Iris Elezi and Thomas Logoreci: Bota (2014)
reviewed by Ewa Mazierska © 2016
Cinemas of small and marginal countries (and Albania fits this description) always face a dilemma: focus on what is unique in their histories, risking confirming their marginality, or choose a universal story, risking being rejected by both domestic and foreign audience, who choose films from countries such as Albania for their expected exoticism. It is also possible to be both parochial and universal, as demonstrated by the recent successes of Greek cinema. This, however, does not happen often.
Albanian filmmakers might harbor similar ambitions as their neighbors, as suggested by the title of Iris Elezi and Thomas Logoreci’s film: Bota (2014). Bota is the name of a cafe in the middle of nowhere, where the action of the film takes place. It also means ‘world’ in Albanian, suggesting that they want to tell a local story, yet one with a wider resonance. Indeed, the film convincingly presents the history and the present day of Albania, while telling the common tale of a poor woman yearning for a better life, who falls prey to male selfishness and her own naiveté. It also touches on the character of neoliberal version of colonialism, exercised in Eastern Europe. The film itself reflects on the postcolonial reality of Albanian cinema, being a coproduction between Albania, Italy and Kosovo and having two directors, one Albanian and one American Albanian.
Bota begins with an image of a flock of sheep and a run-down housing estate: two images, which capture well the backwardness of a large part of the post-communist world. A similar juxtaposition I remember from Atom Egoyan’s Calendar, set in post-communist Armenia. In Egoyan’s film, however, the sheep were put in a romantic light—they signified Armenia’s closeness to nature and freedom and ingenuity of its people, whose Westerners are unable to match, most likely reflecting the outsider’s perspective employed in this film, as Egoyan is not a real Armenian, but a Canadian with Armenian roots. In Bota the sheep do not play any such positive symbolic function. Backwardness and marginality do not receive here positive spin. Poverty is not linked here to any higher humanity and disrespect for material goods. On the contrary, the film makes a point that places which lag behind economically, tend to lag behind also morally. People deprived of means and prospects cannot afford magnanimity; they have to grab any opportunity to enrich oneself, knowing that another one might not come. The more cynical view of the post-communist backyard than that offered by Egoyan might be traced to the fact that Bota is a more Albanian product than Calendar is Armenian, as half of its directing team, Iris Elezi is Albanian, while the second half, Thomas Logoreci, is an American of Albanian origin. One guesses that if Logoreci’s has desires to romanticize Albania, they were thwarted by Elezi with her insider knowledge.
Bota’s characters ignore the sheep and do not ponder on the beauty of the landscape, almost empty of people. For the film’s main male character, Beni, the owner and manager of Bota cafe, the lack of people means only the lack of business, therefore he tries his best to attract more and better clientele, most importantly workers employed in building a motorway nearby. Beni hopes that when the motorway is completed, people using it will stop in Bota, although the more likely scenario is that his cafe would disappear altogether, and the motorists would get their meals in chain restaurants in the style of McDonalds or KFC. Even the builders of the motorway, who are Italians and Albanians from Tirana, visit Bota reluctantly and have to be wooed there by extra attractions, such as music and firework displays. One gets the impression that the cost of such investment will be never repaid by the guests, who are happy to drink and eat at their hosts’ expense, and chat up with the local women, but without committing themselves to anything or even promising to visit the place again. This can be read as a metaphor of the postcolonial condition, which befell Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, with the West treating the East largely as a source of quick profit.
While Beni is servile towards the incomers, he is much harsher towards his own people or, more precisely, his ‘own’ women. In the course of the film we learn that he cheats and takes advantage of three of them. One of them is his (invisible) wife, whom he betrays with his young lover, Nora, who is also a waitress in Bota. To Nora he has no desire to commit, even though she carries his child and ultimately treats her as a nuisance. He also steals money from his second waitress, Juli, who received compensation from the state because her mother was a victim of the political persecution and was executed and buried in the near swamp. The cafe where Juli works should really belong to her. Again, the story of Juli can be read metonymically as the story of Eastern European women, particularly those from the province, who lost most on the transition to post-communism, due to such factors as closing down the industries where they were employed.
The beauty of Bota lies in conveying such ideas subtly, without turning to sentimentality, pathos or heavy rhetoric. It develops in a slow pace, yet without showing any ambitions in the direction of the highly stylized “slow cinema.” The bulk of the film is set in Bota, which is shot in the changing light, giving the impression that for Nora and Juli it is their entire world; they practically live there. Bota has a strange shape and a car placed on its roof, as if it was willing to float rather than to stay where it was built. Again, one wonders whether such a shape, apart from hinting at the low building standards in Albania, is a reference to the history of this country, whose communist leader had a penchant for constructing underground shelters, in expectation of nuclear attack. It might point to a desire to reverse this process: look up, rather than down.
Although Bota brings memory of many films about the “end of the world,” such as Bagdad Cafe by Percy Adlon and the Polish film The Junction (Torowisko, 1999) by Urszula Urbaniak, as well as about the films about searching for graves of the victims of political purges and ethnic cleansing, such as Ida (2014) by Paweł Pawlikowski, it ultimately comes across as a self-assured and original film. To a large part it is due to good acting of the three main actors. Flonja Kodheli, whose Juli on several occasions is confronted by men who claim that they know “Albanian women,” proves that these women are not what these men think. Artur Gorishti as Beni fits well the stereotype of the Balkan crook and an ageing Casanova, yet at the same time shows that every Balkan crook is different and each carries some anguish inside him.
The only moment when Elezi and Logoreci abandoned its matter-of-fact tone is the ending, showing dancing in the desert. It feels like at this point they decided that something poetic should be added for the greater effect. The ending undermines their point that for those who know the (post-communist) swamp or desert first hand, it is merely a swamp or desert; no point to obscure its true nature, adding a false optimism to their sad story. But it is a small spot on the otherwise accomplished work, making me eager to see more new productions from this small country.
University of Central Lancashire
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Bota, Albania, 2014
Color, 104 minutes
Directors: Iris Elezi, Thomas Logoreci
Screenplay: Iris Elezi, Thomas Logoreci
Cinematography: Ramiro Civita
Editing: Walter Fasano
Production Design: Shpetim Baca
Costume Design: Emir Turkeshi
Cast: Flonja Kodheli, Artur Gorishti, Fioralba Kryemadhi, Tinka Kurti, Alban Ukaj, Erand Sojli
Producers: Sabina Kodra, Andrea Stucovitz
Production: Erafilm, Albanian National Center of Cinematography (QKK), MiBACT, Kosova Cinematography Center
Iris Elezi and Thomas Logoreci: Bota (2014)
reviewed by Ewa Mazierska © 2016