Luàna Bajrami’s terrific debut feature at the age of just 20 is a tremendous look at young women trapped in their small Kosovo town. With naturalistic performances and observational direction, we have an empowering film in The Hill Where Lionesses Roar.
In a small remote village in Kosovo, three young women see their dreams and ambitions stifled. Yet, in their quest for independence, nothing can stop them: time to let the lionesses roar.
All of the trio have reasons to leave their town and to move forward. For Jeta (Urate Shabani), it is to escape the fear of her sexually abusive uncle; for Qe (Flaka Latifi), it is to be free from the shackles of a future that has already been predetermined. With Li (Era Balaj), she not so much wants to escape the town to find instead a way of supporting her mother and three young brothers. University is their main hope, to escape and learn and become something more than what they are destined for, but the admission methods are long and laborious with them having waited two years to discover whether they get in.
They are frustrated about the lack of options available to them. So they do what you expect, hang around empty houses, swimming pools, and cemeteries (a rather pointed look at the political neglect of the country’s rural regions). This is a close-knit group where strangers who try to slide their way in are never fully accepted by the whole group. Be it Li’s boyfriend or Qe’s French-born summer holiday friend. This is a group protective of one another and almost unwilling to share due to the fear of losing each other. As they go on through the story, you quickly realise how dependant each is on the other, even when they try not to be. They need each other and thus have the same goals and aspirations of ridding themselves of this country to head West.
In the final act, The Hill Where Lionesses Roar stutters slightly, the film begins to race through moments at a breakneck pace that betrays the natural, easy pace that came before it. However, what we see is still great; it just feels as if the film has missed a scene or two in the story to link itself together a bit better. As the final act unfolds, it would be effortless for the film to follow the trend of films that came before it; however, Bajrami keeps true to her characters.
Equally, Bajrami is supremely confident in her abilities here, and as an actor, she allows for the most naturalistic of performances from the trio. You believe these characters, and you sense how comfortable they are with their director. If Bajrami can pull such easy performances from her cast and her strong direction choices, she is certainly going to become a force of nature. Her ability to have us feel moved by these young characters and their struggles to progress in their lives is striking.
Wisely as mentioned, cinematographer Hugo Paturel and Luàna Bajrami allow the camera to settle and roam around as the trio goes through their summer; it will enables it to have the lure of a documentary with how comfortable it all feels. While straightforward enough in its storytelling, there are moments that you wish The Hill Where Lionesses Roar delved a little more into each of the young woman’s lives. Instead, we are given glimpses, clear glimpses for sure, but still just a brief glance at what has forced them to feel and do what they do. That is perhaps down to the strength of the writing and the cast’s performances as you are so involved in what you are seeing that you want to spend more time with them.
Bajrami is not as interested in the background and is more concerned in the present, and for a film like this, it works wonderfully. This is a film that wants to grab you and show you how different other parts of the world are while telling you a very relatable story. Moments of quiet intimacy are contrasted with loud joyous moments as we watch the group go on their journey. The look at the strains and thoughts of the youth in Kosovo’s rural areas is shouted out loud and clear here with Bajrami’s poised film.
The Hills Where Lionesses Roar shows the strength in going through socioeconomic difficulties with those close to you and the strength in young women from the region. But also the power and drive that everyone should have in trying to succeed, though perhaps it isn’t as wise to take the turns that our leads take. A poetic film that, like its lionesses, is fierce and proud of it.
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