Kosovo to Cannes: Arta Dobroshi's Journey to The Silence of Lorna

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Francois Guillot / AFP / Getty

Belgian directors Luc (L) and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (R) kiss Kosovo actress Arta Dobroshi during a photocall for their film The Silence of Lorna at the Cannes Film Festival

"Welcome to Pristina, have a nice day," the border policeman greets Arta Dobroshi as she arrives at the airport of Kosovo's capital. What would seem like a simple polite gesture to most, still strikes the Kosovo Albanian actress as odd. She had grown up in Pristina during the country's fight for independence in the '90s, when Serbian Security Forces carried out a campaign of repression and violence against Kosovo's ethnic Albanians. And while the violence is over, the memories are still painfully fresh. "Not long ago, I used to live in constant fear of the police," she says. "You would be scared that they'd see your passport and you'd get beaten. "

But being treated with respect by the police is not the only thing that has changed in Dobroshi's life. Born and raised in small, landlocked Kosovo, the 29-year-old is a world traveler today. She's recently been to Australia, Canada and Japan while promoting her lead role in The Silence of Lorna, the latest release from the Belgian directing duo Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Dobroshi's captivating performance as Lorna, a young Albanian immigrant, charmed international critics and made her the first Kosovar actress in history to walk the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival, where the movie won the award for Best Screenplay last year. (See pictures from the 2008 Cannes Film Festival.)

Things could have turned out quite differently for Dobroshi. As a teenager in war-torn Kosovo, the odds were stacked against her. She talks about a day in 1999 when gunmen stormed a bar in Pristina and opened fire. Almost all the customers, including one of Dobroshi's professors at the Pristina Academy of Arts and a good friend of hers, also an actress, were shot dead. Another friend survived with a bullet in her head.

At the time, Dobroshi was in Macedonia, where she was helping set up a refugee camp for the International Medical Corps (IMC), working with people who had been severely traumatized by the war. "There were kids who didn't talk," she recalls. "Men and women who were just screaming."

But Arta Dobroshi didn't waste time pondering the tragedies she had witnessed. Instead, she threw herself into acting. She took roles in the local theater and Albanian movies, and finally caught the attention of the Dardenne brothers, whose movies Rosetta (1999) and L'Enfant (2005) had already each won a Palme d'Or at Cannes. They invited her to an audition for the lead for The Silence of Lorna. And if a war couldn't stop Dobroshi from pursuing her acting career, the fact that the only French she knew was the days of the week wouldn't stop her either. "If someone tells me 'You can't do this', it just makes me try harder," she laughs.

Dobroshi got the part, and everything changed overnight. She put her social life on hold temporarily to learn French in only two months and shoot the movie, during which, she says, she immersed herself in the role. "I was in character for the entire time of shooting," she says. "On the weekends, I would almost completely isolate myself."

That's one reason why Dobroshi is so convincing in the role of Lorna, a young Albanian woman who dreams of opening a snack bar in Belgium with her boyfriend and agrees to a sinister plan: she is to marries Claudy, a junkie, for citizenship, kill him, then marry a Russian gangster who will pay richly for a Belgian passport. But the scheme falls apart when Lorna starts to fall for Claudy. The Silence of Lorna, which opens in the U.S. in July, is as much a love story as it is a thriller, and — being a Dardenne film — it has a good dose of social criticism, too. (See pictures of the best Oscar dresses.)

Although Dobroshi insists that the similarities between her and Lorna are pure coincidence, it is tempting to construct a parallel between the determination with which Lorna chases her dream and the persistence with which Dobroshi has pursued hers. For one thing, the actress and her character share an almost defiant joy of living. There is a scene in the film in which Lorna and her boyfriend dance exuberantly, oblivious to the mess they are in. In the same way, Dobroshi and her friends wouldn't let the dangerous circumstances they grew up in stop them from having a good time. "It was like we were leading two lives," she says. "On the one hand, you would go out with your friends. On the other hand, there was a war going on. But if you're always thinking 'Oh no, it's war, I'm gonna die,' you've already stopped living."

Her motivation may be different these days, but Dobroshi is still intent on having a good time. She recently finished a stint as a jury member at the Berlin Film Festival and is now busy reading screenplays. Maybe next time Dobroshi goes though Pristina airport, the border policeman will be more than just polite — he'll be asking for her autograph.

See pictures from the 2008 Cannes Film Festival.

Read a TIME cover story on Kosovo.