Kino ARMATA: The House That People Built

Text by Alush Gashi

As the barb wire and the immaculately constructed 3-meter blue fence was being removed in mid-2017 from the most central Prishtina location just off the Zahir Pajaziti Square, a compound of buildings that since June 1999 was the synonym of UN and EU administration in Kosovo began to somehow make (architectural and spatial) sense. For Prishtina inhabitants who moved to the city after the Kosovo war, these buildings have a shorter 20-year-long history referenced to the international input in building Kosovo’s statehood. But for others who have lived in Prishtina before the 1990s, the socialist-era set of concrete structures have a very different connotation.

The buildings in this compound were gradually constructed between the late 1960s until early 1980s, taking the shape they have today. This was a notorious headquarters of the Yugoslav Army (and later Serbian Army, after the breakup of Yugoslavia) and a lot of Kosovars don’t have particularly fond memories of visiting the premises after being summoned by the military. However, those who frequented one particular space in this concrete archipelago have a different feeling about it altogether.

The 300-seat cinema hall that today houses Kino ARMATA, the center for alternative culture and social dialogue, used to be called The House of Yugoslav People’s Army (or Dom Jugoslovenske Narodne Armije in Serbian; Shtëpia e Armatës Popullore të Jugosllavisë in Albanian) where the military was organizing cultural events for their staff, but also for general public. This was an organizational model that was applied throughout former Yugoslavia, almost all larger cities had such an institution. The House was used as a propaganda vehicle, screening films from a carefully curated program that included World War II flicks and Yugoslav films from the later era, glorifying communist party and its ideology. It also touched upon popular culture through Bruce Lee flicks or the films of Bud Spencer and Terence Hill, Italian duo that were a hit in the 1980s. The main hall was also used for social events such as concerts and ‘dancing nights’, where people could meet, socialize and pretend that the political and social situation in Prishtina and Kosovo is somehow normal. The 1990s were just around the corner and the tragic events were about to unfold.

As the political situation deteriorated, Kosovo Albanians began boycotting and resisting Serbian state apparatus and cultural institutions. In 1988, The House of Yugoslav People’s Army closed its doors for the general public and continued operations for internal events, as well as screenings for organized groups of mainly Serbian students and other interest groups. In the 1990s the compound and the cinema was heavily guarded and had lost all the charm from the preceding 20 years.

The Kosovo war ended in June 1999 and the military moved out immediately, leaving an entirely empty space without any equipment or archive materials. The socialist interior of the cinema hall and adjacent three-floor offices were left intact. The UN administration moved in within days from establishing their presence in Kosovo and had occupied it along with the EU Rule of Law Mission until mid-2017, when they moved their staff to Prishtina outskirts and handed the compound over to Kosovo government; during almost two post-war decades, the buildings and the cinema were again kept of public limits.

In 2015, after an initiative from Prishtina cultural enthusiasts and the willingness from the EU authorities to move ahead with the project, a concept paper and an action plan were drafted outlining the steps for returning the cinema to the public and establishing a center that would enrich a relatively poor Prishtina’s cultural offering. There was a preliminary consensus that the building might be transferred for ownership or use to Prishtina municipality, who would in turn operate the cinema for the benefit of its citizens. This paper attempted to describe and propose the resolution of legal, technical as well as programming challenges of this transfer process after all necessary legal matters are settled between international stakeholders (UN, EU) and the municipality of Prishtina.

Some of the opportunities included the possibility for developing a viable film culture, revitalization of public space including the surroundings of the building, quality and variety of film/cultural offer including special programming for children and youth, creation of a hub for developing a larger network of film experts, enthusiasts, cinema-goers, 
festivals, etc., a new meeting point for local and even regional artists of all trades, as well as an important message from the EU about ownership of the public space by the citizens – and 
them getting back something that was off-limits for the last 20 years, behind barb-wire fences. There were various threats of course, including political disagreements in the Prishtina Municipal Assembly that could create potential difficulties and delays for the transfer, passive attitude towards the project, lack of budget for running cost and political intrusion. At the media event organized for the launch of the study, Prishtina Mayor pledged full support for the establishment of a new cultural institution after the EU authorities leave the premises.

After thirty years almost to the day, Prishtina got its public cinema back on 25 April 2018. Kino ARMATA is an independently run cultural institution with its main premises being owned by the state (under the Ministry of Public Administration), given to the Prishtina Municipality for use, managed by the independent foundation that is in charge of the program and operations. This is a unique scenario in Kosovo where the state authorities, Municipality and local community have joined forces to create an independent cultural body. It is a functioning model where state and local resources assist the cultural community in operational and technical aspects, with the sole aim of providing independent programming. From the very beginning, Kino ARMATA has been providing regular public program including film retrospectives of important directors, actors, and special interest topics, concerts promoting local and international alternative and experimental artists, talks and debates on various public interest topics, etc.

As a place of cultural exchange and social dialogue, in three years of its existence Kino ARMATA has established itself as the main hub for alternative culture in Prishtina and Kosovo. It has created a strong bond with the local community, it has developed a series of projects with other organizations and professionals operating in Kosovo (not only from the cultural sector), and has stimulated and helped artists and cultural enthusiasts (especially the younger generation) quench their thirst for new artistic expression. Kino ARMATA’s main objective is to bridge closer the cultural gap between Kosovo and the international scene by showcasing art influencers and their work, engaging our audiences in a meaningful dialogue.

The name ARMATA (army in Albanian) speaks volumes about the way this public space communicates to its past and present, paving the way for positioning in Prishtina, Kosovo and Balkans cultural spectrum in the future. For its founders, this name represents an important historic conversation with an era that has left an irreversible mark on our collective consciousness. It is also an attempt to preserve the associative heritage, imposed or not, and encourage the general public to study the reasons and the course behind certain societal developments. Sometimes, as in this case, heritage can evolve through interpretation: Kino ARMATA’s interior has a socialist feel, cinema chairs are UN blue, while the public program that is engaging the community is a new component to this emerging legacy.

In times when Prishtina and Kosovo public spaces are under unscrupulous attack from the private interest groups, the cohesion between state, municipality and the local community behind Kino ARMATA project is a glimmer of hope for the change in our attitudes and perceptions about public property. In such hostile climate good or bad decisions are made impulsively, without much prior study into the potentials for development. All adjacent buildings to Kino ARMATA currently house ministries of the Kosovo government; there were indications that had the community not intervened as quickly as it did in 2018, the cinema hall would have been turned into offices soon after the EU-State handover. This time an important building with a major potential has been saved from state intervention through direct action and development of a plausible public platform, but unfortunately such is not the case for many other public buildings and spaces that have switched use and ownership according to private preferences. In Kosovo’s case, ‘power to the people’ is not as much a protest against the ruling class domination of society as it is a cry for creating a unified front of community activists in an attempt to give voice and relevance to ‘people power’. The example of Kino ARMATA and the cause that put the community behind it can serve as a viable argument for ‘usurping back’ the spaces that once belonged to the public.