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Iowa Film Director: Capturing the State's Special Relationship with Kosovo

June 11, 2018


A couple of million people spread out across the breadth of the land. Rolling hills. Corn fields. Cows in the pasture. Engine sounds from the tractor.

But not many pigs. This is because I'm not talking about Iowa.

Over the last few years, I've been filming a documentary which has just released online called “With a Cup of Sugar”. The film takes place in Kosovo, a small country in the Balkans with a troubled past. However, at times when filming it felt like I hadn't left my home state and in fact this is a major tenet of the film.

Iowa’s relationship with Kosovo

Kosovo has a sister-state relationship with Iowa and became the first country to ever open a diplomatic office in the state when the consulate opened its doors in Downtown Des Moines (DSM) in 2016. This isn't just a handshake deal where a couple of politicians sign a feel-good agreement. There are real things — big things — happening between Iowa and Kosovo and for good reason.

Iowa Film Director Captures Kosovo

Kosovo can at times feel simultaneously strange and familiar to this Iowan. Kosovo is a primarily Muslim country (hence few pigs) with influences from both the East and West. On a given day in Kosovo, I'm awakened by the sound of a local Imam during the morning prayer. I am often offered macchiato or Turkish coffee. For lunch, I eat a qebapa. For supper, I am invited to have flija with the family of a friend.

Even as I begin to mention differences, however, I see the similarities. Its capital, Prishtina, feels just like Downtown DSM — the nightlife, the youth, the art, the businesses and the politics. It's where everything is decided that affects the rest of the country. In the film, Ambassador Ismaili mentions one of the reasons they like Iowa so much is that you can get to anyone in the state with two phone calls. Iowans are accessible, open and happy to discuss. It works both ways. With two phone calls, I could gain access to the Prime Minister himself to request an interview, as well as any member of parliament or professional in the country.

Kosovo nice

Kosovars are about as radical as Iowans, which is to say, not much. However, Kosovo elected a female president before Iowa ever had a female governor. During Ramadan when most are fasting, they would go out of their way to make sure I, a non-Muslim, had enough to eat and drink. Kosovars have had much to fight for, much to lose and have so much more to gain. Yet, they manage to be as kind and hospitable, if not more so, than any Iowan I've ever met. I feel safer in Kosovo than almost anywhere in the U.S. As an Iowan, being in Kosovo feels like being at home.

The sounds of the morning prayers at dawn may be foreign to my ears but rarely have I known an Iowan to sleep in. There's work to be done.

The coffee may not be from Casey's but I recognize the faces of old farmers discussing the weather and crops before heading to the fields, even though I don't speak Albanian.

A qebapa is essentially their version of a burger. I eat it with a side of French fries. Flija, though delicious, may not have an equivalent Iowan dish, but what Iowan (what human?) doesn't enjoy cozy evening talks over a meticulously crafted, home-cooked meal with friends and family?

Another similarity and strength for Iowans and Kosovars is the ability to appreciate and entertain new ideas. They readily support and implement new technologies and applications. "This is how we've always done it," quickly turns to, "tell us, how can we make it better?"

Iowa Film Director Captures KosovoOf all the similarities, Iowa and Kosovo both have a future of uncertainty and huge potential. Industry has been a sore spot and technology is on the rise. The agricultural outlook is on the brink of a major shift. The world is changing. To avoid being left behind, Kosovars and Iowans alike have good reason to work together, both to learn from each other and to share in each other’s success.

Through the Global DSM initiative, the Greater Des Moines Partnership works to establish Greater Des Moines (DSM) as a global community by bolstering global trade and foreign investments and leveraging international talent.

Luke T. Harwath

Luke T. Harwath is a filmmaker whose work spans the globe. Projects range from disasters in Southeast Asia, post-tsunami life in Japan and even documenting migrant rescue off the coast of Libya. His latest film, "With a Cup of Sugar", documents the forces of momentum behind Europe's newest country, Kosovo.