Featured image: Era Balaj, Urate Shabani and Flaka Latifi in The Hills Where Lionnesses Roar. (Courtesy of TIFF.)
Directed by Luàna Bajrami. Written by Luàna Bajrami. Starring Flaka Latifi, Urate Shabani, Era Balaj. Runtime 1h 23 min. The Hill Where Lionesses Roar had its Canadian Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 10.
The Hill Where Lionesses Roar is set In a small village in Kosovo, in the Balkans, where a trio of young women who call themselves the lionesses hang out everyday on a hill. They’re fierce on that hill, independent and together; but at the end of the day, they go home to their real lives where they feel smaller.
They’re stuck in a limbo after graduating high school, somewhere between pressure from their parents to get real careers, and them not being accepted into a local university to further their education because they’re in a small village.
These lionesses are the headstrong and protective Qe (Flaka Latifi), destined to inherit a hair salon from her mother; Jeta (Urate Shabani), the most tortured of them because of her home life, where she doesn’t feel safe at home and hanging out with these friends is her home; as well as Li (Era Balaj), perhaps the least distinct of this trio, as she dates a guy called Zem (Andi Bajgora). She’s the one who most represents their mutual need to leave this town.
That need to leave their small town is highlighted when someone their age, Lena (played by the film’s writer and director Luàna Bajrami), comes to visit her aunt in Kosovo from the big city. She’s an expat living in Paris, and moments where the lionesses ask her about living in a different city, offer the most insight into their characters.
A moment between Lena and Qe shows that Lena is jealous of their carefree attitudes, taking everything day by day; but Qe is jealous of Lena’s freedom and the opportunities of a big city. That’s the turning point of the film that makes them want to take matters into their own hands and leave Kosovo. We can feel they all want to leave, even if something tethers them to Kosovo. For Qe, her younger sister, Kindji, is the only thing she wouldn’t want to leave behind.
The thing that draws us into The Hill Where Lionesses Roar are these effective characters, as well as the gorgeous cinematography by Hugo Paturel. Luàna Bajrami’s direction is also smart; highlighting the carefree tone of the characters in her direction. As an actress herself, she’s best at getting strong performances out of her stars; but she also has smart framing for certain scenes, like how she shows an argument between Qe and her father through a window, as Qe’s younger sister cries at the foot of the window.
The Lionesses are a tight-knit trio, tentative to let anyone in. They’re likable to us even if they might not seem likable to other townsfolk; but you can sense that whoever they like or care for, they would completely fight to the death for them. Director Luàna Bajrami gets strong performances out of the trio, impressive especially considering that the experience of all three leads are a combined three short films and one mini series.
Their casting is great, as are their naturalistic performances. That’s important as a film about carefree women bettering their lives; as the structure of the film feels like certain scenes merely had an outline, where the more integral scenes felt scripted. There are stints in the film where it features montages of entertaining debauchery and rebellion. There’s also a sense that the camera just started filming special moments, helping accentuate a carefree attitude in this film.
Some of these scenes highlight the mood, but admittedly some of this feels like it’s struggling to even fill a compact 83-minute runtime. It feels like such a unique film, though, even if it does feel light on story. It has a bit of a headscratcher of an ending, but all in all it’s gorgeous to look at and has some great performances.
The Hills Where Lionesses Roar plays again tonight, Sept. 13, at 7 p.m. as a digital screening.