How an abandoned cinema in Kosovo became a symbol of heritage protection

The inspiring case of the award winning Lumbardhi Cinema - by Anđela Jovanović

Director Ares Shporta shows the European Heritage Award the Cinema received. Image: Courtesy of Kushtrim Haxha

The European Heritage Awards/Europa Nostra Awards are awarded annually to the best practices and projects in the field of cultural heritage in Europe. This year the prize has been awarded, among the others, to the project “Lumbardhi Public Again” for saving, revitalising and reclaiming the Lumbardhi Cinema/Kino Lumbardhi as a cultural heritage site, open for all.

On the occasion of the local award ceremony in Prizren (Kosovo), European Heritage Youth Ambassador Anđela Jovanović spoke to Ares Shporta, the Executive Director and Co-founder of the Lumbardhi Foundation. The foundation was established in 2015 by representatives of civil society and cultural organisations from Prizren, who gathered to save the historic Lumbardhi Cinema from demolition and later on privatisation. 

An important factor in the Cinema’s story, has been that postsocialist countries in the Western Balkans are still facing the issue of privatisation that is not always supported by the local community. This issue has a particular impact in the cultural heritage field, when it comes to many heritage buildings being sold to private investors and afterwards demolished. The most recent example is the National theatre in Tirana (Albania) which was on the 7 most endangered list of Europa Nostra in 2020 and was demolished the same year, despite the protests of theatre professionals and citizens.

Another peculiar example is the cinema Novi Bioskop Zvezda, one of the oldest cinemas in Belgrade, that was sold and later on occupied by young cineasts who have been squatting the venue since 2014 and keeping up with cinema screenings illegally.

The story of Kino Lumbardhi is the shining example of succeeding to stop the “dodgy” privatisation, preserving the venue and keeping up with cultural activities. What was the key to your success?

“I don’t think there is only one key. There was our readiness to take a long-term approach and not give up despite the difficult circumstances. In our case, the government changed five times and we couldn’t complete the property transfer process. So maybe the key is persistence. We had a strong belief that fulfilling the goals of the Initiative for the protection of the Lumbardhi Cinema and engaging institutions, organisations, and individuals in that process, could not only be a great planning experience for Lumbardhi, but also a solid base for other similar contexts and larger policy changes. Because while we were trying to rethink and revive the Cinema, we were also producing a new way of running an institution.

“By advocating for this Cinema we were coming together with other actors who advocate for systemic changes in culture and heritage in Kosovo. Finally, our dedication in the long run and understanding that we not only need to revive the venue but also to have a long-term vision, to follow full-fledged processes, instead of taking shortcuts, was crucial for our success.”

What is the legal status of the Lumbardhi Cinema today? Did you make it public officially or is there still a danger of privatisation in the future? 

“The legal process of returning the Lumbardhi cinema to public hands is not yet fully completed. Since 2015, there were many legal conditions obstructing the final transfer to public property. What is important is that the local government is willing to take ownership, and the central government is supporting it. The EU is funding the restoration planned for this year, so the legal process should be concluded as well. Anyways, the privatisation is no longer an issue, since we have support from the government, but also of the community gathered around Lumbardhi in the last 7 years.”

The Cinema Lumbardhi is still up and running, against all odds. Image: Courtesy of Kushtrim Haxha

In the process of safeguarding the Cinema, you managed to engage many actors – individuals but also institutions and organisations. How do you reach out to the community?

“There are many different ways to engage with the Lumbardhi Cinema and therefore many different communities involved. There is one gathered in the Lumbardhi Foundation, which is the community of professionals, enthusiasts and those who can offer material support. 

“Another one is the community of key stakeholders, who participated in our research, focus groups, interviews, and discussions, preceding the creation of the management plan and development of the design for the revitalisation of the Cinema. Depending on the various projects we did in research and archiving, there was a community of people contributing with photographs, documents, and books.

“And of course there is a community of users, people coming for events, spending time in the café, neighbours, other cultural organisations and institutions using the venue. We often have a chance for a direct conversation with them and this feedback is important for our work and our planning. There are different layers of engagement and the participation of these different stakeholders has a great impact on the visioning and the main decisions about the future of this institution. We have been trying to make a democratic and accessible cultural institution, as we would like our public institutions to be. This is why the project was called ‘Lumbardhi public again’, we wanted to improve the space and make it usable for others, make it public, contrary to the idea of privatisation.” 

How is the younger audience engaged in the Lumbardhi Cinema? Are they aware of it as a heritage?

“Young people are an important part of our audience, although we are proud to be an intergenerational institution. Our audience is made up of early teens to people in their seventies, people who were born in the time when the Cinema was established. Young people come for a coffee during their school breaks, they come to concerts and cinema workshops. We even offer space for youth clubs. For sure many of them are not aware of the history of the Lumbardhi Cinema and there is definitely more room for communicating to them its heritage aspect.”

We have good reasons to preserve this cinema, and up to now, we didn’t have any issues

“At first we focused on the infrastructure and physical side of the heritage. Only in the last few years have we had the capacity to conduct in-depth research and completely understand the context from various angles. This year we are marking the 70th anniversary and we published a book about Lumbardhi’s history. We are very careful about the narrative and interpretation of this place. We are planning the restoration for this autumn, and once the cinema is reopened in its full capacity we will have the official narrative presented in the space.”

The Lumbardhi Cinema was established in the times of Yugoslavia, and Yugoslav heritage is often unwelcome in countries that were its part. Not only some of this heritage is being neglected, but sometimes it is intentionally destroyed (most recent is the vandalisation of “Partisan Cemetery” in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2022). By preserving the cinema not only as a building but also by screening old Yugoslav films you cherish this controversial part of history and its unwanted heritage. Do you find it challenging? 

“The cinema was built in Yugoslavia and it was operative even during the 90s. It was closed in 2000, after the war, and relaunched by a new generation. Yugoslav heritage is a very complex heritage, and it differs depending on a particular context. In the case of this cinema, we have a history of the building, and how it was established on the expropriated territory and made public. Another important part of history was the role of the cinema in the communist ideology. After the war, Yugoslavia meant different things for people, depending on their experiences. Many monuments and buildings were destroyed in order to erase heritage, just as Yugoslavia erased previous heritage, these are recurring processes.

“We have good reasons to preserve this cinema, and up to now, we didn’t have any issues. Earlier there were voices in favour of the demolition but rather because the building is in the middle of the road or the facade is not painted, than it being a Yugoslav heritage. That is only one layer of the legacy, and now there are new meanings and connotations, and the Cinema became a symbol of getting together and stopping the privatisation.”

What about the period when the cinema operated as an adult movie cinema?

“Since the late 70s, some erotic films were shown in later time slots. In the 90s, in part because of the UN embargo that limited films to be shown, in part because it was in the interest of a male-dominated audience, and therefore profit-making, the cinema was screening only pornographic films. Since this was the period before the cinema shut down, and the last thing people remembered, it was not the thing we wanted to brag about when trying to preserve and reopen the cinema.

“On the other hand, we never hid it. This information is on our website, and most of the posters we have are of this genre. The posters also represent the history of these films, and what was pornographic cinema in the 80s. We didn’t go deeply into studying this phenomenon, but there is some research about the relationship between war and pornography. The fact that it was also a porn cinema, didn’t help us in engaging the community to protect the cinema, but that is a heritage as well. So we opted for incorporating it into a broader narrative of the Cinema’s history, without emphasising or fetishising it.”

The audience listened carefully during the award ceremony. Image: Courtesy of Kushtrim Haxha

Throughout its history, the city of Prizren has been home to many different cultures. It can be seen in its diverse tangible heritage: the fortress, the bridge, the mosques, and the churches. It can even be traced even in the name of the Cinema and its different versions. What is the story of Kino Lombardi’s names?

“It wasn’t named from its start in 1952, but already in the 50s, people referred to it as ‘Kino Bistrica’, after the river Bistrica (in Serbo-Croatian) or Lumbardhi (in Albanian), that flows right in front of the venue. Both names translate as ‘clear river’. In the Yugoslav times, Serbo-Croatian was the primary of the three local languages (Albanian, Serbo-Croatian and Turkish), hence the first version was more common.

“After the war, the management of the cinema printed the name of the cinema in an Albanian version ‘Kino Lumbardhi’, since Albanian became the primary language of the three official languages in Prizren. That name was used since the Dokufest started, and the initiatives to save the cinema were using the name ‘Kino Lumbardhi’, although some of us kept referring to it as ‘Kino Bistrica’, especially older generations. ‘Kino Bahçe’ on the other hand is the name for the open-air cinema. ‘Bahce’ is a Turkish word for ‘garden’, but since the word is used in both Albanian and Serbian language we choose it as the most appropriate.”

You are the co-founder and the executive director of the Lumbardhi Foundation since it was established. You were only 23 back then. Can you share some advice for young professionals in cultural heritage?

“Get some experience before becoming the director! (laughs) Me and my colleagues, we were young and inexperienced, so there were a lot of mistakes, but also a lot of learning by doing. 

A cultural institution can be many things, you just need to find particularity in terms of what it represents at the present and what kind of future it projects

“There is no need to theorise too much, get to work, try, learn, and don’t be afraid and insecure about your program. Also, share the responsibility and listen to others’ opinions. I think there is still space for new, fresh and meaningful initiatives. Just make sure you have a real sense of your mission. Don’t copy other practices, there is not one formula.

“A cultural institution can be many things, you just need to find particularity in terms of what it represents at the present and what kind of future it projects. Especially when dealing with heritage, you are dealing with three layers of audiences, those from the past, present and future. You need to have this in mind when positioning your organisation.”

Can you share advice for other initiatives engaged in saving endangered heritage?

“It is very contextual, but it helps to learn about other cases in recent times in a similar context. It is very important to know who is in your team and why, but also who could be on your side and how you can reach out to them. In such an initiative, you can have different roles for different voices to be heard, so make space for others to join and to feel part of it. Some of them will stick around for some period, and others will be willing to engage long-term and take responsibility. It is necessary for those who are leading the initiatives to be as clear as they can be and true to their words.

“Stopping the demolition or privatisation is one thing, but providing alternatives and readiness to take charge of the space, to analyse the context, your stakeholders, other institutions, that is crucial. Because, most probably, nobody cares more and is dedicated to taking care of this place than your initiative. Institutions have some other motivations, there may be a private interest, so the site is something on its way, it’s not a target in itself. You on the other hand are focusing on preserving the site, you have different priorities and you should try to get the right actors to do their job.”

About the author

Anđela Jovanović is an Italian language professor with MA degrees in Cultures in Dialogue, EMJMD European Literary Cultures, and UNESCO Chair for Cultural policy and Management. Her academic journey and interest in different cultures took her to Italy, Senegal, and France, where she learned that heritage is not only where we come from, but also what gives us a sense of belonging. She is passionate about building stronger connections between youth and cultural heritage, with particular interest in endangered, neglected, unwanted and misused heritage. Currently she is an intern at Europa Nostra Serbia.