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THESSALONIKI FILM FESTIVAL
Will the last person to leave the country please turn out all the lights
Fatmir Koši's Tirana Year Zero (2001)
Albania doesn't have much of a film industry, yet Tirana Year Zero snatched the main prize at Thessaloniki. Andrew James Horton examines how the film beat its global rivals.
The quip about the last person leaving the country turning the lights off may be ancient, but the problem of emigration seems more relevant than ever in the world. And no less so in Albania, whose economic plightŚthe legacy of isolation, the collapsed pyramid schemes, the looting of arms depots, the weight of hosting a refugee crisis during NATO's Kosovo campaignŚled to around a million people emigrating from a country of just four million in order to seek their fortunes elsewhere.
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It would be hard, then, for an Albanian film set in the present to avoid the topic of emigration and how the country's inhabitants view the opulence of cities such as Paris, Milan and New York. Fatmir Koši's Tirana Year Zero
(2001), which earlier this month won the main prize in the international competition at the 42nd Thessaloniki film festival, goes further than that and has these subjects at its core, and the director describes the film as "a call to the Albanian people not to abandon their native land."
Love amidst the chaos
The action starts in Tirana in 1997, just after the infamous collapse of the pyramid scheme. Niku is a 23-year-old without much purpose in life. He scrapes together an income doing odd jobs with a decrepit truck, which he has a strange attachment to, as it was given to him by his father. Despite the repeated nagging of his parents, he doesn't seem to have any real drive to find a steady job. His girlfriend, Klara, is rather different and only sees a viable future outside Albania. This point of view perplexes Niku, who has lived in Italy for a short while but returned, disillusioned with life abroad.
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Klara, though, finds an opportunity to leave for Paris with a sculptor, thus giving hope to her rather naive dreams of becoming a model. Klara's hopeless idealism is underscored by one of Niku's neighbours whose daughter sends him back a television bought with money she has earned from prostitution.
Klara's departure troubles Niku, and he takes his truck on a aimless tour, meeting a variety of odd characters, including a neo-hippy from Berlin (played by arch-arthouse actor Lars Rudolph, who has recently played in films by Tom Tykwer and BÚla Tarr) and a French journalist who's been robbed of everything except her camcorder. The Albania he explores is corrupt, chaotic, violent and self-contradictory, but despite everything (even losing his beloved truck) he can still see no reason to leave.
A black mark on Albania's good name?
For a film which has such a clearly stated and apparently propagandistic agenda, Tirana Year Zero is a remarkably impartial and non-programmatic film. Koši does very little to present his protagonist with a reason for staying, and the film is nothing but brutally frank about the state of Albania today. As Koši explained at a press conference in Thessaloniki, the inspiration came for the project came when he asked various people he knew why they professed a desire to leave for the West. None of them could give a concrete answer why they wanted to be in another country. Tirana Year Zero gets its potency from the fact it presents plenty of reasons for leaving Albania, but none for actually arriving anywhere else.
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The film, however, caused something of a scandal when it premiered in Albania (on 26 October), and he was widely accused by the media of blackening the country's name. As Koši told a press conference at Thessaloniki: "it was shocking for most people, they didn't want to accept it." Koši also insisted that his view of the country was accurate, saying that "I didn't invent anythingŚI found it," before elaborating that all the incidents portrayed in the film were based on true stories, either ones he had witnessed, that friends had told him or he had read about in newspapers. Lead actor Nevin Mešaj even brings an autobiographical element to the part of Niku, as he is in his real life a shoe salesman (making him one of many non-professionals in the film) who once lived in Italy. The fact that young people responded to the Tirana Year Zero
very well during its two-week run in Tirana suggests more that Koši's observational eye is not at fault and that some sections of Albanian society simply don't want to look at themselves in the mirror.
For all the negativity in Tirana Year Zero, Koši remains a man clearly in love with his country. The cinematography (by Austrian Heinzi Brander) places stunning, sun-drenched mountains behind the decaying tower blocks, and, even when referring to the country's darkest moments, Koši talks about "a pleasant chaos" and emphasises that "life is very funny, it's really funny"Śan attitude clearly visible in the film. He also insists that during the last few years things have got much better and that a lot of those who left are now returning. He even speaks glowingly of the country's role as a bridge between East and West, andŚusing those buzzwords of modern Western liberalismŚas a multi-cultural and multi-denominational country with a rich cultural heritage.
A symbol of our times
Tirana Year Zero is not just a film for Albanians, though, as its selection to play in competition at Venice this August and its main prize from Thessaloniki testify. The film will also be released in France in December this year.
|Koši receiving his Golden |
Alexander at Thessaloniki
Hints at reasons for the film's popularity can be gained from a press conference held by the international jury at Thessaloniki before the results were announced (and, indeed, before they had seen all the competition films). Following on from comments by jury member Pawel PawlikowskiŚcurrently enjoying international fame due to his own film tale of someone seeking a better life abroad, The Last Resort
(2001)Śregarding the dominance of immigration as a theme at this year's festival, fellow jury member Eduardo Antin pointed out that four of the jury's seven members lived in a country they were not born in. Yannis Kokkos went on to say that besides people being brave enough to live abroad, there are those that lose their bearings even in their own country. In this cultural context, it is hardly surprising that the jury warmed so much to Koši's film and its exploration of feelings towards ones homeland against the lure of a richer life abroad.
The irony, of course, is that it is Albania's seemingly eternal state of marginalisation, lack of self-confidence and insignificance on the global stage that makes it such a potent and universal symbol of our nervous and insecure times and have attracted our attention to it. Perhaps it is not surprising that Tirana Year Zero is just one of two Albanian films to have attracted the acclaim of festival selection committees and juries this year, the other being Gjergj Xhuvani's Slogans
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(2001), which showed as part of the Director's Fortnight at Cannes this year and won the main prize at FilmFestival Cottbus. For a country that only produces a handful of films a year, this is an incredible success rate for 2001.
All eyes are, therefore, on the Albanian film industry to see if it can continue with this success. Koši is certainly ready for the challenge: he is currently working on a documentary on the history of 20th-century Albania and is about to start on a screen adaptation of Chronicle of the Stone City by Ismail Kadare, Albania's most famous author. Film buffs everywhere will be watching to see if the resulting anti-war comedy will capture the spirit of our age as successfully as Tirana Year Zero seems to have done.
Andrew James Horton
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This article was made possible through the support of the Leverhulme Trust.