Antoneta Kastrati is a Kosovan born filmmaker who, after surviving the war in the late 1990’s, moved to Los Angeles and started examining life post-war through a filmmaking lens.
Her debut feature ZANA tells the story of an Albanian woman, Lume, who lives with her husband, Ilir, and mother-in-law, Remzije in their small Kosovar village. Tormented by nightmares, childless and unable to get pregnant, Lume is relentlessly pressured to fulfil her wifely duties. It premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and was nominated as Kosovo’s entry for the 2020 Oscars.
We spoke to Antoneta about the film…
How did the film come about?
Zana and its thematic exploration of everlasting effects of war had been incubating in my head for quite a while. I was a teenager during the Kosovo war in 1999 when my mother and sister were killed. I knew it from early on that at some point in my life I would deal with this very personal topic in my films. But I wasn’t ready yet, it was too raw, I needed the time and distance for reflection and finding the story that would best address the questions I had.
Losing my mother and sister during the war fundamentally changed the way I saw life. It was is like a curtain had been lifted and you see life and death for what it is, and the ugly part of humankind’s destructive impulses. Furthermore, death seeps into your life and you carry it around with you. It was this aspect I was very interested to explore. The fact that is not only that you feel the grief and trauma, it is a complete seismic shift of your universe. And this shift is tenfold magnified for women who have lost children.
Once I became a mother myself, I could not fathom the idea of being a powerless parent in war and losing a child. Would I be able to overcome the grief, and become a mother again? It became very clear to me this was the story I needed to tell. Using my own experience as a base, I interviewed women who had lost children and how they dealt with grief, nightmares and the question of becoming mothers again. I was also interested in how our culture deals with mental health and the our society’s lingering belief in black magic about which I had done a documentary in 2008.
It sounds like the film was very personal to you…
Zana at its essence is a very personal although the story and the plot are fictional. The idea of death hanging over the living was something I wanted to portray and this absence that colours every frame of the film.
Concretely, the most personal part in ZANA are the nightmares and night terrors and confrontation with the horrific brutality of what happens to bodies in war. But, in ZANA they are filtered version of my own. I had to deal with them since the war, and I wanted to bring this visceral aspect of PTSD as an essential element in the film treating it as a parallel reality that we experience during the night for which we have no control over.
There are other instances in the film and in many scenes which have personal aspects.
The film has overtones of possession and themes of being haunted by the past. What genre do you think best describes it?
I wanted to find a way to interweave all these elements to capture the feelings and emotions as experienced by the main character and her journey to best portray her inner world and layers of experience and perception.
The aspect of black magic, rituals and exorcism, are deeply rooted in cultural traditions and in ZANA they present the social dimension. For me it was important to understand and know with clarity the tone of the film anchored by the mood of the main character and stay true to it throughout. Then any change which can be considered genre, as in real life can be integrated into it.
My sister Sevdije Kastrati is the cinematographer on ZANA and we always work together. She had a big role in creating the haunting but beautiful look that the film has.
Ultimately as a filmmaker and a viewer, I am drawn to mystery and the surreal and that is reflected in my films.
You directed, wrote and edited the film. Which of these disciplines do you enjoy the most?
I prefer directing the most. As a director you have to stay on your feet, your mind is racing, you have to make so many decisions everyday, stay sharp and focused on your task ahead. You work with all the other department heads, actors and it’s such a creative buzz. It forces you to be clear and present in every moment. Very stressful and very little sleep but I personally do better in high stress situations. It is the time when I feel the most motivated and energized and forget about everything else.
Writing for me has great moments but it can also be quite an isolating experience. I don’t consider myself primarily a writer and I don’t do it everyday. But I’ve had incredible moments in writing that you cannot compare to anything else. I love it because it is the only time when you have the most freedom to create anything, let your imagination free. That freedom gets more narrow as you go into directing and then less so in editing.
Editing, on the other hand has its own beauty but the same as with writing it is secondary. I have done a lot of editing in the past, especially documentaries, and for ZANA initially my intention was to edit the first rough cut myself, in order to create the movie I had in my head. But then I kept editing. There are moments in editing where your intuition and creativity takes hold and you create edits that you did not think of before. This organic creative flow is only possible when you edit yourself as it is not possible to explain it with words to an editor.
But later on, I had an editing residency in Prague through the Midpoint program in FAMU and additional editors that really helped reshape and elevate ZANA into what is today.
How did you secure funding for the film?
As it is the case many indie features ZANA funding comes from various sources. We were initially fortunate to get a grant from Kosovo Cinematography Center (Kosovo’s film fund) and later on a co-production grant from Albania.
Before the shoot we were granted Panavision New Filmmaker Grant for the camera package.
We shot in the area where we grew up and got financial and logistical support from our municipality. An advantage of shooting in Kosovo is that you have access to any location you want; It is beautiful, cheap and the community supports you in every way they can.
After the editing was done, we applied for many post-production grants and were awarded SFFILM Rainin Grant for post-production, and through Panavision, Light Iron [post-production services] helped us do color grading. This was donated to “Zana” — we only paid a symbolic amount.
What sort of distribution does the film have?
Zana has a distribution deal with Synergetic (US based) for North America. We also have Matchbox on board as distributor for UK, Ireland and Australia. Our sales company Alief is in talks with distributors in other territories that are still open.
What are you working on next?
I am currently in the early phase of writing my second feature film which is based in Los Angeles. Also developing a few TV ideas with my long time partner from Crossing Bridges Films. In the meantime open to reading scripts to direct.
Our sincere thanks to Antoneta for her time and to Lizzie and Sue at Porterfrith for arranging the interview.
ZANA is available on Curzon Home Cinema, BFI Player and Barbican Cinema On Demand.