Inspired by the painful history of war and conflict in the Balkans, films treating the theme of “ethnic conflict” are often fittingly heartbreaking and bleak. But every now and then, a film that dares to break the cliche and give us a ray of hope comes along, and moves and inspires us in a whole new way. One such film is “The Award” by Lidija Mojsovska, a refreshing take on the genre “Balkan film about conflict”, that shows us that perhaps, a better future is possible, and it does this through the innocent eyes of a child. Cult Critter talks to the writer/director Lidija Mojsovska.
CULT CRITTER: Can you tell me more about the inspiration behind “The Award” and was the positive tone a conscious decision from the beginning?
It all started with an article I read at okno.mk about a traditional Orthodox Macedonian custom on Epiphany, when a cross is thrown into a body of water and men compete to catch it. In general, there are cash awards for the winner or sometimes a TV set or a DVD player which sounds absurd because this should be about spiritualism. But in this article, the absurd reached new heights because the ritual was playing out in a kindergarten. Literally, a cross was thrown into a tiny pool for the children to catch it. To have a religious ritual in a kindergarten seemed shocking to me. And then I started combining what I read with my personal experiences of growing up in my hometown Struga, which is a multi-ethnic town with a considerable Muslim Albanian minority. And then I came across another story, this one happening in eastern Macedonia, where a Muslim guy caught the cross on Epiphany and it was taken away from him because he wasn’t Orthodox. So this is our reality, I thought, and the story came together. As for the positive ending, I must say it wasn’t like that from the beginning, but at some point, I realized it would be stronger that way, it would touch more people.
CULT CRITTER: I am impressed with your young actors, finding those bright talents must have been quite an adventure in itself.
Kiriyana Nikolovska really helped me with the casting. We went through 25 schools and auditioned over a thousand kids. The process took between four and six months because we also had a couple of selection rounds until we narrowed it down to the ones that were eventually cast. This whole journey was one of the best parts of the entire filmmaking process because meeting all those kids, with their vivid personalities, helped me change and improve the characters I wrote in the beginning. Finally, the emotion that the young actors gave to the film was truly precious. But the adults were great too. Especially Aurita Agushi who is from Kosovo, we became really good friends! Of course, working with children can be challenging at times, you need to find a special language with each one of them, but the end result was phenomenal.
CULT CRITTER: “The Award” won 18 awards at international film festivals!
Yes! The film opened at Timishort Film Festival in Romania and won an award there, so it was a great start! But one of my favorite screenings was our regional premiere in Serbia. The cinema theater there was packed and people were really moved by the film. But there was this one man who stood up and announced that he didn’t agree with the film’s point. He claimed that two kids from the Balkans, coming from two opposing ethnic groups and religions, would never reach out to help each other. And I thought that was so interesting. Of course, as a writer/director I’m not trying to say something about the entire Macedonian and Albanian nations through these two child characters, but somehow this person took it literally. But what I loved was the fact that the film sparked a discussion, and that is so important because our societies have so many sensitive issues we need to work to overcome.
CULT CRITTER: What is “The Award” really about to you?
I wanted to show the purity of children, which is not burdened by religious and political concepts, which often blinds the grown-ups and drives them crazy. And that is the point, kids don’t see the differences between us grown-ups do. And it is so sad that the more we mature and grow old, our minds and souls get so corrupted by religion and politics. And again, I am not generalizing, there are always exceptions and every individual story is unique.
CULT CRITTER: What are you working on at the moment?
I am in pre-production of my following short fiction film, called “Only the Devil Hates Water”, which was developed at Nisi Masa 2019 and was supported with a production grant by the North Macedonia Film Agency. So we are shooting that this summer, and at the same time I am making a hybrid documentary about an Iranian painter who lives in Struga and I am using animation, archive footage, and observational shots to her inspiring story. And of course, I am developing the screenplay for my first feature film…
CULT CRITTER: I love that title, “Only the Devil Hates Water”…
It is again about youth, a coming of age story about how the worldview of children can be influenced by the traditional society.
CULT CRITTER: You are also one of the creators of a short film festival Drim Shorts in your hometown Struga. How did that come to be?
We started Drim Short Film Festival in 2017 because there is a great need for cultural happenings in my hometown. So we said, let’s get the courage and do this! Let’s start a tradition! And we are already looking at our fifth year, and all I can say is that I am so happy that we are still so enthusiastic about it!
CULT CRITTER: How is the audience in Struga? Are people interested in short film?
Well, it takes time to build an audience but it does get better every year!
CULT CRITTER: Back to the theme of The Award. When one watches the news on Macedonian TV, one knows it will be bad news. There is always something bad happening in this country and so often it is about bitter ethnic conflict. But what is it really like to live in a multi-ethnic community such as Struga?
Honestly, there are no conflicts at the moment, we have a lot of Albanian collaborators, but unfortunately, there is not too much friendship and socializing either. We are in a peaceful existence but is not coexistence, there is no cohesion, no cultural exchange. We live next to each other but we don’t know each other. It’s like two separate worlds, that exist side by side.