Painful truths from wartime

Pamela Cohn reviews Isa Qosja's latest film 'Three Windows and a Hanging'.

A common version of the Greek myth of Cassandra tells of the god Apollo’s attempt to seduce her by endowing her with prophetic powers. But when she spurns him, he bestows a curse on her of never being believed no matter what she says. Only one man believes her when she announces that there are men hidden in the Trojan horse. But he, too, is silenced, confirming that Cassandra is merely raving again. There exists still this legacy of the ranting, hysterical woman, whose voice is to be disregarded – and more essentially, to be silenced – for uttering inconvenient truths.

In Isa Qosja’s quietly devastating film, “Three Windows and a Hanging,” schoolteacher Lushe – Irena Cahani in a powerfully stoic, tightly coiled performance – presents a Cassandra story, of sorts. One year after the war in Kosovo has ended, Lushe decides to speak to a journalist about the rapes by Serbian soldiers that took place in her isolated village. Most of the men were off fighting. Her own husband has still not returned. Lushe is one of the rape victims, as were three other women. The others remain silent, trying to heal on their own so as not to bring shame upon their families, or upon the village itself.

But it is the men who are most deeply shaken by this news, all of them wondering if their own wives or daughters are one of the unnamed women. All remain willingly numb under the iron fist of the village’s leader, Uka, whose sole mission is to protect himself and the other men from confronting what happened. Eventually, we do learn the reason why Uka is so maniacally protective and frightened by Lushe’s public confession. But before that, we watch in bewilderment as he viciously turns the whole village against her, eventually attempting to banish her outright. No one wants to believe a word she’s said. Except for one man, everyone is willing to jettison his own freedom of expression and remain heavily weighed down by traditions of forbearance, solidarity, and silence. It is only Lushe’s son, who she hid in a trunk that night before the men came to take her, that bluntly asks, “Mom, were you raped?” It is clear that he understands what that means, something no child his age should know about.

The film is bookended with what at first seem to be totally incongruous scenes to the rest of the piece. They are similar in tone and timbre to the goofy humor of Kosovo’s TV comedy shows. Three old men sit under a towering, expansive tree. Two of them are arguing and insulting one another for not being able to remember anything correctly. These silly conversations about senility slyly connote the falsity of memory, the fogginess and opacity one might conveniently use to gloss over traumas too painful to dwell upon. In the main narrative, we then see the lengths the men are willing to go to avoid exposing the truth, steadfastly covering up their own complicity and fear. When we return to the three men under the tree at the end, we realize that this is the same tree under which the women were violated.

Many elements are to be appreciated about Qosja’s film, including an exceedingly well-crafted and spare script by Zymber Kelmendi, and subdued, naturalistic performances by the cast of fine actors, all of whom authentically display the never-ending shellshock and unrelenting sadness that come with surviving the tsunami that swept through their lives, taking their dignity, trust, and oftentimes their moral compasses along with it. Thankfully foregoing any kind of overwrought musical score, Qosja allows us to hear the quietude of the village, the bucolic silence of the countryside after so much hell and noise. The lush, lucid cinematography by Gokhan Tiryaki and pristine production design by Zeni Ballazhi look beautiful on screen. However, for this viewer, it was a bit too glossy and self-consciously lit. Considering the subject matter and the tone of the piece, many of the scenes would have benefited from a more unvarnished, cruder look and feel. As it is, much of it looks like a stage set. Tiryaki’s work really shines in the exteriors, individuals appearing in the foreground, small and insignificant against the grandeur of the mountain vistas that dwarf them.

Also thankfully, there were no stylized horrendous flashbacks of the night the women were raped. Too often, one sees this tipping over into bathetic portrayals, an unfortunately typical treatment of many films out of Kosovo about the war. The stately pace as the story unfolds and the seeming tranquility that hides horrible secrets is very powerful, for one would never know the severity of the things that happened there just one year before. It is only written in the anguish on every face, held in every body, each individual doing his or her part to suppress enormous amounts of rage and humiliation. It makes for a deeply affecting and moving story. The scene of the hanging to which the film’s title refers is also uncannily quiet – and speaks volumes.

26/09/2014 - 09:26

26 September 2014 - 09:26

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