Saturday, February 20, 2016

Kosovo’s First Oscar Nominee: Shok (Friend)

Most Americans would be hard pressed to distinguish an Albanian from a Serbian, but it is not a problem for the residents of a small Kosovar village. However, it will become pretty clear for most viewers of Kosovo’s first Oscar nominated film, simply through dramatic context. Two young Albanian boys will witness war crimes and ethnic cleansing first hand during the Kosovo War in Jamie Donoughue’s Shok (trailer here), which is currently screening as part of the Academy Award nominated short film package now playing at the IFC Center.

The sight of an abandoned bicycle in the middle of the mountain highway brings it all back for the adult Petrit. Through hard work and saving, his best friend and fellow Albanian Oki has just bought a bike. Hoping to similarly purchase two-wheeled mobility, Petrit has begun dealing with the Serbian paramilitaries stationed outside of town. Petrit believes he can forge a profitable relationship with Dragan, the commander, but Oki instinctively understands the dangers inherent when one deals with the devil. Alas, his fears will be vindicated when Dragan insists on appropriating Oki’s bike for his nephew.

Despite what we might expect, Shok does not abruptly end with the seizure of the prized bicycle. Instead, it launches a chain of events that will greatly complicate the boys’ relationship, cutting far deeper than any mere coming of age story. Innocence will not be the only thing that dies in this memory play.

As young Oki and Petrit, Andi Bajgora and Lum Veseli give extraordinarily poised and disciplined performances. Thematically, the film is as serious as it gets, but they carry it with sure hands, every step of the way. Based on the experiences of producer-co-star Eshref Durmishi (who ironically appears as Dragan), Shok is a fully realized narrative that follows a highly eventful dramatic arc. This is a film with a beginning, middle, and end that seamlessly establishes each beat, all of which have a real point.

It is hard to imagine another short edging out Shok this year, but Academy voters often seem to use the dartboard method to vote in the short film categories. (How else can we explain Helium beating out Just Before Losing Everything in 2014?) Regardless, Shok represents an important milestone for Kosovar cinema and should be quite a career stepping stone for Donoughue. Highly recommended, the twenty-one minute Shok is now screening as part of the live action short film nominees at the IFC Center and is also available on iTunes.