Jendreyko's documentary follows a "raging bull" in the form of a
young Kosovo Albanian abroad. Jeta Xharra catches the film at its UK premiere.
Boxing has a traditional and special relationship with film—it's the sport that filmmakers love to photograph to the point that the boxing film has probably become a sub-genre of the action film.
With his documentary film Bashkim (2001), the German-Swiss director, Vadim Jendreyko, adds an unusual twist to a boxing film by choosing to follow the journey of a rising Kosovo Albanian kick boxer, Bashkim Berisha, who fled to Switzerland as a child. The reason why this choice of character is slightly unusual is because the majority—if not all—of Kosovan characters we have seen on the small and the big screen in the last decade have been characters portrayed only for their victimhood to the Kosovan conflict. Bashkim, on the other hand, one of five sons of a Kosovan Gastarbeiter in Switzerland, is primarily a film about a man with a promising talent and his inability to control it.
After initially failing to fit in, the teenager directed his energies to kickboxing—and as this film begins, is building what looks set to be a promising career in the sport. The emigre community has hopes high for him—the music of the popular Kosovan performer, Ilir Shaqiri, reverberates in a packed hall and dozens of waving Albanian flags greet Bashkim when he comes on stage for his match in Switzerland. Being unusually strong, he wins. "Normally, if a guy gets hit by someone, he has a bruised cheek," says Alfred Gut, a local detective. "But when Bashkim hits someone, the other guy gets his jaw wired afterwards, or missing teeth."
Yet he is also possessed of the intense frustration and rage of the outsider, and a hair-trigger temper. "I can't control myself," he admits. For all his courtly reserve, and despite the affection he commands among the women of the Kosovo Albanian community there, he seems a loose cannon, capable of anything, and when the image fades to black in the middle of his opening fight, we fear the worst.
"I was attracted by the duality of this character and, thus, his humanity" Jendreyko told Kinoeye at the 56th Edinburgh International Film Fesival, where Bashkim had its UK premiere as a part. "He's a young man with great potential, but he has a problem with his use of violence outside the ring," continues Jendreyko. "It's like he has David fighting against Goliath inside him. There is a tragic aspect to this—a character with a crack. He realises his problem and agrees—it will destroy his life."
And so it does. Suddenly we're in jail, with Bashkim's father visiting him and discussing his son's chances for parole. It turns out that the youth has seriously injured a policeman in a brawl, following an identity check in his hometown, and is being held awaiting sentencing. Uneducated, profoundly uninterested in anything but boxing, Bashkim attempts defiance: "They always say: 'You're not a man unless you've been in prison or the army' ... [I'm] a real man." Yet his fear and despair are evident.
Bashkim's rise and tragic, self-destructive, violent fall brings to mind similarities with Robert de Niro's character in Scorsese's film Raging Bull, based on the stubborn 1940s boxing champion Jake La Motta, who goes through successive stages of punishment, compromise and self-disintegration throughout the film. The first time we see Bashkim behind bars, he has put on an extra 15 kg. It completely alters his physical appearance and for the rest of the film he tries to lose the extra weight. It's another echo of Raging Bull, for which de Niro went on a pasta-guzzling tour of Italy and France mid-way through shooting to bloat his body out for the film's ending.
The prison scene is one of several occasions in the film when you remain waiting for the filmmaker to challenge Bashkim Berisha, because you expect him to know that political prisoners are important figures in Kosovan culture. The attitude of "becoming a real man in prison"—not any man but a very respected one indeed—is attributed to the political prisoners who were put in jail for their revolutionary ideas against the Serbian regime which is an entirely different matter from ending up in a Swiss jail for breaking a policeman's jaw in one of those many bad-tempered days that Bashkim has. Jendreyko admits that he did not know anything about Kosovo before he met the leading character of his documentary.
Unfortunately, this does not give him an advantage in the way he tackles the cultural and social context of Bashkim's surroundings in the film, which are, on the other hand, the most visually enjoyable parts of the documentary.
Especially because, what looks at first like a study of a ruined life, slowly acquires a deeper resonance as its focus broadens, to consider, first the life of Bashkim's parents, their five sons and extended family—most of whom live in a single apartment—and then the life of their community, and their status as refugees in their adopted homeland.
Finally the film-maker returns with them to Kosovo, to the village in which members of Bashkim's family were slaughtered. The landscape is magnificent, and the destruction complete—the earth dotted with the burnt-out shells of ruined buildings and burial mounds. The sequence where one of Bashkim's far relatives take the camera crew inside a mosque in Kosovo and starts talking about Islam seems artificially set up and totally out of place because religion doesn't seem to play any role, either for Bashkim or his community.
However, the social and cultural context of the hero's life explored in the film offer a better understanding of the complexities of his Achilles' heel; the family speak of rebuilding, of starting anew; nevertheless, the film seems to end on a question, tantalisingly unanswered: how can a boy reared in such violence, possibly hope to deny it in his own nature?
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