December 16, 2005

Tirana Dispatch. 1.

David D'Arcy, who has covered festivals for us ranging from Haifa and New York to Karlovy Vary and Toronto, sends word from another where he's headed up the fiction film jury.

Tirana International Film Festival The third Tirana International Film Festival ended last Sunday with an awards ceremony at the Millennium II Theater in a park behind the capital's dusty National Gallery. In my first visit to Albania, I spent a week in Tirana, as president of the fiction film jury, but the screenings combined documentaries and animation films. All the films in competition were shorts.

Also on the bill was a feature by Nick Broomfield, one by Ken Loach (who also made a brief visit) and some Albanian features, which I'll discuss in a later installment.

Every city has a film festival these days, so why not Tirana? (Albania made plenty of films during the communist period that extended from the end of World War II to the early 1990s. Back in 1977, I saw The Mountain Girl, a Chinese-inspired adaptation of a dogmatic ballet, at an Albania film festival in Paris, run by surly Albanians from a Franco-Albanian Fraternity Association, who responded to my question about visiting the country someday with the warning that I wouldn't be allowed in if I wanted to "make propaganda." The remains of the studio where that film was shot stand on the outskirts of town - a private film school now shares the grounds with Tirana's film sets. More about that later.)

Visiting Albania is like walking into someone else's movie. If you haven't seen Albanian films, and if you haven't been to Albania, the dominant moving images that you're likely to have of the place could come from Lamerica, Gianni Amelio's drama about the desperate waves of exodus from an impoverished country in the years following the collapse of communism. Albanians resent that film with near-unanimity, although rumors that the author Ismail Kadaré threatened to kill Amelio over his depictions of poor and light-fingered folk are said to be ungrounded.

Like it or not, there are visions from Lamerica that still ring true. Amelio's picture of the place was of an empty expanse, where people walked aimlessly in all directions - not charged particles, as you would expect of a European capital, but numbed particles.

Tirana: 3rd Edition That was years ago, and Albania has changed - for the better, everyone kept assuring me - although the streetscape can evoke a blend of Magritte and De Chirico. A construction boom of apartments and commercial buildings seems to be threatening to fill up whatever empty space has value. (The coastline nearby is filling up even faster.) A parallel illegal building boom to house immigrants on the outside of town is extending sprawl as far as the eye can see. The roads, which are anything but empty, are filled with cars, and filled with holes, some of them so deep that traffic stands still. On my way to Mother Teresa Airport (yes, she was Albanian), I noticed a Porsche dealership and wondered where those cars could be driven. Maybe it's just about being able to buy one.

The city is, to put it mildly, a work in progress, a project that's now in the hands of Mayor Edi Rama, a six foot seven former painter who was named "Mayor of Europe" by his peers in 2004. Part of Rama's beautification strategy for Tirana has been to open up gated neighborhoods once reserved for the nomenklatura and to persuade property owners to paint their buildings in bright colors. You can read a gushing adoration of Rama by Jane Kramer in the New Yorker (it seems to be the only information on Albania that any Americans outside the country have read) but, as with everything in this country, the beautification campaign is hit or miss, and the right wingers who oppose everything that Rama does (the mayor is now the head of his country's socialist party) have proclaimed a hit on his political career. Let's just say he has his hands full.

Knowing any of this information wasn't necessary at the film festival, which showed short films from around the world to an audience that grew over the course of the week. The only region that seemed to be under-represented in the program was North America. I never got an explanation for that.

Despite some projection imperfections in the digital presentation, plenty of films among the more than 200 screened were worth considering for prizes. The first prize that the three juries in the festival agreed on was Before I Go, by Heiko Hahn of Germany, a short drama about a husband struggling to care for his wife who suffers from Alzheimer's Disease. I can't remember where I have seen the balance of love and frustration achieved so well, nor have I seen any other film negotiate its way so adroitly through the ugliness and tenderness of such an ordeal. In feature length, such a film's emotional powers risks being weakened, yet I'm sure this director has a fine feature inside him.

Among other prizes, a special notice went to an Albanian film, Snowdrops, by Robert Budina, which also dealt with illness, death and loss. Once again, the acting had an emotional truth to it that seems to come when a film isn't expected to make any money. I didn't get a sense that this film compromised on anything. With actors like these and a director who knows how to use them, maybe there's hope for Albanian cinema.

La Guerra degli Italiani Hope for Italian cinema was in evidence, too. Thanks to Instituto Luce, the Italian distributor, I sampled a series called "Novecento" of works drawn from archival film from the 1920s to the 1950s. One section that I saw drew on color footage from 1942 to 1945 of the Allied invasion of Italy. What a revelation, and the voice-over with strong pro-Italian sympathies was better than a laugh track. A series of these documentaries is now available on DVD. Don't miss it.

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Posted by dwhudson at December 16, 2005 11:57 AM