Kujtim Çashku: The Warm Hand (Dora e ngrohte, 1983)
reviewed by Iris Elezi© 2016
The year is 1983. In the last decade of the Cold War, Communist Albania stands alone, more isolated than ever. In two years, the dictator Enver Hoxha will be dead leaving the country in an unimaginable state of poverty and decay. Whatever slim possibility of dissidence died after a brief period of liberalization in 1973, when all writers, sculptors, painters, actors and musicians who briefly dared to be original, behaving outside the norms of Socialist Realism, found themselves immediately imprisoned or sent off into internal exile.
A decade later, a young man, Besim Shkembi, once again commits this sin of wanting to be original in Kujtim Çashku’s Albanian film, The Warm Hand, a humble fiction effort that was successfully received by both critics and audiences alike. Besides breaking a seven-week record in sixty national movie theaters, The Warm Hand went on to win the main prize of the sixth national Albanian Film Festival, while it’s also credited as the only motion picture from the “New Albania” Kinostudio that managed to recoup its production cost.
Yet not much can be found online about this definitive third feature by director Kujtim Çashku, one of the most distinguished Albanian film makers of the Communist era and after. As another example of unreliable online sources about Albanian cinema, the film has even wrongly been labeled as a TV drama.
All Albanian films produced during the state-sponsored Kinostudio days, documentaries and features alike, open up for the curious contemporary spectator, an incisive almost documentary glimpse into Albania’s isolated way of life. A form of life (similar and yet so different from the other countries of the Eastern Bloc) which twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall is still relatively unknown and almost always misunderstood.
This is why revisiting The Warm Hand, thirty-two years after its release, offers an acute understanding of how, in our dark Communist days, the Albanian people did become a true manifestation of the slogan “Everyone is a Soldier.” This, along with a sorrowful look into the very apparatus that successfully induced this fear and manipulated the masses, makes this fiction film so much more than a propaganda vehicle.
Part of the reason for The Warm Hand’s popularity in 1983 is the film’s dual nature. Much like Jeanine Basinger’s articulation in her book A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960, for the first half of the film we watch the unprecedented actions of the uneasy, rebellious Besim. He is one of the young generation, born after the regime’s takeover, ungrateful for the advances Socialism has brought and probably, like most of his age range, raised on images of the West watched secretly on Italian and Yugoslav television.
Stylistically, The Warm Hand has one of the most lyrical openings ever produced during Kinostudio’s “New Albania” era. A seventeen year old on the verge of manhood, Besim (the first movie role for the celebrated actor Artur Gorishti), shoes in hand and his back to the camera, walks alone towards the big sea. The wind plays in his hair as he sits by a bench. Suddenly Besim undresses and enters the immense ocean. A wise old teacher played by Sander Prosi, an iconic presence in Albanian cinema, approaches and starts collecting Besim’s carelessly discarded clothes.
Prosi plays Mirash, a kindly professor who incarnates the eternal figure of the Mentor, Odysseus protective comrade in Greek mythology. Like the wise Mentor of ancient times, Mirash imparts advice to deal with personal dilemmas, and as a good Communist, he attentively provides guidance to troubled youth so as to better prepare them for their journey into adulthood. Under a crimson Communist sky, pipe in hand, our wise Mirash sits and watches the swimming Besim. The wisdom of old age and a life fulfilled are evident in his blinding all-white clothes and grey hair. Professor Mirash, the embodiment of the highest aspirations of the Communist system, looks at our young Besim rising in and out of the seawater, intuitively aware of the internal struggle he’s facing.
Lasting only a minute and a half, through this carefully choreographed sequence in slow motion, Çashku manages to create an emblematic visualization of youthful angst; a handsome body that momentarily abandons land, only to be trapped between the sky and the sea. Looking at this scene through the eyes of an Albanian growing up during this time, the sea equals possible escape and freedom to foreign shores. During the time of the dictatorship, the seas were constantly monitored for mostly young men like Besim, attempting to flee Albania.
Enhanced by the haunting score of composer Hajg Zaharjan, the images of the young Besim in the sea, compromises one of the best title sequences in Albanian cinema. This same sequence will be brought back later on in the pivotal moment when, after Besim’s arrest, professor Mirash erases his name from the class roll book, a moment which Albanian screenwriter and film historian, Natasha Lako (2004), pinpoints as “through this erasing of the hero begins, in Albanian cinema, the history of the negation of man.”
The film then shifts action to a modest student New Year’s evening celebration. The teenagers dance, bodies safely apart, to staid 1950’s tango music. We are introduced to Besim’s restless personality: he dresses differently and wants to be thought of as an ‘original’ as the beautiful Margarita, his classmate and object of his affection, remarks. He has created problems for himself in school by drawing a sketch that mocks his female physics professor. Hot tempered, Besim gets in fights easily, smokes cigarettes and spends a lot of time with a mustached small-time criminal, Spahi.
Besim’s problems extend to his home situation. His mother, played by the much-idolized Margarita Xhepa, has remarried and Besim, her son from her previous marriage and his stepfather Ahmet don’t get along. While to a Western spectator parental divorce is a more accepted and natural part of life, the opposite was true in Communist Albania, where divorce was a social phenomenon that carried a grave stigma and was frowned upon. It was a very rare occurrence in the “life of the new socialist man,” something that both the state and couples tried to avoid at all costs.
There’s much pain in Besim, a palpable hurt that the good professor Mirash and Besim’s love interest, Margarita, are aware of and do their best to help him overcome. They know all that what Besim really needs is acceptance and warmth, which we are warned “if not found at home, he will look for elsewhere.” And this elsewhere is Besim’s friendship with the petty criminal, Spahi, who uses Besim to transport stolen goods than provide cover when he hits a pedestrian with his motorcycle. In a world where “Everyone is a Soldier,” despite the vigilance of his professors and classmates, Besim “loses the right path” and is eventually caught by another “warm hand,” the investigator, Thanas.
After Besim’s and Spahi’s arrest in a rainy night, we abruptly cut to their trial, a chilling behind the scenes peek at the inner workings of the Orwellian justice system of Communist Albania—closely-cropped scalps, bowed heads and unsmiling guards. The trial ends and with it Besim’s rebellion and quest for originality, which accounted for the film’s popularity, since such temporary liberation had never been glimpsed in an Albanian film before. For his perceived sins, Besim is made to pay a dear cost in a truly insidious manner.
Despite having served time in prison, thanks to the intervening warm hand of the investigator Thanas, Besim manages to secure a job as a welder in the port of Durres. Besim is told that if he works hard enough the Party and the community will eventually embrace him once again. However, when his former flame, Margarita, tries to re-connect with Besim, he keeps her at a distance. When Margarita comes to visit Besim at his shipping job, he strikingly points to a burned welding mark on a ship and tells her that the wound is like him, irredeemable.
Besim’s sacrifice can be linked to the notorious “biografi” kept by the regime’s secret police. This file detailed all the family associations and if, for example, a family member had fled to the West, or like Besim, committed a crime, a bleak future was permanently assured. This single page file followed all Albanians throughout their lives and it could prevent someone from furthering their education or getting a job. If someone wanted to marry into a family with bad biografi, it seems certain that both sides would do everything to discourage the union. To become like the criminal Spahi, to be tainted with problematic biografi, rendered an individual declassified, a condition that could not be eliminated by hard work or even belief in the system.
The finale of the film finds Besim dressing up for a wedding we briefly believe to be his own. Only as his stepfather, Ahmet, puts a tie on Besim do we understand that he is attending the nuptials of Margarita to another man. As Besim ascends the winding stairs to the wedding party, an audience conditioned to the happy endings of Western cinema might believe that Besim will stop the festivities and true love will prevail. But an Albanian audience knows better. Nothing can prevail over bad biografi and the all-knowing warm hand of the state so Besim can only watch haplessly as Margarita dances with her new husband. It would seem that even into the realm of the personal, the influence of the Communist Party is total, absolute. Besim’s experience has conditioned out any further attempts to be original, even a dramatic moment to declare his true love.
Even more so than in other Eastern bloc film studios, Albanian film production was heavily controlled by the Party, operating within a rigid socialist realist mode of filmmaking. Mirroring the Party’s line and its ever-growing propaganda needs, the films of the Kinostudio’s first decades were dedicated to a re-writing of the heroic Second World War victory of communism in Albania. During the 1970’s, films become concerned with the education of the ‘new socialist man’ and with the furtherance of its goals.
Yet the 1980s marked a shifted perspective in the everyday concerns of the modern man. As duly noted by Natasha Lako (2004), the films of that period brought forth “a cinema of ‘the man of dilemmas’, wherever it might happen that they are—within a work setting, or with love and family.” Among the films that dealt with social and romantic themes of the 1980s, The Warm Hand, despite its ideological veil, can be considered an auteur film, even though it was produced under the heavy watch of the Kinostudio’s approval council. In a quiet, understated way, Kujtim Çashku, at the tender age of thirty-three, gave life to a film that dealt with the Albanian variation of teenage angst and the very painful consequences of falling outside the constraints of the system.
In their effort to better educate the young generation, director Kujtim Çashku and screenwriter Neshat Tozaj, bestow their characters with names that carry in themselves their dramatic attributes. Besim Shkembi, literally means “faith” and “rock” in Albanian, a comment on the young man’s stubbornness, along with the knowledge that he eventually will find the correct path thanks to the continual guidance of his classmates and the Communist Party. Mirash, the kindly professor’s name literally means “goodness.” Several supporting characters who have not achieved enlightenment are given Muslim names, most especially Besim’s stepfather Ahmet, as if to legitimize that the underlying source of their ignorance is embedded in pre-communist era consciousness.
It has passed to the sands of time whether Kujtim Çashku’s ultimate intent was to further the regime's message or subtly expose the machinations of the totalitarian system. Both these currents run throughout The Warm Hand, in some ways, a truer testament to life under the dictatorship than any documentary. Perhaps it says much about the specific and absurd nature of terror that poisoned every facet of life in Albania, that we are allowed to understand Besim’s tragic and thwarted desire to be an “original” as our own.
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Lako, Natasha (2004), Energjia filmike, Tirana: Botimet Toena.
The Warm Hand, Albania, 1983
Color, 95 minutes
Director: Kujtim Çashku
Screenplay: Neshat Tozaj
Cinematography: Bardhyl Martiniani
Editing: Marika Vila
Production Design: Sali Allmuça
Cast: Artur Gorishti, Aleksandër Prosi, Reshat Arbana, Margarita Xhepa, Bujar Lako, Mirush Kabashi, Viktor Çaro, Vangjush Furxhi, Adem Gjyzeli
Production: Kinostudio Shqipëria e Re
Kujtim Çashku: The Warm Hand (Dora e ngrohte, 1983)
reviewed by Iris Elezi© 2016