By David D'Arcy
January 5, 2006 - 1:41 PM PST
You could call Fatmir Koçi's Tirana Year Zero (2001) a road movie, but being an Albanian film, it's a peculiar kind of road movie. It's a road movie in which characters drive in circles around Tirana, the Albanian capital, when what they really want to do is leave the country. It's Tirana's take on the myth of Sisyphus - high-speed and high volume and high anxiety.
Having just returned from Albania, where I served on the jury of the Tirana International Film Festival, I can say that things are not so desperate in Albania today. The good news is that people aren't all trying to leave. As a young journalist told me, "Maybe I'll get a visa to America when I'm 70 and I can't make any problems for them." The bad news is that the roads look as if they've never been worse. Yet some things don't change. The country is building seaside hotels for tourists as many locals are still packing their bags.
At the Tirana Festival, which ended on December 11, Fatmir Koçi's hard-to-see films were shown, and the director himself, born in 1961, was a presence at festival screenings and receptions. He's hard to miss, with a shaved head, a few days' beard, piercing eyes, and an intense approachability. Koçi is a director to watch, and not just for the face that could get him cast as an action film villain.
In Tirana at those events, Koçi was never too far from his French producer, Thierry Lenouvel. His next film, an adaptation of The Black Year, an early novel by Albania's most distinguished writer, Ismail Kadare, will be made with the help of French money.
This is one of many Albanian scripts seeking funding. Another project, set in Kosovo, by filmmaker Saimir Bajo, who lives in Prague and comes from the generation after Koçi, is called Once Upon a Time in the Balkans. Bajo, another Tirana Film Fest juror who described Kosovo as "a little Israel up there," says his script is finished. He will be looking for backers at the upcoming Berlinale.
Join the club. Gjergj Xhuvani also has a script in search of a budget of around $1 million, which seems to be the amount needed to get a feature made in Albania. Xhuvani is the scriptwriter and director of the features Funeral Business, Slogans and Dear Enemy. (I met him when he was in Park City, Utah, a finalist in the NHK Screenwriting Competition.)
Like Tirana Year Zero, Funeral Business looks at the grey years that promised to bring freedom and prosperity, which meant good times for anyone with the power to loot. In a scene that has to be one of the best examples of unintentional humor that I've seen in weeks, neighborhood looters empty a truck operated by a character who looks like a double for Kenneth Lay, the disgraced Enron executive who is now facing trial for looting the company that he ran. It could be New Orleans, but if that fails, maybe there's a job in Tirana for Kenny-Boy after all.
Slogans (2001) is an absurd parable told in a matter-of-fact tone. It's set in a small village, where school teachers spend their "free" time writing out propaganda slogans on steep hillsides with heavy white boulders. Needless to say, the rocks tend to fall down the hills and someone has to put them back in place. The job becomes all the more important when word arrives that the Party Leader, Enver Hoxha, is expected to drive past the hillside. What if a letter's missing?
As a parable, Slogans has a poker-faced economical way of telling its story that reminded me of the Fifth Generation Chinese films of the mid-1980s - not an extra scene, not an extraneous gesture got in the way of the central visual metaphor. The story, though, is all Albanian.
Absurdity in Albania is the gift that keeps on giving, and it finds its way into scripts without fail. More are on the way, once the money's available. There's plenty of talent.
During a break at the Tirana Festival, I had a chance to talk to Fatmir Koçi in the lobby of the communist-era Tirana International Hotel.
We're looking out the window at traffic now. What were the streets of Tirana like during the communist period that ended in 1991?
One car would pass through the main square in five or ten minutes, maybe one bus, a lot of bicycles. People would be hanging out, with nothing to do. The main mosque would have been closed, because Albanian was proclaimed an atheistic country in 1967. It was the only atheistic country in the world, by law. This was the routine of daily life. But people secretly read books that were banned, like Dostoyevsky or Sigmund Freud.
Freud was banned?
Of course. You could go to prison if they caught you with Freud, for sure. Dostoyevsky, too, because these were writers with what they called "pro-western tendencies." I'm not sure that the communist institutions - or the regime, better to say, because I don't consider Albania then to have been a communist regime, but just an oppression of violence. This kind of life, listening to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, still went on. I remember that my mother was terrified and used to switch off the radio at home, because it was very dangerous, and we used to listen to the Italian radio station.
The city used to be cleaner, with more trees. They were cut, by us - people cut them and destroyed them to express their state of being. After Albania was opened, there was a massacre of nature in Albania. Millions of orange trees and lemon trees on the South were cut down, because people were free to do anything now, and the trees were state property.
The totalitarian regime killed individual responsibility. The western mentality forces you to respect the law, to accept the law, to accept your own freedom and someone else's freedom. This new era cost a lot. In the first decade from 1990 to 2000, we had one of the worst periods in our history, including one million people who fled Albania, especially in 1991.
What kinds of films did you see when you were growing up?
My childhood friends and I were film fans, so we used to go without tickets to jump over the walls of an open cinema. It was outdoors, just 300 meters from the main square in Tirana, next door to the Turkish Embassy. We used to jump over the walls.
Once it was raining, and I fell off the wall, into the garden of the Turkish Embassy. The policeman guarding the embassy who saw this said to me, "Get out," but I couldn't. A lady lifted me up and I ended up in the cinema.
But we went without tickets, hiding afterward in the crowd.
Did these cinemas only show Albanian films?
No. At the time they showed Italian films, but not Fellini, not Antonioni, not Pasolini. But they did show Vittorio De Sica, films of neo-realism, Dino Risi, things like that. We saw Spartacus by Kubrick, and French films, the comedies - not Jacques Tati, but Louis De Funès. We saw an American film by Jack London. I think it was called The Voice of the Ancestors, with this dog.
The Call of the Wild.
This was one of the films that impressed me when I was 16 years old. I went there with my girlfriend. I was falling in love at the time. It was a ceremony to see a dramatic film like that. I wanted to show off like a hero in front of her. Then, when I went to the Academy of Fine Arts, I finished in theater - as a director - but I went to work as a film assistant, because I had no interest in theater. I worked in huge film studio. After three years, I started film school.
"This new era cost a lot.""The dilemma is between to have and to be."
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Besides reviewing art and film for National Public Radio, David D'Arcy has also written for the Art Newspaper, the Economist and other publications.
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