Even in a cinematic world increasingly full of cross-cultural experiments and disappearing borders, "The Return" is unusual. The film, which won the Jury Prize at Sundance in January and played at the Palm Springs International Film ShortFest last month, is a 20-minute drama about war partly inspired by the American indie mumblecore movement and made in Kosovo in 10 days from the beginning of shooting until the premiere.
The schedule was ridiculous, the budget tiny and the stylistic inspiration an American indie movement that has virtually nothing in common with the world of armed conflict in the Balkans.
But "The Return" is nonetheless a wrenching, emotional experience. It takes what might sound like a gag line – "mumblecore goes to war" – and turns it into a raw, real document that zeroes in on a married couple trying to put their lives together in the aftermath of a devastating conflict.
As the film begins, a man has reappeared after being missing and imprisoned for four years; his wife has her own horror story, which only emerges at the end of the film, in an intimate but searing scene that takes place in bed, as hysterical laughter gives way to harrowing truths.
"I wanted to make a universal story – a story that would communicate with every person in the world, no matter the nationality or class," said director Blerta Zeqiri in an email interview with TheWrap conducted after she returned to Kosovo from Palm Springs.
The film's trailer is essentially its opening scene, which captures the film's simple style but doesn't give much hint of what follows:
"The Return" was originally slated for a different director, who left during pre-production. The director of the Nine Eleven Dedication Festival in Kosovo called Zeriqi, who'd spent her teen years as a socially-conscious hip-hop artist in Kovoso before studying drama in her home country and then film in Paris.
He asked Zeqiri, a director in her early 30s whose 30-minute film "Exit" had won a number of international festival awards, to take over the film. The catch: the budget was tiny, and the film had to be ready in time for the festival, which was taking place in one month.
Zeqiri liked the basic plot, but not the script; after thinking about it for a week, she said she'd do it if she could overhaul the entire project on the impossibly tight schedule. "The plot was amazing and I knew that if you take a plot like that, and structure the story differently, this could become a good film," she said.
Her goal, and the reason she accepted the project, was to capture the experience of the war and ethnic conflicts that ripped through Kosovo in the aftermath of the breakup of Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s.
Zeqiri lived in the town of Suva Reka (or Suhareke) in the south of Kosovo. The town was the location of a massacre in 1999, though she herself did not lose any family members or close friends. Instead, she and her family fled the town and spent 10 days traveling from place to place until they were finally able to leave Kosovo.
"The war marked my life forever," she said. "I think very often about how strong a human being is. People get used to the most unusual situations unbelievably fast. And only when you don’t have major problems anymore, you see how devastated the experience has left you.
"I remember while I was in the war, I would think about these films and books that dealt with war, and I didn’t get them at all. There’s an anecdote in Kosovo about a man who falls out of a pear tree and would only let those people visit who have also fallen of a pear tree. 'Only they can understand what I’m going through,' he would say. I guess the same goes for the war."
After deciding to make the film, Zeqiri took two weeks to find a crew, cast the actors and begin working on the characters' back stories. She wanted them to improvise the entire movie under her guidance, and had an unlikely model in mind: "Humpday," the 1999 comedy from Lynn Shelton starring Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard as straight friends who decide to sleep together for an art project.
"In Kosovo we don't get to watch a lot of independent cinema, [but] in 2010 I watched 'Humpday' and liked it a lot," she said. "[I liked] the way the film was focused on dialogue, on characters, the way it had the documentary look." Reading about the film online, she learned the director was female — and also discovered the genre known as mumblecore, a group of extremely low-budget American indie films featuring naturalistic, often improvised dialogue.
(Key mumblecore films include the Duplass brothers' "The Puffy Chair" and Joe Swanberg's "Hannah Takes the Stairs"; for a stretch in the mid '00s, many of the films seemed to feature the queen of mumblecore, actress Greta Gerwig.)
"It was a revelation to me," Zeqiri said. "Mumblecore is what I always wanted in films: make them look as real as possible. Not beautiful, but real. Naked, just as if there is a hidden camera somewhere. If we see two naked people in bed in films it’s always about sex. My goal was to put two naked people on the scene and to make people forget completely that they are naked."
"I still don’t really know what mumblecore is," she added, "but I feel close to most of the things these filmmakers use for their films."
She brainstormed ideas with her cast and her editor, Kreshnik Keka Berisha, who is also her husband, and improvised a script that is now partially credited to her two lead actors, Adriana Matoshi and Lulzim Bucolli. The climactic scene (in which yes, the characters are naked) was shot in a 20-minute take; a second take was filmed just in case, but Zeqiri ended up using the first one.
With three days of shooting and seven days to do the editing, color correction, sound mixing, title design, English translation and subtitling, the film was finished in time for the festival – though, she added, she and Berisha "looked like zombies" at the premiere.
Zeqiri currently works on TV projects in Kosovo, and hopes to collaborate with her husband on a film about gay rights in Kosovo – a country, she says, in which "not even one gay person that can express their sexuality openly." And she's hoping that a screenplay will help open doors to the film industry.
"I would love to be able to make films and communicate to the world my ideas and be able to pay my bills by making films," she said. "That would be the dream."