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In the opening scene of Jamie Donoughue’s Shok, an abandoned bicycle forces two Albanian men to stop their car in the middle of a desolate road.

To his friend, the decrepit bicycle is merely a nuisance. But for Petrit, it holds a deeper meaning that recalls his childhood, a mix of joy and tragedy.

The 21-minute historical drama, which the Leeds-based writer/director shot last year in Mitrovica, Kosovo, is set in 1998, a year before one of the most harrowing wars in the now independent state’s history.

Audiences are transported back in time to Petrit’s past, as portrayed by child actor revelations, Lum Veseli (as young Petrit) and Andi Bajgora (as Oki, Petrit’s best friend). The two friends, riding on Oki’s new bicycle, are introduced to us as vibrant young boys with adventurous spirits.

A mini businessman, Petrit secretly makes deals with Serbian soldiers. It’s a decision that Oki dissaproves of, as tensions between Kosovar Albanians and Serbs are precariously high. And during one night of careless dealing, Petrit accidentally loses Oki’s bicycle to a Serbian soldier, a foolish mistake that has Oki questioning his trust in his friend.

Shok, which took home the top prizes when it premiered at Aspen Shortsfest in April, is one ten finalists vying for the final five spots at the Academy Awards’ Best Live Action Short Film category next year. Choosing to ignore the politics of war, Donoughue instead delivers a powerful story about the strength of friendship and the innocence of childhood.

I interviewed Donoughue about his unexpected introduction to Kosovo, how the film has educated Western audiences, a child’s perspective of war, and much more.

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ScreenPicks: The story of how you were first introduced to Kosovo is quite interesting. I understand that you were stranded there for five weeks because a volcano erupted. Can you talk about that?

Donoughue: “Yeah, yeah. Sure. It’s mad how certain things happen and how fate comes about. About five years ago I visited Kosovo for three days, and I knew very little about the country. And on the second day that I was there the Icelandic Volcano erupted, and I couldn’t get a flight out of the country for nearly five weeks. So, in that time, I began to learn about what happened in the country, but most importantly, I just met some absolutely amazing people there who took me into their homes and treated me like family and looked after me — and they did the honour of telling me their stories about what happened to them in the war.

“And I just — I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe what happened over here, and this was fifteen years ago in Europe … I just felt the duty to tell these stories. So that’s basically where the film came from. However, I was really conscious that I didn’t want to be an international just coming over and telling these stories. So I needed to really understand the people, the culture, and the history of the area. So I spent the next four years visiting and researching as much I could and learning the language and everything until I thought I was ready to tell these stories and do the people of Kosovo justice.”

ScreenPicks: And as you just talked about, you immersed yourself into their culture. Did you face any pressures knowing that you were a foreigner depicting this very sensitive time in their country’s history?

Donoughue: “No, not at all. The people over here have been unbelievably supportive. And I think one of the things that really got me was it wasn’t that there was any anger about anything that happened. People just wanted these stories to be heard because nobody knew about them. So across the board everyone was extremely open in telling me what happened. Yeah, very, very supportive throughout the whole project, and it’s especially now after, obviously, the Oscars shortlist. We’ve got the entire country behind us; they’re very, very excited.”

ScreenPicks: The film’s title — if I’m not mistaken — it means “friend” in Albanian?

Donoughue: “Yeah, that’s correct.”

ScreenPicks: It’s [the film] arguably more about friendship than it is about war, and friendship is, of course, something that anyone can relate to. What was it about this particular theme that resonated with you the most?

Donoughue: “You’ve absolutely nailed it — what you’ve put across there … There’s a lot of war films out there. What I wanted to do was, I needed to find a way that everybody across the world could relate to this film. And showing it through the eyes of children, every member of the audience was at one point 12 years old and had a best friend. So it’s a way they can relate and maybe try to understand how similar people’s lives across the world can be yet how different they can be as well. And this isn’t really a war film. This is a story about friendship and, if anything, about victims of war from all sides.”

ScreenPicks: Eshref Durmishi, who plays Dragan in Shok, is also one of the producers. As someone who grew up in Kosovo, how did he help you in terms of depicting Kosovo in 1998?

Donoughue: “Eshref was one of the key members of this; we’re a similar age. He took me around the whole of Kosovo and explained his life to me and took me to the places that everything had happened. He actually — he survived the war and became an actor. And what a lot of people don’t realize is the scene at the bus stop — Eshref was that boy in real life. And he had that happen to him by the soldiers. And when I wrote the script, I asked him whether he would consider playing this soldier that in real life had done that to him, which I think was a bit of a shock for him at first.

“In a way, he said it was something he needed to do, to bring him closure, but also nobody else in the world would understand what it was like to be that soldier and that boy at that time. So I think that was a key part of it, and, more or less, everybody in the cast and crew had been directly affected by the war and had these things happen to them. And I think that really came through the film by involving people that were directly involved in what happened in the ’90s.”

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ScreenPicks: As you mentioned, the character of Petrit was partly inspired by Eshref’s own childhood. And in that scene, in particular, and also the final scenes, which I won’t spoil, how did you prepare the two child actors to recreate those scenes that were — for most of your cast members — part of their past?

Donoughue: “Working with the boys, this was, especially for Lum [Veseli], who plays little Petrit, as well. This was his first-ever part acting. We need to — you’re right — we needed to get them to understand what it was like. We spent a lot of time before with them, not necessarily rehearsing scenes, but taking them to the places that these things had happened, having people speak to them from the generation above who had experienced this and trying to get their mind frame right so they understood what it was like. Even though they weren’t born back then, growing up in Kosovo is such a huge part of everybody’s life here that they naturally understand what happened to their parents and their grandparents.”

ScreenPicks: In doing my research for the film, I also saw that Eshref [Durmishi] did some teaching in the U.S. about Kosovo. How has this film helped teach other people about the history?

Donoughue: “That’s been one of the main things for us. Obviously, we went abroad to festivals and we wanted to promote a film, but this project is more than just a film. The reason we’ve done it is to try and educate people about Kosovo, the country, and the Balkan area in general. And when we went over to Aspen, we were invited to do a talk, a presentation, in a local school there. These students reacted to it so amazingly; we were invited back another five times to tour around the schools.

“And it’s the same on the back of every festival as well that people are coming up and asking, wanting to know more about Kosovo. When I made this film, I said to myself, ‘If just one person, after watching this film, does more research, and wants to find out more about Kosovo, then it’s been a success for me.’ But it’s gone hugely way beyond that as well, so it’s been fantastic in achieving that objective.”

ScreenPicks: As you mentioned earlier, audiences are kind of transported and vicariously experience this through a little boy. What advantages do you think having a child’s experience of major conflict has over an adult protagonist?

Donoughue: “I think it’s the innocence of childhood as well; I think that’s the key thing. There’s no preformed opinions or anything with them, and, as I’ve said before, everybody could relate to being a child. It’s because they don’t fully understand the world at that point. I think it brings audiences in, in a very neutral way, to understand what is essentially a very complicated conflict. But it easily lays out that generally with all wars the victims are the innocent.”

ScreenPicks: So I watched a behind the scenes video of Shok, and it showed the cast still had their humour in spite of the film’s heavy subject matter. How did you keep that atmosphere on set very lighthearted?

Donoughue: “It’s so important to do that — whatever the subject matter is. I think filming in general is such a hard thing to do. You’ve got to have fun doing it and especially with such a heavy subject matter. But I think it wasn’t just the cast and crew. It was the people, the local people … It was such an incredible thing for them. They’ve never had a film crew there. We literally had hundreds of people watching us, wanting to help in any way they could. So keeping them around an atmosphere was a big factor, but I think it just naturally happened because, you know, the Kosovo people, they love to laugh as well — as we all do when we’re filming. So yeah, it was a natural thing that happened.”

ScreenPicks: And I was wondering what can we expect from you next. Do you plan on continuing to make short films, or do you eventually wanna do a feature-length film now?

Donoughue: “Well, there’s a few different things going on now. I mean, we’re in talks about doing a Kosovo feature film. That’s something I’d really like to do. And, obviously, I do want to go into features. I’m also working on an American drama series as well at the moment. I have a very, very eclectic mix of tastes, so there’s lots of things going on. I can’t really go full into detail at the moment. But definitely with regard to Kosovo, there’s so many stories to tell, and I would love to do a feature version of this.”

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All 10 Best Live Action Short Film contenders are listed below.

“Ave Maria,” Basil Khalil, director, and Eric Dupont, producer (Incognito Films)
“Bad Hunter,” Sahim Omar Kalifa, director, and Dries Phlypo, producer (A Private View)
“Bis Gleich (Till Then),” Philippe Brenninkmeyer, producer, and Tara Lynn Orr, writer (avenueROAD Films)
“Contrapelo (Against the Grain),” Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer, director, and Pin-Chun Liu, producer (Ochenta y Cinco Films)
“Day One,” Henry Hughes, director (American Film Institute)
“Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gut),” Patrick Vollrath, director (Filmakademie Wien)
“The Free Man (Zi You Ren),” Quah Boon-Lip, director (Taipei National University of the Arts)
“Shok,” Jamie Donoughue, director (Eagle Eye Films)
“Stutterer,” Benjamin Cleary, director (Bare Golly Films)
“Winter Light,” Julian Higgins, director, and Josh Pence, producer (Innerlight Films and Prelude Pictures)

The nominees for the 88th Academy Awards will be announced on Thursday, January 14, 2016.

(All photos are courtesy of TC • DM & Associates.)