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SAN SEBASTIÁN 2018 New Directors

Review: Cold November

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- SAN SEBASTIÁN 2018: Kosovar director Ismet Sijarina's first feature is a moving story of a man who sacrifices everything for his family

Review: Cold November
Adriana Matoshi and Kushtrim Hoxha in Cold November

It is 1992 in Priština. Yugoslavia is falling apart, while war is raging in Croatia and threatens to spread to Bosnia. Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević is strengthening his stranglehold on Kosovo's autonomy, Albanians are losing their jobs and educational institutions in their own language, and the movement for independence is gaining momentum. Full-on war is still years away, but it is time to take sides: who is the true Albanian patriot, and who is a Serbian spy?

In Ismet Sijarina's Cold November [+see also:
trailer
interview: Ismet Sijarina
film profile
]
, screening in New Directors at the San Sebastián Film Festival, Fadil (Kushtrim Hoxha) is a father of two and husband to Hana (Adriana Matoshi, from The Marriage [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Blerta Zeqiri
film profile
]
), employed in a company with an undefined line of business, which gets a new boss, Serbian Nikola, played with his regular Sarajevo accent by Bosnian star Emir Hadžihafizbegović – not that international audiences will notice, but for viewers from the film's region, it can have a severe impact on the cinematic illusion. All of Fadil's Albanian co-workers have quit, including his cousin Arsim (Fatim Spahiu), but Fadil is afraid for his and his family's livelihood, and decides to stay in the job.

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This earns him the nickname "Serbian traitor" and gets him ostracised in the Albanian community. Fadil's teenage son gets bullied at school, and his wife loses her job taking care of a friend's intellectually challenged son, as the family decides to move to Zagreb. The worst of the war in Croatia has passed, now Bosnia is on fire, and the son of Fadil's Serbian co-worker is drafted and sent to fight there.

Every day, during the Serbian evening news, Albanians are causing an uproar in protest at the shameless propaganda, clanging on pots and radiator pipes… Until one of the Serbian neighbours steps out onto his balcony and fires a gun. A curfew is often enforced. Priština is submerged in a constant atmosphere of fear, and Fadil is running out of ways to feed his family and maintain his dignity.

Expertly shot in Academy ratio by Sevdije Kastrati (The Marriage), the film evokes a strong feeling of claustrophobia and hopelessness. A couple of scenes where we see Fadil’s desperate face in close-up efficiently help the viewer to relate to his plight, particularly thanks to Hoxha's powerful and nuanced performance.

The production design and period detail are immaculate, with drab-coloured clothes and 1980s-style middle-class apartments and offices. The music (composed by Petrit Çergaxhiu) plays a key role, and "Cold November" is actually a song that Fadil wrote himself and sometimes plays on acoustic guitar. In one of the many inspired editing decisions by Macedonia's Vladimir Pavlovski, during an emotional scene featuring Fadil and Hana, it turns from acoustic to an almost hardcore arrangement as the setting cuts from their bedroom to the train on which they travel to Belgrade in order for her to inspect a lump in her breast.

But for all the powerful emotional charge the film carries, its political attitude feels biased. Sijarina does take care to show that Serbs are also victims of Milošević's genocidal policies, but the wickedness of Nikola, the most prominent Serbian character in the film, is on an almost Disney-villain level. This does not undermine the universal message of the film about a good man with no choice but to sacrifice everything for his family, but it does leave a bitter taste – even if, in reality, the situation was very close to what the movie depicts.

Cold November is a co-production by Kosovo's Buka and Thumbs Up, Albania's AlbaSky and Macedonia's Audiohouse. The international sales are handled by Spain's Barton Films.

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