Luàna Bajrami is a French-Kosovar actress who made her notable appearance as the housemaid Sophie in Céline Sciamma’s lesbian period drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), a role that landed her a nomination for “Most Promising Actress” at the prestigious French César Awards. The project itself, she claims, also gave her the courage to tell a story through cinematic means herself and in 2019, she directed a short film called “En été mûrissent les baies.” The 20 year old Bajrami is self-taught and owes the craft of her filmmaking approach to the collaborative nature of her acting career so far but while her debut feature feels breezy and free-flowing, it is far from derivative in both storytelling, script, and visuals.
Its clunky title, The Hills Where Lionesses Roar, manages to set the mood for an uplifting, hopeful treatment of female strength and resilience. The ‘lionesses’ are a trio of friends on the cusp of adulthood, but one that feels protracted and late to arrive. As teenagers, Qe (Flaka Latifi), Li (Era Balaj), and Jeta (Uratë Shabani) seem old enough to take on adult responsibilities – they drive a car, look after their families, apply for university. But still, the fact that they all inhabit a remote village in the Kosovar countryside which provides just enough space for daily rituals (chores and social gatherings on the surrounding hills) but no sense of time. An endless summer seems to have taken hold of The Hills Where Lionesses Roar, refusing to let the girls cross over to the future: a feeling that is achingly familiar to anyone who spent the last years of their adolescence in an impoverished rural setting.
What sets The Hill Where Lionesses Roar apart is that it depicts Kosovo – the country which Bajrami was born in and left aged seven – through a lens that’s not tinted with post-war dread. The Kosovo war, part of the destructive Yugoslav wars that tore the Balkans in the 1990s, has left a long-lasting influence in the way the nation perceived itself, through art and film in particular. But by zooming on her three youthful protagonists, the writer-director succeeds in transcending the repetitive depictions of misery, poverty, and political injustice (not that the film does not allude to all these aspects of living in an ex-Yugoslav country) by trusting the new generation to not be as obsessed with the past as its predecessors.
Bajrami’s life in France has clearly influenced her perception of Kosovo and this is why she openly admits that writing the script at 18 presented her with a cathartic moment of confrontation: the immigrant anxiety of never fitting in the native country, as well as in the newfound home. Perhaps such contradictions drove her to also write herself into the film, in the role of Lena (whom she played herself), a girl of the same age who has grown up in Paris. Lena’s character provides a bit of Brechtian estrangement in the plot and also opens up space for self-reflection that avoids becoming self-indulgent. Bajrami has rationed well her personal investment, and the interest she takes in her trio as a protagonist, and the film remains focused on the girls throughout – while they drink, while they drive around, when they break bad and form a gang just to oppose the rigid morale of their small and suffocating socium.
The Hill Where Lionesses Roar delivers a whirlpool of summer vibes, and nests in one’s memory as something more akin to a road film, even though there’s hardly any movement whatsoever. By aligning interior and exterior expansions, Bajrami’s film manages to open up a new generation of émigré filmmaking that relies less on criticism of the past, and more on hopes for the future.
By Savina Petkova
Savina Petkova is a Bulgarian London-based freelance critic. In her spare time, she is a PhD candidate with a project on animal metamorphoses in contemporary European films. She lives from one film festival to the other, always on the hunt for animality, otherness, and visceral filmmaking. Savina admires bold story-telling as much as feeling-telling and defines her approach to criticism as sharp and ethically challenging. She is a regular MUBI Notebook contributor and writes for Electric Ghost Magazine, photogenie, and Girls On Tops. You can find her on Twitter @SavinaPetkova