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TIFF 2021 Review: The Hill Where Lionesses Roar – “Each character is complex and layered”

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Image Courtesy of TIFF

“Youth has a lot to say, but it’s rarely heard,” said writer-director Luàna Bajrami prior to the debut of her first feature film, The Hill Where Lionesses Roar.  At just 20 years of age, Bajrami, who portrayed the supporting role of Sophie in Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, tells the story of three young women trying to break out of their small Kosovo town.

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Qe (Flaka Latifi) is determined to enroll in university.  She does not want to end up like her hairdresser mother despite her father wanting her to work at the family salon.  Meanwhile her friend Li (Era Balaj) has a mother who encourages her further education, but mostly so she can return and get a better job to help her family.  Then there is Jeta (Uratë Shabani) whose uncle terrorizes and abuses her.  Each young woman has a dream, craves independence, and wants to desperately escape the future that has already been planned for them; a future shaped from discrimination and the patriarchal ideals that thrive in their remote town.

When Lena (played by Bajrami) returns to her native Kosovo from France, where she studies, the girls are given a window into a different kind of life.  One where they are able to make their own choices.  One they see as exciting and promising.  With a new motivation behind them, they just need the means, and the trio soon form a gang, stealing to make the money they need.  The three young women turned-predators are stronger together, but their actions are bound to have consequences and their escape from oppression is far from certain.

The Hill Where Lionesses Roar is enhanced by its three principle leads, all of whom, surprisingly for their presence, have few film credits to their names.  Each character is complex and layered, their different motivations for independence driving their central performances.  This pride of lionesses, whether sunning themselves and their hopes on their hill, or enjoying the spoils of their hunt, are undoubtedly fierce.   This is captured via cinematography from Hugo Paturel who provides some memorable shots, yet always keeps the focus on these women and their story, at whatever stage of evolution it takes.

The film does take a good 45 minutes to really get going, and once it does it is reminiscent of The Bling Ring, albeit those girls had different impulses driving their actions.  This part of the story though is short and under-utilized considering the journey we took to get there.  The pacing is therefore a little haphazard, truncating its finale.  But Bajrami isn’t aiming for a tidy happy ending here, and she is not shying away from the hopelessness her characters face.

For a first-time director, Bajrami shows an impressive eye, and her voice, which truly does have a lot to say, is now hopefully set for a future where it will be heard.  Loud and clear.

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