Burn your fear away: Reflections on the 2023 FemArt Festival in Kosovo6 min read

 In Blog, Culture, Southeastern Europe

FemArt Festival is the biggest feminist festival in Kosovo and possibly even in the former Yugoslavia. It promotes feminist values and provides a space for female artists to showcase their art. For more than a decade now, FemArt has been bringing regional and international artists and activists to Kosovo to critically discuss important issues and create space for potential change. This year, the 11th edition of FemArt was held from 15 to 21 May, under the motto “Kalle Tutën” (Burn your Fear Away). The festival had a very rich and high-quality programme consisting of theatre, conferences, workshops, films, and concerts, as well as social encounters and spontaneous gatherings.

The FemArt Festival was created by Zana Hoxha (theatre director and founder and executive director of Artpolis – Art and Community Centre) with the aim to “combat patriarchal challenges imposed on women and girls” through art and activism. “There has always been a lack of women’s narratives,” Hoxha told SeeStage in an interview; the intent with FemArt was to correct this injustice and also to reflect the realities of women in both Kosovo and the larger region. In that sense, Hoxha brought a feminist festival to a place where patriarchal norms and roles are still strong, and where, according to activist Liridona Sijarina, “feminist activism is undesirable for the state.”

One of the best examples of how socially engaged the festival is can be seen in the play Girls, which Hoxha saw in Serbia before inviting the cast to perform in Kosovo’s capital for the first time. The young women in the play are not professional actresses, rather they were assembled during an audition open to all women aged 18-26 without previous acting experience. The play begins as a seemingly light-hearted production in which a group of girls in colourful bathrobes with flowers and hearts talk about their childhood, discussing jokes and clichés of their upbringing. However, the audience soon realises that the plot is not as innocent as it initially appears. The jokes soon become about the experienced sexual harassment turning  to sexual violence, femicide, and rape. The play reflects the lived reality of growing up and coming of age as a girl in the patriarchal settings of Balkan societies. As such, it demonstrates the shared experiences of young women in Serbia and Kosovo. Beyond this, the play shows that there must be a way out of these negative patterns. During the final scene, the actresses call on the audience to react and to raise their voices against misogyny and sexism so that phrases like “boys will be boys” and “you provoked him” disappear from our conversations. 

Another masterpiece came from Slovenia represented by director Maša Pelko, who tackled the topic of mental, physical, and sexual abuse that some women experience within their families. Based on Shelagh Stephenson’s play Five Kinds of Silence, the performance wasthe result of three months’ research, where the directing crew consulted a dozen professionals from different fields, including  social workers, victims of domestic violence, police officers, psychologists, and psychiatrists. Pelko changed and deconstructed certain sequences, and altered the perspective of Stevenson’s play, which is about Billy, the father, who feels remorse over abusing his wife and daughters. In Pelko’s adaptation, the focus is on three female protagonists (a mother and two daughters) as the director did not want to give space to a man who feels sorry for abusing his dearest ones for their entire lives. The issues raised in the play correspond closely to the situation in the region, as  domestic violence, sexual abuse, and femicides have been rising at a horrendous rate. There have been several protests in Kosovo because femicides are on rise and those convicted have generally received lenient sentences from the authorities. The situation is no better in neighbouring Serbia or Bosnia and Herzegovina, nor in Slovenia, which is a part of the EU. In an interview, the director and leading actresses talked about their understanding of silence in this play, but also in society  —  the silence of the abused; the silence of society, which knows, but does not discuss it; the silence of the abuser; and the silence of children. Through the play, they send out the message that abuse is not somebody else’s problem, it is a societal problem, it is our problem. As Pelko points out herself, this is what theatre should be  —  a safe place to discuss a variety of topics.

FemArt tried to push the boundaries on other fronts as well this year with its focus on inclusion. It set an example to other festivals by drafting a guidebook for infrastructural and informational access for people with disabilities. This inclusivity can be traced back to the initiative of Mimozë Musliu, Artpolis’ Project Assistant and a counsellor at Resource Centre Qendra Burimore Përparimi-Prishtinë, who advocated for the printing of the artistic program in the Braille alphabet and with enlarged letters to allow an audience with visual impairments to follow the festival. Another initiative was the provision of a ramp for wheelchair users at a venue in Mitrovica during the screening of the documentary film Biba May – No More. This act took inspiration from the film itself, which follows Resmije Rahmani, a female activist with  muscular dystrophy, raising awareness about this illness.

The festival was attended by hundreds of artists and audience participants, but it also sparked the interest of Prishtina’s mayor Përparim Rama and Prime Minister Albin Kurti, who joined for the Rina Kaçinari Trio concert that closed the festival. Rina Kaçinari, a Prishtina-born and Vienna-based cellist, not only enchanted the audience with her energy and the mix of genres she performed (ranging from jazz to traditional Balkan rhythms), but she also decided to use her very powerful voice to send some vital messages to the audience and to the Prime Minister. In a speech that was both personal and political, she advocated for human and women’s rights, and to decrease and fully eliminate femicide in society.

This festival was about giving a platform and a voice to the many who are silenced. It was about creating safe places for the oppressed. It was about pushing boundaries and erasing borders, both literally and figuratively since, due to the strict visa policy for Kosovars, they are still not free to travel whenever and wherever they’d love to. Instead, FemArt has brought the entire world to them in a week-long feminist festival. The hotels, restaurants, and venues were almost always fully booked, so the festival was a great medium for the promotion of Kosovo’s culture, vibrant social life, and hospitality. It broke barriers and showed that the prejudice and portrayals of Kosovo in Western media as being a very remote, closed, and dangerous society are no longer true today.

Feature Image: FemArt / Canva
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