FOCUS ON: Fisnik Maxhuni
Interview with the director of Lost Exile, awarded at Locarno Film Festival
Fisnik Maxhuni won with his first short film Lost Exile the ‘Cinema & Gioventù’ Jury Prize at Locarno Film Festival. Born in Kosovo during the dismantlement of Yugoslavia, Fisnik emigrated to Switzerland in 1993. He studied international relations at the University of Geneva, then travelled and worked abroad for three years. In Japan, Indonesia and Bolivia, he made several films blending fiction, documentary and experimental approaches. In 2014 he began his master’s in directing at the ECAL, and directed On Culture and Tropics (2014) as well as Ministarstvo Sjećanja (2015). Lost Exile tells the story of Emir, a husband and father who, to pay his debts, works for the local mafia, engaged in smuggling between Serbia and Hungary. One day, he gets to know Hana, who is fleeing Kosovo and an arranged marriage, and who asks him to help her cross the border. But Ince, Emir’s gang boss, sees this as an opportunity to make money by selling her into prostitution.
VM: When did you realize you want to be a filmmaker?
FM: Coming from a very poor family, I spent my time watching films. More specifically, it was around the year 2000, when all the video shops were liquidating their stock of VHS to buy DVDs that I had the opportunity to discover cinema. My father agreed to buy me one old VHS every week and that’s when I discovered the worlds of David Lynch, Andrei Tarkovsky and other filmmakers I had never heard of before. I think that for every new VHS I would buy, I would watch over and over until the week was over and went to buy another one.
Then, I went on to pursue my studies in International Relations at the University of Geneva for my Bachelors, and then in Geopolitics and Territory at King’s College London for my Masters, hoping to get a job that would make me “travel” somehow.
While spending a few years abroad gaining professional experience around the world, I wrote and shot three short documentaries that revolved mostly around questions of social anthropology and poetry in modern times.
The break came when I returned to Switzerland in 2014. I realized I didn’t want to sign for any of the big companies that were interested in my profile. Even though I never thought I would go on to study cinema (for me, learning cinema had to be done on my own), I applied for the joint Master in Cinema at ECAL (Lausanne) and HEAD (Geneva) where I – surprisingly – got accepted. Even though I learned a lot at school, I still believe that most of my knowledge on cinema and on which films I wanted to make comes from these years I spent at home watching old VHS films on my small TV.
VM: Lost Exile is your first short fiction movie. When did you start to think about writing this story?
FM: The story is actually loosely based on my personal story : in 1993, we embarked with my parents on an illegal journey from Kosovo to Europe. We travelled with buses, with people smugglers. As we were driving through the North of Italy, my mother – 9 months pregnant at the time – had to give birth to my sister. The drive dropped us at the hospital in Geneva and, from that, we stayed in Switzerland.
I had always wanted to tell this story but I wasn’t sure of the medium to adopt : film, book, novel… Then, in 2014, a new immigration wave left from Kosovo to Europe and that’s when I decided it was time to tell this story in images. It was also the chance to get away from my personal story and to adapt my personal experience to the events that were taking place at the time.
VM: Why is the exile “lost”? What does it mean for you the word exile?
FM: Good question. It relates firstly to the inherent beauty of these two words: Lost and Exile. Coming from a rather “literary” background (in the way I was raised and in relation to my more classical studies), I always had an obsession for words in their primary sense : the way they sound, the way they “look”. It is also attached to a film, Donnie Darko, where a teacher says that the most beautiful combination of words in the English language was “Cellar Door.” I guess “Lost” and “Exile” spark that idea of beauty in me that I tried to reflect in the film.
Also, to me, any form of “exile” is “lost”, in the sense that exiling one self from something or somewhere automatically relates to a sense of loss; a loss of roots, a loss of identity, etc. Therefore, this sense of loss that is inherent to exile defined the film and the way it was written, shot, edited, etc. I work with very simple ideas; it can be a word, and expression, an anecdote, or an image, and from there I build everything that’s around. So in the case of Lost Exile, the film was based in a few small ideas that made the film in the end.
VM: How was for you going back to Kosovo and Serbia for realizing your own project?
FM: This question is related to the sense of loss explained in the previous question. In a way, growing up in Switzerland, I knew that I had lost the physical ties to my birth country. Therefore, going back there repeatedly in the last few years made me understand that I had, in effect, lost most of my ties to the place. Indeed, I didn’t live the war and the human displacements like the local people did, I didn’t take part in everyday politics and society. Nonetheless, I decided that it was time to do something “physical” there, and to me, making a film is 50% a matter of ideas and cerebral construction, and 50% a matter of physical work – planning, shooting, directing actors. So, through this film project, I attempted to recreate a certain bond with “what I had lost” more than 20 years ago.
Quite surprisingly, I was very well received in Kosovo as a film director, and most of the people and the actors I presented the project to were very enthusiastic. To them, the film had the strength to address such a big social and political problem (migration) but without doing it in a very “strict” way such as most of the recent films on the subject. Indeed, as I wanted to take nearly a “fantastic” approach to the way I wanted to portray illegal immigration, people felt it was a much more interesting way to address the issue.
VM: Tell me 3 adjectives to describe how you were feeling before the first screening of Lost Exile at Locarno Film Festival.
FM: Ecstatic, euphoric, quivery.
VM: Which comment/reaction from the audience made you happier after the screening?
FM: The first thing that really touched me was the quite unanimous good reactions from my friends, my cinema colleagues, and my family. They were quite impressed by the work I had accomplished, and this came as a good motivaton for the future. But, to me, the most significant reactions were the ones that were actually telling me that they “didn’t understand everything” or the feedback that different people had understand different things in the film, especially at the end. To me, being able to tell a story without giving the audience all the keys of understanding is the ultimate goal. Indeed, cinema should suggest things and not lay them dissected on a silver plate. One filmmaker I like a lot, Carlos Reygadas, once said: “We are used to knowing exactly what’s going on when we are watching something, which is very strange because in life it is precisely the opposite. Most of the time in life we are living through things and don’t know what they mean at the time, except at a very superficial level.”
This is exactly what I mean. Each filmmaker has a duty to create a world and let only a few perceptible elements penetrate it, but it is the job of the audience to make something out of these elements that are given. The rest is up to interpretation. I don’t mean to go into psychoanalysis here, but simply to stress that no one should treat the audience as a passive receiver of the film, but rather as an active part of the process. It is through the choice of dialogues, of situations and of mise-en-scène that ideas are transmitted in the way the filmmaker intended them, and not fall into the trap of wanting to deliver something that can be consumed on the spot and forgotten the next minute. And this rejoins another feedback I received after the screening of Lost Exile: “Fisnik… I think I liked the film, but I can’t talk about it now. I will think about it for a few days, and get back to you”. This is linked to what Goethe used to say that “it is as difficult to read a book than to write one”.
VM: What’s in the future?
FM: The future is already here: I am preparing with two other filmmakers a film between documentary and fiction that I will shoot in the Southern States of the USA. Through this project, I will shoot with various people, mostly the most marginal fringes of the American population (underground trap and rap artists, dispossessed people, etc.) against the backdrop of the 2016 Trump-Clinton presidential election.
I am at the moment in the editing process of a film I shot this summer that tackles questions of identity in the Switzerland of 2016. I shot with a lot of protagonists a documentary around these questions of identity and “oneself” in a country where a lot of different communities live next to each other and are struggling to know and define what really makes them “identities.” I am also writing a fiction film in the business of horse-trading in South America. But here again, I am not interested in a “film about horses,” but rather in the evocation of actual social and economic problems realted to this trade and their impact on the everyday life of people.
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