blogEast is a project of goEast – Festival of Central and Eastern European Film. The blog was created during the first Corona wave in Europe as a solidary mouthpiece for film (culture) creators from all over Europe. In the coming weeks, blog posts will be published that highlight cinematic as well as political and social facets of today's situation, but also offer a way to distract from the omnipresent discussion about infection figures and vaccination progress. blogEast is supervised and edited by the goEast team and accompanies the digital festival in Wiesbaden.
Of all the East European countries during the Cold War, perhaps no nation was as mysterious as Albania. Until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, this communist dictatorship was as isolated as North Korea. Albania's absolute leader, Enver Hoxha (1908-1985), imposed a ban on organized religion, travel and even the giving of Muslim or Christian names to children. Watching a foreign film on television could result in a lengthy prison sentence for being under the 'influence of foreign powers and propaganda'. In the 1970's director Werner Herzog was so fascinated by Albania's siege mentality that he walked the entire length of its fenced-off borders.
Almost thirty years after the collapse of the country's one party system, very little is still known about Albanian cinema. During the four and half decades of communist rule, movie makers in the Soviet-built 'Shqiperia e Re' (New Albania) Kinostudio complex produced 232 fiction features, thousands of documentaries, newsreels and hundreds of animated films.
Though many of the films are loaded with propaganda, a number of these motion pictures are worthy contributions to the canon of world cinema. Many of these films provide an extraordinary look into a closed society that was off limits for many foreign visitors or tourists.
Though Albanian audiences continue to watch these films endlessly on public television and on Youtube virtually none of these works have been screened commercially outside Albania. Yet for those who grew up in Albania, these memorable films represent a complicated and often emotional artistic legacy; a legacy that is in very real danger of disappearing forever.
The film that we have chosen to screen at goEast is a premiere, a restoration that has yet to even play in Albania. VITET E PRITJES (Years of Waiting) (1990) is a turn of the 20th century drama, a socialist epic, a mixture of soap and stirring social commentary. Director Esat Musliu follows the intertwined lives of two male emigrants returning to an Albanian village from the United States. One of the men, Gjon Kodra, returns to the rocky hamlet home, bitter and alienated. "Maybe the foreign land chills their blood," reasons one of the film's characters. Communism was coming to end in much of Eastern Europe when production began on the film in late 1989. But the Albanian regime clung to the notion that its particularly intense brand of socialism was unshakeable. VITET is a cautionary tale, advising audiences that it was preferable to remain behind the barbed wire that ringed the country than venture out into the world.
One cannot imagine the difficult conditions in which the film was made. By 1990, Albanians waited in long lines for food, electricity was scarce. Clearly all the expertise of the entire Kinostudio army of costume and production designers went into the making of Musliu's film, despite the rough edges that sometimes seep through the proceedings. Ironically, one month before VITET's August 1990 premiere, thousands of Albanians began flooding the foreign embassies in the capital, Tirana. The first moving images of Albania seen in the West were the thousands of refugees fleeing the sagging regime in boats across the Adriatic Sea to Italy. With immigration being such an integral part of the national experience, VITET E PRITJES still carries a deep resonance for many Albanians.
The difficult transition from dictatorship to democracy brought about the death knell of the 'New Albania' film studio. Through much of the early 1990's, the longtime animators, editors, directors and
cameraman were without work. Many of the former film employees would continue to make the daily trek to the Kinostudio complex outside the capital, hoping that the locked metal gate would be opened and movie making would resume. Filmmaker Eno Milkani recalled the sad day, in the mid-1990s, when he arrived at the front gate to discover that the studio buildings heavy iron doors had been removed and sold for scrap. Forty years after its inauguration, the socialist 'New Albania' film studio was gone forever.
In the past two decades, Albania's cinematic heritage has faced another challenge. As in every other country, the original film negatives have begun to fade. If serious progress is not made in the next decade to combat the destructive chemical forces that eat away at all film, the first of Albania's 6,400 movie titles will begin disappearing for good.
The fact that VITET has been restored at all is a minor miracle. Producer Clare Stronge and director Tadhg O'Sullivan contacted the Albanian National Film Archive (AQSHF) to use a snippet of the 1990 film for their poetic collage doc, TO THE MOON. For many years, the Albanian AQSHF archive has had no scanner, with all transfers of the material being below even basic broadcast standards. The inability to digitize Albania's film holdings is one of the main reasons the old Kinostudio films are rarely screened abroad.
At first, Stronge and O'Sullivan proposed to send just the needed reel for developing. But the Albanian archive asked them instead to help scan the entire film from the negative source. Stronge and O'Sullivan kindly agreed and the transfer was carried out by Swiss archivist Reto Kromer who proceeded to make a new master of VITET. TO THE MOON ended up premiering at the 2020 Venice Days and Telluride and recently being awarded at the Dublin International Film Festival.
Getting Albania's unknown Kinostudio era motion picture legacy into international festivals and retrospectives will hopefully highlight the need to preserve this unique film collection. One of the final films from this fascinating era of socialist film production, VITET E PRITJES offers an introduction into moving images from Europe's most forgotten survivors.
Iris Elezi, Director of The Albanian National Film Archive (AQSHF)