meet and who hides them is in slow, extremely sluggish motion. His whole appearance, as well as his role in this film, represents the personification of a generation that is slow to react and that mistakenly believes that hiding, concealing and “pushing under the carpet” can solve the problem of the system’s continuous repression. After the old man hides them in his backyard basement, i.e., after the space around them is completely reduced to pitch dark, the three of them appear in a dark police detention room. With this, the authors also tell us about there being no way to hide from such repressive systems and apparatuses of violence. This is where the sadistic cat-and-mouse game begins, the play of a lion with a wounded and caught prey that cannot fight back. Izudin Bajrović, in the role of a Serb police officer, very gradually builds a character and with him an atmosphere that freezes the blood in our veins. The ultimate goal of this sadistic game is, above all, humiliation, and very quickly, any tinge of concealment of those intentions disappears. However, with his acting and precise directing, this character does not grow into mannerism in his embodiment of the system he represents. He stays in realism and that makes him far scarier. Also, such an approach makes this story deeper than a mere black-and-white testimony of good and evil, because it always remains strongly anchored in realism, in the dramaturgical, directorial and acting approach. This story reflects all the darkness of the reality of the Balkans and the region, and instead of intrusively assigning national markings, it is focused on the analysis of each of the characters, his actions and the groups they represent. A precise and careful analytical view of the situation serves as a shield from pathos, pity or emotional mannerism, in the whirlpool of which the cathartic values of the piece always perish first. Kali offers an analysis of a complex and difficult socio-political situation. At the very end, in which the blows to the wall that the protagonists inflict on themselves never stop, there is a strong message. Their blows to the wall become almost mantric and acquire a ritual character. That routine of pain carries with it the power of rebellion.
The film editing introduces different types of tension, freely changing the matrix as the film progresses, making it extremely dynamic. From fast, intermittent frames that primarily build the atmosphere, we move on to a detailed, static and analytical setting. Both approaches carry with them strong tension. In terms of photography, the approach also completely changes, following the idea that this experience permanently changed the three protagonists of the film. In terms of the colour palette, the author’s world also changes, moving from sand tones to cool, muted, as well as sharply outlined shadows, giving an occasional, almost graphic character to the image. The free manoeuvring in style that characterises Kali works well for the authors without major omissions, except for the occasionally repetitive shots in the second part of the film due to limited framing options.
One of the great values of this short film is that it does not rely on national characteristics to impose context or thesis. Although with the knowledge of the context and social circumstances of the story, it offers all its layers, the fact is that even without that knowledge, Kali carries a strong message. Unfortunately, today, images of streets suffocating with tear gas and armed police are those that we associate with the present, wherever we come from. It is perhaps superfluous to talk about the pandemic of sadism of the variously coloured uniforms that we see in videos from all around the planet. We have also oftentimes witnessed the non-giving up and defiance and “breaking down” of the walls that were made to break our heads on them. The existence of such dramatic works perhaps contributes to not having every generation beat their heads against the wall if they learn from the experience of the previous ones. Catharsis is on a meta-level in this film. It could easily be concluded that the ending represents an inert impressionist depiction of martyrdom. This would be a terribly superficial view of this short film. For a start, because its existence, as well as the emotional and social message that it coveys are in themselves cathartic. Because this film talks about the centuries-old pain of the system’s repression over a group of people because of their ethnicity, religion, or anything that can be used for division, and about the strength that exists in rebellion, the strength and often frantic persistence that characterises those who fight for their freedoms. It is an idea that as a mantra maintains the human spirit even in the darkest moments. This film talks about the meaninglessness of evil and by its very existence warns of it, and of all the curves of silence, ignorance and denial that feed it.
This is also a film about a violent end to childhood that its protagonists experience. Every beat against the wall can be seen as breaking the ties with childhood and entering the world of adults, in a very literal sense, “by beating one’s head against the wall”.
Kali reveals what kind of a world these three young men enter and what kind have the previous generations left to them. In it, the lies are as cruel as the image of a horse on the wall, constructed to cause pain and trigger a mechanism in which hatred, humiliation and pain build a monstrous perpetuum mobile.
The pain to which the three young men are exposed becomes almost ritual, it continues as the image goes into fade-out. Pain becomes their struggle and thus protects such an ending from pathos. Such films are important because ignorance and non-acceptance of the truth are responsible for the metastasis of the state of consciousness throughout the Balkans. We live in societies that are wounded, and the wounds have not been treated so they become poisonous. The most dangerous thing is that the metastases of nationalism and fascism are inherited and they, due to ignorance, take on more and more fatal and distorted forms in each succeeding generation, like recurring cancer. Film as a means of communication, as an art that offers opportunities for strong and striking transmission of human experience, is extremely important today. The film carries information, and that’s crucial, but it carries more than that. It, as an artistic and dramatic form above all, carries the idea of empathy. Empathy and a willingness to dialogue have today become almost revolutionary ideas, as society has come to believe that the ideas of humanism are rebellious, as they oppose the extremely lucrative hate trade. Films such as Kali invite to exchange of experiences, initiate a dialogue with their ideas and, above all, liberate, and liberty, as a basic characteristic of knowledge, is perhaps its most important value today.
Katarina Koljević was born in 1993 in Belgrade where in 2017 she graduated from the Faculty of Dramatic Arts, Department of Film and TV Directing. During her studies, her student short films were screened at a dozen film festivals. Her graduate film Life Lasts Three Days was supported by the Film Centre Serbia and SEE Cinema fund in 2016. It premiered in the students’ selection of the 2017 Sarajevo Film Festival. The film received the Youth Jury Award and Special Jury Mention at Bašta Fest. At her master’s studies in film directing at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Belgrade, she made the short film Family Vacation, which premiered at the Sarajevo Film Festival. She directed and wrote several radio-plays for Radio Beograd in 2018 and 2019. She works as a film critic and essayist for a web-based publication Filmoskopija which is a part of Serbian Film Centre. She works as an assistant director and casting director on TV shows and films.