By Ivana Bilić
On Wednesday, May 17, 2023, the FemArt festival opened in Mitrovica, north of Kosovo. The opening day brought a projection of the movie Biba May, produced by Shqipe Malushi, about Resmije Rahmani, a woman and activist who has muscular dystrophy, taking her as an inspiration and raising awareness about this illness. People with different abilities, including people in wheelchairs take her as a symbol for lobbying for others – men and women, boys and girls who have the same fate. After a very emotional screening, the audience had the privilege to listen to the notes of a world-renowned Indian artist, Soli Kapadia, who healed their souls in a very intimate setting.
The FemArt festival in Mitrovica also hosted a French performance “Olympe et moi”, directed by Patrick Mons, on Friday, May 19, and the festival closed with a concert by Mitrovica Rock School and a beautiful duo by Kosovar Artists Anisa and Erhan who wrapped it all up so nicely in the charming garden of the City Museum.
BIBA MAY – NO MORE. I AM FREE. SEE ME.
I must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.
Last time I met Shqipe Malushi, the director of the movie, in November of last year, she told me she was rushing to finish a very important project. “Time is limited and I rushed to give her the gift of her own legacy,” she told me about the movie about Resmije Rahmani, broadly known as Biba May. The movie premiered on December 9, 2022 in Prishtina, and the day after in Peja. The audience was touched deeply by the story and by Biba’s action to get the first gift of a wheelchair to a 7-year-old girl who was living through the same thing as Biba – the journey of strength. That very girl is originally from Mitrovica and she showed up for the screening in 7arte in Mitrovica, where the movie was projected during FemArt Festival 2023. Shqipe Malushi met Biba years ago in Prizren when she participated in a workshop. Shqipe fell in love with many, “but Biba was a star”. “Biba, whose body is dying and falling apart never complains, her spirit is soaring to make a change for others; she is proof there is no impossibility. I wanted to tell her story to the world and, through her story, the stories of other people with disabilities,” says the director of the movie. Besides, this movie is also a call for rehabilitation centers that do not exist in Kosovo, places where they can get together and give a break to their families because they are dependent and need help constantly. The center would give them purpose and continuity.
This time, the movie was projected in a much smaller space than a movie theater and there were fewer people. But for Biba, it was more profound, more natural, more welcoming. It had a stronger impact on her, even though every time she watches the play it impacts her greatly. This family-like surrounding, however, was something else. In Prishtina, during the premiere, she had no time to think or reflect; but here she felt safe. She was again touched deeply when she saw videos of her father who died in the meantime; she is still processing her grief. Biba’s brother was so moved that he needed to get some air. I remembered what one Albanian director told me about the audience and forum theater that can apply here – the smaller the audience, bigger the impact. People were crying, not because they felt sorry, but because they felt inspired by the strength of Biba and all the other people not with disabilities, but with different abilities, and because it was very awakening. It made us think about the simple things we have no time to think about in the rush of our daily chores. As Biba’s brother pointed out during our informal conversation – it is not about special needs, it is about normal, ordinary needs, being able to take a stroll in the streets, roads that are accessible to people in wheelchairs, going from one place to another, being able to dress yourself, to put makeup on, to take a shower.
And while the people in the audience were touched as well, some of them wiping away tears, the movie was moving, but not pathetic. This is a very important factor that both Malushi and Biba insisted upon – this is not about being sorry for people with different abilities. The very title explains it – No more – there is no more time to wait – no more in the sense of that’s enough. We don’t want to be presented as part of the dark news, as living in poor conditions, or showing only the most marginalized cases of society living on the edge. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” asserts Biba. “We don’t need pity or compassion. We need equal opportunities. Not special treatment.”, Biba tells me very decidedly.
This movie is a chance to show that people with different abilities, and especially women, are capable, they can do a lot alone, maybe they need some more support, but they can do it. “We just want an opportunity to be a part of society, to be equal, because if you give us the opportunity, there are no limits.” A great example of dedication came from the initiative of Mimozë Musliu, Artpolis’ Project Assistant and a pedagogue at Resource Center Qendra Burimore Përparimi-Prishtinë. For this edition of FemArt, she prepared a guidebook for people with disabilities and initiated the program being printed in the Braille alphabet, dedicated to blind people in Kosovo. Musliu strongly underlines: “Initiatives should come from us, because nobody understands us better than we do.” She points out that all categories can and have to contribute to society and that such movies should be screened in schools, in public places, so that as many people as possible see them and look at these categories with different eyes. Mimozë also adds that many people with different abilities do have complexes and low self-esteem and Biba’s motivation can be a huge window for awareness and empowerment.
Now, allow me to share something personal about wheelchair access to places of culture, nightlife, bars, institutions, and cemeteries. There were two things in the movie that struck me the most. One is Prizren’s fortress. The first time Biba went to the fortress with her parents was when she was seven. That was also her last time, she got ill and the road was not paved or adapted for wheelchairs. Some twenty years later, she got the chance to go there again with an organized visit for people in wheelchairs. “Many foreigners who come to our city go there and view the city from above, while we, the locals, cannot. I took that road myself last year. It was so hot in Prizren on that summer day. But with the shade on our way there it was quite enjoyable. And the view when we got there! I still remember it vividly. Biba waited for years to get there. To see her hometown from the top. To see the river, the houses, the bridges, the mosques. But she does not moan or complain. She and other activists lobbied for years and finally, there is an initiative to build a cable car to Prizren’s fortress.
Another thing that got so sharply to me, was the moment she could not go to the cemetery to say goodbye to her father. Cemeteries usually don’t have access for wheelchairs. This is not a special demand, this is not a special need, this is a very basic, very essential, thing for all. “All people have a need to go say goodbye to their loved ones once they leave us. I just want the same opportunity,” Biba tells me. What we do is not enough. We have to do more, and as one of my interlocutors said –not only for people with disabilities, but with extra abilities. We have to empower, to give, to support.
SOLI KAPADIA – MUSIC THAT HEALED
Just after the movie screening, all these people who had been so deeply touched by Biba’s story had a once-in-a-lifetime occasion to listen to the world-renowned Indian musician Soli Kapadia, a musician who has done more than 4000 concerts throughout the world. Accompanied by Erhan Mujka on guitar, he brought magic to these people in the hall. With our eyes closed, we experienced the transcendental power of music and of Mr. Kapadia’s voice made of silk. We sang the musical scale of Indian music together. Sa-Re-Ga-Ma-Pa-Dha-Ni-Sa. It was both heartwarming and liberating. At one moment, there was a call for prayer from a nearby mosque and at first different ways of worship intertwined, but then we all stopped out of respect, and it was a wonderful moment of sharing. As a group, as individuals, we all shared the same emotions, the same drunkenness by music. He dedicated some of the songs to all of those who were in pain – whether physical, psychological, mental, or any form of pain. We meditated with music, we healed. This night was about truth, beauty, and love.
OLYMPE ET MOI, 19 MAY 2023
The audience in Mitrovica was also honored by the performance “Olympe et Moi”, coming from France, performed by Véronique Ataly and directed by Patrick Mons. They had already performed before a Kosovar audience in Prishtina two days before, but this performance was different for the actress and the director. They spent the entire day in Mitrovica preparing the setting, knowing that they would be performing in a museum full of history. In the words of Patrick Mons, there was this inexplicable feeling of hospitality and welcome by all the people working in the museum, but also by Valdete Idrizi, Director of Culture, Youth, and Sports in the Municipality of Mitrovica. It was important to be in Mitrovica, there was a different vibe there. The audience was so attentively absorbed by every move of the leading actress, as if they were enchanted by her presence, despite the language barrier for some among them. They stayed until the very end, in order to participate in the discussion. Both the actress and the director were amazed by the interaction with the audience, their comments and ambiance. Patrick Mons felt that there was a pressing need to reconstruct identity in Mitrovica. It reminded him of one of the French theater directors saying: “Theater is the last human adventure and the FemArt festival is exactly it, through theater performances, living ultimate adventures.”
A group of high schoolers from Mitrovica Rock School rocked the scene on Friday evening, the closing night of the festival in Mitrovica. In the very relaxed atmosphere of the garden of the City Museum of Mitrovica, people sang and danced with them. As the night fell, we were entertained by the beautiful duo of Kosovar artists, Anisa and Erhan, who concluded the evening with a range of different genres to celebrate diversity. They started with international songs and finished with folkloric and traditional Albanian songs. Everyone wanted to be a bit closer. It was a celebration of togetherness, of singing, of dancing, and a celebration of life. Or as Patrick Mons put it, it was an adventure.