In her first film, the Kosovar director Norika Sefa builds a robust, lively and powerful drama around the gaze and adolescent problems of her characters. ‘ Looking for Venera’, recognized with the Special Jury Prize at the last Rotterdam Festival, is a reflection on the double standards with which the sexual awakening of women is treated in the still closed environment of the Balkans.
Why did you choose to call the film Looking for Venera?
It’s a lot related to what kind of film I wanted to make. Films like these, which don’t necessarily depend on the big drama, need another way to generate the flow, and the title does that. As well as it also somehow helps to establish that relationship between character and viewer I wanted to have. The viewer is invited to look for her. Pay attention. I found the title to be a good setup to open that possibility for each viewer to respond to that quest independently. At the same time Venera is looking for herself. I find it’s such an age to be very curious, attentive, always paying attention to whatever surrounds them, because they have this urge to define themselves; so they select, reject, and are in a constant process of mirroring themselves to whatever is around them. With this in mind I tried to shape the narrative and because it’s not a film that chases so closely the plot line, I wanted to build another relationship between the viewer and her, rather than what is going to happen, it is a film that invites one to think of what is really happening…with her.
Which films also dealing with coming of age, teenage girls in small towns and strict and uncomprehending parents had you in mind when developing the film?
Actually I had no such films in mind, not that I was conscious about it…. but, no really, I actually refuse to establish these kinds of frames when I write. I find them to be often a limitation. I didn’t start with such a set up of coming-of-age, the form of the film came very organically; I wanted to portray that dynamic life, similar to what I grew up with. I grew up in a big, three-generation family. There was always this clash of energies and the generation gap. We all lived through the same situations, yet the emotions and perceptions were so different. There was this position of doubt, and you start to question things. I love to play with these kind of uncertainties that a family generates. It was actually later in the process of writing when I decided the main character will be Venera, because such an age allowed me to approach things in a more instinctive way, not with a formed opinion or judgment.
Are the reminiscences of war as present in nowadays conversations as the film shows?
Indeed. I would say it’s present also to how we define time, especially the future. Our parents are living in the post-war times trying to compare for the lost times, and usually there is little space for the youth to design their future independently of this. A tricky mentality for youth temperament.
Why did you choose to work with Jayro Bustamante’s DP Luis Armando Arteaga?
With Luis, I found that we share the same taste and understanding of that richly atmospheric representation of the world. I would say we both aim to portray the world as fertile, resourceful, but also seen with somehow a sense of nostalgia.
Arteaga blocks Venera in many of the scenes, using bodies almost like pillars or trees that tower over her and crowd her out, and even often relegating her to the bottom of the frame. How did you come together to make these framing decisions?
I think it has to do with how I approach directing. For me to direct is to be open, always curious and observant. With this mindset I try to arrange the shooting, so if I am already on the set, I try to be open, especially when I have to work with non-actors, I think there’s this perpetual chance for surprises, it’s beautiful how they decode the hints you give them and how they react to the indications you give them, so you have to be alert to follow their moves and the way their body expresses themselves. For me it was important to have life on the set. I wanted them to move freely in space, because this is also how the narrative progresses, by moments which lead to putting together emotions and mind-states of the characters… so we wanted to create the atmosphere to allow this to happen. I put equal emphasis on what is in front of the camera and what is outside the frame. Venera is always observed, surrounded, mingling among others, while she doesn’t necessarily belong or participate in it, she is very much affected by those energies.
Can you go into the role of music in the film: Z concert as a rite of passage for Venera and the music in the radio as a spark of freedom for her mother?
I was aiming to create a more vulnerable sensation to the audience by choosing to combine sound and images rather then have a score music added to it, but there are three moments in the film, (and I won’t reveal much about for those who haven’t seen the film), but there I decided to use music and is used as a diegetic sound. I thought music would be this external trigger to make these three women, these three bodies, show something more about themselves. The music was a trigger for another way of expression, to allow the body to let go of what’s held up maybe easier than with words.
How is it that you asked your own grandmother to play the grandmother in the film?
She was always meant to play that role. I never told her she was going to play the role, I just said to her: I am doing a film, would you come and help me? be there with me.
You’ve said that you wanted to tell a story based in Kosovo, but that wouldn’t reproduce the stereotypes for which the country is known abroad. How have you avoided doing that?
Maybe it goes back to what I said, the way I approach directing. To be attentive to what is happening in front of you and not prejudge an issue in the process of writing. It is also by avoiding that kind of moralizing cinema that creates the illusion of the good and the bad.