Sunday, 25 November 2007

ALBANIAN FILM AND DOCUMENTARY: How did film and documentary help create ‘dictatorship” in the years after the Second World War in Albania

By Fatmir Terziu
Roehampton University
Media & Cultural Studies

"But stranger things have happened. Not a lot of people know this, but for a good decade from the late 1960s, Albanian films were among the most watched in the world. The reason was simple. That nice Mr Mao deemed them the only foreign fare ideologically safe enough to be shown to hundreds of millions of Chinese in the wake of the Cultural Revolution. Which is why, from time to time, you will come across Chinese directors paying handsome tribute to some "European classic" no one outside Tirana has heard of" (Fiachra Gibbons, Friday March 16, 2007 The Guardian)

Film, documentary and photography have been significant element of propaganda techniques, which help to keep alive ‘dictatorship’ in the years after the Second World War in Albania. It can be said that dictatorship can be found surviving in both new and old forms, in exhibitions, and above all in the cinema, documentary and photography. From the shooting of the first film in Albania ideology and censorship have been in strong relationship with each other. There are many facts that state that the first film was not released for public viewing. Even though the film about the national Albanian hero George Kastrioti, Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu, which was realised as a collaboration with soviet filmmakers didn't escape from this ideology, it was the first and only Albanian film to win an award in the Canne. A photo that escaped from the communist ideology and censorship now reveals a truth long forgotten. It helps to create a new documentary to highlight the reality. For example, a simple photo kept secret from the communist government, by the Bicaku family from Librazhd, a small town in Albania, now after this family received an award in USA, shows that during the time of the Holocaust, Albanians played an important role by protecting innocent Jewish people. This photo caused a new documentary to be made. John Colson, Aspen Correspondent explores one fact about this new documentary. “It is the main project of a non-profit — Eye Contact Foundation — and has been under way for several years. It already has spawned a book and a DVD that tell the stories of Albanian citizens, mostly Muslims but also Christians, who sheltered and aided Jews fleeing from the Nazis in Germany” (Colson, 24 November 2007:Vail Daily). So, in the years after, among all visual arts, the documentary, the photography and especially the cinema have changed the way of how the relationship between state and culture can be. Albanian filmmakers tried to escape from the old traditions and helped to reshape the history of filmmaking in the country. Within a few years from the invention of documentary, the photography and the cinema, "even in the poor and little Albania the seventh art was joyfully and with no hesitation embraced" (Leskaj, 2006). "But stranger things have happened. Not a lot of people know this, but for a good decade from the late 1960s, Albanian films were among the most watched in the world. The reason was simple. That nice Mr Mao deemed them the only foreign fare ideologically safe enough to be shown to hundreds of millions of Chinese in the wake of the Cultural Revolution. Which is why, from time to time, you will come across Chinese directors paying handsome tribute to some "European classic" no one outside Tirana has heard of" (Fiachra Gibbons, Friday March 16, 2007 The Guardian)

The film documentary

Albanian documentary started gradually with its first cronicles, that showed everyday life and problems of the time, until the documentary started to fulfil its aim as documentary with its all components of filmmaking. According to Pecani, one of the first directors of film documentary in Albania shows that “documentary film is a history, art, culture of people, written in celluloid”(Pecani, interview). Were not few contributors to this genre. I should start with directors, producers, scriptwriters, camerapersons and editors [montagers] and musicians with others that worked with artistic desire to represent that history, art, culture of Albania people in celluloid and to make it lifelong event in the film documentary.

The first documentary in Albania

First film documentary in Albania is Zërat e Trenave (1971) [Trains Voice]. The documentary was realised for television. The director Ylli Pepo and cameraman Engjëll Strazimiri focused two Albanian cities, Durrës and Elbasan, where people wake up early and go to bed with ‘trains’ voice’. In 1971 was shot, and realised in record time another film documentary, Në Prag Të Ngjarjes së Madhe [In the Wake of the Great Event]. The film grabbed the theme of young people’s life and its authors Albert Minga and Fisnik Sina worked with the cameraperson Besnik Derhemi. In 1972 started quickly and with high temp of work shooting a series of documentaries that focuses in Butrint, one of the ancient monuments of Albanian history. It was the first time when documentary moved from propaganda documentary to historical contexts, with slide show links with this propaganda. The series was titled Udhwtim in Buthrotos [Journey to Buthrotos], by the use of Butrint’s original Ilirian ancient name. The director Ylli Pepo called on this series scriptwriter Andon Dede to colaborate with him, and with the help of cameraperson Ilir Kasneci they realised for first time in the history of documentary making in Albania of the time the lessons how to escape from the propaganda that in Albania was at her climax. The propaganda of the time in Albania has affected all art’s fields. For this reason Albanian documentarists Ylli Pepo can be called the father of art-history documentary in the country. The years 1973-1978 continued to focus on the theme of art and these years are called a years of portrait-documentary in Albania.

Call for new theme

The theme of documentary, which tried to escape further from the propaganda of the time, started to expand its aim by focusing on people’s portrait, people that had been famous at the time. The documentary tried to explore historical connotation within the theme. The series of film documentaries called Ngjarje dhe Data (1974) [Events and Dates] were focused only on the portrait of famous historical characters of Albanian nation. Another series called “Përballë Njëri-Tjetrit” (1976) explored portraits of ordinary people. Azis Gjergji is a main contributor to these series as director and producer. Another director that contributed within this theme in series of documentaries called Udhëtim Nëpër Shqipëri (1977) [Traveling in Albania] was Andon Dede. He shot in 15 cities of Albania and realised 15 film documentaries. He realised and another film documentary, slightly different from the first series mixed with historical context Udhëtim në Lashtësi [Walking Through History].

The years 1989; return of propaganda

The film documentary return again its propaganda within the film documentaries shot in the 1980’s. The propaganda that dominated these films started to be main aim of film documentary as political source for communist ideology of the Albanian government of the time. Among director’s that worked and produced documentaries in 1980’s was Marash Hajati, journalist in TV, Mevlan Shanaj, actor, and Bujar Kokonozi. The documentary Komani, Betejë e Madhe [Coman Great Battle] made it propaganda on the theme of ‘Forcat e Veta’, a communist Marxist slogan that focuses on believing that everything can be realised by himself and not need of help from ‘imperialist countries’, as documentary propaganda tries to say to people and ‘working class’. Tërmeti Tundi Malet [The Earthquake Shook the Mountains] was similar to Komani, Betejë e Madhe, and was realised by same authors Hajati, Shanaj and Kokonozi. Spiro Dede realised another documentary within this propaganda, Shoku Ynë Alqi Kondi [Our Friend Alqi Kondi]. In 1980’s a few documentarists used their new ideas to avoid the propaganda. Dhimitër Pecani, with its film documentary Zgjidhja e një Enigme [Solving an Enigma] treated Rembrad’s pictures in Albania, while Zbulime Nënujore [Underwater Findings] realised by the director Xhemal Mato focuses on the findings in Albanian underwater treasure.

The dictator’s figure occupied film documentary

In 1986 a group of TV workers shot a series film documentaries about Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha. The series was called Ditëlindjet e Enverit [Enveri’s Birthdays], and focuses on Enveri’s portrait and its political figure. The series continued after his death in April 1985. These series climaxed the propaganda and realised that the documentary was alienated within communist ideology. The documentary proved that propaganda was dictated and it was not the reality that the documentarists wanted to produce. This sort of documentary configured dictator’s portrait, while for film critics it was waste of time and of creative cultural process in Albania. These series brought ‘cult TV’ as sort of political dominance in Albanian life of the time.

The years of professionalism

“If the years 1980-1990 are the years of consolidation of film documentary in Albania, the 1990’s are called the years of professionalism and experimental research in the field of television documentary in the country” (Pepo, 1996:interview). So in 1991-1992 the director Spartak Pecani with collaboration with Bujar Kokonozi and Nexhati Tafa, realised Jetë Pas Vdekjes [Life after Death]. In 1993 Kokonozi, focused its theme in one of historical figures of Albanian and European acting Aleksander Moisiu. Cizia Zyke and Piro Milkani with the help of Kokonozi produced a most criticised documentary Kanuni [The Kanun]. Media called the documentary ‘good realised’, that brought for the viewers Leke Dukagjini’s constitution, which has been used in Albania as low for hundred years. In the same year Kokonozi and Kosovan artist Migjen Kelmendi realised film documentary called Të Shitur Utopie [Sold Utopie] which explores that communism was only utopi in mind of people. In 1995 Flora Nikolla, Amalia Dhamo and Bujar Kokonozi created Arratisja [Escape]. The year of 1977 created other problems in the documentary filmmaking with its problems and chaos that brought in the country. The drowning of 100 people in the Adriatic, mostly of them women and children, who tried to escape from this chaos in Albania brought another theme to film documentary makers in the country. Një Tokë që Lundron was focused on this theme and was produced by Ervin and Ibrahim Muco and Bujar Kokonozi. The sequences of this film show represented battle of humans with the Adriatic Sea. It was very painful. The documentary had realist attempt of representation.

Documentary aim; Working in the group

Film documentary making is the most complex and most combined work in the group. The directors working together with scriptwriters, camerapersons, editors, runners and other people that contribute to the documentary. The music need to be original and some time it need to be composed for the theme of documentary. This was aim of most documentary makers who started producing their ideas in new era. But most contributed person in the documentary making is cameraman which works close to the director and inspires shots and images that contribute to the documentary. This team work was lead by Ismail Balla, Andon Beqari, Alfred Kasimati, Klajd Sheldia, Mira Mone and other that worked to produce such a good quality of documentaries in the coming years. They were great editors of film documentary history in Albania. Camera work was lead by Beqir Derhemi, Stefan Gajo, Bujar Kokonozi, Pali Kuke, Ilir Kasneci, Engjell Strazimiri, Valter Qarri, Ben Caku, Ben Milo. The music department was most important in the documentary making and was the only department full with female professionals, like Leonora Abazi, Suzana Muca, Pranvera Kati and Suzana Gashi. They also helped to enhance the soundtrack in the documentary.

The documentary today

Most of the documentaries made after 1997 are documentary made by Television journalists. This was the fact that so many documentaries were the combination of all modes of documentary. In 1998 the first time a private Television camera entered in Tetova University in FYROM (Macedonia) to produce a documentary about the University, which was in Albanian language and was in battle with authorities in the country. The documentary was scripted, filmed and edited by Fatmir Terziu. Fadil Sulejmani, Dean of the University of the time was main interview in the documentary, among other staff. The documentary was realised with the help of Isa Kreka, Qazim Radoniqi, Hamit Dika and Isa Basha. In producing the documentary helped TV Era, TV Art and some intellectuals. TV Teuta, TV Shijak and Klan, Arberia produce other documentaries. Other documentaries made by independent filmmakers are kept out public eyes aiming international market and festivals.

Part II


The first Albanian film started its preparation in 1957. In 1958 Tana was released for viewers, but only for a few months, because Albanian officials of the time called for censorship on it. In one hand it was the start of the history of the film in Albania, in the other hand, it was the start of censorship of Albanian films. No one from the filmmakers was able to create a film with his own idea. The films have to be created ‘in light of Marxist-Leninist’ ideology. Everything was linked with ideologisation of literacy and art in the monist system. Fortunately when some filmmakers escaped from this ideology, their films were released for public viewing, and after they were released, some of them again were banned. The directors tended to create films with advanced theory of filmmaking, but they were under communist control and they did not escaped from the brutality. Examples of films banned from public viewing, or with cut sequences are parts of all the history of filmmaking in Albania until 1990. According to one of the old generation of filmmakers in Albania, Llazar Siliqi, there was no reason why these films were banned, or why some sequences were cut. No one gives any explanation to that. The war was especially on filmmakers and directors that were categorised by officials as people with western domination in their theory or idea of filmmaking. All filmmakers and directors that had tried to liberalise their ideas of filmmaking and were critical with the problems of socialism in their films have been in focus of the dictatorial system.
Everything was under control. The Communist Party and Government had appointed controllers, and another group of controllers came from the so-called Ministry of Culture. They were so brutal. They brought disaster to Albanian cinematography, because they were not professionals or related to any part of culture or art. They were only fanatics of the communist system and they were advised to send many filmmakers ‘with Western ideology’ to prison, banning some of them from filmmaking or killing them. “Some of the Albanian filmmakers of that time that were called ‘westerners’ were charged with different charges. Among others are Viktor Stratoberdha, Mit’hat Fagu, Mark Topallaj, and Nuredin Cabej. Some cameramen such are Mandi Koci, Dhimiter Lala, Bardhyl Martiniani and scriptwriters Petro Marko, Vito Koci, Xhevat Alibali, Dionis Bubani and Vangjush Gambeta, did not escaped from these charges. Every cut or film had to be destroyed. A few sequences and films were saved in a film-archive of the only institution of film in Albania called Kinostudio “Shqipëria e Re” (Siliqi, 2004).


Viktor Stratoberdha, the assistant director of a film co-produced with Russian filmmakers, Skenderbeu (1953), started to realise his own film in collaboration with scriptwriter Dionis Bubani, and cameramen Mandi Koci and Dhimiter Lala in 1955. The film attempted to focus on some problems of the time and was focused in some criticism of Albanian society of the time. The film was called “Mbi të Metat” (About some Problems). The film was strongly criticised by authorities and was banned from public view. It was a pretext to start charges for ‘rebels’ of communist ideology. Viktor Stratoberdha was banned from filmmaking and was send to work in another city and another field. Later, he got a chance to escape from the communist control and to emigrate from the country. The cameraman Mandi Koci was sends to prison in 1961, when later died after his release. The other cameraman Dhimiter Lala had the same fate as his colleague. He was sent to prison a few months later.
The first director of Kinostudio “Shqipëria e Re”, Nesti Zoto, a well known intellectual from Korça in Albania, who spoke openly in 1956 in Communist organisation in Tirana, about the problems in art and cinematography was sent in internment, where he died.
In 1961 another film was banned. The film “Njeriu nuk vdes Kurrë”, diploma work of the directors Dhimitër Anagnosti and Viktor Gjika, based in Hernest Hemingway story. Even though the film won a first prize in the World Festival of Cinematographic Schools in Netherlands, it was not seen by the public eyes. In 1963 another director was sent to prison. Xhevat Alibali was charged during the shot of two documentary-films “Rapsodi Kreshnike” and “Roja e Atdheut”, because the films were classified as Western.
In 1965, Nuredin Cabej, another director was sent to prison. The reason was because he had studied in Italy and had acted in an Italian film with Albanian theme, “Kavaljerët e Krujës” (1943).
The film “Gjurma” (1970) was banned again with the same problems and acussation for the director Kristaq Dhamo and scriptwriter Peci Dado. Later this film was released for public viewing after it was censored dramatically (Siliqi, 2004).

(To be continued)
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copyright Fatmir Terziu 2007

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