The Albanian Cinema Project (ACP) was founded in 2012 as an urgent call to arms to save a national film archives’ building and its unique contents that were structurally on the brink of collapse. An international community of cultural heritage custodians met this call to aid the Albanian Central State Film Archives (AQSHF), and as a result Albanian film archivists, historians, and filmmakers were empowered to join the ranks of ACP and to value their own rich film heritage that had been shuttered away from international audiences since the collapse of Enver Hoxha’s regime in the early 1990s. While some of these films may have continued to be seen on Albanian television, as Albanians left their homeland by the tens of thousands throughout the 1990s, their 4,327 Albanian produced titles (or, 28,551 reels of film) made between 1946 and 1996 retreated to the cold cement blocks of the archives.
Albanians were looking outward rather than inward at this critical juncture. In an effort to boost their image abroad by the late 1990s—after the 1997 rebellion had subsided and a semi-stable democracy seemed to be forming—the custodians of Albania’s national film heritage began to allow limited, and selected access to their archives. Most notably, from within Albania, filmmaker Fatmir Koçi and Albanian-American producer Donika Bardha spent nearly 6 months in the vaults of AQSHF in 1999/2000, reviewing hundreds of thousands of reels of Albanian newsreel and documentary productions, in order to produce a feature-length documentary that covered 450 years of Albanian history through the lens of its 20th-century propaganda films. Comprised entirely of archival footage, The Land of Eagles was finally completed in 2007, but never secured a distributor. As a result, it has screened for very limited audiences in Tirana, London, Los Angeles, Connecticut, and New York. The film remains unique among Albanian productions post-regime in its strict reliance on original Albanian newsreel and documentary productions. The unfettered access given to Koçi and Bardha allowed them to craft a history that questions the media representations of Albania constructed by Hoxha and his state-run Kinostudio through the films themselves.
In 2012, ACP sponsored three screenings of the film in New York and Connecticut. The film screened on a double bill with ACP’s first feature film restoration of Viktor Gjika’s The Second November (Nëntori I Dytë, 1982). The pairing of a late communist era historical revisionist film that recounts the founding of the modern Albanian nation state with this contemporary documentary was deliberate. The film was screened at NYU for students in the Moving Image Archives Program, at Wesleyan University for students, the general public, and a large local Albanian-American community, and at the Directors’ Guild of America Theater in New York City to a sold out crowd of cinephiles, Albanian and Kosovar dignitaries and the local Albanian-American community. The audience response was overwhelming, and included a post screening Q&A during which a former leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) now living in the US stood up, identified himself, and then questioned the filmmakers regarding the film’s lack of archival materials from Kosovo’s national film archives. Bardha replied that she and Koçi had attempted to gain access to the Kosovo film and television archives, but that access was not granted.
ACP is working with the director and producer to distribute The Land of Eagles in order to demonstrate the breadth and scope of materials held in Albania’s national film archives in the hopes that this film can be used to further discussions about the importance of preserving these unique historical documents featured in the film, and to encourage further research in these collections and into the 20th-century media representations of conflict in the Western Balkans. This dynamic and unexpected post- screening discussion highlights key concerns for ACP and the broader community of cultural custodians, media historians, and archivists working with suppressed archives in general: issues of ownership and access to state-controlled film archives are never simple, whether the state and their archives are open or closed. Personal and political agendas will inevitably overlap and often conflict with best practices established in the field.
Around the same time as Koçi and Bardha were rediscovering the treasures in the AQSHF archives, in June 2001, the US Embassy arranged for “The American Film Preservation Showcase” to travel to Albania. This time, AQSHF opened up their doors to a non-Albanian diplomatic corps. According to the report of ACP Board Member and former head of the Library of Congress Motion Picture Branch Paul Spehr, who traveled to Tirana as a cultural representative for American film archives and the Library of Congress:
The American Film Preservation Showcase is a program of thirteen feature films and two short subjects selected to show the work of film preservation in the United States by presenting a range of classic American film productions from several of the major film studios. The program was shown in twenty European capitals and Tirana was the final site for this phase of the program…The American films were paired with a selection of outstanding recent Albanian film productions.
Spehr’s report goes on to note that:
The Embassy contacted most of the leading figures in the Albanian film community to help plan the Albanian side of the program. . . Although they were unable to work out cooperative arrangements with the Film Archive, the film directors and the National Cinematography Center were actively involved in getting the program started. The disagreement with the Archive centered on the selection of titles to be shown. . .The prospect of a concentrated showing of Albanian films seemed to meet with great enthusiasm. . .Albanian films are rarely shown in theaters and are more often premiered on television. As often as not, the versions shown on TV are pirated versions presented without permission of the directors and without payment of royalties.
Spehr’s account of his experiences among the Albanian film community in Tirana in 2001 highlights many of the conflicts that were also present in the country at large. Albanians were struggling to move forward, and had yet to come to an internal agreement about the “best” Albanian face to present to an international community. While countries such as Russia had been working since 1995 with the support of UNESCO, the US Library of Congress, Abmedia, the Carnegie Foundation, and other non-governmental partners to survey and digitize their massive collections of film and photos in the Russian State Documentary Film and Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk (RGAKFD)—which is separate from Soviet feature film archives—many of the smaller former Soviet satellites and former communist states in Eastern Europe and the Balkan region, were in a very different position. Never as monolithic as Soviet culture, as Balkans scholar Mark Mazower notes, the region has a centuries’ long history as a cultural, religious, military and economic crossroads. These conflicting interests persist within contemporary governmental and cultural institutions.
At the same moment in the 1990s in which Albania’s political system began crumbling alongside many former Eastern European communist states, media and cultural historians such as Andrew Higson, Geoff Eely, Susan Hayward, Tim Bergfelder, Marsha Kinder, Colin McCabe, Ella Shohat, and Robert Stam, and Fredric Jameson, began to push past the bounded ideas of the nation and to publish their findings on the importance of transnational networks of media production and distribution that have (always) allowed for the emergence of more fluid cultural imaginaries. Working across different national contexts and in different eras, they research and document the ways in which film production and exhibition practices have adapted to the ever-changing exigencies of commerce and the state, using primary source documents related to the films’ productions as well as the films themselves to piece together the histories that are not visible on screen in a finished film production. In order to conduct this important work, historians must have unfettered access to the archives that hold these materials. Preservationists and archives professionals, often linked to specific national and/or governmental mandates, have also reached these same conclusions, but they are not always at liberty to exert their intellectual opinions.
To wit, the most successful interventions of archive professionals in affecting large scale governmental or policy changes in relation to publicly held and managed media collections have occurred in countries such as Australia, where Ray Edmonson—also a member of the ACP Advisory Board—worked to establish best practices and codify the profession of media archiving. His best-known monograph, Audiovisual Archiving: Philosophy and Principles was originally published by UNESCO in 2004, and is now in its third edition (2016). In this book Edmonson outlines key stakes for the field, and most importantly for those entrusted with national audiovisual heritage collections. Edmonson’s statements that “no archive is an island,” and that “all audiovisual archives are interdependent, and rely on each other, and on their international associations, for services, advice and moral support,” are sweeping in scope, but they are the critical principles by which ACP operates and by which ACP works to demonstrate that historically Albania’s film production industry, and AQSHF’s collections, have always been transnational (Edmonson 2004: 58-59). They are bigger than Albania. While they are essential elements of 20th and 21st century Albanian cultural history, they are also a critical component of our global audiovisual heritage.
Moving image archives and collections are a vital space in which to further examine the critiques that thus far have been applied mainly to document archives and more traditional institutional and museological spaces. The multiple meanings that arise from contact with archival materials are in constant flux, depending on a number of variables, such as the original reasons for the creation of the materials, the use and reuse of the materials, and the reception of their use and reuse. The knowledge generated by archival materials resists homogeneity and closure. Equally important are those materials that remain hidden, or as yet, unseen.
Contemporary curatorial practices have made this complex space more visible, and they have simultaneously reduced it to a series of iconic representations. As media historian Tom Gunning noted in a 2015 public lecture at the Society of Cinema and Media Studies annual meeting, internationally, mass media and scholarly representations of media objects rely on a nostalgic imaginary of a lost 20th century cinematic “golden age,” ironically imitating late 19th century anxieties whereby cinema would eclipse all other art forms:
In an era of new media, cinema history cannot simply be a nostalgia for a lost past… I claim that the novelty of motion pictures is not only something that is still evolving as cinema blossoms into new media, but that its history as well is still being discovered and understood… Our goal now, partly inspired by the protean energy of new media, is to sense the persistence of this novelty.
Similarly, the present regime of the visual that privileges the use and reuse of film and photographic materials in the context of news reports, museum exhibitions, documentary and feature films, can often simplify or misrepresent the images, flattening them into a single dimension. Such practices assume an object container for the archive that, in my observation, serves only to highlight the ongoing dislocation of the archive as subject. The work of cultural theorists Walter Benjamin (Illuminations; The Arcades Project),Jacques Derrida (Archive Fever), Michel Foucault (Archaeology of Knowledge) and Carolyn Steedman (Dust)has established the subject spaces of archives in relation to cultural histories, and has simultaneously challenged linear and teleological approaches to the writing of history.
I have observed that within Albanian audiovisual archival institutions there remains a relatively fixed and immobile representation of the function of archives. This has not been my observation among artists, filmmakers, scholars, and others who have gained or wish to gain access to these collections, nor has it been my observation at screenings of ACP restorations in Albania or abroad. This general, albeit anecdotal sense of desire for access to these materials only supports my claim that while the physical spaces of archival repositories may be fixed in a particular geographic location, the contents of the archives are inherently mobile, and must circulate.
Fortunately, approaches to the study, creation and use of archives by curators such as Alexander Horwath who heads the Austrian Filmmuseum, and scholar Sabine Hake's recent article “German Cinema as European Cinema: Learning from Film History,” incorporate and reflect this inherent mobility. Hake has been writing on German national cinema since the 1990s, but most recently she has begun to re-evaluate some of her earlier conclusions on the distinctness of German cinematic productions, reassessing her own earlier theories of what seemed a more monolithic media culture through the lens of media convergence that has allowed her greater access to German media archives and the production histories of “German” films. In a relatively recent (2012) interview, Horwath was asked to comment on the writing of history through film, and in particular the role of the cinematheque in writing a history of cinema in the age of media convergence. Horwath confirms the existence of a history that is larger than the films contained in or exhibited from its collections, stating that, “a cinematheque or film museum, any museum actually, should understand itself as a place of production” (Arroba 2012: 13).
Horwath also identifies an important aspect of film historiography vis-à-vis smaller countries, with smaller cinematic outputs over the past century. This observation is particularly relevant to Albania. He claims that they have the ability to “put their own self-evident truths into perspective… [S]maller countries or film cultures with a lesser ‘global force’ have this by necessity, there is less ‘self-assuredness’, if you like. And, of course, their positions, their critical traditions, their film cultures have been marginalized in the process” (Arroba 2012: 26). One of ACP’s primary goals in support of AQSHF has been to work together with the Albanian film community and their national film archives to address their inherent inferiority complex. The divisions among Albanian film heritage and production professionals that Paul Spehr notes in his 2001 report remain evident today, and they have hindered the development of a long-term preservation strategy for a unique and historically significant national collection. There is much that needs to be written about Albanian cinema, but this can only be done if the archives and the archives professionals come together and draft a working plan based on their assessment of their collections and their understanding of best practices in the field of media preservation.
The means by which cultural custodians have adapted the archival concepts of conservation, preservation and restoration due to technological, political/governmental and financial necessity in order to address the current practice of “digital preservation for access” are a key focus for ACP’s work with AQSHF. I have chosen to use the term “digital preservation for access,” because it acknowledges the critical question asked by audiovisual archives professionals worldwide. Can digitization actually be considered a legitimate form of preservation for media objects that were not born-digital? It is certainly the accepted international format for access, across all media archives—state-run or private—but digital formats themselves are constantly changing and improving. Thus, even in the largest and wealthiest archives the establishment of metadata standards continues to be a topic of debate.
In terms of analog film preservation, the hardline answer to whether or not a digital restoration of a film can be considered preservation is: No. However, in terms of analog video formats and the obsolescence of so many of these formats, digital restoration of born-analog video content can be, and often is considered preservation. While the leading voices from FIAF (International Federation of Film Archives) member archives such as Nicola Mazzanti at the Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique recognize that film to film may remain the ideal standard, for film heritage institutions (FHI) throughout the world, for some time now this ideal has not been attainable in Europe. Even in France, where the government has made extensive efforts to fund preservation initiatives, the results have been less than ideal. Thus, most European countries with smaller media industries find themselves in a bind. While governments continue to sponsor film production, a sufficient combination of public and private funding has yet to be made available to ensure full preservation of European FHI collections.
In the 2011 report funded by the European Commission, DG Information Society and Media titled Challenges Of The Digital Era For Film Heritage Institutions, Mazzanti notes that with the disappearance of production professionals equipped to work with film, the only means to preserving Europe’s cultural heritage are digital means. Mazzanti has outlined a “do or die” scenario in which the expertise involved in analog film production and laboratory processing is becoming more and more scarce as young professionals are trained in digital, rather than analog technologies. Thus reaching the conclusion that digitization is necessary for access, and that the ideal window for implementing large-scale digitization efforts is now. The report predicts a “dramatic dual loss” of analog and digital content if FHIs wait any longer to implement digital preservation (Mazzanti 2011: 27).
The report goes on to note that despite the need to jump on the digital bandwagon, there are many variables that FHIs must understand, and there will be many choices that individual institutions will have to make based on their specific mission statements, government mandates, funding structures, and long-range goals:
Digital technologies have the potential to offer hitherto unprecedented levels of access to cinematic heritage... Organisations responsible for the preservation of cinematic content will need to adopt strategies for managing both digital and analogue content or be relegated to managing a collection from a certain window of time in the history of cinema (Mazzanti 2011: 59).
ACP came into being in this moment of great cultural shift within FHIs. This article is the first published account of ACP’s work. As ACP moves beyond its original goal of solely helping AQSHF to save its unique collections, and to embrace the larger project of encouraging the opening of all of Albania’s film and media archives (TV, folklore, secret police, etc)—and to reveal and build upon the existing bridges within the Balkans among archives professionals in neighboring Kosovo, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Slovenia, Greece, and Turkey while joining forces with professionals from Central, Eastern and Western Europe, Australia and the US—the time is right to take stock of what has been accomplished to date, the types of networks ACP has created, and the transnational and international partnerships that ACP must continue to foster and develop in order to increase access to audiovisual collections first in Albania, and then in formerly closed archives in the surrounding region.
Albania’s government is indeed making strides in this direction. Since late 2014, the administration of Prime Minister Edi Rama has opened secret bunkers built under the Hoxha regime, announcing plans to turn one specific site into a museum of communist era Albanian art and artifacts (Anon. 2014). And, perhaps even more encouraging, in January 2015 Edi Rama tweeted that Albania would finally open their communist era files to public scrutiny (Anon. 2015).
Conflicting Nationalisms: Preserving communist era Albanian cinema
When Prime Minister Edi Rama led a delegation of Albanian and Western officials on a tour of a 106-room five-story bunker near Tirana on November 22, 2014, he stated “We have opened today a thesaurus of the collective memory that presents thousands of pieces of the sad events and life under communism” (Anon. 2014). When I read this quote from Rama, I thought immediately of the work of Gazmend Kapllani, an Albanian-born journalist, poet, and writer, with a PhD in political science, who has lived between Albania, Greece, the UK, and the US. He recently published two books titled The Short Border Handbook (2009), and My Name is Europe (2010). They are intended to be part of a trilogy, the last of which is still being written. His third book will focus on the parallel lives of two important protagonists in modern Albanian history: the communist dictator Enver Hoxha and Albania’s first female writer, Musine Kokalari, who was exiled and imprisoned by Hoxha’s regime.
Much like contemporary Albanian films, his books are part personal memoir and part political and social commentary. Kapllani is emblematic of two generations of Albanians who experienced the reign of Enver Hoxha. He has claimed that immigration doesn’t exist without history and history doesn’t exist without immigration, therefore all of his writing explores how totalitarianism, immigration, borders, and Balkan history have shaped private lives and personal narratives. He has been living in Greece for the past 20 years and writes his novels in Greek, which is not his mother tongue. According to Konstantina Georganta, the title of Kapllani’s second book My Name is Europe
(f)oregrounds the agency of the narrator through the use of the first-person pronoun, but also, most importantly, the sense of empowerment entailed in and given by the process of giving and/or appropriating a name…Kapllani incorporates a tension between self and other into his novel, when he writes that the main anxiety of the Balkan people, who have lived together for centuries, centres upon questions of maintaining their difference and the purity of their origins at the time of nation state-building; he notes that “Balkan nationalism is nationalism for the weak and those fearing about their identity’: ‘Who are we like?’” (Georganta 2012: 188).
Kapllani’s generation (those that came of age toward the end of the communist era) “grew up with, created, and held onto the thought of borders” (Kapllani, Migrants Moving History: Narratives of Diversity in Europe) He rightly notes that immigration has always brought benefits to whichever country in whichever era that has received immigrants—whether these immigrants arrived through open borders or clandestine routes. As more and more Albanians have migrated since the 1990s, their culture—which includes their cinema—has migrated with them. But, unlike the food and dress and faces of the people, to get closer to the cinema of Albania one has to understand the Albanian language, because so many films had never been translated into another language, or screened theatrically outside of Albania.
The films that did circulate beyond Albania were those that traveled to the Giffoni Film Festival in Italy, and those that were screened in China during the Cultural Revolution. The films that circulated in China also maintained a cult following even after the break between Albania and China in the 1970s. When ACP Founding Board Member Thomas Logoreci and I met with the Telluride Film Festival director Tom Luddy in San Francisco in 2013 to propose an ACP restoration screening at an upcoming Telluride Festival, Luddy recounted to us a story he had heard from Chinese-American actress Joan Chen. Chen had been a teenager in China during the 1970s, and in fact recalled seeing one of the Kinostudio era films ACP plans to preserve: Victory over Death (Ngadhnjim Mbi Vdekjen, co-directed by Gezim Erabara and Piro Milkani, 1967). Chen said that seeing the teenage heroines of the film and watching their stories of love and death in WWII era Albania unfold on screen were a sort of sexual awakening for her. While Albanian films of the era were by no means risqué, according to Chen they were more forward than Chinese films she had watched, and she also looked to Albanian films for fashion tips. Chen’s statements can be reasonably confirmed by the appearance of clips from Victory over Death in the 2004 Chinese film Electric Shadows (Xiao Jing) that compares movie-going in contemporary Beijing with Cultural Revolution era Ningxia. Thomas Logoreci also shared similar stories that he had been told by Chinese video storeowners in California (USA) who confirm that Victory over Death remained in circulation in their Chinatown shops on VHS and DVD (with Chinese subtitles or dubbed in Chinese) well into the 2000s. It is not known precisely how many of Albania’s films traveled to, or remained in China, but ACP is beginning work with AQSHF to try to document this transnational distribution history.
A bit more is known about the ways in which select Albanian films were smuggled into and out of France and Sweden in the 1970s and 1980s. But, until now, most of the individuals who can corroborate these stories have been reluctant to share them. While AQSHF maintains several foreign language film prints subtitled in Albanian (almost 600 titles, according to their records)—mainly from Central, Eastern and Western Europe—there do not seem to be records of how or why they were obtained, or of the frequency with which they screened in Albania’s state-run theaters or on state-run television. It has also come to the attention of ACP that the Kinostudio maintained a special office for managing Albanian films that were screened abroad. The subtitled prints were prepared by the Kinostudio technicians, and paper records were maintained with the dates and locations of all foreign screenings. This office also received and processed the prints on their return to Albania. When AQSHF moved from their original location in the Kinostudio complex in the 1990s, these film prints stayed behind. It is believed that they may still be in storage on the Kinostudio property, or in the hands of one of the TV companies that took up residence on the Kinostudio lot post-regime. If these prints and/or the paper records from this office were to be located, it would go a long way to helping to flesh out a history of Albanian film exhibition in a global context.
Because I recognize the importance of these firsthand accounts and anecdotes in slowly realizing a more complete Albanian film historiography, I take any opportunity that I can to ask those who were involved in Kinostudio era productions about their work. Cinematographer Faruk Basha, who worked closely with filmmaker Xhanfise Keko and who also ran the Kinostudio film lab from the late 1960s through 1985 was recently in the US and I had the opportunity to spend some time with him. I made a point of asking him about this ‘foreign distribution office’ and about his own work. Basha did not know the whereabouts of these film prints or the paper records, but he was able to answer a few of my questions regarding Albania’s trading partners and where they purchased their film equipment.
I was curious about this because I had seen many stills from the set of our second ACP restoration, Tomka and His Friends (Tomka Dhe Shokët e Tij,Xhanfise Keko, 1977). While I could tell the 35mm camera that Basha was using to shoot Tomka and His Friends was an ARRI, all the markings had been stripped off the camera. Basha confirmed that this was standard practice. Nearly all film equipment was purchased from France or Japan, and Basha himself was sent to these countries to procure the equipment. By 1981, Albania had purchased several state of the art cameras from Japan. In addition to using these to shoot new feature and documentary films, the cameras were also employed for special effects purposes. Basha claimed that the principal special effect for which they were used was the erasure of persona non gratae (those who had fallen out of favor with Hoxha) from scenes in films. He went on to tell of the number of offers he received from colleagues between France and Albania to help him and his immediate family leave Albania for good. However, he never took that risk because he knew that if he did the rest of his family in Albania would be sent to an internment camp.
Faruk Basha’s recollection of the superiority of the Japanese equipment that Albanian productions began using during the 1980s was corroborated by another first-person account from Arsim Çejku, whom I met at the Library of Congress European Reading Room in Washington, DC at a lecture on post-regime Albania. At the talk, I introduced myself and the work of ACP and Çejku approached me to share stories of his own experiences with Albanian cinema in the 1980s, when he lived between Kosovo and the former Yugoslavia. He claimed that by the 1980s most of the Balkan countries were producing poor quality cinema. Then suddenly in 1981 Albanian films started circulating in movie theaters in the region, and they looked incredible. In his words, “The Albanians were killing it in all the theaters.” He could not recall film titles off the top of his head in the short amount of time we had to speak, but I am following up with Çejku in order to continue to piece together the ever-expanding notion of Albanian film distribution under a “closed” regime.
There is so much yet to be discovered, and by slowly bringing the original film elements out of AQSHF’s vaults, and into professional preservation facilities outside of Albania, the complicated, and often traumatic stories of film production under a dictatorial regime are beginning to be told. Until I began writing this article, these anecdotes were part of the intangible results of ACP’s preservation efforts on specific Kinostudio era films. These are the types of stories that one cannot begin to glean from screening poor quality YouTube streams made from bootleg Betacam SP tapes created in the 1990s from Kinostudio-era projection prints. While media convergence has indeed provided access to so many Albanian films, the careful work of restoring the original films, and reconstructing their production and distribution histories is a long-term project that requires dedicated professional archival technicians and historians.
Thus, cinemas, like people, migrate, are displaced, disappear, and reappear. But, until very recently (roughly the past 10 years), there had been very little interest in looking at older Albanian films made during the Kinostudio era. These films are nostalgic for Albanians in the diaspora, but were deemed too foreign, or too propagandistic for international audiences to appreciate. Albanians at home and in the diaspora tend to watch these films only with other Albanians. In fact, until ACP began promoting the restoration of Kinostudio era productions, international film audiences have come to learn of Albania as a place from non-Albanian voices. Most notably Gianni Amelio’s 1994 film Lamerica that examined the collapse of Albania’s isolationist regime in the early 1990s and Italy’s neocolonialist attempts to re-claim Albania as they had under Mussolini in the 1920s and 1930s.
Though Amelio’s film was widely acclaimed by Italian and international critics and audiences, its reception by Albanians was much less enthusiastic. Among the most noteworthy criticisms was that of the novelist Ismail Kadaré, an Albanian émigré́ living in France, who objected to what he perceived as Amelio’s insufficient attention to historical details pertaining to the film’s backstory (Silvestri 2001). Many Albanian viewers also objected to the film’s portrayal of their compatriots as gullible consumers of Italian television, easily duped by false impressions of Italy as a land of unparalleled wealth and opportunity. Several images from Lamerica, and particularly the iconic representation of the battered ship packed with desperate migrants, fed into a growing repertoire of representational tropes repeatedly featured in the Italian news, which Albanians found distasteful.
In effect, despite the considerable aesthetic qualities of Lamerica and the undeniable power of its humanitarian subtext, it could be argued that the film’s representation of Albanian poverty and desperation unwittingly participated in a broader discursive process that served to freeze the image of the Albanian migrant into an iconic figure of abjection. This often happens with respect to Albania. In fact, another website, a wiki known as the “uncyclopedia,” which is supposed to be a humorous and non-factual site, has done a Borat-style send up of Albanian cinema, creating a page for a short-lived, fictitious movement in Albanian cinema known as “Albanian Interpretationalist Cinema.” It is often in this form of satire, that one can locate deeper-seated issues that bring to the fore the politics undergirding the formation of institutions such as national cinemas, and the deeper-seated tensions of abjection and belonging that are the very real cultural and political consequences of Enver Hoxha’s reign over Albania.
The quotes from this ironic wiki are telling: “Albanian Interpretationalist cinema is different from Albanian cinema in that the term ‘Interpretationalist’ is added, making the already incomprehensible Albanian films super-incomprehensible. These ‘movies’ are Albanian versions of otherwise popular and shallow films already made in fancier, happier, better countries like Lithuania, Antarctica, and the alligator-infested Crocodile Republic.” The amount of information available in the English language, Italian language, French language, Russian language, and even the Albanian language on the history of film exhibition, production and distribution in Albania is sorely lacking. Aniko Imre’s meticulously edited anthology A Companion to Eastern European Cinemas (2012) features Bruce Williams chapter “Red Shift: New Albanian Cinema and Its Dialogue with the Old,” and notes that while scholarship and criticism of Kinostudio era cinema was rare, there was a 1977 trilingual English/French/Albanian compendium and catalog produced by the Kinostudio titled The Albanian Film. Williams also notes that there were films of high production and aesthetic quality, and that the neglect of this cinema is a truly unfortunate consequence of the isolationist regime (Williams 2012). This speaks to the larger ramifications of Enver Hoxha’s attempts to maintain an isolated nation state in a region that has always known migrations.
As I find myself spending more time in Albania, in the film archives in Tirana, and among the Albanian people, I must admit that I find this wiki send up of the mysterious Albanian people just slightly more tolerable than the slick work of producer Luc Besson and director Olivier Megaton in their films Taken (2008) and Taken 2 (2012). While this website is clearly a parody, what is evident upon reviewing this page is that its creators had indeed had some contact with the Albanian culture and language and within this irreverence there lies, at least, an attempt to acknowledge both a foreignness and a curiosity for what might exist behind the borders of this newly emerging democratic country. In contrast, the Taken franchise instead of acknowledging a lack of understanding of a people or country based on limited contact with them simply relegates all Albanians to gangsters and criminals. Dina Iordanova has addressed issues of self representation and cross cultural representation in two books (2001; 2006) on the subject of Balkan cinema, which help to contextualize the broad strokes with which Albanian characters are painted in contemporary blockbuster cinema. Yet, she has also been critiqued by Leen Engelen for not addressing the intertextual nature of much historical revisionism in narrative cinema, most particularly in the historical epic genre (Engelen and Vande Winkel 2007). This is, of course, a very distilled analysis of this series, with over the top stereotypes of Albanian characters, which the films’ creators claim are drawn from actual accounts of several UN and Human Rights Watch reports on criminality and corruption in the Western Balkans. There is no doubt that Albania has serious steps to take in regards to their position in the global black market of human and drug trafficking. And in fact, Albanian filmmakers have confronted these issues head on, most notably Bujar Alimani’s Amnesty (Amnistia 2011) and most recently, Fatmir Koçi’s Amsterdam Express (2014). As one of the first fresh voices to emerge in Albanian cinema post regime, with films such as Necrology (Nekrologji 1993) and Tirana Year Zero (2001), and as a member of the ACP Advisory Board, Koçi’s nuanced representations of Albania in exile, Albanians in the diaspora, and the shifting face of Albanians in their homeland demonstrate that Albanian cinema has something to say and to share with the world. Several Albanian filmmakers have also addressed their country’s struggles to reconcile vestiges of a pre-modern feudal culture and the more recent communist past. Kujtim Çashku’s Kolonel Bunker (1996) and Gjergi Xhuvani’s Slogans (Parullat, 2001) are two films that have screened internationally to great acclaim. In 2014, two young filmmakers and two of the founding members of ACP, Iris Elezi and Thomas Logoreci released their first feature film Bota, which also addresses the persecution of individual citizens for “anti-state” activities under Hoxha. These post-regime productions demonstrate that filmmakers who worked under Hoxha and those that emerged in post-regime Albania did not and do not work in a cultural vacuum. They have been influenced by the world beyond Albania, and vice versa.
To return to the inspired work of Kapllani, in 2012 I asked myself one of his most compelling questions, “What exists in the world beyond the borders?” And, if one is to push beyond the borders —to encounter the sights, sounds, smells, faces, and representations of a culture—what cinemas might exist in an Albania without borders?
This is where I found myself in 2012, in terms of my knowledge of Albanian film history, when Thomas Logoreci and Iris Elezi first reached out to me to ask me to provide consultation to the Albanian Central State Film Archives that were struggling to maintain their collections with very little funding from the Albanian government, a lack of adequate professional archival training for the staff of the archives, and very little support from international archival associations.
In fact, what I knew of the content of Kinostudio-era Albanian cinema was only through films of Albanian emigrants like Anri Sala, who has made his home beyond Albania’s borders and has made his name in the international art world. For an archivist like myself, to be able to view archival footage from Albania in Intervista (1998)— Sala’s reflection on his country’s 20th century political history viewed through his own personal family history and examination of his mother’s role in youth party politics in Hoxha-era Albania— it was just what I needed to see to understand how many more moving image documents there were worth saving in Albania’s film and television archives.
During the Kinostudio era documentary and newsreel productions outnumbered feature films by nearly 3 to 1. Yet, it is the feature films— many of them historical revisionist narratives that Bruce Williams notes had the most predictable themes—that remain the most loved and most desired by Albanian audiences at home and abroad. It would seem that despite the heavy-handed messages in these films, they remain more palatable to those that suffered under the regime because there remains a certain distance in the fictitious rendering of Albania’s history. In contrast, the documentary films and newsreels may be an all too recent reminder of what Albania has yet to come to terms with about its past. In my visits to AQSHF since 2012, I have had very limited access to the documentary film materials, but as ACP’s relationship with AQSHF deepens, the goal is to spend more time assessing these collections as well.
Next Steps for ACP
I have attempted to outline the genesis of ACP and the undeniable need for a concerted international effort to bring Albanian films out of the archives and back into circulation. I have emphasized that a great deal of misinformation can circulate in the absence of access to the actual documents (the films, photos, paper records, first hand accounts from film professionals) of Albanian film history. It has been inspiring to witness the growth of ACP’s transnational support and clearly outlined agenda of open access to Albania’s cinematic cultural heritage.
The mix of a tangible and intangible heritage that cinema enfolds, by its very design, is something that is perhaps, best expressed through moving images, rather than simply through words. This short video, available via ACP’s official website, presents ACP’s work to the world. It is a visual calling card that blends first person visual documentation of ACP’s efforts in Albania with select clips from ACP’s first three restoration projects.
A brief video history of ACP
As evidenced in this video, the campaign to relocate the collections of the archives to a new, mold free facility is at the heart of our mission. We intend to achieve this goal by continuing to develop partnerships with governmental and intergovernmental agencies, and the concerned community of international filmmakers, film archivists, and film scholars.
Through our “Five Films in Five Years” campaign, we are making steady strides toward our longer-term goals. It is important to note that ACP did not form as a sort of ‘flash in the pan,’ rescue mission. From its inception, and thanks to the number of dedicated film archives professionals who have lent their expertise from years of work in the field, ACP formed with the intention of creating a solid support mechanism to achieve sustainable access to Albania’s film heritage. In our third year (2015), we can boast three preserved films—two feature films: The Second November and Tomka and His Friends, and one short ethnographic film: KF-16 (Ramazan Bogdani, circa 1976). Each of these films has screened first at film festivals and symposia, and has then been made available to larger audiences for theatrical screenings. We are subtitling all of our restorations in both English and French, in order to ensure a broader international audience for the films. We are also working to create subtitles in Italian and German for these films. The furthest that one of our restorations has travelled so far is to Thailand, where our first feature film restoration of The Second November screened at the National Film Archives of Thailand in 2014, with both English and Thai subtitles (created from ACP’s English titles by the Thai archives). At present, ACP is also working with the rights holders for each of the restorations so that we can license the films for VOD, Blu-ray and DVD distribution.
This next phase of access will allow greater circulation of the restorations, and will also provide a much-needed financial base to support future restorations. As ACP’s reputation and success grows, it will be important to move from a model of in-kind, sponsored restorations that have been funded by generous donations and grants from like-minded film preservation specialists and cultural institutions, to a self-sustaining model that will allow ACP to remain independent from a specific political agenda (be it US, UK, Albania, or a greater European agenda).
The five films that the ACP Board selected for the five-year campaign were chosen in careful consultation with the Albanian members of our advisory board. Filmmaker Artan Minarolli, who was heading the Albanian National Center for Cinematography (QKK) at the time of my first trip to Tirana, was the person who suggested Gjika’s The Second November should be the first film restored by ACP. I met Minarolli with Iris Elezi and Thomas Logoreci, and within the space of two hours we had come up with a list of over ten Kinostudio era feature films. Over the course of two days of discussions with AQSHF staff, and Albanian filmmakers, the list was narrowed down to five feature films. Each film chosen was popular with Albanian audiences, and we chose popular films in order to demonstrate that communist-era Albanian films could be appreciated beyond the confines of their socialist-realist production histories. Each of these films could also be termed historical revisionist narratives. Such revisionism was common in Hoxha-era propaganda. Yet, despite this veneer, as Bruce Williams has pointed out in “Red Shift,” there is something going on beneath the surface that film scholars and audiences have yet to fully explore and appreciate.
The Second November still screens annually on November 28, the anniversary of Albania’s independence from Ottoman rule. It was chosen as a consummate example of the work of director Viktor Gjika, who served as head of the Kinostudio until the end of the Hoxha-era. Despite the wide-acclaim for this film, and the fact that most school children can recite the dialogue from memory, there is also a darker side to Nëntori’s production history. The film was produced in 1982, in the waning days of the regime, and at a moment when political tensions were escalating between Albania and Kosovo. By restoring and re-releasing this film, ACP hopes to encourage future scholarship on this subject.
Our second selection, Tomka and His Friends, set in WWII era Albania, during the German occupation of the country. Tomka is a personal favorite of ACP Board Member Mark Cousins. This film was chosen to highlight the work of an important female filmmaker, Xhanfise Keko, who directed a number of films for children, and cultivated a troupe of child actors and worked in a neo-realist style.
Our third selection, Face to Face (Ballë per Ballë, 1979), directed by Kujtim Çashku and Piro Milkani, and based on the novel by Ismail Kadare, recounts the story of the Albanian naval standoff with the Soviets that led to Albania’s break from Russia in 1961. Face to Face also exhibits some of the worst signs of deterioration of all films in the AQSHF collections. Due to a chemical mix-up in the original processing of the film, it has deteriorated at a faster rate than other films in the archives and it requires attention. It also serves as an excellent example of the work of two important Albanian filmmakers of the Kinostudio era, both of whom continue to work today.
Our fourth feature, The Captain (Kapedani, 1972) was chosen because it breaks from socialist-realist and historical-revisionist trends. It is a satire, set in the early 1970s Albania that depicts the new roles that women were attaining in Hoxha-era Albania. Because of its unique focus on feminist themes, and the fact that it managed to skirt censorship regulations, it is an Albanian favorite. ACP is working with the Albanian Ministry of Culture to petition UNESCO to add this film to the Memory of the World Registry in 2016.
Finally, our fifth feature is the film that continues to enjoy cult status in China and the Chinese diaspora. Victory over Death (Ngadhnjim Mbi Vdekjen, 1967). Co-directed by Gezim Erabara and Piro Milkani, this film is also set in WWII era Albania during the German occupation. Yet unlike the boys who help the Albanian partisans to defeat the Germans in Tomka and His Friends, the young female protagonists in Victory over Death can only defeat their fascist occupiers through physical death.
We have completed restoration on The Second November with our partners at Colorlab Corp. (2012) and Tomka with our partners at the US Library of Congress (2014). We will begin work on Face to Face next year. In the meantime, despite the fact that they are not listed on our Five Films in Five Years campaign, we have restored two other films. The first is a short ethnographic film that was restored by the students in NYU’s Moving Image Archives Program with B&B Optics and Colorlab. The second is Dhimiter Anagnosti’s A Tale from the Past (Perralle Nga Kaluara, 1987), one of the last Kinostudio productions ever made. Due to the persistent efforts of ACP, AQSHF and the Albanian Ministry of Culture came together with financial and technical assistance of the Hungarian Filmlab and Raiffeissen Bank to complete the digital restoration of this film. The restoration premiered in Tirana in the spring of 2015.
Long-term Storage of Albania's National Film Heritage
The vaults where the films are currently stored are in very poor condition. The roof has been patched several times, but still leaks. The walls and floorboards are also leaking, moisture, mold and mildew have crept into all these cracks. The mold spores are in the air and have even entered many of the film cans, causing damaging mold growth on the original camera negatives and the projection prints. The staff of the archives are constantly cleaning and re-cleaning these film reels to try to keep the damage at bay. They are exposing themselves to harmful mold without proper ventilation while performing this important task. The building is the root of the problems and it is evident that it cannot be salvaged long-term. In 2014 some serious strides were made to shore up the building’s foundation, and to seal areas from water seepages. Winters in the temperate climate of Tirana are notoriously wet, so it was essential that this work be completed before the onset of winter. The Albanian Ministry of Culture did allocate a small amount of extra funding for this work, but they have let it be known that there will not be more funds available to continue this work in 2015. This makes ACP’s goal of seeking alternate long-term storage options for the film, photo and paper collections all the more imperative. We will continue to work with the Albanian Ministries of Culture and Defense to realize these goals, but we realized that outside funding, in the form of private, corporate or intergovernmental grants would be required.
ACP's Bunker Project
Since November 2012, ACP's team has been visiting various sites in and around Tirana to determine the feasibility of a large-scale development effort to repurpose a system of tunnels for archival storage for the film, photos and paper collections of AQSHF, workspace for archives staff, and permanent exhibition space for the hidden treasures in the AQSHF archives. ACP is also in discussion with the Albanian Ministries to determine the feasibility of a joint facility for other significant and endangered cultural heritage collections in Albania. These include collections of archeological treasures, books and manuscripts, and the Marubi photography archives. Such projects will not be realized overnight, and as we work to bring together coalitions of professional experts and governmental functionaries, we will continue our individual film restoration projects, and public screenings to keep ACP visible and to continue to build support for the projects. It is worth noting that in Macedonia, Turkey and Greece, the national parliaments have begun to recognize the importance of their countries’ cinematic legacies, and have created legislation to recognize this heritage, while also raising funds to build state of the art conservation, preservation and exhibition facilities. For ACP, this is a positive sign of a regional, developing trend, and one which Albania and her smaller Balkan neighbors can look to for inspiration in modeling their future initiatives.
Preservation, Restoration, Exhibition and Access
Because ACP is dedicated to ensuring the legacy of Albanian cinema for future generations in an increasingly interconnected global media landscape, we aim to work with the groups already working to develop new models of preservation, restoration and access in state run archives, particularly in the Western Balkans. One EU funded initiative that ran for 3 years (2012-2014) made great inroads in bringing together all of the region’s archives. The French National Audiovisual Institute’s Expert program (INA EXPERT), with French and EU funding, staged bi-annual meetings throughout the region. Each meeting of “The Balkans Memory Project” consisted of hands on training and lectures by international experts in the field of audio-visual archiving, and site-specific visits to each of the regional archives. Over the course of six meetings in three years, the archives staffs from each country were able to dialogue and to learn from each others’ successes and failures. I had the opportunity to present at the second installation of the Balkans Memory Project, which was held on site at AQSHF in Tirana in November of 2012. In the first year of the program, the archives staff was just beginning to divulge their concerns over the physical state of their collections, and the buildings housing these collections. Instead of hiding the facts, bringing to light the less than ideal conditions that exist for archives in the region also allowed the team from INA, and someone like myself, who has worked in US archives, to share that the structural and institutional problems that media archives in the Western Balkans face are not solely a regional dilemma. Despite more state of the art facilities in France and the US, a great many collections go unattended and are in dire need of preservation because the funding is simply not available to hire enough staff to carry out preservation on the materials.
An interesting result of this discussion, and a watershed moment for these regional archives was the realization that because their countries were smaller, and had different histories of film production, exhibition and distribution, for the most part, they did not have the massive numbers of films and ephemera that archives in the US and other parts of Europe held. The centralization of most media production under state controlled and sponsored institutions throughout the communist era had actually allowed for a greater organization and consolidation of the material history of film production in this region.
I have continued to reinforce that for Albania and the work of ACP, this is indeed a silver lining to the cloud of film deterioration. Recognizing the legacy of the regime on all aspects of Albanian culture and society, and working within existing infrastructures to make steady progress to develop and institute best practices for preservation, restoration and access based on established international standards will eventually allow the archives to monetize their collections for the benefit of the archives facilities and ongoing preservation. The key long-term goals of ACP in terms of changing prevailing attitudes and bolstering a genuine understanding of the historical and cultural value of Albania’s film heritage are: continuing professional education and training for archives staff; a long term preservation plan that aims to restore three to five important Albanian films annually—at least one feature film, one documentary film, and one newsreel or animated film; including Albanian cinema in film history curricula worldwide, particularly at the university level; renewed attention to contemporary film production through an appreciation of Albania’s archival cinema; and a multi-year strategic plan to achieve digital access via online streaming of content and a more robust digital database of all moving image assets in Albanian archives.
“If You Build It, They Will Come”
To borrow a phrase from a well-known Hollywood production, “If you build it, they will come.” Unlike the Iowa farmer in the Hollywood film Field of Dreams (Phil Alden Robinson, 1989), the ACP team did not hear voices telling them to attempt the seemingly impossible, instead we recognized the riches within the collection that most of the world within and beyond Albania had no idea existed, we put our heads together, and began to think of ways to begin to raise money to help restore Albanian films and to help raise funds for a new facility for the AQSHF materials. The solution was staring us right in the face. Albania has thousands and thousands of bunkers left over from the time of Enver Hoxha. ACP is confident that one of these bunkers will become the new home for AQSHF and for other Albanian archival collections. As we continue to work through existing infrastructures and institutions to make this a physical and legal reality in Albania, we will continue to preserve Albanian films in the diaspora, title by title, and screen them in Albania and abroad. Time is still on our side. Many of the filmmakers, the production teams, and the actors who worked together to produce these films during the Kinostudio era are still alive today. Each public screening sponsored by ACP has also included individuals who worked under Albania’s state-sponsored film system. The first person accounts of these cultural ambassadors and de facto film historians have brought these films back to life for new generations.
The November 2014 screening of the restoration of Tomka and His Friends at the Tirana International Film Festival serves as a crowning example of how the restoration of Albanian’s communist era cinema is helping to open up discussions in Albania and beyond, and to allow a new perspective to shed light on some of Albania’s darkest days.
The wonder of cinema is that its images persist—materially, intellectually, ideologically and emotionally—Albania is one of many countries with a history of censorship in art, politics and culture. We must look and listen in order to learn and to understand. And, to see the ways in which, despite strict rules and censors, films and filmmakers found ways to share stories that had a human component, and that were not simply working for the party.
1] The ACP Advisory Board consists of: Mark Cousins, Elvira Diamanti, Dennis Doros, Ray Edmonson, Iris Elezi, Fatmir Koçi, Reto Kromer, Thomas Logoreci, Regina Longo, Andrea McCarty, Nancy McLean, Artan Minarolli, Veton Nurkollari, Stephen Parr, Paul Spehr, Dan Streible, Russ Suniewick, Roxanne Suratgar, Eriona Vyshka, Ken Weissman, and Caroline Yeager.
2] For the complete statistics of all materials held in the Albanian Central State Film Archives, including the number of foreign titles in their collections, follow the link.
3] Paul Spehr, “Travel to Tirana, Albania as American Cultural Specialist for The American Film Preservation Showcase June 12, 2001 to June 19, 2001 A Report.” This was an internal report filed with the US Library of Congress and the US State Department in August 2001. Report courtesy of Paul Spehr.
4] To learn more about the development of the Russian Online Archives portals, see their official website, which outlines this history and the stakeholders.
5] See Bergfelder 2000; Bergfelder 2005. Also Hayward 2000 and Higson 2000. See also Eely and Suny, 1996; Kinder 2993. And, for rethinking national cinemas beyond Europe see Shohat and Stam 1994; Jameson 1992.
7] See Kapllani’s fellowship statement and profile.
8] While Amelio’s film is the most known, it was not the first foreign production to be shot in Albania after the collapse of the regime. Another Italian director, Gil Rossellini shot one episode of his Enemy Mine series entitled White Faces in Albania (1990).
10] The third and final installment of the series Taken 3 opened internationally in January 2015, and despite the end of the second episode indicating that the blood feud would continue, the Albanian characters have been replaced with Russian Mafiosos.
11] Unlike Koçi, who came of age in the final days of the Kinostudio era, but produced all of his films post-regime, filmmaker Kujtim Çashku’s work straddles the divides of pre and post regime Albanian cinema. Çashku’s work is the subject of a separate article in this special issue of KinoKultura, and ACP is also working with the filmmaker to preserve Face to Face (1979), which recounts the story of Albania’s split from the Soviets in 1961.
12] ACP’s success is due to the amazing group of individuals who donate their time, energy and expertise. All ACP Advisory Board Members and ACP’s directors volunteer their time to this cause.
13] To read more about The Balkans Memory Project, see the official website of INA EXPERT.
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Regina M. Longo © 2016
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