An Animation festival in Peja reached the tipping point for queer rights in Kosovo

The 14th edition of Anibar set up a new momentum by opening the gates for a public dialogue on queer rights at the local level in Kosovo for the first time.

anibar love

17th of July, 2023/Peja, Kosovo -  The image of a woman, with an intense gaze and short curly hair, appears on the big screen at the famous Lake Cinema in Peja, Kosovo. The woman looks directly at the camera lens as if she has something to say. Something, that contains a determination within itself. Amanda, a woman in her thirties, appears in the background of a red room as the main protagonist of the animated documentary film "Beautiful Woman”, created by Dutch director Diëgo Nurse. The film was screened at the opening ceremony of the 14th edition of the International Animation Festival in Peja - Anibar, on July 17th, 2023. Selected for the Special Program of the festival, “Queer Toons”, this movie tells it all. 

The narrative in this film is divided in two dimensions. In the first one, Amanda's living portrait is shown in a red room, reminiscent of the room photographers use for developing photographs, except Amanda is not developing a photograph but presenting her image, as if she wants to preserve it, just like photography, from the sensitivity of external light. What she has built is too valuable to destroy. In the other dimension, she is being presented in black and white through animation, like the memory that the woman holds deep within herself, the memory that belongs to the young boy Beyong and his experiences as an eight-year-old during his journey of transformation and self-discovery to Amanda, the transgender woman she proudly presents today. The story represented as a poetic journey, begins in a village where Beyong (a young boy), lives with his heterosexual parents and his brother. Far from new ideas but in constant conflict with himself, Beyong has difficulty understanding his feelings, even though he had accepted his femininity, which became the target of attacks from his own family, particularly his father. In the face of this masculine figure who had issues with his son's femininity, he couldn't escape but could only find comfort in his mother. As a woman, she understood. The film, especially if you are a former sociology student like myself, brings one back to the readings of Judith Butler, specifically to the notes in her widely known book "Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity," first published in 1990 and republished back in 1999. In this book, Butler questions the belief that certain gender behaviors are natural, illustrating how learned gender behavior (usually associated with femininity and masculinity) is a kind of act, a performance imposed on us by normative heterosexuality. Two years ago, in an interview with "The Guardian", on the 30th anniversary of her book, Butler revisited her theory of "performativity" of gender behavior as a debatable perspective on how gender functions, elaborating on what she had in mind when she wrote the book at that time. 

"Performative” speech acts are the kind that make something happen or seek to create a new reality. When a judge declares a sentence, for instance, they produce a new reality, and they usually have the authority to make that happen. But do we say that the judge is all-powerful? Or is the judge citing a set of conventions, following a set of procedures? If it is the latter, then the judge is invoking a power that does not belong to them as a person but as a designated authority. Their act becomes a citation—they repeat an established protocol”, Butler said by asserting that what she wanted to convey to humanity 32 years ago was that consciously or not, we quote gender conventions when claiming to express our inner reality or even when saying we are recreating ourselves. Butler argued that no one can escape social norms, but the problem is that none of us is completely determined by cultural norms. And thus, according to her, gender becomes a negotiation, a battle, and a way to confront historical limitations and create new realities. Beyong, whose transformation is portrayed in the film "Beautiful Woman”, created his new reality - Amanda. “Everything became clear when I put on the short dress, applied makeup and jewelry, and looked at myself in the mirror. There, I saw myself. I am a woman," Amanda reveals in her monologue.

What makes this film unique is the message it conveys, among others, the peace that Amanda felt, as a transgender woman, the moment her mother accepted her. In an edition like this year's edition of Anibar, where controversy around this year's topic, inclusive love, divided the city of Peja, where the festival is held annually, such a message comes as a gust of wind to open our eyes to the light to understand that ultimately, love implies acceptance, and that acceptance begins with those closest to us, our own family, lovers, and friends. The film itself is a personal dedication of the director Diëgo Nurse. “An apology to his nephew”, as he states in the bio line of the movie. An apology to his nephew with whom he reconnected only five years after he came out to his family about his sexual identity. 

For many others, however, a screening like this film could easily seen as a big broom dusting all the unspoken realities under the big rope of the so-called patriarchal society norms that are still impacting Kosovo’s society. 

Setting up, a new momentum

Anibar made the step, many wanted to but somehow couldn't find the courage to do - open a public dialogue on queer rights at the local level in Kosovo. Even though, the step wasn't easy to make. Only 5 days before the opening ceremony of the festival, the mural that is being painted every year by the volunteers and students of the Anibar Animation Academy and represents the theme of each edition, at the basketball field in the center of  Peja known with the former Yugoslavian name “Kosharka”, was demolished. At the same time, hateful messages were spread through social media against queer content at the festival. Anibar responded to this by inviting everyone to “Let love in”.

For 14 years now, Anibar has shown love for Peja. Everything started when a bunch of 15-year-old kids, mainly Peetrit Gora who is now the Creative Director of Anibar, and Vullnet Sanaja the Executive Director, with help from other Peja fellow friends, started an Animation Festival. The first edition basically was them, inviting friends and family to watch animated movies, and only three years later, the festival became the center of Animation in the region and was recognized internationally, making Peja the center of Animation and film. Later the organizers would finally get well-deserved institutional recognition, and a space to work with young generations of animators, at the iconic building of the Cinema “Jusuf Gervalla”, which is a cultural center located in Peja and was built in 1955. “Anibari is not just a festival that brings films from all over the world. Anibar produces and has inspired a new generation of local animators and this is his other powerful side”, stated one of the main newspapers in Kosovo “Koha Ditore”, in a recognition article regarding this year's festival. The Academy has produced 50 animators so far, four of their films were screened this year and won prizes and acknowledgments from prominent animators who were on the jury. 

Local and central institutions like the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport of Kosovo, supported this year's edition. Prime Minister Albin Kurti himself, showed up during the festival program as an act of support for the organizers and the festival’s theme. 

For many human rights activists, queer community, civil society, media, and individuals the courageous step of Anibar to declare inclusive love as the main festival’s theme, was not only welcoming but a call for present support and future planning. This edition of Anibar came only one year after Kosovo’s parliament failed to recognize and pass legally, same-sex marriage. 

On March 17, 2022, the Kosovo parliament rejected to recognize and legally pass same-sex marriage with the new Civil Code. This document, without any doubt, remains one of the most important legal documents in the justice system. However, the entire process of drafting and legal validation of the document was accompanied by controversial public statements even from the representative of the self-declared left-wing Government headed by Prime Minister Albin Kurti, who sponsored the new Civil Code.

If the Civil Code had passed, by recognizing same-sex civil unions, Kosovo would be the first country with a Muslim-majority community to legally recognize same-sex civil unions, but Kosovo's parliament decided differently. Only 28 out of 120 MPs voted in favor of the bill proposed by the government. Prime Minister Kurti had urged MPs to pass the bill by declaring that "rights belong to us, they belong to everyone". But after a heated debate at the Parliament, several MPs - including lawmakers from Kurti's political party ‘Vetevendosje’ - voted against the inclusive right to marriage and family. "Only opposite-sex marriage [is] acceptable," said Labinote Demi Murtezi an MP of Vetevendosje, "any connection beyond this combination is considered depravity and moral degeneration."

In another process before the Civil Code was sent to the voting session, the head of the Parliaments Human Rights Commission, Kosovo MP Duda Balje from the Bosniak community and member of the Vakat Coalition, said that she would vote against the Civil Code, publicly. “As you know, on Thursday, it is on the agenda to consider and vote for the Civil Code. This Civil Code also contains permission for same-sex marriages. As an MP, I cannot go against the religion I belong to, the principles I live by, or the family values I grew up with. So, my vote will be against”, Balje wrote on Facebook on February 2022, only three weeks before the Civil Code would appear at the Parliament in a voting session.

Both the MP’s statement was in line with the joint statement from representatives of the religious communities in Kosovo. The Islamic Community and the Diocese of Prizren-Pristina (Catholic Church), the Evangelical Protestant Church of Kosovo, and the Jewish Community of Kosovo called on the government and the Assembly not to touch the parts of the Civil Code related to marriage and openly opposed same-sex marriages.

According to their joint statement, there is no place in Kosovo and its society for redefining marriage, and they call for the preservation of traditional family values.

Miscommunication and legal loopholes

The Ministry of Justice in Kosovo proudly handed to the government the final draft of the new Civil Code, on July 15th, 2019. Although the Ministry of Justice and the EU Office in Kosovo — the sponsors and biggest supporters of the Civil Code — have termed the new Civil Code as progressive human rights activists stated that it is far from being inclusive. Arbër Nuhiu, one of the founders of the first non-governmental organization in Kosovo for the advancement and advocacy of LGBTQ+ rights, CSGD, expressed skepticism regarding the document and its content.  “Although the Constitution of Kosovo guarantees human rights and the rights of the Queer community in its text, the same is not reflected in the Civil Code," he stated. Nuhiu emphasized that the current legal framework does not adequately address issues related to adoption, surrogacy, and the overall recognition of LGBTQ+ families. He stressed that these are the main problems that go beyond the question of who can marry whom but are the actual obstacles to why the Civil Code is being opposed. Nuhiu also spoke about the challenges with the current government, mentioning that issues with left-wing parties, including the one currently in power in Kosovo, are more pronounced than with right-wing parties that were declared conservative in the past. He highlighted the need for better engagement with institutions and underscored the importance of international support to achieve progress. In the early days of 2019, while the Civil Code was still in the drafting process, Kosovo’s Ombudsperson also officially stated  the draft Civil Code violates the constitutional right to same-sex marriage.  However, the Ministry of Justice did not accept that provisions within Kosovo’s highest level of legislation and the new Civil Code are contradictory. 

Art, as a form of communication

Artists, film lovers, critics, activists, citizens, and decision-makers from 36 countries around the World, united once again in Peja, this year with a special dedication to discussing human rights and the many shapes of love and human experience. The remarkable progress observed within the LGBTQ+ community in Kosovo was acknowledged with a vibrant opening performance at the festival,  by the prominent Kosovan Drag Queen Adelina Rose. 

Rose, a drag performer, activist, film director, and business owner, stood before the crowd, representing the strength and resilience of the human spirit. Her presence epitomized the evolving acceptance of individuality and the need for unity, diversity, progress, and acceptance, which reflect the heart and soul of the festival itself. What made this performance more important, is the fact that the drag queen Adelina Rose also presented herself in many other activities during the festival as Erblin Nushi, the boy who grew up in Peja until the age of 17 and was bullied in Peja, because of his individual choices. Nushi is a filmmaker, who stated the urge for inclusive representation in Cinema and in the industry as a whole. By reflecting on his upbringing as a queer boy in a society that only showcased a narrow view of love in the media. Erblin stressed the importance of fostering an inclusive environment, especially in media representation, to ensure that young generations can see love in all its forms.

"It remains unfortunate that the younger generations still lack inclusivity in the media we consume. The main challenge lies in the inability to see the love between people of the same gender," emphasized Erblin Nushi who will be premiering a new movie, with the theme LOVE, later in September this year. Erblin shared his recent accomplishment, a heartwarming film portraying a child's experience of first love, with the intent of depicting a future filled with hope for LGBTQ+ individuals. He believes that filmmaking holds immense potential, despite the challenges of the industry. His belief is in line with that of the Anibar team, who without a shadow of a doubt, and despite the campaigns and hate speech that were initiated in Peja against the festival, believed that love can and will prevail in the end, and therefore they dedicated an entire edition to it. Thus creating a whole new momentum for Kosovar society and opening the doors for a public dialogue for inclusive love and the rights of Queer people at the local level in Kosovo.