Most might be surprised to learn the country had one. After all, from 1944 until his death in 1985, the dictator Enver Hoxha imposed a reign of oppression. In his mix of delusion, paranoia, and calculation, he order Albanians to stave off a concocted military threat by constructing defensive bunkers throughout the country. Still, 27 years after his death, 750,000 of them litter a country of only three million people.
Over the last six months, Regina Longo, who teaches in the department of film and digital media at the University of California at Santa Cruz has served without pay as the director of the Albanian Cinema Project, which aims to preserve, restore, and promote the country’s film heritage.
The project’s aim is to bring awareness, attention, and assistance to the Arkivi Qendror Shteteror I Filmit (Albanian Film Archive), whose current home is riddled with mold, to the growing detriment of its holdings.
The Albanian Cinema Project is at the forefront of a campaign to relocate the collections of the archives to a new, mold-free facility. (How about a bunker or two? See below.) Longo and her colleagues have advanced this goal by developing partnerships with governmental and intergovernmental agencies, and with colleague worldwide among filmmakers, film archivists, and film scholars.
Logoreci has worked with the AQSHF to present screenings and as part of the DokuFest programming team. While visiting San Francisco, he contacted Longo to ask for her advice on managing the problems of the Central State Film Archive. She learned that AQSHF staff have done all they can within the limits of scarce government funding. As a result, a staff that formerly number 20 now has shrunk to 12.
Initially, says Longo, “we were thinking it was just a mold problem.” That was, itself, no minor issue. Because the archives’ building was thoroughly riddled with the growth, the collection needed constant cleaning. Worse, says Longo, the staff were cleaning and recleaning the same reels of film, working away with rubbing alcohol and cloths. “That was rather pointless, and they were not able to do much of the other work at the archive,” she says.
She was struck not just by the seriousness of the mold problem, but also by how intently staff have done what they can. “All the cans are brand spanking shiny and new, and everything is very well organized. It’s all in canisters that hold entire feature films and look almost like barrels, like metal ash cans, with 1,000-foot 35mm film reels. They’ll hold 7 to 10 reels that make up the one film; when you open up each of those cans, that’s when you can see the mold growing on the film.
“Imagine trying to maintain over 6,500 film titles – many, many, many reels of film, almost all 35mm – in 100-degree temperatures in the summer, with a leaky roof, and a leaky foundation, in a really very poorly constructed although very new building.” The archive was originally housed next door at the Kino film studio – Kinostudio Shqipëria e Re – which Hoxha set up in 1952, with Soviet support. Now it is home to the Albanian National Center of Cinematography, the Marubi Academy of Film and Multimedia, and several television studios.
When Longo visited the facility, she was greeted by an odor of vinegar that archivists know well as a sign of deteriorating film stock. Electricity rarely ran in the building and certainly not in the vaults. “They were opening and closing the vault doors to try to get air circulation, but what they actually ended up doing was exacerbating the problem,” she says.
The facility has two handsome French chilling units that the East German film archive donated them in 1985. But one is broken, and both are old and outmoded and no one is available domestically to service them. Says Longo: “The only place there was a technician is in Greece, who covered that whole region, so somebody would be in Albania once every two or three months.” The chilling units should run on a constant supply of fresh water, but Longo found that one stagnant tank of used water had been circulating since the autumn of 2011.
Any archivist would shudder at all that, and in Longo’s voice it registers that she did, too. “Looking at the conditions there,” she says, “I realized there wasn’t any point giving them supplies; what they really needed to do was get out of that building. They were breathing in these things all the time. Except that, half the time they don’t have Internet and they don’t have electricity, so they work from home, which when you’re trying to manage archives and you need to do hands-on work in the archives…”
With all that, says Longo, she was moved by the impending eradication of Albanian’s film history. “To me, the idea of an entire national cinema being absent from film-history books and film-history courses was and is inexcusable,” says the film historian in her. Only then, she says, can she and fellow scholars show how Albanian cinema intersects with the film history of the rest of Europe and with China and other countries. “Albanians,” she says, “want their film history to be known outside Albania, but it has taken time to organize other aspects of the country and government post-1990s, to allow Albanians the time to shift from rebuilding a country after regime change to safeguarding and preserving the country’s cultural history.”
After her visit in July 2012, Longo wrote a report for Aldo Bumci, Albanian Minister of Culture, at his request, to assure him that figures in the Albanian film and film-archiving communities are determined to make the restoration and preservation project work. She suggested that Albania could appropriately treat film just as it is treating art, literature, and architecture in planned museum for Soviet-era culture because “cinema was such a prominent part of the apparatus,” she says.
Preparation of one large bunker has begun as a home for a museum of Communist-era culture. Longo and her colleagues have proposed that the film archive be granted a similar facility, and the Minister of Culture has offered a choice of three bunkers that are in good condition to at least temporarily store the films, after cleaning, and then to raise money to repurpose one of the bunkers into a film archive, with offices, and auditorium.
Even beyond securing such a facility, the project’s personnel and supporters are well aware that solid funding – from the private sector and foundations as well as the Albanian government – will be needed, too. At the moment, the whole annual budget for the film archives – for everything, from staffing to repairs – is less than what it costs to restore one feature film.
Albanian Cinema: A Potted History
In their report, Longo and her colleagues nominated five titles whose preservation was crucial in recovering the nation’s film history. Indeed, Albania had a relatively active film industry before 1950. After that, foreign influence increased. Until the 1990s, however, few Albanian films were translated or subtitled and shown abroad.
From 1944 until his death in 1985, Hoxha held the country under Communist sway of his own idiosyncratic form. He at times professed staunch Stalinist Marxist-Leninism and at others Maoism. Early in his rule, he broke with Yugoslavia, which like Albania sought to rid itself of fascist dominance. Then he broke with the Soviet Union, which he considered insufficiently Marxist-Leninist. Among his motivations in revising his own adherences was his belief that all the Eastern European Communist states had acceded to revisionism: pale approximations of Hoxha’s Communist ideal.
His way of enacting that true belief was to introduce land reform and industry nationalization, which soon prompted Western intelligence agents to try to undermine him. His erratic rule, and its odd expression – the bunkers, the isolationist stance – contributed to Western suspicions. So did his Stanilinism, to which he long clung despite revelations about its grim realities.
As histories of Albanian cinema on the Project’s website and an online article by Thomas Logoreci relate, few elements of foreign film pierced Hoxha’s strategic defense initiative to influence Albania’s fledgling industry. Unsurprisingly, political turgidity was not conducive to art.
In 1952, the Soviet-built Kinostudio opened in Tirana, and film students went to Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. The apprentices included future directors Dhimiter Anagnosi, Piro Milkani, and Viktor Gjika. (Gjika is among Albania’s most well-known filmmakers, and ran the state film studios for a time.)
With Albania’s shift from Soviet to China patronage, independent film contracted again, but film jobs were aplenty for propagandists, and some managed stylistic innovations. But only a few filmmakers managed to skirt regime censorship, most notably Muharrem Fejzo and Fehmi Hoshafi’s comedy Kapedani (“Captain,” 1972), Anagnosti’s Lulekueqet Mbi Mure (“Red Poppies on the Wall,” 1976) and Rikard Ljarja’s Sketerre 43 (“Hell 43,”1980). Still, despite its isolation, Albania produced an average of 13 movies a year between 1975 and 1990, when borders reopened, with impressive cinema attendance: 20 million seats sold in 450 indoor and outdoor theaters, annually; national attendance averaged 10 films per year. The absence of TV (how did they manage?) contributed to that. From Tana (1958) to 1995, Albania produced 270 feature films, 700 documentaries, and 150 animated films. (Samples of many Albanian films are online.)
As isolated as he made Albania, Hoxha indulged for himself a fascination with French culture, including film. As a result, a 1980s project led to some poor French dubs of Albanian films showing on French television.
“A fortunate outcome of the closed regime of Enver Hoxha,” note Longo and her colleagues, “is that the film archives managed to keep track of nearly all of the features, shorts, documentaries, newsreels, and animated films produced in Albania since 1952. The archives also holds film stills, posters, press books, screenplays, continuity scripts, musical scores, and many other production elements that are often lost in more dispersed collections.”
And, at least among film history oriented Albanians, “it’s really important to the Albanians that their films don’t leave Albania,” Longo says.
Already, however, the restoration provides a far more satisfying film experience than poor online copies, but until now most film fans have had to content themselves with viewing Albanian films in that way.
The Albanian Cinema Project has partnered with the San Francisco Media Archive. As a result, donations in the United States, which can be made through the project’s donation page, are tax deductible. Donations of services also are welcome.
– Peter Monaghan