Gjergj Xhuvani: Slogans (Parullat, 2001)
reviewed by Dina Iordanova © 2016
It is a well-known fact that during the Cold War the countries in the communist camp lived in a self-contained universe. But some were “more equal” and managed to surpass all others in this respect. The Balkan region, in particular, happened to be the home of three of the states that came to be known as the ultimate communist mavericks—Romania, Albania, and Yugoslavia—and each one of these countries boasted a bizarre and non-conventional way in being a state socialist country yet retaining a position as a relatively independent outsider—not only in respect to the West but also in regard to the omnipresent Soviets. It is not for me to speculate what idiosyncrasies of the local national character may have accounted for this. But it is a fact that among those three, Albania was by far the most isolated and paranoid one, having voluntary shut itself for the West, but then also having broken up with the USSR, having reoriented itself to China, and then having broken up these ties as well around the time of the cultural revolution (an episode masterfully treated in Ismail Kadare’s The Concert). And perhaps for this reason, after communism ended, Albania was expected to deliver some of the most curious revelations.
And indeed, it took quite a few years of post-communist catching up for Albania to bounce back and claim its firm position on the periphery of Europe. It is in such context that a film like Gjergj Xhuvani’s Slogans appeared in 2001. Reviewers were more or less unanimous of their assessment of the film as a “deliciously sardonic” tour-de-force, which took a satirical swipe in making a “scathing attack on the ignorant and imbecilic nature of fanatical politics” of Albanian communism (Russell). If we see the film in a wider context beyond the Balkans, however, it could be considered as yet another exploration of the vagaries of Maoist indoctrination as imported to Europe, continuing in the tradition established by Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise (1967) and the Norwegian satire Pedersen: High School Teacher (2006).
The production and distribution history of this film is of relevance here. At the time when Slogans was made, Albania was one of the few European countries that were still eligible for assistance under the Fonds Sud Cinéma funding program, administered by the French government in support of the cinema of underdeveloped nations around the world. In most of these co-productions, France is engaged as a minority partner, providing production and post-production services mostly at the high tech end. Fonds Sud Cinéma was a smartly conceived enterprise, clearly meant to keep a steadily subsidized business flowing to the numerous small and medium-sized French production outfits and post-production companies (see Iordanova, 2002). The main shortcoming of this operation was that producers who would be involved in these sponsorship would be mostly specialized in working with specific countries (such as Russia, Lebanon, or Albania, as in this instance) so they would develop good connections in the filmmaking communities there yet at the same time remain outsiders in the context French cinema circles. Their lack of contacts and influence would be most palpable when it comes to distribution: the films would get made but would remain seen very little. If it were not for the French government assistance, however, Xhuvani’s Slogans would probably not even have been made, as local funding bodies in countries like Albania distribute their meager production funds mostly by providing matching funds where foreign assistance is already in place.
Still, it is mostly due to the French co-producing participation that Slogans received some exposure, ensuring at least a degree of distribution in Albania, France, and in a handful of European countries. Distributor Celluloid Dreams was involved, even if in its early days at the time; the film was also featured, with a synopsis and contact information, on the web-site run by France Diplomatie, a site that was intended to assist the international exposure of French-supported films. Slogans played as part of two A-category festivals (Karlovy Vary, Tokyo), became the first Albanian film to be shown at Cannes, won awards at regional events in Bratislava and Cottbus, and was part of traveling showcases featuring recent Balkan or Albanian cinema. Even though it is not available in mass distribution, Slogans appears to have reached a truly global (diasporic?) niche audience, as the seven user reviews about the film on IMDb originate from viewers based in locations as diverse as Australia, Hong Kong, Spain, Canada, Poland, and Norway, who say what a nice discovery of an unknown culture this film has been.
So what is Slogans about? Set in a small town in the mountains in the late 1970s, Slogans follows the arrival of science teacher Andre (Artur Gorishti) to take up a new position with the local secondary school. The atmosphere is stuffy from the onset, and soon various bizarre episodes begin taking place. Evidently, the focus of the school’s endeavors is not on learning; pupil and teachers’ energies alike are directed to appeasing the local authorities’ demand to constantly demonstrate loyalty to the ideas of communism. Rather than in the classroom, instructors and students have to spend their days on the surrounding hills where they are to assemble various prescribed slogans in white stones. About fifteen meters long and two meters wide, the slogans are supposed to express the genuine feelings of all Albanians on important matters in the country’s political agenda. Andre is requested to make a choice between “Keep Up the Revolutionary Spirit!” and “America’s Imperialism Is a Paper Tiger” as his next class project. When he chooses the slogan that is clearly the shorter and easier to put together, his allegiance comes under perilous scrutiny.
Even though the events take place in the late 1970s, everything looks and feels like in the middle of the ideologically absurd 1950s. Discussions of the shape of the slogan’ letters and on the better suitability of certain stones is a fully justified subject for a serious conversation. A series of depressing episodes revealing the dull determination of the local communist party apparatchiks follows and results in unjust treatment of ordinary people. First an illiterate peasant is accused of conspiring with the imperialists because he let his goats disturb the neatly arranged stones of the slogans. Then, a pupil who has to present on China in class makes a mistake and describes the country as “revisionist” (rather than the correct description of “communist”), a misdeed for which the boy’s father is reprimanded (as he falls under suspicion for secretly indoctrinating his son in anti-communist beliefs). In further examples, that a slogan like ‘Vietnam Will Win’ would still be in use in Albania a decade after the actual end of the Vietnam war may come across as absurd. The astonishing realization is that this episode of the film is based on a true anecdote, showing the shocking extent of the country’s isolation from the rest of the world.
And, then, there is the maverick leader of Albania, referenced indirectly but nonetheless present. The paranoid ruler that the country had ended up with, Enver Hoxha (1908-1985), undoubtedly enhanced Albania’s dissenting yet ostracized status. Romania and Yugoslavia were also led by mavericks in their own right, Ceausescu and Tito. But while we can find film portrayals that explain away the charisma of some of the top communists and the popular obsession known as “cult of personality”, e.g. Stalin in Mikhail Chiaureli’s The Fall of Berlin (Padenie Berlina, 1949), or Tito in Goran Markovic’s Tito and Me (1992), a film on Enver Hoxha is yet to be made. But while not directly presenting Hoxha as a person, Albanian cinema has had its own way in presenting the man by showing off his absurd deeds. Kujtim Cashku’s Kolonel Bunker (1996), for example, explores the process of Albania’s “bunkerization”, a massive defence project involving the erection of thousands of concrete bunkers meant to protect the nation in a foreign assault. These semi-destroyed concrete bunkers litter Albania’s landscape today and have become a sort of an embarrassing visual trademark of the country; they are featured, among other films, in Gianni Amelio’s Lamerica (1994). One of the scenes in Fatmir Koci’s Tirana Year Zero (2001, see Horton), another film produced around the same time, also with assistance from France, takes place in a field full of meter-tall metal spears sticking up from the ground: yet another one of Hoxha’s defense inventions meant to pierce the foreign parachutists that may try landing on Albanian soil.
As it is a film that appeals to ordinary everyday life situations—which, presumably, do not differ profoundly from a country to country—Slogans has generally had quite a good reception. Those who have written about the film on occasion of its release in the West often begin by admitting they know next to nothing of the place where the film comes from, referring to it as ‘mysterious’ and ‘enigmatic’ country with ‘weird’ and ‘bizarre’ history. They usually end up recommending travel books on Albania, which, supposedly, contain some answers on this peculiarly isolated corner of Europe.
Based on a story by Ylljet Alicka, who worked on the adaptation, the film relates a series of anecdotes rooted in real events. Andre’s daily reality may seem absurd, but it is nothing more than a condensed account on an ordinary life of an employee under communism. The whitewashed-stone slogans on hillsides existed not only in Albania but also in other neighboring communist countries; they were suggested by the ideological department of the Party either centrally or locally and were ‘built’ not only by school children, but also by the army and factory workers. The absurd usage of ideologically-loaded terms that no one understood was another wide spread practice that went far beyond Albania and was endemic to the whole communist camp; all sorts of things were qualified as ‘revisionist’ without ever being clear what was the doctrine that was being revised and without ever inviting critical scrutiny on political discourse. Thus, Slogans is a straightforward account on a seemingly absurd situation.
What seems more absurd to me, however, is Andre’s attempts to keep a high moral ground. To Western viewers, he is the only one who comes across as utterly ‘normal’. Even though born and bred in Albania (and thus not knowing anything else), Andre resorts to a quiet resistance, in conspiracy with Diana, the French teacher (Luiza Xhuvani), who he is attracted to, and who is constructed as equally level-headed and immune to the paranoia. He is driven by pragmatic considerations, which grant him the unanimous support of the pupils when he chooses to work on the slogan that is shorter and easier (and thus not trying to please the local party secretary). Later on Andre will be the only one who will show he is not prepared to tolerate the incongruities, and will become an outspoken advocate for the goats’ herdsman who is under serious allegation for ideological conspiracy. He then defends the boy who called China “revisionist.” And so on.
In sum, with the exception of the dedicated officials, Slogans shows that most ordinary Albanians were, like Andre, normal people. But if this was indeed the case, I wonder, who were then all these people who for many long decades cheered at Enver Hoxha (and at Ceausescu, at Mao, at Stalin, and at various other tyrannical leaders) and whom we see in some astonishing surviving video clips? And who are all these people who lived with their heads comfortably down, east of Bucharest before 12:08, as Corneliu Porumboiu’s eponymous film eloquently asked in 2006?
A search for Enver Hoxha on YouTube yields a rich selection of clips that show thousands of people who cheer the leader (see, for example, this clip of a May Day celebration). It shows records of folk performance singing sons in his praise, and then other scenes, of these same songs being sung by crowds on huge rallies.
Were they all ‘normal’ people like Andre who just pretended to participate and kept their heads down? Or were they, as it seems more plausible to me, believers in the idea that was being sold to them, who participated in the indoctrination without having recourse to any other possible view of the world (similar to the marching North Koreans we see on footage from Pyongyang). I would personally prefer to stay with the feeling of despair and suffocation, and the overpowering absurdity that permeates Albanian classics like Ismail Kadare’s novels The General of the Dead Army and The Palace of Dreams. In Albanian cinema, these issues have been scrutinized head on and with considerable honesty by Anri Sala in his autobiographical Interview (1999), a film that does not attempt to exonerate those who cheered and is thus ultimately closer to my taste. But then, Slogans has a mass appeal and a feel-good factor, which explains why it remains an important film more than a decade since its release.
In Slogans, Jamie Russell points out, all these endless meetings and discussions of ideology “have become so commonplace that no one can blink without offending some obscure party doctrine.” In that, Slogans is a faithfully realist account, featuring the unbelievable yet fully authentic extremities of indoctrination and stupidity of dedicated party apparatchiks. Revealing the moral stupor that permeated everyday life situations has been the core approach of many of the most successful films about communism. Although many of these are set in the late 1940s and 1950s, some look into more recent periods. Some have relied on showing victims of the absurd (Hungarian Angi Vera, Pal Gabor, 1979), some on revealing the hypocrisy of the system (Bulgarian A Woman of 33, Christo Christov, 1982, Margarit and Margarita, Nikolay Volev, 1989) while others which prove that the genre of absurdist comedy may be indeed the most appropriate for exposing what is wrong with communist indoctrination, have openly relied on satire (as seen in classics such as Czech The Party and the Guests, Jan Nemec, 1967, The Joke, Jaromil Jires, 1969, and The Ear, Karel Kachyna, 1970, or Hungarian The Witness, Péter Bacsó, 1969). In its own way, Slogans is one of the more recent additions in this worthy line up.
University of St Andrews
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Horton, A. (2006) “Tirana, Year Zero.” In The Cinema of the Balkans. London: Wallflower Press.
Iordanova, D. (2002) “Feature Filmmaking Within the New Europe: Moving Funds and Images Across the East-West Divide.” Media, Culture and Society 24.4: 515-534.
Russell, J. Slogans (2002), BBC web-site.
Slogans, Albania, 2001
Color, 90 minutes
Director: Gjergj Xhuvani
Screenplay: Ylljet Alicka, Yves Hanchar, Gjergj Xhuvani
Cinematography: Gerald Thiaville
Editing: Didier Ranz
Production Design: Shaqir Veseli
Music: Denis Barbier
Costume Design: Durim Neziri
Cast: David Elmasllari, Marko Bitraku, Mirjana Dedi, Artur Gorishti, Birçe Hasko, Niko Kanxheri
Producers: Pascal Judelewicz, Anne-Dominique Toussaint.
Co-Producers: Raphaël Berdugo, Franck Landron, Arben Tasellari, Arben Vehbiu
Production: Albanian General Vision, Les Films des Tournelles, Les Films en Hiver
Gjergj Xhuvani: Slogans (Parullat, 2001)
reviewed by Dina Iordanova © 2016