Kolona: The past revisited

This interview was originally published on Kosovo 2.0. Available here in English, Albanian, and Serbian. 

The opening scene is a familiar one for Kosovars: the rolling fields, the loud cars speeding past, the young girls hanging half out of the windows, dancing — this is a Kosovar wedding. We see Adem and his family in a traditional cordon of cars. We don’t know whose wedding it is. It’s a beautiful spring day. Unexpectedly, Adem stops driving. In the span of a few minutes we are transported back to the same spot, except now it’s 1999 and the road is filled with an endless, hopeless procession of Albanian Kosovars trying to flee from Serbian army forces. When Adem is stopped by Serbian soldiers, he is forced to make a horrible choice: they will either kill his son or his nephew. Only one can be saved.

Released in 2012, Ujkan Hysaj’s short film Kolona (Column) has done remarkably well on the festival circuit, bagging wins across Europe and the United States. Most recently, Hysaj won the best short film award at the Alpinale Film Festival in Austria. A graduate of the University of Prishtina’s film department, this is Hysaj’s first independent film endeavor, and he refers to Kolona as the “first film” of his career.

In a refreshing break from past films about the 1999 war, Kolona eschews scenes of manly warriors and epic battle scenes in favor of one family’s story. Based on a true story, Hysaj explains how this focus on both the terrifying and the mundane was closer to the reality of the war as he experienced it, “Sometimes less is more. Until this point, we’ve tried to say a lot every chance we get, and maybe in fact we’ve said very little in trying to include every history. Maybe we’ve seen lots of movies in which the Kosovo Liberation Army and the refugees are presented as equal, in the sense that both sides made the same sacrifices for the country. But I think differently. The KLA’s war wasn’t enough to win freedom. It was the refugees with their sacrifices that led to the NATO intervention. But that history of the refugees [is one that] we haven’t seen enough of.”

The story of Adem is gripping, because it’s the story of an ordinary man with no gun and no uniform. His aim is simple — he wants to save his son and nephew. His sacrifice is made all the more painful by the lack of any reward at the end of the journey, and there are many other Adems whose stories of extraordinary struggle remain unknown. In the metaphorical sense, Adem’s story is the story of every Kosovar deported during wartime. “Kolona deals with precisely this issue. A collective truth is told in Kolona, which is the history of the entire war through one person, who can easily be called a hero. Why? Because I think everyone, in their own individual ways, has contributed to the freedom of this country.”

Kolona is based on the story of a real man in Mitrovica, who was forced by Serbian security forces to choose the life of one boy: his own or his brother’s. According to Hysaj, honesty is essential if one is to tell war stories. “When we’re dealing with the Kosovo war, it’s the responsibility of artists to honestly represent their stories as they happened — even if they’re very painful, like stories of rape, for example.”

The Kosovo conflict has, in a sense, been represented to Kosovars, rather than by them. It has been represented by international news media that frame the conflict according to their own criteria, and by large local productions that focus on the glorious rather than the ordinary. The act of storytelling can also be one of healing, Hysaj explains. “The act of healing occurs when we don’t run away from our past by ignoring it, by pretending that we’re fine. I think that Kolona helps in this regard, in healing the past by facing its consequences. I think the healing or catharsis occurs when the audience identifies with the wedding guests in the film, when they understand that someone is responsible for the fact that they are free to watch this film.”

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