The final words Una exchanges with Remo are: “Maybe I am young, but I feel like I have lived a long life”. Soon after, he receives a letter from her, carrying news of her sudden departure for Europe. He once journeyed through the continent himself, under different circumstances; now it is her turn to take her leave as well. What reason exactly leads Una to depart, he will never know. They were maybe born to miss each other.
Years earlier, a few days before the full detonation of the Balkan war, a young 15 year-old Remo was saved by miracle from a night of bloodshed. Lost in the woods, he was rescued by a band of strangers and sent away on a humanitarian flight to the far-off safety of Switzerland. A surrogate homeland, it provided shelter for most of his adult life. But like a reluctant mother lending help strictly at times of dire necessity, and letting go as soon as danger has passed on, the Swiss government is now asking him to return to his home country. The war is over, after all, there is no reason why he should remain in Switzerland, they try to explain.
The Land Within is the story of a return and of a departure, capturing the tale of love that occurs in the space between the two. In Remo’s old family house, his cousin and secret childhood lover awaits – Una. We learn that Remo is an orphan, that he was adopted into Una’s family when he was a baby, found sleeping near the woods. Their interactions are, at first, marked by Una’s anger: she cannot fathom why he deserted her. She is restless but immensely courageous like a woman who has lost everything. Her father needs to be constantly looked after. He lives artifically through a ventilator which frequently fails when electricity black-outs occur, dangerously threatening the life of the old man who survives thanks to a generator lying in the back garden.
Remo is haunted by feelings of guilt for not having participated in the fight, alongside his brothers and sisters. He reconnects with a childhood friend who tells him ‘people now are looking to be regarded as either victims or heroes. You are neither. In other words, you are fucked.’ However, the villagers do not know the depth of Remo’s anguish, the intricacies of his life-story; elements of his childhood before exile are unknown even to himself. But the return to the homeland will reopen wounds he was not aware he carried in the first place. Feeling ill-at-ease in this new landscape of half-repressed memories, he can only be witness to a desecrated nation spoilt by the decaying secrets hidden within the depths of its womb – the earth. Indeed, a mass grave has been found near the village. It contains what could be the remains of family members and nameless victims of a ten-year war. The emerging cadavers cause the resurfacing of memories, ghosts and feelings of silenced guilt. Soon, the network of lies that concealed the violence of the past starts breaking down. A name has appeared on a list, yet is not present in another. In this discrepancy lies the key to Remo’s story. The name, Fatime, becomes his obsession, as he comes to suspect that Una is not telling him the whole truth. The carcasses of the murdered and the violated need to be identified, personal objects are to be collected by family members – these tasks require immense, soul-wrenching efforts from the part of the locals, pressurised by international institutions that seek to see the excavation meet its goal: a nation’s healing, a collective working through the past, the final stage of mourning being the creation of historical memory. Some villagers fail to understand this, preferring that the past remain hidden inside the belly of the land.
The Land Within unveils its mysteries slowly, but once its soul-stirring narrative blossoms, it will leave deep impressions on viewers who may find themselves thinking about the film for days. Cinematographer Yann Maritaud’s images are hauntingly beautiful, often-times darkly-lit and full of contrast, accompanied by an epic orchestral score by Nicolas Rabaeus. But the highlight of this splendid film, in my view, is the brave performance from French/Kosovar actress Luàna Bajrami in the role of Una, who fills her performance with a touching combination of strength and melancholia. Florist Bajgora is also excellent as Remo, bringing a softness to a character brimming out with a feeling of being out-of-place, vulnerable as a result of having lived for years in Western Europe. The film’s final twenty minutes are relentlessly moving, creating a fully circular narrative filled with beauty, longing and maybe, even, a glimmer of hope.
The Land Within premiered as part of the First Feature Competition of the Tallinn Black Nights Festival, when this piece was originally written. Its UK premiere takes place at the 31st Raindance Film festival, which takes place between October 25th and November 4th, 2023