Sworn Virgin is the story of a woman who sacrifices her femininity for her freedom, and years later must renounce her honor to become a woman again. Hana Doda, a young woman living within the confines of a Northern Albanian village, longs to escape the shackles of womanhood, and live her life as a man. To do so she must evoke an old law of the Kanun and take an oath to eternally remain a virgin. Years later, as Mark, she leaves home for the first time and travels to Italy to stay with her sister, crossing over into a world unlike anything she has known before. There, she discovers herself again, leading her to contemplate the possibility of undoing the vow she made so long ago.
The Director’s debut feature is an evocative and introspective film that brings light to the centuries-long Albanian tradition of the sworn virgin, or burrnesha. The practice allowed women to break out of their prescribed roles and avoid a life of domesticity by electing to take on another set of rigid gender roles.
At the Tribeca Film Festival 2015 we caught up with the film director Laura Bispuri and actress Alba Rohrwacher to speak about the sworn virgin traditions in Albania, the challenges of portraying this story and adapting it to film, and more. ‘Sworn Virgin‘ will screen at the Bow Tie Cinemas on Tuesday, April 21st.
To find more information on “Sworn Virgin” at the TFF 2015 – Here
Sworn Virgin is based on the book “Elvira Dones”. What made you decide to tell this particular story?
To Laura Bispuri: I read the novel three-and-a-half years ago and fell in love with the character. In fact I found a lot of similarities with myself. Also the fact that it being a very original story. It was a beautiful thing too because the story takes place up in the mountains in Albania, something so remote. The story came out with such a universal message, with so many questions about women’s conditions. This is what drew me too to make the film. It opened up so many ideas. All the film in the end is very personal.
Did you have any familiarity with the Sworn Virgin as a lifestyle?
Laura: I didn’t know anything about Albania, before reading this book. I spent a great deal of time studying and researching for this film, using so many materials such as videos, photos, music, documenting, anthropological studies on the sworn virgin tradition. After traveling to the mountains, getting to know the Albanians, staying in these houses, emerging myself in this world, is when I became familiar with this costume. I actually met several sworn virgins.
To Alba Rohrwacher: How did you come across the project to play such a complex character of Hana and Mark?
I had no idea of the existence of Sworn Virgins, or Albania. When Laura approached me for the screenplay and the book, I was immediately taken by the story and felt moved by it. For me it’s a very ambitious project and on top of it Laura’s first feature. What really made me want to do this project was the fact that Laura was going to be the director.
You had met before this project then, it wasn’t at a casting per sei.
Alba: I had seen Laura’s short film before this project, that I really liked. When we started speaking about the movie I knew we were at the same point. We share the same vision how the story should be told.
The film has a very unique chronology. How did you decide for this particular structure?
Laura: It was one of the biggest challenges of the film. Since the character is so complex, I spent a lot of time with the screenplay and on the editing. I never wanted to loose the emotion side of the character, so it was a very difficult thing to achieve. Since I also wanted to follow the narrative. I couldn’t find similar films with this complexity, basically it was something I developed myself. The story has 3 sections so to speak in terms of chronology and in each of these segments the time changes, so a linear structure would have been inadequate. I wanted to describe an inner voyage, and all of the scenes from the past are more than mere flashbacks: they are narrative episodes that re-transmit emotions to the present.
Was there a particular reason why you chose the synchronized swimming in the film?
Laura: Yes. The book doesn’t have this aspect. I created this to put the character in a situation where Mark would have to expose his body every day. The synchronized swimming was a representation of beauty and a situation where all the girls wore make-up and had to smile. It was a union of this feminine way of being. Also underneath the water you wouldn’t see the effort that was put into the swimming, you know it’s there but you don’t see it. This shows the many lives that women lead are very difficult, but a lot of people don’t see this. The balance of being underwater, having to smile but in the end the difficulty that the lives of these woman have. I didn’t want to show it in an obvious way.
Sworn Virgin premiered at the Berlinale this year. What were the reactions of the audience, especially coming from Albania?
There were a lot of Albanians in the audience and the reaction was incredibly positive. They liked it because it portrayed a different subject that people aren’t use to and they considered the art to be freedom.
— Interview conducted and transcribed (with Italian-English Translator) by Lia Fietz
About The Filmmaker
Laura Bispuri studied at La Sapienza University in Rome. Her shorts received awards at several festivals, and with Passing Time she won the David di Donatello Award (Italian Oscars). Her first feature film Sworn Virgin has been world premiered in competition at Berlinale in 2015.