Alix Lambert is a filmmaker, photographer and writer living in NYC. Her films include the Independent Spirit Award-nominated The Mark of Cain, Bayou Blue and Mentor, and she has also directed shorts and web series. She is currently in production on Goodbye, Fat Larry. Lambert is the author of four books: Mastering The Melon, The Silencing, Russian Prison Tattoos and Crime. Learn more about her work here.
In the mountains of Northern Albania live the last of the “sworn virgins.”
Six years ago, I traveled to Albania to spend time with several of them, listening to their stories and photographing them. (Some of these images are below.)
Sworn virgins are born biologically female and later take an oath of abstinence and live their lives as men. The Kanun, a set of ancient Albanian laws, allows for this practice. Under these laws, men inherit familial wealth. Women are treated as the property of their husbands or fathers. They are not allowed to smoke or drink, carry a gun, participate in community meetings, enter certain buildings, or have agency over any part of their own lives. The Kanun also sanctions blood feuds, brutal wars between families. Rather than die in a blood feud, many choose not to leave their homes for years. Deaths resulting from blood feuds often leave many families with no men at all.
What happens to a family of women living under these laws? If a husband dies and leaves behind only daughters, how do they survive?
Enter the practice of the sworn virgin.
Stepping into the male role in a family without men is not the only reason that a young person might decide to become a sworn virgin, though. Many identify as male and take the oath voluntarily.
How does a society create ways in which to accept that which it does not accept?
What would you do to be yourself?
In the film Sworn Virgin, elegantly directed by Laura Bispuri, these are the questions considered by our protagonist. Alba Rohrwacher gives a consummate performance as sworn virgin Mark/Hana. The film cuts back and forth between the past (Hana) and the present day (Mark). Mark has a sister, Lila (Flonja Kodheli) who has had to make her own decisions in the face of limited choices. We learn that a bullet comes with a traditional dowry in case the husband is dissatisfied with his bride – he is to use the bullet provided by the bride’s father. In another scene a man and his bride, whose face we cannot see, are traveling down the road:
“Let the bride pass.”
“Why is her face covered?”
“If she can’t see the road, she can’t go back.”
Mark visits Lila, who fled to Italy rather than enter into an arranged marriage. The two siblings personify different ways of leaving.
“When you don’t want to see something, you run away. I stare at it,” Mark tells Lila.
The night Hana becomes Mark, a gun shot can be heard in the night air. “He’s firing. He’s telling the village this house has a son now,” Mark says.
Never didactic or heavy-handed, Sworn Virgin is perfectly paced, with long stretches without dialogue – it shows the audience both the beauty and the limitations of day-to-day life, and transported me back to the way the Albanian mountain air smells. Director of photography Vladan Radovic captures the cool color palette and the wistful feeling of the Albanian landscape. This is how I remember my time there – so much to experience without talking; quiet stretches punctuated by roadside fires, stray dogs, armed men, home-grown potatoes, strong coffee, and conversation, a study in contradictions.
Mark visits a swimming pool and watches the girls synchronized in their suits and makeup, telegraphing their gender. Mark is often outside gazing in. A curiosity about sex, the part of life that Mark has to turn away from, but now turns toward, leads Lila to describe sex as “being in and out of yourself,” a good description for anyone who has ever felt that in being themselves they were also setting themselves apart. Mark has a sexual encounter with a man at the pool, further illustrating the complexities of how we identify. None of us fit perfectly under a label. Will Mark remain Mark, or become Hana again?
The film ends with Lila and Mark/Hana together in Italy reading a letter from their late mother who signs off, “you, my brave daughters.”
When I was in Albania I met a young boy who spent time with an elderly sworn virgin in his family. I asked him if the sworn virgin was a man or a woman.
“How do you know?”
“Because everyone says so.”