Cinema of Commoning 2
Symposium, Screenings, Talks
We have made a home out of a ghost of a cinema

Interview with Ares Shporta, Kino Lumbardhi

Kino Lumbardhi is a cinema and arts space located in the historic center of Prizren, Kosovo. Established in 1952, the cinema was saved from demolition and privatization after two civil initiatives in 2007 and 2014, and is now run by the Lumbardhi Foundation.

Kino Lumbardhi chose Vera Dreams of the Sea to present as part of the Cinema of Commoning Film Program. Ahead of the screening on Wednesday 29 May 2024 at SiNEMA TRANSTOPIA, we spoke to Ares Shporta from the team about this unusual story of cinematic history and survival.

Credit: Agon Dana

Introduce us to Kino Lumbardhi – how would you describe the cinema to someone who has never visited? What is special about your cinema?

Kino Lumbardhi is more than a cinema; it’s a space which feels like the living room of Prizren’s historic center. With its back to the main bridge and the Lumbardhi river, the building hides a garden cinema and an indoor memory machine. Opening its doors just 23 years after the town’s first electrical light bulb was lit, the cinema was a symbol and vehicle for accelerated modernization and communication with the world through its screens. Its tumultuous history—from construction to attempts at demolition, from glory days to periods of decay and revival—tells a story of survival which reflects the broader context of cinemas in the region, and the contradictions of a city going through various socio-political changes over time.

Can you tell us a bit more about the history of the cinema, the attempts to demolish it, and how Kino Lumbardhi has played a role in fighting for a more open-to-all public space in Prizren?

Research by my colleagues Bengi Muzbeg and Tevfik Rada reveals a history of attempts to demolish the cinema dating back to 1972, when the cinema was just 20 years old. Whether because it was perceived as ugly, badly-positioned or not modern enough, the threat of demolition loomed, driven by the interest of private investors, who wanted to repurpose the site for a shopping mall or a parking lot. What was particular about Lumbardhi cinema was that it became the site of the major documentary film festival DokuFest, and this high-profile festival created an unusual power dynamic, demonstrating the potential of this kind of “unsustainable cinema” to succeed. Nevertheless, despite the festival’s success, the cinema still lacked institutional support, and the festival and other activists had to continually fight for the cinema’s survival. Across two critical campaigns, we gathered over 8000 signatures and the support of 58 nonprofits to save the cinema twice. After our initial campaign in 2007, we had learned the importance of offering a clear proposition, including specific details about our legal, infrastructural, managerial and programming approaches, leading to our second critical campaign in 2014. While that campaign managed to stop the authorities from closing the cinema, it also made us take responsibility and initiative to lead the process ourselves. Our demands became a kind of roadmap for the whole next decade spent figuring out the future of the institution and testing it in real time.

On your website you talk about Lumbardhi’s role as “a site of memory.” How does history, heritage and memory shape your work day to day?

Lumbardhi was saved by being granted heritage site status due to its importance to collective memory, and its role within the wider community. The Lumbardhi Foundation was established to deliver that promise and as part of its role in shaping the future of the cinema, it had the responsibility to understand and interpret its past, and put it in a broader historic and social context. Not just to build a sense of continuity, but also to reconcile some of the more challenging aspects of its past which might spark conflicting emotions for many people.

At its core, the site itself triggers memories, especially for those who have had experiences here in the past and whose lives were intertwined with this building. It stands as a living testament to Lumbardhi’s evolution into the contemporary institution it embodies today, and as a gateway to the little that remains of the Yugoslav modernist aesthetics, mid-20th century cinemas and a Prizren that is vanishing rather quickly. It is also an entrance into a more pluralistic and inclusive history of cinema from around the world, to the best of our ability.

Yet, this process also led us to see firsthand the public amnesia caused by war, institutional disruptions, dispersed archives and the absence of active contemporary memory institutions who might provide a more inclusive, bottom-up or collective approach to memory, be it in Prizren or in Kosovo. This prompted us to start exploring various social and cultural micro-histories, addressing stories we stumbled across, and initiating a process of collecting, digitizing and archiving primary material. Alongside all this, we are continuing to build our capacities to critically engage with these experiences and translate them into books, exhibitions, courses or research projects.

Credit: David Çavollari

Kino Lumbardhi hosted the first edition of DokuFest, a significant gathering point for cinephiles in the region. Do you still have a relationship with the festival and in what way has that relationship, past and present, been important to you?

The survival of Kino Lumbardhi cannot be imagined without the collective efforts of citizens, cinephiles and artists who joined forces to set up DokuFest as an attempt to revive the cinema and cultural life of the post-war Prizren. It is difficult to think of one without the other.

The festival has set a benchmark in terms of programming, leaving an incredible mark on both the city and the country at large. I grew up with DokuFest in Prizren being the only time of the year when I could really enjoy the city. When I was “summoned” to my hometown to take the job, the idea that some people could do DokuFest made me believe that actually anything is possible in this town. It generated a spirit of possibility and courage to try out new things. 

DokuFest has an evolving relationship with Kino Lumbhardhi, which started out as a more parental one in the beginning and has since grown into more of a partnership and friendship. We exchange knowledge, experience and programs, and have at various stages worked together in solidarity to build common visions and infrastructures. We run a film club together, a program for the festival and have more plans to work together in the future which are currently in the making.

Can you tell us more about the Lumbardhi Foundation and how it operates by supporting civil initiatives and grassroot efforts?

Lumbardhi Foundation is in itself a civil initiative and grassroot effort, which has grown through interaction and collaboration with other initiatives. It emerged as an intervention responding to the absence of institutions, by taking over, resuscitating and reimagining cinema. In this symbiotic relationship, the foundation has not only influenced the cinema and its trajectory but has also been shaped by it, reforming its identity and future in return.

Apart from running programs and research activities, we run the cinema as a space and share it with various organizations and community groups in Prizren, who gather, organize events and make use of the space. We are also part of various networks and advocacy groups who are trying to help shape the policies that affect the use of cinemas and cultural spaces, or support production, operation or collaboration between independent cultural actors.

In less formal ways, we share experiences with other spaces that are going through similar processes in Kosovo and abroad, or with emerging non-profit organizations in culture, media or other related fields. Since Lumbardhi’s existence owes much to the support and investment of many individuals and civic groups, we feel it is our duty to give something back. After about a decade of entanglement, in the coming period we aim to reflect together with our stakeholders and shape the new strategy of the Foundation, which should better clarify where the Foundation ends and the Cinema begins.

Credit: Elmedina Arapi

How do you perceive Lumbardhi’s role in the wider Southeast European cultural landscape? Have you had experience of creating coalitions with other initiatives from the region?

We have been an active part of Platforma Kooperativa, which is a regional coalition trying to improve conditions for independent culture and cooperation in the region. Hearing about the experiences of those working in countries like Croatia, Turkey or Serbia have been especially useful in our own institution-building and development, while we have shared our experience with other initiatives in these countries, as well as places like Albania or North Macedonia. I think Kino Lumbardhi is one of the very few success stories in terms of cinemas being preserved and true to their form, and finding a way to sustain themselves without sacrificing their identity or non-profit status. While at times we’ve been very local, scratching the surfaces of film, music, heritage or humanities, we’ve always been part of regional and broader processes or conversations, and we expect to deepen these engagements and relations in the coming decade.

How do you think that Kino Lumbardhi can serve as a space for community building and placemaking – how do you do this practically, taking into account the political context of Kosovo today? 

Well, that’s at the very core of our work. We house a “living room” and its inhabitants have made a home out of a ghost of a cinema. When provided with space, or simply the right environment, communities build and shape themselves. 

Overall, this has been a highly rewarding journey and we managed to have enough experiences of trial and error, successes and failures, to be able to make better decisions or more informed attempts in the future. I think it had also many direct and indirect effects in how other spaces were (re)activated in Kosovo, in adding to an atmosphere of collaboration, but also in gradually changing the attitudes of local and central institutions and funding authorities, who eventually started to respond to these new typologies of institutional practice. 

You are screening Vera Dreams of the Sea with us at SiNEMA TRANSTOPIA as part of our Cinema of Commoning collaborative film programme – can you talk to us a little bit about why you chose the film?

It was difficult to choose only one among many brilliant features and shorts that have been produced over the last decade in Kosovo. We have a promising generation of women filmmakers in particular, who are developing a curious and fresh language in grappling with some of the past and present conflicts. The film was suggested by Bengi Muzbeg, who is in charge of film programs at Lumbardhi. It was part of their curatorial idea to select one of the more prominent recent films that doesn’t deal with the war explicitly, but offers a relatable story which could take place in Kosovo, but would also resonate in different countries across the Cinema of Commoning network too. 

Credit: Elmedina Arapi

What does a Cinema of Commoning mean to you?

When we first heard about Cinema of Commoning a couple of years ago, it felt like something which we belonged to already. To us, this project acknowledges our shared struggles and passions across the world, while building a sense of solidarity. It means the possibility of celebrating the (re)building of cinema culture, as well as learning from other examples and creating a common space for the future. Despite “knowing” the concept intellectually, it feels great to be experiencing it first hand with other people who you can share ideals and struggles with; it’s a great feeling to know that one is not alone in this endeavor. 

Is there anything else you’d like us to know about Kino Lumbardhi?

Hopefully it will go into restoration this September, so those who are intrigued enough and able, are urged to come and see it as it is, during the festival or for the screenings this summer! 

Ares Shporta is a cultural worker, producer and researcher situated between Kosovo and Albania. Since 2015, as co-founder and director of Lumbardhi Foundation, he has been leading the institutional transformation of Prizren’s iconic Lumbardhi Cinema. His active work includes initiating research projects in cultural histories, commissioning new works in music, film and visual arts and organizing related public programs. He actively engages in community and infrastructure building, as well as advocacy in related law-making and policy-making processes. Shporta also works as a film producer, as well as advisor, lecturer or board member at various non-profits, arts organizations and educational institutions in South-Eastern Europe.