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Thessaloniki Documentary Festival’s ‘House With A Voice’ Explores Burrneshas – Balkan Women Who Take On Men’s Roles And Appearance

In parts of the Balkans, a remarkable tradition exists: women known as Burrneshas take on societal roles typically confined to men. They assume the physical appearance of men, adopt men’s names or nicknames, and operate with a freedom and power denied women in patriarchal cultures.

The documentary House with a Voice examines this exceptional cultural practice that has existed for centuries in parts of Albania, Kosovo, and Montenegro. The film directed by Kristine Nrecaj and Birthe Templin holds its world premiere at the Thessaloniki International Documentary Festival in Greece on Friday – fittingly, International Women’s Day, a day highlighting issues of gender equality and patriarchy.

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'House with a Voice'
‘House with a Voice’

A synopsis of the film explains, “This unique societal phenomenon sees these women changing their gender socially by cutting their hair, donning male attire, adopting masculine names, and integrating themselves into male-dominated spaces.

“The unconventional practice of taking on male roles serves various purposes, from ensuring the survival of the male lineage in families with no male heirs to granting married women seeking divorce a means of liberation.”

Six Burrneshas come into focus in the documentary, “as they challenge the status quo and fight for their right to choose their destinies in a world that seeks to confine them.”

Nrecaj, a German-born filmmaker, traces her roots to the Balkans. “My great aunt was a Burrnesha,” she writes in a director’s statement. “She lived in a remote village in the northern Albanian Alps. A house without a man has no voice in the village community. As a Burrnesha, my great aunt had something that other women didn’t have. She had a voice. She was free in her decisions and she could move freely in public. She combined both the masculine and the feminine.”

'House with a Voice'
‘House with a Voice’

She adds, “For me, making House with a Voice is dealing with my upbringing, my DNA and with the fact that I want to bring awareness into the world that female and male principles are still not of equal value.”

Berlin-based Templin grew up in Germany and Argentina. “As a little girl I stood in the middle of a group of children and couldn’t understand why girls weren’t allowed to take part in a test of courage,” she writes in a director’s statement of her own. “So, I went to the hairdresser with my mum, had my hair cut, came back, and was allowed to participate. Already as a child I had, like many children, the natural impulse to want to decide freely what I may or may not do. What I say or not. Who I am or who I am not. I have always found the social distribution of roles between men and women questionable.”

Templin first learned about the Burrneshas through a photographic exhibition.

“The Burrneshas,” she writes, “have chosen the path of self-determined life with all its consequences. None of them regretted their decision. Isn’t that what we should all do? To remain true to oneself and to live according to it. Regardless of gender and conventions, regardless of society-made restrictions and boxes. Perhaps therein lies the secret of meaning and happiness. The experience with the Burrneshas has expanded my mind. I hope that the spark will also spread to the audience.”

Stranger Film Sales, based in France, is handling international sales of House with a Voice. Among the other films represented by Stranger Film Sales are We Will Not Fade Away by Alisa Kovalenko and A Picture to Remember by Olga Cerhnyk.

In addition to Friday’s world premiere, House with a Voice will screen on Sunday, March 10. The documentary is a production of Filmkantine UG, directed by Kristine Nrecaj and Birthe Templin, and produced by Katrin Springer. Ruoyao Jane Yao is the production consultant. Alfred Nrecaj is the cinematographer; Evelyn Rack edited the film.

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