The day before his first screening we found time to video call each other and talk about the project. About how this film developed and what intentions went into stylistic decisions.
What was it that interested you in this topic? Why did you decide to make a film about it? What was your motivation behind it?
I think it's best to start from scratch with that, I always search for stories that catch me emotionally; where I feel: I can show a personal and maybe even political story from a different or unique perspective. And of course where I feel a strong visual connection.
This story for example has a gender topic embedded within the whole story and that made me curious. In the end, basically, a friend of mine told me about the Burrneshas. Being originally from Kosovo he knew for years about it and I immediately felt: why have I never heard about it?
Obviously, when I started to look into it I found a lot of films that had been made about the topic. At the same time, none really told their personal stories, and that's at the same time the aspect I was the most drawn to.
Why did they become a Burrnesha? What is it like to live that life? So it just felt like there's so much more to tell really. And I hope we did that.
Can you summarize what it is about?
It’s a film about three people; who all experienced really rough things in their life. One of course, more than maybe another, but ultimately all these experiences always lead to them becoming a Burnesha.
And I hope the film also shows that, by now, those decisions maybe could have been different once. Because we live in a more open world. And one can decide how they want to live their life freely. That reflects in only twelve Burneshas being left. Because there is simply no need to make a decision like that.
Let me check if I got it right. So a Burrnesha is a woman, who - at a young age - decides that she wants to live like a man. In order to do so, she becomes a sworn virgin. Is that right? And do you know why someone makes this decision?
Yes exactly. You got it right. If you talk to the three women we filmed they all have different reasons which ultimately led them to become a Burrnesha. But what they all have in common is: They have done it to support their families. By becoming a sworn virgin, they are able to take on all the duties a man would have had. To walk the world like a man with almost the same rights. Mostly because there would otherwise not have been a man in the family.
There is an individual story behind each of them, but this felt like the overall reason why Burrneshas exist.
A lot of this is also said in the film which I was able to understand because of its subtitles. But how did you actually do the interviews? Because I guess you didn't learn the language in the last weeks?
No, we would not be able to. I started on Instagram, just posting a story about how I found this topic in Albania. And for some reason, Caravan Films actually came back to me and offered to co-produce it. When I spoke to them, they just straight said: “Not again, the Burrnesha story.” For them everybody knows about it. But for me, it was brand new! I told them that nobody outside of Albania really knows about it and luckily they believed me. Believed in us wanting to create something which had not been done yet.
Next thing: They drove around the country, searching for Burrneshas. It’s not like our protagonists have Instagram or something like that. They had to talk to them in person. And basically also interviewed them for the first time.
With that information, they came back to me and we just packed our stuff and flew there. I never had a call, nothing. I really had to trust Blerta [The Producer]. And she did an amazing job. She also was there for the entire shoot translating, enabling us to create those little scenes around them. Capturing their lives.
But the first time I really knew what the Burrneshas really said was when I was back in Germany - editing. It’s tricky because you shoot something and you never know for certain if you actually got the right statement for that.
Bedrie for example, works as a taxi driver, but we never talked about it. I always thought we did. Luckily it all came together.
It did come together! Well, it ended up quite moody though. A slight depression hanging on top of it. From the very beginning, it feels like you are getting drawn into a sort of mythic world, underlined by the music. Was this intended from the very beginning? Did you always gonna make a film, which emphasizes that feeling, or was that something, which just felt hard to ignore?
That's a hard question for me because, of course, I wanted to make a film that has a positive outcome. Or just to see positive things happening. But in the end, what they all went through, is so hard - so tough. I think Drande, the Burrnesha who lost her hands to a grenade explosion. What she went through in life. I can't - I can't. It's so hard. You know? Everything she talked about what she went through in life. And then she decides to work for six kids. It's unbelievable.
There was nothing in the end which I felt super positive about. Maybe what Gjystina said - that is the one who lives in the mountains: “All men and women should be treated equally.” I think that's very positive. And still, everybody had a positive outlook on life despite everything that happened to them. That was a very personal lesson. You can always try to have a good life when you actually live it. And this is what they all are doing.
But in the next moment, you are standing at a graveyard because she lost her whole family. We all had tears in our eyes.
You have a lot of different scenes within this film that almost feel as if they were scripted. In terms of the quality of it. How did that come about? Did you plan to do these certain scenes prior to the shoot? Or was that something where you guys just tagged along?
I planned a lot of scenes before but - as always - not everything comes as you want it to be. I think we had to improvise a lot and often it was: “Let's stop at this location. Let's shoot here.” We did not really have a chance to scout locations beforehand. We basically went there and had one day of scouting. The next day we would be shooting already.
What I always try to do when I work with “real people” is that I want to give them a scene and try to just observe what they are doing. To keep them in their natural habitat; not trying to push them too much towards anything you feel would be cool. Basically, everything you see is how their normal life looks like.
And then a big part of the quality of the film comes down to how Jens [Wirtzfeld] shot it actually. I wanted it to be subtle, not too dynamic and I think we got it right. I think it's visually beautiful.
And: I mean Nicke [Cantarelli] from Sweden, did a beautiful job color-grading the film. He just added a really organic touch to it. The combination of all those things leads to the film having his own style; his own feeling supporting all the different moods.
Talking about the camera work, which is as you already said - generally more calm. Like the typical slow pans from one action to the next. But also another stylistic element sticks out. the slow shutter effect. Why did you decide to emphasize this?
I think it's hard to always talk about these little stylistic elements. I know slow shutter is a thing right now. A lot of people use it, you use it and I love it. To me it creates the feeling of; I don't know; change. It has an analog feeling to it, right?
Especially in the beginning when we rotate around Drande it symbolizes her change as a person. It’s a moment where her mind is changing, everything changes in her life, and I feel like the fast shots, there is this Chaos to it. The soul and the body are not aligned. It’s stretched in a way. And I felt like the long exposure shows that In this in a certain way.
I can resonate with what you said. This effect gets used over and over again at the moment. I feel mostly just for the looks. To me, if you use such an effect you should always, try to at least, not only do it because it looks cool. But also because you want to say something.
Talking about camera language, you already mentioned Jens. Why did you decide to bring him into this project, your previous documentaries have always been shot by yourself right?
Well, because I love him. He's friendly. He is an amazing DOP. He's an amazing human, you can always count on him. He really puts effort in and you have the best time on set.
Still, I love doing camera work on my own, of course. But I also love working with other DOPs. I am able to learn so much from them. With this project, I made the decision to solely direct it because I really wanted to focus on the frame. What's happening in there? What are the people doing? How do we get all the scenes together? And that's also where I feel like Jens really helped me to be able to focus more on the story.
Maybe let’s do this one loop back to how you had the scenes planned out beforehand. So what was your plan going into the film?
For me personally the plan always is: First you need this one properly recorded interview with your protagonists. That is a must-have for me. If you have that, you really captured their personal stories, in their own words.
Then I want to observe their everyday life. In the end, this is how we created all those scenes. Those are just very normal and natural moments, shown in an aesthetic way and I think this is how you understand their life.
The Bar scene for example: We parked her taxi there and just followed her cousin and her brother into this bar. We filmed what they would have been doing anyway, how they drank, smoked cigarettes and played some cards.
We didn't fake anything.
To me, it’s what makes the scenes feel believable. You notice a difference in their expression between the scenes where they perform. Those moments where they forget are just perfect. It’s a hard thing to achieve.
Talking about life. What's up next?
For now, it’s about releasing this film and then I have a story that caught my eye. But I can't say much yet, because I don't want anybody else to shoot it before me. It’s a story in South Korea.
Sounds interesting! Thank you for sitting down with us. See you in South Korea!
Thank you very much!