IN BETWEEN FORGIVENESS AND BLOOD
In conversation with Keti Stamo
Around a bonfire, in a field, a group of children is telling an ancient story of murder. In-between silence and their words, the question lingers – should God have forgiven? The background of this scene is the rural landscape of northern Albania; the backdrop is life, and the acute rule to it is Kanun: an ancient law that regulates all regional spheres of living.
Dated back to the Middle Ages, Kanun existed as an oral traditional customary law, only to resurface in the form of 12 books in the 20th century. Its Besa personal honor code acts as the cornerstone of personal and social conduct, instructing, in the case of murder, how Gjakmarrja– blood feud – is to be followed. Kanun foresees and creates space for the forgiveness of blood from the moment the blood is taken, yet, families are stuck in blood feuds lasting many generations. Applied to both Christian and Muslim Albanians, Kanun precedes the religious concerns, while its "blood for blood" principle only seemingly answers the question of forgiveness.
Written and directed by Keti Stamo, Sons of Cain (Les Enfants de Cain, 2021) suspends the world shaped by Kanun through the eyes of children and women. Working with and within myths, this docu-fiction points to confessions as they are being made. There is a confession in a myth, but it is the dream that leads, the dream that reveals and heals. Keti Stamo discovered the potentialities of a "dream" while working with children in refugee camps. There, in the dream workshops she held, dreams emerged as a way out of the limbo state, an antidote to "evade reality, scratch, dig and find the truth". The dream was revealed as a tool, the thing that interested Keti.
With this aspiration, Keti came to northern Albania in 2018, sensing the atmosphere of emptiness behind the dream and the enormous resistance to it. "The notion of dream is very controlled and censored in difficult societies. For me, it felt like looking for water in a desert. Or, even worse – looking for a fish in a desert. People need to be awake and fabricate ideas on how to survive in everyday life, and so do the children," Keti says. Nevertheless, once a delicate way "to dig around" is found, "struggle can turn out into something with the potential of relief."
Keti met the struggle of this "difficult society" inside of the village church. There, she first encountered the story of pastor Elona Prroj, who lost her husband to the Kanun life for life principle. Elona decided against Kanun's gjakmarrja and chose forgiveness, since then leading an organization that tries to mediate between the feuding families, aiming for the forgiveness of the blood. Through Pastor Elona and her work, Keti met other women of the village, whose lives, too, were suspended by the waiting; "bonded in a surreal zone".
"It felt like a zone in-between being subconscious and awakening. I don't know how to explain it; it's something inside. Only these women can experience it. I think this is what inspired the film – how to tell an invisible war through people that would never talk in front of the camera, and that I as a person behind the camera can self-consciously communicate this feeling?"
"Only through children," Keti suggests, "with their "rational storms" and absence of cognitive filters could the affective-emotional world be reached; could we look beyond the madness of the situation." Therefore, by building trust with the local community, Keti got to meet children from the village. She began a dream experiment with them, interestingly, starting from an ancient myth.
"I thought Abel and Cain could be the myth to start from; a neutral zone where the children could express something without realizing they were talking about themselves. The rest of the process was invented day by day, following the instinct and using my emotional thermometer." Keti's instinct and her emotional thermometer proved to guide this group of children, and the viewer, to an incredible space: the space that, for Keti, appeared "borderless and therapeutically beautiful". The dream zone that Keti helped create and that children, with their imagination, further developed was translated into the film's dream-like texture. This quality appears to be in tension with the rawness generally expected of the documentary genre. Still, for Keti, "rawness" and "the dream zone" work precisely when they create tension. "Sometimes, reality can be much more surreal than a dream," she concludes.
In the village where men and families are stuck in their homes, in the midst of an invisible war; their lives suspended by waiting – seemingly for the blood vengeance, but ultimately for forgiveness – Keti's docu-fiction brought a sense of movement; a step further. In Sons of Cain, we can see the group of children departing away from the myth of Abel and Cain and coming to face each other and their collective futures directly, all of this culminating in a cathartic moment – and forgiveness.
On the other hand, the myth is never truly left behind in the space that the film created for women to talk, explore, and claim. This is obvious to Keti as the filmmaker, too. "I felt that women were trying to shape and elaborate their definition of reality through the myth. I guess because they felt myths are less personal." Keti found herself questioning everything: the fiction, the reality and the line between them. Then, she decided to throw away these restrictions. "Using one of these elements, they – the women – were confessing. Dreams and myths are composed of the same psychological materia, but they organize this materia according to different functions. They are two forms of the imaginary: the explorer imaginary (the dream), and the explanatory imaginary (the myth). The adults explain but children explore," says Keti.
"For adults, it is more complex," Keti acknowledges." The social structure they are stuck in does not help in the reprocessing. They seek solutions, still they avoid choice". Yet, there is a scene in the film that beautifully reveals the openness to possibility in this limbo state - the choice. In this scene, the grandmother tells the myth of the walnut tree sustaining itself by taking the life of the young man who planted it. Looking at the tree, she feels bonded with its destiny, yet, talking to the young boy, she is giving him the possibility to choose. To start dreaming.
Sons of Cain premiered at the 78th Venice International Film Festival in 2021. Since then, the film has been shown, on-going at many international festivals.
Currently Keti is working on a new project, called Rising. “It is a story about cracks, physical and emotional, set in two cities that lay on the water - Venice and Ine, in Japan. It is the water that is going to reveal to the characters how to deal with the past and the dream; darkness and light.” Keti plans to shoot the film in winter of 2023.
Text: Elma Talić
Images: Stills from "Sons of Cain", director of photography: Stefano Usberghi