POV: What drew you to this story?
Klaartje Quirijns: I met a war correspondent, Stacy Sullivan, and we started having lunches all the time. She was telling me about the book she was working on, Be Not Afraid, For You Have Sons in America, about this Brooklyn roofer named Florin Krasniqi. The first time she took me to his office, I immediately knew this guy was a film.
He’s full of tricks and you can easily see it. He has a sense of humor, he’s a very engaging character, and the story was amazing. On the one hand he’s a great guy, he’s very sympathetic. He’s a big charmer. He’s a Brooklyn roofer and he’s a father of three kids. And on the surface, he lives a totally normal life. On the other hand, he actually has a double life, because he is a gun runner. And during the Kosovo war in the late 1990’s, he raised $30 million dollars and he bought thousands of weapons and brought them to Kosovo to fight a war there. And he bought them all here in the United States. He’s ruthless. So that was actually how I came to this story.
POV: How much did you know about the Kosovo conflict going into this film? Did the production serve as your education?
Quirijns: In the Netherlands I worked for a current affairs television program, and of course we produced stories about the Balkans. The war in Kosovo was part of our coverage. But I had never delved so deeply into a story about Kosovars as I did in “The Brooklyn Connection.” I have a couple of friends in New York who covered the war in Kosovo, so they, especially Stacy, taught me more about the conflict.
POV: What was hardest about making this film?
Quirijns: The hardest thing was probably convincing Florin to participate. In the beginning he said, “It’s a big no.” I think he felt that revealing his whole story wouldn’t really help him in the end. I spent three months bugging him and calling him all the time. So, the question everybody always asks me is, why did he do it? Why did he cooperate in the end?
I always say he did it because he wanted to put Kosovo on the map again. Everybody is talking about Iraq, writing about Iraq. And Kosovo’s plight is forgotten. Another argument he makes is that September 11th totally changed his attitude about gun laws. I mean the open laws helped him, but he thought that he did it for a good cause. But now he knows how easy it is to get all these weapons, these high-power rifles. And terrorists can get them as well. I think he is telling this story because he thinks the gun laws are ridiculous in this country.
I still think it’s really brave of him to have said yes to me, because in a way it has put him in a very difficult situation. Did it help his cause, the independence of Kosovo? I don’t know, that’s something we will have to wait and see. I hope it will.
How do you think the film reflects your perspective as someone not originally from the US?
Quirijns: I came to the US from the Netherlands six years ago. Of course it makes a difference that I’m Dutch, working on an American story. I think I’m still an outsider and I’m an observer. That’s always what you are when you’re a filmmaker. I observed how the Albanian community actually took advantage of Americans. I don’t know if an American would have seen that so clearly.
When I moved here and learned that you have to pay politicians to fight for your cause, it was a shock. Also learning that you can buy weapons on the open markets, and not only potentially shoot people here in this country, but also export the weapons legally to Kosovo to build a guerilla army there — that was shocking. It’s a very strange world where you have Bush fighting his war on terror, and on the other hand feeding the terrorists by letting them buy weapons on the open market. And this issue is not in the newspaper every day. To me that’s a very strange situation.
POV: Did being a foreigner ever get in the way of your production?
Quirijns: I was really mistrusted by the gun sellers at the gun show we visited. They really didn’t like me. Thank God, Stacy was there with a real American accent. Because of her, we got the footage.
POV: How did making the film change you?
Quirijns: Growing up in the Netherlands, I’ve never been part of a tribe or a country where I had to fight for my lands. And I’ve never been humiliated by other people. And my family has never been killed. So maybe that’s something I started to understand from Florin. If you really try to see it through their eyes, from their point of view, you start to understand what the conflict is about.
But I think it’s still very hard for me to understand war. In a way it’s very easy to be against war. Florin told me that if you have two peoples fighting over the same piece of land for 600 years, the hatred is so deep — maybe there will be no solution. I always try to believe that there will be a solution in the future.
POV: There are centuries of enmity between Serbs and Albanians over Kosovo — where does your film stand?
Quirijns: That’s a difficult question, since I want people to decide for themselves what they think. But I hope I showed the “catch 22” situation in Kosovo. Kosovo Albanians are not going to get their independence as long as they are unable to guarantee the security of the Serbs. And I am afraid they will not be able to secure it, considering the 600 year history of fighting.
POV: Have you had a reaction from the Serbian-American community to screenings of the film?
Quirijns: In the Netherlands a Serbian filmmaker called it a propaganda film for the Albanians. In a way, that is a big compliment because I wanted to tell this story through Florin’s eyes, from his point of view. But that doesn’t mean that I agree with him. On the contrary, there are a lot of points on which I disagree with him. But I consider the viewer smart enough to form their own opinion.
POV: What were some of the hardest and most meaningful scenes to shoot?
Quirijns: It was a big challenge to get to know Florin well, because he has talked about his history probably a hundred times. And I wanted to see him in a way that nobody had seen him before. I think I succeeded at one point when Martijn, the cameraman, and I went to his home and we asked him to watch the video of Adrian, his cousin who died, who is his big motivation for getting involved. He was watching the video and he totally broke down. That was the first time that I really thought, “Okay, Florin, now I’m seeing who you are.” Because all the other hours and hours and hours that we spent with him, he was this macho guy, and he knew exactly what to tell me. So that for me was the most important moment in the film. Sometimes a really small crew is best. In that scene there were just two of us and it was a very intimate atmosphere. And he could totally open up.
Traveling to Kosovo and Albania was also intense. I was eight months pregnant and everybody thought I was completely crazy because we had to go to the northern part of Albania where there are no normal roads. We had to ride for hours and hours on all these bumpy roads. I was sitting in the car with all the pillows around me so that my belly was totally covered and everybody really took care of me!
POV: What did your documentary work in the Netherlands focus on?
Quirijns: My first film was about life in a maximum-security prison in Rotterdam. Since then, I have produced and directed numerous documentaries with various subjects: one about a famous Dutch case, the death of a student in an initiation ritual; another about war criminals living as political refugees in the Netherlands. I also produced a film about a doctor who was part of the resistance during the Second World War. He was appointed as the doctor for three war criminals known as “The Breda Three,” entrusted with assessing whether their health merited their continued imprisonment. This film is now the subject of a dissertation in the Netherlands.
POV: What was your approach to telling this new story?
Quirijns: It was actually very hard because I had this great character, but in a way his story happened in the past. And so I had to look for something that was happening now. When I went with him to Kosovo it was clear that the Kosovars are totally frustrated with the whole situation. They are frustrated with NATO and they are ready to fight NATO, because they want to have their independence. When I saw that I knew that I had a film.
I like Cinema Direct, or direct cinema, and the less interviews, the better. Don’t tell me but show me, that’s something I try to do. I had to fight for getting the scenes with Holbrooke and Clark at the fundraiser, and for the gun show and the scene at the airport checking in the weapon. It took a while to get these scenes but to me it’s the most beautiful way to make documentaries. You can also do interviews, but I want to see it and that’s always the big challenge. That was especially true with this story, because a lot of it happened in the past. So I had to find a way to combine the current situation and the future and then a little bit of the past.
POV: What are your hopes for the film? How do you expect most Americans will react to Florin’s story?
Quirijns: I’m hoping that many Americans are going to see this film. And I hope that they will get the insight that the United States can be used as a launching pad to wage war. Up to this point, people have been telling me that they are flabbergasted: they can’t believe this is happening in their backyard. I don’t think Americans, even the most informed ones, realize what the gun laws mean. They know about Columbine High School, but they don’t realize that you can export the same weapons wherever you want to build a guerrilla army.
Also, I think Kosovo is ready to explode. Florin smuggled weapons to Kosovo during the first Kosovo war, so he will do it again. But there is no Serb [in power] left to be shot, so who’s going to be killed? The international forces, I guess, and that’s quite scary.
POV: Have you had any response to the film from American politicians, international NGOs or diplomatic groups?
Quirijns: I have heard, but I don’t know if it is true, that the UN Mission in Kosovo saw the film. And I know that Milosevic tried to use the film in his defense at the Hague. I also read an article in an Irish newspaper that, based on the scene where Florin appears with Wesley Clark and Richard Holbrooke, accused Kerry of being funded by the Kosovo Liberation Army. So yes, the film gets a lot of strong reactions, which in my opinion is always good.
To learn more, visit thebrooklynconnection.net.