'Three Windows and a Hanging': Sarajevo Review

Courtesy of Niko Films
One funeral and no weddings

Powerful Balkan drama about the culture of silence and shame left behind by sex crimes

A sensitive dramatization of a highly contentious topic, Three Windows and a Hanging examines the hidden scars left behind when rape is used as a weapon of mass destruction. An estimated 20,000 women and girls were raped by Serbian forces during the Kosovo War of the late 1990s, but most of the victims have remained silent to avoid attracting shame and blame in a deeply conservative, patriarchal culture. Director Isa Qosja turns one fictionalized case into a powerful human story with the timeless, elemental feel of a revenge western.

Qosja previously won prizes at both the Venice and Sarajevo film festivals with his 2005 surreal comedy Kukumi, the first ever feature from the newly quasi-independent state of Kosovo. He returned to Sarajevo last month with Three Windows and a Hanging, which picked up the Balkan festival’s Cineuropa Prize. Although commercial prospects will be slender, this German-Kosovar co-production has sufficient technical polish and dramatic bite to grab further festival play, especially those with interest in human rights and gender politics issues.

Framing the story are two fable-like scenes in which three old men bicker over competing versions of the truth as they sit under an ancient tree, a light-headed comic aside which takes on a bitter aftertaste by the end. But the central plot begins with a quiet bombshell: a newspaper report that four women were raped during the late 1990s war in a remote village high in the starkly beautiful mountain hinterlands of Kosovo. Even though the source of the revelation was anonymous, outraged village elders have a strong suspicion it was schoolteacher Lushe (a striking feature debut by Irena Cahani), an independent-minded outsider who lives with her young son.

Luan Jaha, best known internationally for his role in the prize-winning US-Albanian drama The Forgiveness of Blood, radiates Gene Hackman-like authority as the village mayor Uka. If this were a western, he would be the crooked, gruff, poker-faced sheriff. Initially desperate to refute the rape rumors altogether, then to deny that there was more than one victim, Uka slowly turns the village against Lushe until she is shunned by adults and children alike. Instead of pity or understanding the men express only defensive indignation about this stain on their masculine pride. The backdrop may be Kosovo but the message is pretty universal here.

As Lushe is victimized a second time, anxiety spreads through the village about the identities of the other three raped women. Long-suppressed secrets come to light, with inevitably tragic consequences. Very bleak, and very Balkan. Yet Qosja concludes on a cautiously optimistic note, with the younger village males finally recognizing the value of tenderness and reconciliation. Meanwhile, Uka’s delusions of power begin to crumble when his teenage daughter defies his orders and runs off with her sulky, scooter-riding boyfriend. Small pointers of progress in a deeply chauvinistic culture.

Three Windows and a Hanging is inevitably somber, but not without warmth and humor. It also looks terrific, its sun-scorched hillscapes and deep-shadow interiors elegantly shot by Gökhan Tiryaki, former cinematographer to Turkish master director Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Focussed on the present rather than the past, Qosja’s quiet rage is not really directed at war or even rape, but at the poisonous effects of victim-blaming and unchecked patriarchal power.

Production companies:  CMB Productions, Niko Film

Starring: Irena Cahani, Luan Jaha, Donat Qosja, Aurita Agushi, Leonora Mehmetaj, Orik Morina, Xhevat Qorraj

Director: Isa Qosja

Screenwriter: Zymber Kelmendi

Producers: Shkumbin Istrefi, Mentor Shala

Cinematographer: Gökhan Tiryaki

Editor: Agrom Vula

Sales company: CMB Productions

No rating, 93 minutes