In Reconciliation, a Balkan family is caught between preserving tradition and embracing forgiveness

In Reconciliation, a Balkan family is caught between preserving tradition and embracing forgiveness

Presented at this year’s CPH:DOX, Slovenian filmmaker Marija Zidar’s poignant documentary explores a never-ending family feud in the Albanian mountains

26 May 2021

Amongst some families in the northern Albanian mountains, conflicts and disputes are still regulated by an ancestral set of rules known as kanun — codified back in the 15th century and revived in the 1990s, after the fall Albania’s communist rule under Enver Hoxha. This deeply patriarchal territory forms the backbone of Slovenian director Marija Zidar’s observational documentary Reconciliation. Her debut feature centres on the trail of hate generated by the tragic death of a young woman, Gjyste Paplekaj, killed by a bullet intended for her father in the tragic culmination of a family feud on 26 April 2013.

The mechanism ruling these cases is as simple as it is ferocious. Kanun follows the law of retaliation: if a member of one family murders a member of another, the code requires they hit back in revenge. Local NGOs claiming to reconcile families estimate that thousands of people in the country are still involved in similar cases. However, these figures have been inflated by said organisations, as they are part of a massive fraudulent system in which they were charged or prosecuted for issuing asylum papers to Albanians who wish to move abroad and pay to be certified as being endangered by these feuds. Throughout the film, we discover that Fran, young Gjyste’s killer, is serving a 14-year sentence in prison for the crime. He is also the cousin of Gjyste’s father, Gëzim.

In a bid to prevent chaos from devouring Gjyste’s village, two peaceful, patient middle-aged men try to convince Gëzim to forgive Fran: the only way to stop the potentially endless cycle of pain. Gjin, the determined head of the NGO Nationwide Reconciliation Committee, wishes to build a temple to honour Gjyste’s memory, while the local bishop tries to appeal to Gëzim’s Christian faith. Treading difficult waters, ZIdar tells all of these vicissitudes with great sensitivity, opting for a low-profile camera work that allows her to catch the essence of a rural society profoundly bound by centuries-old laws and customs.

A still from Reconciliation (2021)

Zidar developed the piece with her Kosovar director of photography, Latif Hasolli, who lived in Prishtina. The project, completed over the course of five years, was inspired by an encounter with an Albanian scholar: “He told me that this topic [the Kanun code] had been covered many times, but never in a proper manner. The scholar then provided me with the contact of a local bishop, who introduced us to the family,” she tells The Calvert Journal.

After that, a crucial part of Zidar’s efforts was gaining her subjects’ trust. “It took a long time. When Vera [Gëzim’s wife] understood I wasn’t just another journalist doing her reporting and then leaving, they really opened their doors. But that presented another problem: on the one hand I was researching a topic and gaining an intellectual understanding of it, on the other, I was entering people’s lives.”

The most emotionally draining scene to shoot was that of the final mediation between Gëzim and Pjetër, Fran’s brother. One of the mediators, Gjin, had told the crew that he would be meeting Gëzim for coffee and see how he was keeping up. But when Gjin started to talk about Gjyste’s death, challenging Gëzim on the matter one more time, “everything came out unexpectedly”, says Zidar. “All the emotions that had been kept hidden for a long time emerged on the surface. Even when we had to edit that scene, every time I had to watch it, I would relive that experience and feel tremendously stressed,” she says.

“I really feel uncomfortable with certain types of ‘true-crime’ stories, as they are exploitative. I didn’t want to take that direction”

The post-production process took 12 months and involved two editors. “I really feel uncomfortable with certain types of “true-crime” stories, as they are really exploitative. I didn’t want to take that direction,” says Zidar. To avoid this, she took a very careful approach to editing, striving to ensure her subjects were represented both fairly and accurately, and avoiding the temptation to manipulate events to deliver a more appealing story. Despite numerous obstacles, the highly sensitive subject and her limited resources, Zidar manages to provide a balanced narration, steering clear of rhetorical trappings and overdramatisations, or delivering a dry, facts-based account of this painful family feud. In Reconciliation, what emerges powerfully is not only the workings of kanun, but the emotional side of the ancient code: how human beings can obstinately follow traditions, and how hard it is for them to abandon them — even as they accept their power to generate new suffering.

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