Hear Them Roar: Bajrami Shouts an Outcry on Female Subjugation
Luàna Bajrami, who appeared as the maid in Celina Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), breaks out with her own directorial debut in the gently leaning genre drama The Hill Where the Lionesses Roar. Set in a remote village in Kosovo charting the perpetual stagnation of three young women yearning to break free from the cultural ties binding them, Bajrami joins a growing international presence of Balkan cinema. Her fellow countrywoman Blerta Basholli burst onto the scene earlier this year with her Sundance prize winner Hive, which similarly depicted the impossibility of a woman struggling to assert any semblance of agency in her remote Kosovo village. Although a truncated finale suggests a stronger denouement might have bolstered the narrative considerably, it’s set in an authentic realm of inevitable consequences.
Three friends in a desolate village somewhere in Kosovo hold out hope for future opportunities to leave. While attending university seems to be their best bet, chances are slim they’ll be admitted thanks to the strict patriarchal attitudes of their town. While they spend what feels like a perpetually frivolous summer together, their home lives leave something to be desired. Jeta (Urate Shabani) has to fend off the sexual advances of her uncle, who is now her guardian. Qe (Flaka Latifi) is known as ‘the rabbit girl,’ who tends to a hutch with her younger sister, though her father’s aggressive attitude has become increasingly abusive. Meanwhile, Li (Era Balaj) finds herself enamored with a new boy, Zem (Andi Bajgora), much to the chagrin of her friends. When Lena (Bajrami) shows up to visit for the summer since her father is Kosovoian (though her mother is French), she’s one final reminder of the roadblocks they’ll forever face unless they take drastic action.
Bajrami begins and ends on whispery poetics, suggesting the innate despair of these three young women, casting their thwarted desires out into the wind. Ironically, between these whispers lies the scream and outrage, the modest hilltop where they act out their fantasies of agency. It’s rather touching until we realize these three women are invariably trapped, each with their own dysfunctional family situations, including sexual and physical abuse. Denied entrance into university or Visas to leave the country, they indeed are forced into regression, wasting away their days hoping an opportunity will present itself.
The introduction of Lena, whose half-French citizenship allows her a lifeline these women will never experience, suggests the quartet of witches from The Craft (1994), just waiting for a final glimmer to ignite. Instead, Bajrami teases thrills a la Set It Off (1996), and the young women embrace the dark side to take (brief) advantage of flying under the radar due to their gender as they rob various businesses to get the funds they need to flee.
Shot by Hugo Paturel, Bajrami makes significant use of drifting montages for some necessary levity. But each time their trio disband, whether for Li’s (who has the best homelife scenario) growing attraction to Zem or the heavy despair with male authority figures, we’re reminded of a hopeless future. Like I Am From Titov Veles (2007), another Balkan cinematic experience (form Macedonia’s Teona Strugar Mitevska) about three sisters trapped in a dead zone, Bajrami ups the arthouse ante, including bursting the sexual tension growing between Qe and Jeta (though Qe’s obvious yearning for Lena bolsters some fitting Emile Zola references with his text L’Assommoir).
While it will draw most obvious reference to Deniz Gamze Erguven’s 2015 breakout Mustang, these three lionesses are left in less hopeful place than we meet them, captive to the patriarchy, likely to have their last vestiges of identity stripped away if declawed.
Reviewed on July 8th at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival – Directors’ Fortnight. 83 Mins.