Fisnik Maxville • Director of The Land Within
“At one point, I really wanted to write: ‘Inspired by thousands of true stories’”
- We sat down with the Kosovar helmer, whose debut feature follows a young man returning to his native village to take part in the exhumation of a mass grave
Cineuropa caught up with Fisnik Maxville, the director of The Land Within [+see also:
interview: Fisnik Maxville
film profile]. The picture, which world-premiered in the First Feature Competition of this year’s Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, follows the exhumation of a mass grave in a village, during which dark secrets from the past emerge along with the bodies. We spoke about Maxville’s casting choices, the writing of the script and his experience of filming in Kosovo.
Cineuropa: How did the idea come about and what themes did you decide to focus on?
Fisnik Maxville: The idea came about while thinking about someone going back to the country they had left 10-15 years beforehand. That’s linked to my own experience as a Kosovar who left nearly 25 years ago. Going back is a big issue for me because things have changed: the war is finished, and you come as a foreigner to a place where you’ve got the name, you speak the language and you’ve got the blood, but you’re not one of these people. This is the story I wanted to explore for my first feature. I have to admit that, for a long time, I took different directions. [I was wondering:] What would be the story behind this person’s return to his homeland? Then the idea about going back to help out the family, to take the bodies out of a mass grave, came along... You know, at the beginning of some films, they put, “Inspired by a true story.” At one point, I really wanted to write: “Inspired by thousands of true stories.” I know a lot of people from where I grew up in Kosovo. They left the country and had to deal with this. They uncovered a lot of mass graves. [...] That’s how I really started to write this story.
How did you pick the two leads, Florist [Bajgora] and Luana [Bajrami]?
For Florist, it started very early on in the writing process. He had played a small role in one of my films, a 2016 short. I was very impressed by how he approached this [project]. We only had one day of shooting [on my previous short]. Since then, we’d kept in touch, and we almost became friends, if I can put it that way. To me, he embodied that character really well. [...] He already got into character without having read the script, since I told him some things [beforehand]. I really never cast anybody else.
As for Luana, I also started looking for the actress a year-and-a-half before filming. I knew many actresses in Kosovo, but I felt I needed someone I hadn't worked with before. I took part in the Ateliers d’Angers, and I was developing my film there. Céline Sciamma was one of our group’s speakers. She showed us her film, which wasn't out yet [Portrait of a Lady on Fire [+see also:
interview: Céline Sciamma
film profile]]. During the whole film, I was looking at Luana, thinking: “She’s incredible!” In the end, I saw her name and noticed it was Albanian. [I thought:] Okay, the stars have aligned. [...] She [Sciamma] gave me her number. I called her the next day, and for me, the casting was done because over the phone, she said: “I’d love to make the film with someone who lives abroad and wants to make it in Kosovo.”
What were the main challenges you had to face during the writing phase?
It is a Swiss-led production. So, if you want to make a film and set 95% of it in Kosovo, with most of the actors who are not Swiss, it’s tricky. I felt like I was trying to make the film more and more “Swiss”. And that’s what happened in the script because the part we shot in Switzerland is much, much longer than what appears in the film. I was trying to drag the film to Switzerland because that’s the place I knew better. [...] And then, I was really trying to make a film that was too big to fit into a two-hour feature in terms of the story, the number of characters and the references I wanted to put in. That’s why the movie has unsettled a lot of people. They don’t know how to categorise it. They don’t know whether it’s a family drama or a genre film, since there are many references to horror and the fantastical. [...] In the editing room, I understood I couldn’t really fit everything in. That’s what I’ve learnt about the writing process.
Over the last few years, we’ve seen Kosovo slowly emerging as a place for filming, and there have been a few important titles released lately which have made it to important festivals. What was your experience of being in a way both an insider and an outsider?
I think something very interesting has happened. It doesn’t happen too often that a foreign team comes to Kosovo to shoot a film in Albanian and about Kosovo. I felt the local team was trying to step up a gear to get to our level, even though I’ve never thought of the Kosovar team or industry people being on a lower rung. Somehow, this had an impact, and the Kosovar team reached such a high standard that the rest of the European crew were really impressed. [...] We never had even a minute of overtime, and we even finished two days in advance. Everything went so smoothly that the main issue we had to deal with was COVID-19, since every now and then, people were put in self-isolation.
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