WHERE EAGLES DARE (TO DREAM AGAIN): REIMAGINING ALBANIAN DOCUMENTARIES
by Clarence Tsui (curator)
Have you heard the one about the dictator, the mob, the projectionist and her husband?
No, it’s not a joke – it’s much more serious than that. It was March 1997, and Albania – which freed itself from authoritarian rule just six years before –was seemingly sliding towards civil war and oblivion. Mobs and militias roamed the land. Offices and universities were ransacked and looted. Fears eventually spread that the insurgents were close to storming the capital, Tirana. Knowing the divisiveness and fragility of the objects they worked with, staff from Central State’s Film Archive of Albania roused themselves and their kith and kin to action: the projectionist, among others, roped her husband to set up camp at the archive, guarding the vault and its content from possible acts of vandalism and destruction.
The archive emerged relatively unscathed, but the threat from those years has never really gone away. On 8 December 2015, protesters tried to destroy a concrete communist-style bunker built by the current socialist-led government as a tourist attraction in the centre of Tirana. So it is that the building is just a replica, but the act itself is a sharp reminder of how Albania’s communist-era cultural heritage is perceived: propaganda which evokes only collective trauma of a painful age.
Unlike the anti-dictatorship documentaries emerging from the three national cinematheques featured in previous editions of Cinéma du réel – Chile in 2013, Portugal in 2014 and Greece in 2015 – the material in the Albanian National Film Archive is destined to stand on what one will call the “wrong side of history”. But revisionism is not what this programme is about: instead, a closer re-examination of the archive’s material allows us to question why and how Albania was confined to the “wrong side” for so long.
But political revisionism is not what this programme is about. As film historians and film critics, the Cinéma du réel readily acknowledges demagogy when we see it. But the only way we could question why something happened was to understand how it happened. A close re-examination of the material will allow us to learn not just from but also about the past: one could discover how an authoritarian regime shaped Albania’s socio-historical reality and national narrative throughout its four decades in power; through the odd deviance, we understand both changes in the country’s power dynamics, and how artists attempt to work around the framework.
As soon as he took control of the country in 1944, Enver Hoxha realised how cinema could consolidate his grip on power. Taking his cue from his Russian and Yugoslav mentors, Hoxha set out quickly to establish his own factory of images: it’s hardly a surprise that the first full-fledged documentary under his watch is The Commandant Visits Central and Southern Albania, a 1947 piece showing the budding dictator mingling with adoring crowds.
Thus began the history of documentary-making in post-war Albania, as the state enterprise New Albania film studio – more commonly known as Kinostudio – produced over 1,170 titles (plus 1,006 newsreels) from 1945 to 1993. Looking at the party-sanctioned storytelling – and tall tales some of these films do tell, really – one learns a lot about how the communist authorities position themselves as the harbinger of progress (such as Shkëlsen Shala’s Our Capital City).
In some cases, socialist realism somehow was even allowed to take a back seat, such as the self-styled cinematic poem born out of the collaboration of director Viktor Gjika and Ismail Kadare (When November Comes). To be different, however, is a risky business for filmmakers plying their trade under authoritarian rule. Censored voices thus litter those tightly controlled decades in Albanian cinema, as artists with slightly diverse senses of aesthetics or humour – like cameraman Mandi Koçi (who helmed The Commander Visits…) and director Viktor Stratobërdha (Congratulations Students!) – fell foul of the powers that be. Even established filmmakers have seen their work shelved and banned: Dhimitër Anagnosti’s Eternity and Sunday Motifs, for example, will bow at the Cinema du Reel this year, more than 40 years after its completion. Even established figures were not immune to censorship: Dhimitër Anagnosti, Mithat Fagu and Mark Topollaj have seen their work shelved and banned as their erstwhile endorsed stylistic changes were suddenly deemed reactionary as Enver Hoxha clamped down hard on cultural liberalisation in 1973. Some of these films, like Dhimitër Anagnosti’s Eternity and Sunday Motifs and Mark Topollaj’s Touristic Albania, are actually receiving their world premieres here at the Cinéma du réel, more than four decades after their completion.
That these films survived and are now able to see the light of day speaks volumes about the Albanian National Film Archive’s role in maintaining these banned images – among them, pre-communist era documentaries, and “co-productions” with the Soviet Union and China, whose alliances Enver Hoxha would soon renege on. And it’s from its vaults that one could ascertain Albania’s international links before and during the communist era. While the archive is still trying to hunt down the lost work of Albanian cineaste Mihallaq Mone – a few shorts and a feature (Meeting at the Lake), all produced under the aegis of Italy’s Istituto Luce during the early 1940s – over forty Austrian, Italian, German and British documentaries and newsreels produced between 1914 to 1944 survived the communist era intact at the archive. Meanwhile, Hoxha’s flapping alliances with other communist countries was set in stone through the “co-productions” between Albanian filmmakers and their Russian and Chinese counterparts.
With the fall of communism, a newer generation of artists have embarked on ways to reimagine Albania’s erstwhile uniform historical discourse through re-appropriation of the “official” images at the archive’s disposal. Artist/filmmakers like Anri Sala (Intervista, 1998), Fatmir Koçi (Super Balkan, 1998) and Roland Sejko (The Ship, 2012; The Awaiting, 2015) have juxtaposed old images with the new so as to illustrate the schisms in their country’s national psyche. Meanwhile, artist Armando Lulaj has delivered a witty, acerbic yet deeply reflective re-examination of Enver Hoxha’s legacy with his Albanian Trilogy, which first appeared as the country’s entry at the Venice Biennale last year.
Rather than condemned to the “dustbin of history”, the material at the Albanian National Film Archive now serves as a crucial cornerstone in understanding the country, or – in a more universal manner – the media pathology of past and present authoritarian states bounded by arrested political development.