Lendita Zeqiraj • Director of Aga's House
"I had to dig deep into the crevices of the characters"
- We chatted to Kosovar filmmaker Lendita Zeqiraj, whose feature debut, Aga's House, world-premiered in the East of the West section of the KVIFF and picked up a Special Mention from the FEDEORA jury
We talked to Kosovar filmmaker Lendita Zeqiraj, whose feature debut, Aga's House [+see also:
interview: Lendita Zeqiraj
film profile], world-premiered in Karlovy Vary's East of the West section and picked up a Special Mention from the FEDEORA jury.
Cineuropa: How did you come up with this story?
Lendita Zeqiraj: I always want to find my own way of expressing something, without thinking it in any other way or having any information prior to it – in fact, I have avoided information and research of this type because my characters are not all war victims. I have intentionally not wanted to have information, because it was not the real cases that would make the story for me. The story emerged on its own, always having the big picture in mind. We all know that there are cases of violence and rape perpetrated against women throughout the world. I can say that even before being men or women, even before being Albanian or Croatian, even before being Muslim or Christian, my characters are first and foremost simple and random people who find themselves in a state of limbo at the end of the world. They are on the verge of disappearance or growth, depending on how things transpire. They are people who, at a certain point in their lives, were struck by tragedy. They were simply not fated to survive tragedy.
For me, the house also works as a society in miniature, like a single cell of a human society, like an organism. The idea did not come to me out of a magic pot. It came out as a direct result of my entire existence, as experiences of my senses, of the close observation of human communication. Perhaps the synthesis of the idea, after this unconscious “research”, after analysing the different ways in which different societies function, and trying to see it from different angles, brought about my fictionalised characters and the story of Aga’s House. I had to dig deep into the crevices of the characters, as well as into their most humane wells, in order to deeply feel each one. And all of them reside inside me, just as they reside in all of us. And I asked my actors to do the same.
How did you make the decision to situate the whole film in one isolated house? And how did you decide on the visual aspect of the film, with the constantly moving camera, up close to the protagonists?
It was very important for me for the house to be in a very remote place. While scouting locations for the film, after we had travelled almost half of Kosovo and could not find the right place, we arrived at this mountainous village (which I had never seen before), and I was amazed by the beauty and serenity of that place. I had thought of the house being in an isolated mountain, but I did not imagine that it would be high in the mountains. During the visit, I began imagining the film, the events and scenes, and at a certain point, I felt that that was the missing piece of the puzzle that would complete the visual look of the film. Just imagining them in this almost idyllic nature, I felt an even deeper empathy for the characters. The contrast was striking. I wanted to at least give them freedom to imagine, freedom to fantasise, freedom to dream.
Nature was in such contrast with the characters that the landscape could easily be mistaken for wallpaper in some scenes. The location was already decided by me now, and I was only waiting for the director of photography, Sofian El Fani, to confirm the place due to filming inside the house, which had a very low ceiling. I did not know whether it was technically possible to film under those conditions, because I planned to shoot in long takes, with camera movement of 360°, three boom operators, the continuity, focus puller operator, which means a lot of people behind the camera. When Sofian said there would be no problem to shoot because of the low ceiling, half of the film was already finished for me.
I did not want to convey a feeling of imaginary events, so I wanted the camera to be near the characters because of the tension I wanted to achieve, and I wanted the hand-held camera because of the documentary feeling. The movie captures only a few hours in the day of the characters, and everything had to be compressed perfectly. The visual look of the film was already in my head from the time I was writing the screenplay. This is why I do the production design myself. I hired a set designer, and we began working on finding the colours, dyeing, and everything right down to the smallest props and details, because the house was abandoned and swallows had already built their nests inside. At the same time, together with the costume designer, we visited shops, markets and other places until we found exactly the costumes we had imagined.
The cast makes for a real ensemble; how did you pick them, and how did you work together?
Ever since writing the screenplay, I had some of the roles in mind, apart from Cera [played by Basri Lushtaku], whom I had imagined to be someone else. Because of the time constraints, I demanded that we have rehearsals and for building a dynamic between the characters (especially Cera with Aga), and because the time of the initial actor was limited, I was forced to choose another actor. I didn’t simply want a replacement, so I began searching not only for someone else, but something else also. The nuance I changed in Cera’s character was small but crucial. In the original screenplay, Cera was more of an urban thug, while in the film, Cera is more of a hillbilly, a gambler and a drunk.
The text did not change substantially – only a few words here and there. What changed was my approach towards the look, body movement and the manner of the actor’s personification with the character. I began rehearsals well ahead of filming, and this was usually done outside, in the nature. It was like working in the theatre, starting from readings, mise-en-scène, emotions, and long conversations about characters. There were cases when I gave assignments to actors to think about a situation for the next day, and it was never something from the film.
We worked so hard that, in building the relationship between Cera and Emira [played by Rozafa Celaj], I arranged a re-enactment which I filmed from the backseat of a car. I gave the actors instructions separately about their characters – and they met in the car for the first time ever. We drove around for three hours while they both interacted in character. I did this because I felt it was extremely important for Emira to have an insight into the violence and cunning of Cera’s character; what it feels like to have a boyfriend who is capable of doing anything to meet his ends. They never met in person again, until when shooting began. And it is the same way I worked with the relationship between Aga [played by Arti Lokaj] and Cera.
Zdenka [Rebeka Qena] came into the film quite late because I had a hard time finding her. I had been looking for her for years and could not find her until the last week before shooting. The moment I saw her audition tape, I gave the role to her.
I come from a visual-arts background, so I don’t have a formal education in film. That is why I feel that I make my movies like a painting, starting from the selection of the actors (which in the world of painting is mannequins), the set and background, colours and nuances, the story, the relationship between the characters in situations and the energy.
What were the biggest challenges during the production process?
The most challenging time during filming was the night shoots with Arti, because he was eight years old at that time, and he was the carrier of many heavy scenes. As a director, the most delicate moment for me was working with Arti in the last scene of the film, when he asked me what is “rape” (it was the only word he had heard from the crew that night, despite the fact that I had asked them not to tell him until the last moment of filming that scene). I felt terrible because I knew I was the one who would hurt him, in a way. It was me who would make him grow up prematurely. This was a very emotional moment for both of us because I had to at least somehow explain the situation to him. In front of me, I had two innocent eyes full of life, to whom I would have to lay bare the maladies of humanity, to hurt him. What Aga feels on the screen is exactly what little Arti felt. It was the same process I applied with the other actresses as well. Every situation in the film, every emotion and nuance, the energy between the characters were already rehearsed well ahead of filming.
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