The Maidstone. East Hampton, NY.
Interview: Rob DeStefano

In addition to the festivals spotlight narrative features, HIFF gathers some of the best international shorts in competition. This year, IF sat down with the producers of The Return, a film from Kosovo that prevailed against all odds to win the Short Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival. This original story, entered into HIFF’s Golden Starfish Awards Competition, begins when a POW is released from Serbia. The film elevates itself from standard war art by focusing on how the soldier’s family was affected by his absence. The Return is a story that is rooted in Kosovo’s culture and hits close to home for its filmmakers.

Producer: Blerim Gjoci
Associate Producer/Translator: Aj Rei-Perrine

IF: When creating a short, where do you start?

BG: I think that when you make a short, in a way, it’s harder than making a feature. I’m talking story-wise; while its production is much easier: it costs less and you can do it in a short period of time with a smaller crew.  Story-wise, it is harder because in a very short time you have to tell a story that will bring the audience somewhere. You don’t have the luxury of having slow, long shots or building up emotional time for the characters to explode at a certain point. You have to cut to the chase.

IF: How do you compact your story to achieve this?

BG: It is a stressful task until you find the real story – until you find the story that you think will work. Every time you expand the story a little bit more, you become afraid that you are moving toward a middle-length short, which most festivals won’t accept, or you’re not a short, and you become a feature. You have to be careful to know what you need to capture, what you need to have in a good story to make a solid short. A good short film’s plot starts with the moment of no return.

IF: What is this story about?

BG: Kosovo just came out of the war in 1999 or so. Our story is about the missing persons, because it’s a big wound in our society. The lead man is presumed dead since he went missing during the war. He appears four years later and goes home. Our film is about the first night he is back together with his wife.

IF: Why did you choose this story – one that deals with post-war and seems potentially large in scope?

BG: It has a good script. When you start reading it, you turn the first page, and you have that feeling. You can always have a good script and make a horrible movie, and vice versa, but when you have a good script, you have the basis for a good film. It’s all about knowing who to cast and what to do with the story. As a producer, in this case, I also faced the challenge of finding a suitable director.

IF: How did you go about that?

BG: We do this festival in Kosovo called the 9/11 Dedication Film Festival, so this festival is dedicated to the victims of 9/11. We also produce the films that we show in the festival. People compete with scripts, and we sit down and read the scripts to find the best ones. We also find the crew for them. When I was reading this script, I knew that the drama was about her [the wife], not him. It needed a more emotional basis and character depth…

AR: Especially for the woman’s character…

BG: Any man would have made it about him coming back home. But I thought it was better to make it about her and having her react to him coming home. It’s like with Hamlet. Was he looking for proof not to act or to act? I then casted a female director because I thought it should be focused on the female perspective. And it worked out right.

AR: Films that are about war often are about combat and soldiers and men. They miss what the majority of the experience is during war, which is civilians, and what they go through. A big part of what the film shows is what she went through during the war and how she finds a way to tell her story. That’s really the heart and soul of the film.

IF: After you made this rich story, how did you get it into Sundance and other festivals?

AR: We knew that we had something special. I wanted to send it to Sundance, but being in Pristina, Kosovo, the internet is not good. We tried for several weeks to upload it. We would set it at night to upload and in the morning find that it failed. It would fail every time. We missed the deadline for Sundance. Blerim was very frustrated.

BG: I said it wasn’t meant to be.

AR: I smiled and nodded and wrote to Sundance asking for a waiver, which they thankfully granted us. Finally, it did upload.

BG: And we won there! The Grand Jury Prize for Best International Short.

AR: So it was meant to be after all.

IF: Now where do you go from here?

BG: We’ve produced eight more films together.

AR: And a TV mini-series right after Sundance.

BG: We are going back home to work more.

AR: We have a feature script that I’m trying to pry out of his hands to send off to a lot of interesting people.

BG: I also wrote this mini-series. I’m an actor, so I starred in it too.

IF: What’s that like for you, starring in your own work?

BG: I love it. I want to be everywhere. I also direct. And it’s really fun. This is the only thing I know how to do, and I do it well. I hope I do it well…

IF: What are your favorite movies of 2012 so far?

AR: There’s a lot of films that did not make it to distribution in Kosovo, unfortunately.

BG: I think mine is Beasts of the Southern Wild.

AR: My favorite is the one that opened the Seattle Film Festival, that I cannot think of the name now.

BG: The fat kid?

AR: No, but Fat Kid Rules the World is fantastic, and that’s a contender. My pick is about a guy whose brother died and about a year later he’s still not dealing with it well…

IF: Your Sister’s Sister.

AR: Yes! That’s my favorite! That was outstanding. A lot of great films come out of Seattle.


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