The Archaeology of Memory: tracing Balkan(ist) fragments in Albert Kahn's Albanie

By Ana Grgić

Memory lingers to certain places in which it becomes visible; the historian Pierre Nora terms these lieux de mémoire, sites of memory (Nora 1989: 1997). The notion of traceable memory adhering to moving images can be located in the archival film, which is a point of convergence for memory and formation of identity as readdressed from a contemporary viewing. “These lieux de mémoire are fundamentally remains, the ultimate embodiments of a memorial consciousness that has barely survived a historical age that calls out for memory because it has abandoned it." (Nora, 1989, 12). The earliest moving images of Albania’s city streets and people are re-used, mediated and screened, perhaps for the first time in front of an audience, one hundred years after their production, coinciding with the centenary celebration of Albania’s independence, through Eol Cashku’s 2012 film Albanie 1912.[1] Eol Cashku’s film is significant for a number of reasons: it connects metaphorically the pre-communist identity of Albania with its post-modern identity, erasing the period of socialist dictatorial regime under Enver Hoxha, and reinforces the unity and identity of Albania as a nation-state through archival images as a historical document and testimony. However, in this essay I focus on the interpretation of the original footage from the Albert Kahn Museum within the context of its production (1912–1913), rather than examine the contemporary reception and issues of re-using the Albert Kahn footage in Eol Cashku’s institutional documentary for the celebration of Albania's one hundred years of independence.

The archival film(s)
The original footage, comprising two unedited black-and-white films, was shot by one of Albert Kahn’s cinematographers during their journey in the Balkans, and subsequently deposited in the Archives de la planète near Paris, France, an ambitious turn of the century project exemplifying the archival impulse. This footage was destined for the archive, for conservation and not meant for public or commercial screening, thus it is most likely that the first time the images were seen by an audience was in 2012 during the occasion of organised screenings throughout Albania.[2] This attests that, our modern memory is undeniably an archival memory, relying almost entirely on the materiality of the trace and immediacy of the recording (Nora 1989), as in the case of Albert Kahn’s footage in Albania and its subsequent re-usage in the documentary. Small national cinemas sometimes rely on earliest film footage taken by foreign filmmakers, raising questions about the notion of whose memory, and cultural heritage, these moving images belong to.

Nonetheless, the Albert Kahn footage elucidates several important issues about cinema and the Balkans around the time of the Balkan Wars. Firstly, it functions as a document, testifying to the multicultural and multi-ethnic character of the people inhabiting the Balkan Peninsula, showing the richness and complexity of the millennium long cultural heritage at the crossroads of East and West. Secondly, due to the uncertainty of the exact location of shooting (apart from the archival record indicating Albanie 1912), the footage can act as visual substitution for several Balkan cities at the time in as much as it is a product of a normative Western gaze.[3] Thirdly, Albert Kahn and Jean Brunhes’ approach to filming,[4] similar to early cinema actualities and with scientific aims of human geography, constitutes a photographic record of the pure flow of life, with no edits, manipulations or interruptions. In terms of theory, this material allows us to question and theorise on larger possibilities of cinema, which captures life in its becoming.[5]

The archival impulse: Albert Kahn and his archives
The disappearance of tradition and the replacing of natural memory with the institution of history characteristic of modernity seem to reflect a fear of forgetting roots and identity—a fear that can only be countered by the drive to keep everything – that is, to archive. As a result of the amassing of artefacts through the colonialist exploits of imperialist powers followed by the building of museums and libraries, European history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is marked by a cultural movement and quest to mummify time as a historical object, first present in photography and then with the advent of the Cinematograph. Archives de la planète were founded and financed by French banker and philanthropist Albert Kahn near Paris, who was concerned about the disappearance and danger of homogenisation of certain modes of life. Between 1909 and 1932, Kahn financed a number of photographic and cinematographic campaigns in over sixty countries across the world in a desire to conserve human modes of life for the future: “The stereoscopic photography, the projections, and most of all the cinematograph, this is what I would like to make work on a grand scale, to fix once for all aspects, practises and modes of human activity whose fatal disappearance is only a question of time.” (Kahn, my translation from original text).[6]

A university professor, Jean Brunhes, was appointed Scientific Director of the archives by Albert Kahn. Brunhes became the scientific drive behind the archives, providing Kahn’s expeditions with a scientific rationale of a discipline he advocated, called “human geography”. Human geography is concerned with communication between positions, elements typified by the house and the road, which are visible characteristics in many of the films Albert Kahn had commissioned. In Jean Brunhes' words:

The ensemble of all these facts in which human activity has a part forms a truly special group of surface phenomena—a complex group of facts infinitely variable and varied, always contained within the limits of physical geography, but having always the easily discernible characteristic of being related more or less directly to man. To the study of this specific group of geographical phenomena we give the name human geography (Brunhes 1920: 4).

The discipline of human geography would serve as the unifying line between the conceptualisation of the Balkans, and more precisely, Albania’s multi-cultural national identity, as captured by the camera, and the complexity of locating the footage geographically. Kahn and Brunhes instructed their photographers to capture the typical and representative of the local culture they were sent to investigate through the photographic medium, in order to preserve these types of traditional customs for posterity, which were disappearing in the wake of modernity. The black and white footage retains an ethnographic and anthropological spirit, inasmuch as the moving images record the pure flow of life as it unravels in front of the camera, while the autochrome photographs are constructed almost in the motionless style of tableaux vivants, in the tradition of European visual arts. While the photographers had some liberty in terms of photographing the subjects, surprisingly, many of the Balkan autochromes, still seem to contribute to the creation of the Orientalist type (as a prolongation of the Victorian picturesque). Partly this is due to the long pose needed to fix the autochrome photographs, which meant that the mise-en-scène is carefully orchestrated, and partly to the nineteenth century sensibility and visual training of the French photographers.

Paula Amad who had spent a year researching and writing about the collections of the Albert Kahn Museum, maintains that “Once translated into the age of cinema, the archive thus mutated into the counter-archive, a supplementary realm where the modern conditions of disorder, fragmentation, and contingency came to haunt the already unstable positivist utopia of order, synthesis, totality” (2010: 21). The Albanie footage constitutes a fragment of the collection and a fragment of the Balkan reality prior to World War I. Whilst Kahn’s cinematographer had presumably undertaken several journeys through the Peninsula in 1912 and 1913, only the black and white Albanie footage was shot, and has been preserved. This further adds to the disorder, fragmentation and contingency of the Archives de la Planete as the ‘counter-archive’. Albert Kahn’s photographers were sent out into the world to record the everyday, with the aim to conserve: these films were destined for the archive and not for commercial exploitation; therefore I consider them as pure ‘archival films’. Today, the collection at the Albert Kahn Museum contains more than 72,000 autochrome photographs, 4,000 stereographic images, and 183,000 meters of unedited black-and-white film, all neatly catalogued in drawers and on shelves with calligraphied labels and hand-written fiches. The film in question constitutes a small fragment of the entire archival collection and should be considered in relation to the rest. If photography[7] and cinema have no identity in themselves (Tagg), then their meaning resides in the apparatus of the archive. Photography’s power according to John Tagg, came from its evidentiary precision - its value as document, and its mobilization into an institution (1988). Allan Sekula argues how a building of an archive is both a collection of things and a closed system in which objects are acquired on the basis of their relation to the other contents of the archive (1986: 3-64). Perhaps, then, the meaning behind the footage can be found in the objectives and the scientific and educational function of the archive. Furthermore, it needs to be considered in relation to the remaining black and white footage preserved in the collections of the Albert Kahn Museum.

Through the unedited non-fiction films, Kahn’s project attempted to “refamiliarize the camera to the quotidian by incessantly and excessively observing, recording, and storing daily life as the self-conscious history of the present” (Amad 2010: 16-17). The obsession with the everyday is visible also in the two Albanie films, where the town’s bazaar and streets are captured, as life enfolds in front of the camera, seemingly undisturbed. The archival project also transpired in other aspirations around the turn of the century to capture the ‘ordinary’ and the ‘everyday’, for instance the Lumière brothers’ early views or the Manakia brothers’ footage of Vlach customs and people. These moving images acquired surplus value once projected on the screen, becoming “extraordinary”, in terms of the notion theorised by Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida (2000). The uniqueness of Kahn’s archive, Paula Amad argues, is the fact that it stands at the intersection of two figures: Henri Bergson, a philosopher of time, and Jean Brunhes, a geographer of space, which exemplifies the indivisibility of the spatial-temporal continuum, and film’s paradoxical nature. Once translated to our contemporary times, the Albanie footage becomes not only a unique record of history but it is enveloped with the “extraordinary” by the way of its re-presentation in front of audiences. The French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859–1941), whose work, on immediate experience and intuition of reality, was very influential in the first half of twentieth century, was a friend of Albert Kahn’s who regularly attended scientific meetings at the Archives. The immediate experience of reality was best illustrated by cinema’s capability of recording and re-presenting any scene whatsoever.

Mary Ann Doane describes how “the actuality dominated the first decade of film production and produced continual evidence of the drive to fix and make repeatable the ephemeral”, so “cinema made archivable duration itself” (2002: 22),[8] and “as images are stored” by the way of recording “time itself is stored” (2002: 23). The ephemerality of the street scenes in Albanie, as well as contingent and ordinary movements of the dead and un-identified people we observe on the screen, are conserved as national heritage. Whilst the people on the film are no longer here physically, their presence is immortalised on celluloid. As stated previously, given their ability to record an experience of the present and archive it for future reading, the films themselves have an archival function. Thus, any moment of life is potentially ‘archivable’ within a film. This moment in space and time, the ‘this, here and now’ of human experience, can be conserved, ‘embalmed’ on celluloid for a future reading, reinforcing Derrida’s claim that: “A spectral messianicity is at work in the concept of the archive and ties it, like religion, like history, like science itself, to a very singular experience of the promise” (1996: 36). Albert Kahn and Jean Brunhes’ scientific quest contained an ethnographic and anthropological impulse to capture the everyday on camera with the aim to halt finitude and disappearance. Embalming these everyday human gestures on celluloid had a purely archival function, as in Derrida’s words, of an “experience of the promise”.

The journey to the Balkans
Before analysing the footage, it is necessary to establish its relationship to the autochrome photographs taken in the Balkans in the collection. Records at the Albert Kahn Museum in France indicate that the geographer Jean Brunhes and photographer Auguste Leon undertook their journey through the Balkan region in September and October of 1913. Auguste Leon was also in Turkey in June of 1913, taking several hundred of photographs. Detailed annotations on the conserved autochrome plates from their journey throughout Albania, indicate that the views were taken in the following locations on these dates: thirty seven photographs in Durrës on 16 October 1913, four photographs in Kodjazi and four photographs in Reth on 17 October 1913, thirty one photographs in Tirana on 18 October 1913 and sixteen photographs in Shkodër on 21 October 1913. The remaining autochrome photographs from the Balkan region indicate they visited Greece between 2–14 October and Montenegro between 20–23 October of the same year, and sometime earlier they were present in Macedonia (May 1913), Serbia (April 1913) and Kosovo (4–9 May 1913). Number of views taken in Bosnia and Herzegovina (at the time annexed to Austria-Hungary) is significantly more important: three hundred and eleven photographs, while indications on the autochrome photographs show Auguste Leon was there a year earlier, in October 1912.

The autochrome photographs are an early colour photography system, patented by the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière in 1903, and first marketed in 1907. Autochrome photography was the principal colour photography process in use (on glass plates), consisting of a photo-sensitive layer made of microscopic grains of potato starch, and once exposed, it resulted in a unique positive image on glass. The plate was reversal-processed into a positive transparency, that is, the plate was first developed into a negative image but not ‘fixed’, then the silver forming the negative image was chemically removed, then the remaining silver halide was exposed to light and developed, producing a positive image.  At the time, the Lumière factory produced 6000 virgin autochrome plates per day, whose production continued until 1932, rendering it a very profitable business. The autochrome photographs required a long exposure time; therefore many of the resulting photographs are carefully orchestrated poses and mise-en-scène of everyday situations, portraits or landscape shots. The Albert Kahn Museum actually houses one of the largest autochrome collections in the world. Furthermore, it is important to note that the transportation of fragile glass plates and the heavy camera equipment was an incredible feat for the time and the conditions of shooting.

According to the dates on the autochrome photographs, Jean Brunhes and Auguste Leon were in Albania in October of 1913, and one would presume they also took the black and white documentary footage in the same period. However, Auguste Leon is regarded as being only the photographer, and was not operating the cine-camera on any of the missions. During my archival research in November 2012, I interviewed the archivists at the Albert Kahn Museum who indicated that the two rushes were filmed in Albania in 1912, presumably having taken the information from the actual film reels. Due to the content on the reels, both films are catalogued under the title Scenes de rue (Street scenes), first is 1min24 and the second is 4min47 in length. The views depict busy streets from two-three angles in perhaps one or more Albanian cities. The angle and point of view is compatible with Brunhes’s conceptualization of human geography with early cinema actualities, which served as a model for the Kahn archive’s methodology of unedited, static, street-level shots (Amad 2010). To date, the archivists from the Museum were not able to identify the cities represented on the films positively, but indicated that some Albanian historians suggested the views come from the cities of Durrës and Shkodër.

figure 1One of the official cinematographers for Albert Kahn’s missions was a man named Stéphane Passet; therefore it would seem logical that he was responsible for the black and white documentary footage in the museum’s collections. However, there is no information regarding his journey in Albania, and indeed the only unedited film present in the collections of street scenes is the one discussed above. Records do indicate that Passet was in Turkey at the end of 1912 and subsequently in Greece at the end of 1913. Two preserved films with his signature as the author, place him in Thessaloniki in 1913. These are: an edited film of views from refugee camps in Salonica (Thessaloniki) and the Mont Athos Monastery (duration 7min45),[9] and an unedited film containing rushes of the refugee camps (12min20). Perhaps there is a possibility that Stéphane Passet did make his way to Albania to film the street scenes sometime in 1912. However, it is also possible that the footage was taken in October 1913 rather than 1912, during the Leon and Brunhes’ journey in the Balkans to shoot the autochrome photographs. Furthermore, upon examination of several postcards and views from the period, it would seem that the cities in question are most likely Durrës and Shkodër. In addition, the presence of Montenegrin soldiers and officers (which had occupied the city of Shkodër during this period) in the moving images also points to this possibility. However, the Albert Kahn archive has not confirmed nor positively identified the footage with certainty, while for Albanian audiences these views are still unknown and largely inaccessible.

The film exemplifies two specific instances of ambiguity which refuse to be read/understood: the historical/archival ambiguity surrounding the original footage (inherent and intrinsic to Albert Kahn’s archives and the fact the footage is a fragment of the collection) and the combined fragmentation, complexity, hybridity, and fluidity of the Balkans. The anthropologist Sarah H. Green maintains that the Balkans as a cultural, political, historical and social space is marked by connective gaps and relationships not differences: “the essential ambiguity that the Balkans represented to the modernist approach which rendered it problematic, ambiguous because of relations between things, not its fragmentations” (2005: 129). This is especially true if we consider the presence of Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, which had ruled over a multi-lingual, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic Balkan Peninsula for centuries, not seeking to create a uniformity of religious, ethnic, linguistic or cultural beliefs and traditions, but rather encouraged variety, resulting in Orthodox Greeks living side by side the Muslim Albanian or Jewish Romanian.

Identifying the black and white footage
As mentioned previously, the angle and point of view is that of early cinema actualities, providing an objective, no visible camera type of look onto the scenery. Indeed there are three uncut long takes in total, one from a balcony looking down onto the street (Figure 1), while in the other two, the camera is on the street, placed at eye-level (Figures 2 and 3). In the first long take, the passers-by are not aware of the camera filming, and therefore go about their daily business, while in the other two takes; children, soldiers and merchants stand on the side of the street looking toward the camera. Whilst the aim of early cinema actualities and of Jean Brunhes’ scientific project is of simply recording life as it unravels in front of the lens, at least one instance suggests that perhaps the camera operator and his assistant, invited the subjects to be filmed, and therefore, it could be concluded that parts of the footage were staged.

figure 2
figure 3

However, when comparing the black and white footage to the autochrome photographs taken throughout Albania, there are stark differences in the aesthetic and pictorial approaches. The autochrome photographs being in colour and requiring a long time of pose for the subject to be rendered, require photographers setting the scenes and placing the figures within the frame for aesthetic purposes. Below are three such images, I selected from the collection depicting views of the bazaar and town streets, for comparison with the black and white footage. The photograph of two Albanian gypsy children in front of a typical stone house in the middle of the street is taken as if in the moment of passing.


The town's merchants are portrayed in front of their shop in the main street bazaar, again posed for maximum effect, providing Orientalist expectations for the Western eye. Throughout the nineteenth century there was a proliferation of such staged photographs and printed postcards produced both by foreign and local photographers, catering to the Western imagination of the Orient. This approach is discussed by Erdogdu in his study on representational strategies of Ottoman men, where the commercially marketed photographs from Istanbul and other non-Western capitals often represented figures “considered ‘typical’ of their respective cultures in physical appearance or occupation” (2002: 107). Kahn and Brunhes instructed their photographers to capture the typical and representative of the local culture, in order to preserve traditional customs for posterity, but in the course of doing so, they created an Orientalist type. Other autochrome photographs portray different folk costumes of Albanian populations (Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim), which under the direction of Kahn and Brunhes, photographers would have considered on the path to extinction, and most likely decided to shoot and add them to the collection. Both Auguste Leon and Stéphane Passet were educated bourgeois French men, and their aesthetic sensibility was formed in nineteenth century Western European culture, which sought to classify civilisation and whose painters often offered views of the Exotic and the Orientalist.

7Returning to the black-and-white footage, in comparison to the beautiful, impressionistic and colourful autochrome photographs, they resemble the ugly duckling of the collection, but reveal perhaps an essence of the local cultures and the situation of events at the time. The city streets represented in the footage contain a number of characters: merchants and tradesmen dressed in ‘typical Balkan’ clothes (some wearing the tirq – tight light coloured trousers), peasants with donkeys, men and women dressed in European style clothing, Montenegrin and Serbian soldiers and officers, veiled women, men in the fez, a group of women wearing Albanian festive folk costumes (possibly of a Catholic Northern Albanian tribe) and curious children.

8The First Balkan War lasted from October 1912 to May 1913, and involved the Balkan League (Serbia, Greece, Montenegro and Bulgaria) against the Ottoman Empire. At this time, the present day Albanian territory was part of the Ottoman Empire's Vilayets, and the majority of Albanians fought on the Ottoman side, while the Catholic tribes from northern Albania, Kastrati, Hoti and Grude, joined the Kingdom of Montenegro (Vickers 1995: 65-67). The Serbian forces operated against major part of Ottoman Western army which were located in the areas of Novi Pazar, Kosovo and northern and eastern Macedonia (Vickers 1995: 66).  After the Great Powers applied pressure on them, the Serbs started to withdraw from northern Albania and the Sanjak (area on the border shared between Montenegro and Serbia), although they left behind their heavy artillery park to help the Montenegrin army in the continuing siege of Shkodër (Vickers 1995: 71-73). On 23 April 1913 Shkodër's garrison was forced to surrender due to starvation, and Montenegrin forces held the Ottoman Sanjak of Shkodër under siege for six months (28 October 1912 to 23 April 1913). The Kingdom of Montenegro was compelled to evacuate it in May 1913, in accordance with the London Conference of Ambassadors (which took place on 26 April 1913), and the army's withdrawal was observed by British and Italian gunboats (Vickers 1995: 73-74).

9Careful examination of the uniformed soldiers and officers in the footage of the longest reel (4min47), reveals the location to most likely be Shkodër during the Montenegrin occupation, reinforced by the Serbian troops. In addition, women and a men dressed in typical northern Albanian folk costumes are present in the scene, walking by the camera. Footage could have been shot during the siege, so at any point between October 1912 and May 1913, but if we take into account the dates on autochrome photographs this is most likely later in October of 1913. There are records that Stéphane Passet was in Turkey at the end of 1912 (precisely in Istanbul in September of 1912), as Albania was part of the Ottoman Empire during this time, even though they proclaimed independence in November 1912, this was not officially recognised internationally, he could have travelled to Shkodër to shoot the film. Albert Kahn was very well informed on world news, and perhaps commissioned Passet to travel to the western parts of Ottoman Empire. A number of other elements point that this may be Shkodër: the hill visible in the background, the stone paved street and the typical central street exhibiting Balkan style houses. These characteristics were also visible and represented in the postcards of Shkodër prior to the First World War; I discovered while conducting research on the internet (Figures 7, 8 and 9). [10]

10The short reel (1min24) shows a typical central street of a Balkan urban centre at the beginning of twentieth century, indeed this could be the town of Durrës, but also any number of cities in Macedonia, Kosovo or even northern Greece, in the region of Epirus, which were under the Ottoman Empire for several centuries, thus exhibit similarities in architecture and dress. As the camera is pointing downwards onto the street, hardly any background is visible, which could otherwise provide a clue for identifying the location of the town. However, comparing the frame from the footage (refer back to Figure 1) to two postcards from the era, it is most likely the main street in Durrës, taken from a high angle, probably a balcony (Figures 10 and 11). The road is not paved with cobblestones as in the other reel, but rather it is a dirt road, similar to the street in the postcards taken in Durrës.

11The multiculturalism of Empires
Several historians have discussed the multicultural conviviality of the Ottoman Empire, which did not seek to create a uniformity of religious, ethnic, linguistic and cultural beliefs and traditions throughout its rule in the Balkan Peninsula. The millets contributed to the maintenance of ethnic, religious and linguistic particularities within the local communities, where the Orthodox Greek lived side by side to the Muslim Albanian or Jewish Romanian. Not disregarding the forced enlistment of young men into the Ottoman Army and the privileges given to some Muslim millets, thus encouraging the local population to convert to Islam, the Ottoman Empire did succeed in ruling over the region, more or less peacefully for over four centuries. Prior to the Ottoman Empire, the Byzantines had also ruled over a multi-lingual, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic empire for centuries. Neither of the two Empires had completely erased the previous cultures and so the local populations not only preserved their traditions, customs and beliefs, but these were integrated into the new social, cultural and political system. Therefore, in the nineteenth century, the Balkan Peninsula was composed of a colourful, rich and multicultural millennium-long local civilisation, incompatible with the industrialised, nationalised and ethnically uniform countries of Western Europe. Spain, France and Italy, for instance, expelled their Jewish communities in the course of the fifteenth century, and were involved earlier in the Christian crusades. The black-and-white footage emerges as a fragment and a piece of the mosaic, which exemplifies the perceived ambiguity and crossroads positioning (a mixture, Macedonian salad), a slice of reality from the Balkan Peninsula.

12Shkodër was an important port city founded in the 4th century, and a major route and meeting point on the Adriatic coast, situated between Montenegro, Serbia and the Ottoman Empire. This city housed different communities, and situated on the trading route on the Adriatic connected to Italian ports, it was the last and the most Western Ottoman stronghold before its occupation, and start of the Balkan Wars. A major trade route throughout the nineteenth century, it had over three thousand shops, a bazaar, a trade court, an array of small merchants and craftsmen who produced fabric, silk, leather, arms and silver artefacts. If we consider that the streets and people of Shkodër are depicted in the footage, then the choice of the cinematographer and Brunhes to capture these views may be based on the colourfulness and vivacity of the city. Shkodër, like many cities on the Adriatic coast, and on the trade route between Europe and the Ottoman Empire, attracted entrepreneurs and adventurers from everywhere. The Italian/Albanian photographer Marubi decided to settle here and open his photographic studio, producing many images of Albanian customs and people, which would contribute to the Orientalist imagination. Perhaps then, Western Europeans found aspects of multi-cultural conviviality exotic, especially in the visual uniformity of modernism at the turn of the century in most European capitals.

Focusing on the three women dressed up in ceremonial folk costumes including head coverings, with the woman on screen left, possibly wearing a bridal costume (Figures 12 and 13) these images point to northern Albania, most likely Shkodër. The wedding or ceremonial clothes worn in various regions, had ornamentation with crochet or lace work, various braids and ribbons and numerous strings of metal plates (functioning as decorative necklaces)—in Shkodër province and other parts, women wore the xhubleta—a skirt which has the form of an undulating bell (Gjergji 2004: 150-155). Women also wore the kapica, a small silk decorated cap, which held the hair together.

J13udging from the drawings of traditional folk costumes from Shkodra, these could belong to the Catholic Albanians, due to the fact that women wore the wide skirt like trousers to the ankles (Figure 14). However, similar costume trousers were also worn by the Muslim Albanian women. Indeed, several postcards of female portraits and photographs of Pjetër Marubi,[11] also attest the cross-cultural influence in the popular folk costumes, rendering it difficult to pinpoint the precise ethnic and religious group. The photographs of Pjetër, Mati and Kel Marubi constitute an important opus, spanning several decades, which record the different local communities present in Shkodër, as well as document important events in the city. Many of the photographs are studio based portraits, carefully posed series of mise-en-scènes, however the opus also includes views of surrounding landscapes, bridges built under the Ottoman Empire, mosques, the construction of the church in Shkodër, the rebel gangs of Northern Albania (Mirditë), and local merchants, shop owners and other small manufacturers at work. Thanks to the many photographs taken in Shkodër of various female folk costumes, particularly the photographic legacy left by Marubi and his studio, strong affinities with the women’s clothing in the Albert Kahn footage can be observed.
The Albert Kahn footage in question contains traces of the multicultural, multilingual and multi-confessional Ottoman Empire, on the verge of its disappearance. The filmed views are indeed unique, as many of the early recordings (newsreels and actualities) from the period tell events of the Balkan Wars, concentrating on the battles, armies, refugees and political visits, and not on the everyday life of local towns. In a way, the footage immortalises the last traces of the crumbling Ottoman stronghold, and portrays the colourful local population conducting their everyday “banal” activities. Since the very beginning though, cinema, bestowed the everyday with the extraordinary, from the very first views of workers exiting the factory and the baby's breakfast shot by brothers Lumière. Kahn’s footage is a continuation in the line which is concerned with the extraordinary and magical in reality, in the everyday, in the banal, in the already seen, but never observed on the big screen. Cinema magnifies the real and renders it surreal (Jean Epstein), capable of reproducing every intricate movement of life. World renowned filmmakers such as the Soviet Dziga Vertov, the Dutch Joris Ivens and many others would continue exploring in this vein, pushing the boundaries of the visible and the unseen. The Albert Kahn footage is a precursor to these cinematographic traditions, in addition to being of great value in documenting a moment in history, and its ethnographic elements.

Today, these cinematographic fragments emerge as archaeological finds, reminding us that the Archive is filled with lacunas in contrast to its desired unity and wholeness. These views of Albanian streets are a piece of a mosaic, belonging to the Whole—the Albert Kahn collection in its entirety. The impossibility of uncovering certain answers, the uncertainty behind exact dates and locations, or even the operator responsible for the footage taken in Albania (and the Balkans); this fragmented, lacuna-wrought nature of the Albert Kahn’s Archives de la planète is underlined by Paula Amad: “I do not claim that [the central topos of the archive, the everyday, and film] authorizes me to uncover the single truth lying somewhere hidden in Kahn’s archive. It will also not be my job to disclose a single authoritative meaning behind Kahn’s films, or to fall prey to the fantasy of awakening the sleeping documents with the (death) kiss of finite interpretation. Rather, following Foucault’s critique of archival-based history in The Archaeology of Knowledge, I try to ‘follow them through their sleep,’ attending to the “forgotten, and possibly even destroyed” context of the films’ emergence” (2010: 23).. I would also add modernist’s certainty. In this sense, paradoxically, the character of Albert Kahn Archives has rather postmodern qualities; it exemplifies fluidity and indeterminacy while challenging the idea of a unified and circumscribed identity. The film collection is composed of fragments which are inter-related through the approach of human geography - the study of man’s activity as transferred onto the skin of our planet. The Albert Kahn footage acts at once, as a visual substitution for the imaginary and real Balkans, and as a prosthetic and substitutive visual memory of early Albanian cinematographic heritage.


1] For the celebration of the one hundredth anniversary of Albanian independence, the institutional documentary Albanie 1912 (Albania-France, 2012, dir. Eol Cashku), combining the earliest surviving footage filmed in Albania with autochrome photographs from the Albert Kahn archives in Paris, was produced and screened throughout Albania in 2012. This re-appropriation of footage serves to replace the missing Albanian memory and the lack of audio-visual material from the early period. The original documentary belongs to the memory of ‘Archives de la Planète’ in France. In my view, it can be considered as prosthetic, and functions as substitutive memory. The original footage is incorporated into a documentary that features the autochrome photographs and the narration of Jean Brunhes’ speech given during the 1918 Peace Conference in Paris. In this speech Brunhes explains the uniqueness of Albania, its language, people and customs. In the Eol Cashku film, the autochrome images are followed by a talking head interview with the French Ambassador Christine Moro, which in turn reinforces the French-Albanian political and cultural connection. As such, it invests the footage with the celebration of national independence.

2] Screenings of Eol Cashku’s Albanie 1912 (which contains the Albert Kahn Museum footage) were organised in the following cities in 2012: Tirana (24 – 26 October), Lezha (28 October), Fier (1 November), Vlore (2 November), Sarande (3 November), Gjirokaster ( 5 November), Elbasan (8 November), Pogradec (9 November), Korce (10 November), Durres ( 20 November), Shkoder (21 November) and Berat (22 November).

3] Here I am reminded of Dina Iordanova's introduction in Cinema of Flames where the author describes the similarity in visual representation of Balkan towns: “The mountainous landscape of Bosnia looked so painfully familiar – the red roofs, the hamlets scattered between hills, the old villages deserted by the young who had migrated to the grey apartment complexes in the city – that it reminded me of my native Bulgaria (…)—if I was from Macedonia, Romania or even Greece, I could have easily projected the devastation of the Bosnian countryside onto these places...” (2001: 2) Furthermore, during the Yugoslav wars, “the Balkan iconic repertoire of Western media” provided spectators with images in which 'the Balkan countries all look alike on a visual level', thus blurring national identities (Iordanova 2001: 8).

4] Jean Brunhes (1869–1930) was a French geographer, who founded the discipline ‘human geography’ in 1910 which was officially recognised by College de France in 1912. The concept is based on several spatial phenomena: geography of the earth, social geography and historical and political geography inspired by the idea of the surface and includes any object in which human action is manifested.

5] This notion is present in the French cineaste Jean Epstein’s theoretical work on cinema and in particular “la pensee visuelle” (visual thought). For Epstein, the essential and unique element of cinema is its capability to re-present visual thought (pure thought that is pre-linguistic, oneiric and irrational), and so represent the universe in its movement and mobility. In Epstein’s writings, cinema seems to possess universe’s matter while the matter of the universe becomes cinema’s matter; a concept which echoes in the film philosophy of Gilles Deleuze, in which image is already matter. 

6] The original quote in French can be found on the Albert Kahn Museum website.

7] Tagg examines the role of photography in the apparatuses of social control that emerged in the nineteenth century, and considers its double role of art and science (1988).

8] Actuality is a common synonym used for actualités, a word of French origin which is used to describe all types of early non-fiction pictures such as travelogues, industrial films, scientific films, sports films etc., and it implies a temporal reference, an early form of news event films and newsreels n topical events (Abel 2005: 6). Another important sense to the term, its sensationalist aspect to attract audiences, came from the Pathé-Frères 1904 catalogue: “By this we mean scenes of general and international interest, which are so important that they will be able to thrill the masses” (Abel 2005: 6).

9] Paissi of Hilendar, after whom the Serbo-Bulgarian monastery on Mont Athos is named, is considered the father of Bulgarian nationalism for his history of the Bulgarians written in 1762, in which he advocated the use of the vernacular for Slavs in the Orthodox Church and attacked Hellenic domination of the hierarchy. The new generation of Bulgarians in the mid nineteenth century “used educational opportunities to subvert Greek culture”, and this new bourgeoisie found allies in Bulgarian diaspora communities in Istanbul, which advocated for Bulgarian autochthonous Orthodox Church, which historians argue was a purely political conflict. Secular forces in the Balkans played an important role in affirming national identity due to their cultural influence. It is interesting to note that, “Father Paissi in Bulgaria played a key role in the early period of all the national revivals in the Balkans because the church was the only institution in the Orthodox millet where reading and writing were taught” (Glenny 2012: 114).

10] The images of postcards can be found on the following website.

11] Pietro Marubi, born in Piacenza, Italy escapes the country due to his political activities against the occupying power Austro-Hungarian Empire, and settles in Shkodër around 1850, after a short passage through Corfu and Vlora, in search for political asylum in the Ottoman Empire. Marubi, an architect, painter and sculptor, changes his name to Pjetër Marubi, and through his interest in photography, opens the first photographic studio in Shkodër, called dritëshkronja (writing in light). He employs two assistants, the brothers Mati and Kel Kodheli, who would continue the photographic tradition through three generations of family until 1970 when the studio eventually closed down.

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Ana Grgić© 2016

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Updated: 20 Mar 16