The studios chronically need investment, the technical crew were trained on obsolete equipment and post-production facilities are way below international standards. Yet Albania makes award-winning films. Andrew James Horton explains how.
You could easily be forgiven for thinking that Albania doesn't have anything even remotely resembling a film industry. In recent years, we have become so used to hearing about the country purely in a context of collapse, disorder and dysfunctionality (not only from news, but also from films such as the David Mamet-scripted Wag the Dog), that it is easy to shunt Albania into some sort of sub-cultural, extra-civilisational, "Third World" category in our collective unconsciousness (the country's nickname of "Land of the Eagles" doesn't exactly help express modernity and progress). And by extension, it is easy to think that film, the most expensive and technological of all the arts, is an area where Albania would hardly have made it off the starting block.
Then earlier this year came the first challenge to these preconceptions: an Albanian film, Gjergj Xhuvani's Slogans (2001), was selected to play in the Director's Fortnight, which runs concurrently with the Cannes film festival. It is thought to be the first time that an Albanian film has played at Cannes, and the novelty continued when it was critically acclaimed. The film's success was not a one-off either: it went on to win the main prize at FilmFestival Cottbus at the beginning of November, and just a matter of days later it scooped the Grand Prix and Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role at the Tokyo International Film Festival, while Xhuvani shared the award for Best Director at the same festival. Meanwhile, Fatmir Koši's Tirana Year Zero (2001) was in the official selection at Venice this August and won the international competition at Thessaloniki earlier this month. Albania, the world now knows, makes films.
Two sources of life
But if Albania is able to make films, how? Even before paranoiac dictator Enver Hoxha took control of the country, Albania was economically retarded. Indeed, regular production of feature films did not begin in the country until 1957 and only started to rise above the rate of one a year at the end of the 1960s and after 1970 was at around 14 feature films, 40 documentaries and 16 cartoons a year. This soon collapsed with the demise of the communist regime. The 1990s have produced few of what Albanian law refers to as "artistic films" shot on 35mm (although Albanian television produces about 60 low-budget 16mm films a year, which by inference are presumably "non-artistic"), but what few there have been, such Kujtim ăashku's Kolonel Bunker (1996), have garnered critical acclaim at festivals. Production is currently at the rate of around four feature films a year.
Despite such occasional successes, the film industry was severely affected by the post-communist environment of corruption and economic collapse, the latter perhaps best symbolised by the collapse of a pyramid investment scheme that robbed many ordinary Albanians of their savings. Fatmir Koši, for example, has stated that "Seventy percent of accomplished technicians have left the country, there's no more usable [film stock]... Even the editing tables are unusable!"
If the Albanian film industry survives, it is only because it is on a life support system. Support actually comes in two forms: the National Centre of Cinematography and foreignŚand particular FrenchŚmoney.
The former was founded in 1997 (ironically the nadir of Albania's instability, it being the year of the pyramid scheme collapse) in response to worries that the Albanian film industry would die out completely if it was not given resuscitation and in accordance with a cinematography law passed the previous year. The Centre was empowered to give a grant for projects, provided that they were able to find a foreign co-production partner. Projects awarded funding have 20 months to find such a partner, and if after this time they have failed to do so the Center can demand the money back from the producers.
Producers in Albania are a relatively new phenomenon, as in most former communist countries. The normal role of a producer is to bring together the creative team and to find financing for the project. Under communism, neither role was necessary. Money came from the state and once a script had been approved funding was usually automatic. Furthermore, communist countries favoured the "film unit" approach, which kept creative teams working together in a tightly knit group from film to film, obviating the need for a producer as talent match-maker. One of the huge talent deficits of the 1990s has been the lack of qualified and creative producers to manage projects.
Courses in film production are still rare in these countries, and in Albania they are non-existent. Local producers, therefore, are usually finding their feet in the film world. For example, Vladimir Nika, who was a producer for Slogans, admitted to Kinoeye at FilmFestival Cottbus that the only reason that he was able to get involved was that he knew the director. He had no prior employment in the film industry: "I was in the right place at the right time." In this respect, he does not consider himself unique: "I think it's the same situation for all the producers in Albania. We don't have professional producers."
Furthermore, the major producers of Albanian films, the state-run and private TV channels, are unable to inject money. When they are involved as co-producers, they usually provide payment in kind: access to technical facilities or free advertising space on their airwaves before the release of the film. Commercial sponsorship does exist, but it is at a very low level and usually it is arranged after completion of the film: for example, hosting a reception for the launch of a film. Albanian businessmen have not yet come round to the idea of investing in film as a commercial venture. Despite recent successes, film is too risky a venture and profits are too far down the line. Albanians, it would seem, prefer their bucks to come fast.
The French connection
In this context, it is easy to see the importance of working with foreign partners in a feature film. Co-productions have been set up in recent years with Hungary, Romania and Russia. But the currently favoured country is France. The country is already a major international co-producer, and the attraction for Albanians is even greater due to Fonds Suds, set up by the French foreign and culture ministries to provide "selective aid" to films "with a strong cultural identity." In Europe, the only countries with access to this fund are Albania and the former Yugoslav republics.
French producers don't just pump in much-needed cash. They also provide invaluable know-how and modern equipment which are not available in Albania. For example, most cinematographers in Albania were trained to use Russian and then Chinese technology which is now totally obsolete. This is exacerbated by the fact that the Albanian Academy of Arts has no courses on cinematography (or indeed, on script-writing, editing or producing, and directing courses are only available to students who have started as actors).
So, for Slogans, the Albanian producers provided the creative side of the film, the actors, set and costume designers and, of course, the locations, while the French producers, Les Films des Tournelles, handled technical matters, providing a director of photography, camera equipment and post-production facilities. Funding was originally to be split fifty-fifty, with USD 300,000 coming from the National Centre of Cinematography, but the film went over its budget and an additional French producer had to be brought in to complete the film and to finance distribution. This pushed the budget up to USD 900,000. Tirana Year Zero also had a French co-producer, Cine-Sud, and production support from Fonds Sud. However, they did not have all the money in place to complete the film and took the enormous risk of starting shooting in the hope that an additional producer could be convinced to come on board once they saw a rough cut. They were lucky. They gained the support of the Belgian company Alexis Films and the Hubert Bals Fund, organised by the Rotterdam film festival to aid films from "developing countries."
The lack of scriptwriting education means that novels are a popular source of inspiration for Albanian film. This is the case with Slogans, which was based on Ylljet Ališka's semi-autobiographical novel The Stone Slogans, which had been published in France and already achieved some degree of success. The screenplay was written by the novelist, working with Belgian writer/director Yves Hancher. Tirana Year Zero also had foreign help at the screenplay-writing stage, Koši working with Austrian Heinzi Brandner (who also was director of photography). The script was created with money from the Screenplay Development Fund at the Amiens film festival (where one of Koši's documentaries was showing) and also a rewrite grant from Fonds Sud.
Going on show
The French producers also handle international sales and arrange distribution in France (Slogans opened at 35 cinemas around France), with the Albanians covering what distribution they can manage in Albania. This in itself is no mean feat. Surprisingly, Slogans was the first Albanian film since the fall of communism to gain a theatrical release in the country (opening at the beginning of October), distributors being more interested in sure-fire blockbusters from the American Majors. The film showed for ten days in Tirana, and then a week in other major Albanian cities. Despite criticisms from some quarters that the film exaggerated the absurdity of Enver Hoxha's dictatorship, the film was an enormous success, even with young people who did not directly experience the trials and tribulations of adult life under communism. Distributors were obviously satisfied with their venture into domestic products, as Tirana Year Zero opened with a two-week run in Albania's capital at the end of October, again to a mixture of criticism and box-office success.
The importance of the success is underlined by the degree to which cinema-going has been eroded in Albania as a pastime. Many of the cinemas, particularly ones in smaller cities and rural areas, have been closed down as they are not profitable. Cinema's position has also been marginalised by the position in Albanian society of television, and the TV set is often joked about in Albanian society as being an additional member of the family. Satellite television is very common in Albania as under communism it enabled people disgruntled with the staid fare offered by state television to tune in to the more glamorous programmes shown on foreign, and particularly Italian, TV stations.
Lax application of copyright rules has meant that recent releases are regularly to be seen pirated on television, and video piracy is rife. As Nika recalls, "We had to make some video copies [of Slogans] to send to festivals, we went to the company and we stayed there [while they made the transfer from film to video] because we were afraid they would make copies and sell them." In fact, in Albania there is no legal video businessŚit's all bootlegs.
The situation is now improving. There are plans to tighten up on the laws applying to intellectual copyright and cinemas are starting to be refurbished and made more attractive. As Nika says, "at least we have some cinemas now, a few years ago [we had] nothing."
What remains to be seen is how this year's Albanian successes will impact on the structural future of Albanian film. The current wave of optimism, if carefully exploited, could be very beneficial for Albania. The film studios are in desperate need of investment if they are to have a chance of competing internationally, and the Academy of Arts is clearly not geared up for training people for the film industry (people wishing to specialise in the technical aspects of film currently have to travel abroad to do so, although there are grants from organisations such as the Soros Foundation to enable them to do this.) If Albania has any sense, it will be cashing in on films such as Slogans and Tirana Year Zero to rebuild this decrepit film infrastructure and to foster new talent.
But whatever Albania does or doesn't do with its infrastructure, it will surely be easier for Albanian production companies (particularly established ones) to team up with foreign producers. Certainly Xhuvani and Koši now have some tidy sums of money at their disposal from their prize-winning sprees, which could well be used to develop new projects. While it may be a good number of years yet until we see such as thing as a wholly Albanian-produced film at a festival, the mechanisms are now firmly established for French producers to team up with those from the Land of the Eagles.