IFFR 2021 review: Looking for Venera (Norika Sefa)

What good is making your own choices when there are so few options to choose from? Looking for Venera, the debut feature of Kosovan director Norika Sefa, initially seems like a coming-of-age film such as we have seen dozens of times before: a shy teenage girl looking for her identity, both personal and sexual, at the side of a more outgoing and ‘braver’ friend, while she tries to break free from a restrictive environment. A strong cast and focused script create an engaging and subtle film, but what makes Sefa’s film special and makes it stand out from those dozens of examples is a very specific setting that feels lived in, turning it into a small world of its own for the audience.

Teenager Venera (Kosovare Krasniqi) lives in a small village in Kosovo. With three generations filling her small family home privacy is hard to come by, as she is always under the watchful eyes of elders who have very traditional ideas of how a woman should behave. When she goes outside things are not much better, with other villagers, often men, also lurking about to fulfill the same restrictive role. Reputation of the family is everything, so a young girl isn’t supposed to stray too far and bring shame onto herself. When the more outgoing and carefree Dorina befriends Venera a world opens up for her. Suddenly there is fun to be had, and the interest of young men. But how far is she allowed to go?

The title of the film can be seen as applying more to the viewer than to Venera herself. As a character she does not really change all that much, but the viewer gets a different perspective on her. Her attitude and behavior change over the course of the film but her values remain the same, no matter the influence of the people in her family or the villagers in this small, close-knit community, or indeed no matter the actual process of ‘coming of age’. What mostly changes is the way she defines her place in the world. Kosovare Krasniqi at the center of it all manages to convey this while keeping Venera taciturn and grounded in a subtle performance that impresses. Rozafa Celaj as Dorina and Erjona Kakeli as Venera’s mother are equally strong. The camerawork by Luis Armando Arteaga keeps a close eye on the actors, emphasizing the literal and figurative cramped environments Venera has to navigate.

Coming-of-age tales like this are universal enough to attract an international audience, but Sefa shows enough knowledge of local values, history, and traditions to imbue Looking for Venera with a strong specificity of place and culture. Gossiping village women, girls like Dorina earning a certain shameful ‘reputation’, English classes that remind of a civil war. The traditional family roles that restrict women in their freedoms and desires are such that when a younger woman like Venera challenges them they see an opportunity to let their hair down, only to fall back into their roles when the man of the house comes home. It is details like these, plus excellent performances from the main cast, that elevate Looking for Venera above the average entry in the genre and mask the usual trappings that it inevitably falls into at certain points.