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Cinema of the reel
© Yoana Pavlova
First Publication: Festivalists: April 2016
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“ ’To look is to travel,’ says Mark Cousins in Here be Dragons (2013), Cinéma du Réel’s much needed introduction to a very special treat at this year’s festival – A Story Through Images: The Albanian National Film Archive (AQSHF) in Focus. Following this programme was for our editor Yoana Pavlova a mean to travel both in space and time, to a larger notion of home, on the other side of the continent, that still waits to be excavated in the aftermath of the seismic XX century. More on her impressions and her interview with the programme curator Clarence Tsui – here…”

After dropping the stilted L΄Homme regarde l΄homme from the mid-1970s, Jean Rouch stepped in with Jean-Michel Arnold, and the first edition under the name Cinéma du Réel took place in 1979, the year I was born. At that time, the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss was at the height of his fame, and ethnographic films employed more or less the same discourse as the equally popular underwater explorations of Jacques-Yves Cousteau. But I cannot really say much about those days from first person (plus I grew up on the other side of the Berlin Wall), yet I was lucky enough to hold in my hands the first catalogue of Cinéma du Réel, discovering that documentarists like Joris Ivens or Frederick Wiseman sat on the jury. To my surprise, a film from my country was shown at Cinéma du Réel that same year, out of competition. I admit I had never heard of Tony Belotelev before, or of Song Hunters / Lovtzi Na Pesni (1978), but the black-and-white still in the catalogue showed a lady posing in a national costume. And this was precisely the image socialist regime in Bulgaria wanted to convey in this era: “We are nice and harmless, we have traditions.”

Nowadays, Joris Ivens and Frederick Wiseman are still part of the festival, with the name of the former being an honor for first-time international filmmakers (won this year by a Chilean author), while the latter was included in the 2016 Special Screenings section with In Jackson Heights (2015). Nevertheless, the geopolitical, cultural, and media context in which documentary festivals exist has changed immensely for the past 38 years. Today’s recipe for cooking such an event evolves large doses of current affairs and household names, even if well balanced. Key troubled territories like Palestine and Lebanon are a must, then add some South America as a documentary land of plenty, some Italy, an Austrian headliner (no, better make them two), a banned Russian film, an Ukrainian one for equilibrium, a young Chinese promise, customize with a few installations, season with something edgy on the storifying mechanisms of documentary cinema et voilà! Optional: discover new land.

At the 38th edition of Cinéma du Réel I was able to witness how a new cinematic landscape rises from the dust of the archives and the incomprehension of history. A Story Through Images: The Albanian National Film Archive (AQSHF) in Focus was a magnificent five-part programme curated by the Hong Kong journalist, film critic, scholar, and programmer Clarence Tsui and screened almost entirely on 35mm. Still, it is noteworthy that before the vaults of the Albanian National Film Archive opened for Cinéma du Réel viewers, it was the Albanian Cinema Project that stated loud and clear that Albania exists on the film map. It all started with a documentary, of course, one that was also invited at this year’s Special Screenings at Cinéma du Réel – Mark Cousins’ Here be Dragons (2013). A travelogue that reenacts in a way the romantic gesture of Lord Byron sailing off to Albania (and is self-ware of the post-colonial irony in this fact), the film could be received as problematic both in the East and the West of Europe, but one thing is sure – if people from those blank spots on the atlas, where medieval cartographers used to draw dragons and other monsters, do not take control over their own stories, as well as history, someone else will come and make a story out of this.

After attending all five screenings of the Albanian documentary programme at Cinéma du Réel, I still felt the need to know more about its ideation, intentions, outcome. Fortunately, the curator Clarence Tsui was kind and patient enough to answer my questions, thus opening many new levels of interpretation to his work, to the act of deconstructing and reconstructing history, and to the Go West refrain.

Yoana Pavlova: How were you introduced to Albanian cinema, how did it start your involvement with the Albanian Cinema Project?

Clarence Tsui: Probably I can take this question one step further, even more steps further, because I was very young when I first heard of Albania. I was in elementary school, primary school, maybe. I was reading mainly Chinese books, that were easily to come by. And Albania did figure a lot in the political narrative of the world in China. So I got interested in Albania quite a long time ago.
I remember watching Enver Hoxha’s funeral in 1985 on TV, and thinking: “What are these people doing?” And also I was interested in the language, because it is so unlike Latin languages, or Germanic languages, etc. So that was in the 1980s, but of course I followed up on this interest in Albania all along. I think it was until several years ago, when I became more acquainted with the treasures of Albanian cinema. I guess I have to thank Mark Cousins for this, because his omnibus The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011) features quite a bit of Albanian films, and also his documentary Here be Dragons.

YP: So you watched Here be Dragons before getting involved in the project and the showcase?

CT: Yes. I heard about this, and I got in touch with Mark, and he allowed me to have a look at Here be Dragons, that was before the film came to Hong Kong. The film actually did not come to Hong Kong at all, but I got to see it, and I realized… well… not just about Albanian cinema, also the situation in the Albanian National Film Archive – it is pretty dire, I mean the conditions are not ideal. I already had these mental notes that maybe one day I should really visit the Archive to have a look at what things are like and also to write a report myself, to write something about that. But before that Mark told me about the Albanian Cinema Project, which he had just established with Regina Longo, the US-based film scholar.
So, all these things came together, I got in touch with Regina, afterwards, actually. The first thing – I was developing possible ideas for Cinéma du Réel, and I was talking to Maria Bonsanti [Cinéma du Réel’s Artistic Director]. We had all these ideas bouncing around, and Albania somehow came into play in our discussion. I mentioned about the state of the Albanian National Film Archive, and it just happened that in the past three or four years years Cinéma du Réel dedicates one specific section to cinematheques around the world: Chili, Portugal… Greece was last year. So we thought it would be a good idea to shine a light on what the situation is with the Albanian National Film Archive. This is how the idea was actually born out of this match of personal background, personal story, but also the discussions I had with Maria, the communication I had with Mark Cousins, later on – with Regina Longo. The whole thing snowballed into what it is now.

YP: And you went to Albania? You visited the Archive?

CT: Yes.

YP: This happened recently, I guess?

CT: I visited the Archive last October, in 2015.

YP: This is how you started selecting films for this programme?

CT: Yes. Of course, before that, I had already done quite a little bit of research, before going there, because there are so many films! The Albanian National Film Archive, they have an online archive. Quite a few of these films you can actually see online, well, without subtitles and with low quality, but at least I could get the feel of what these films are like. And also they have a synopsis in English, so I knew what they are about, it is just that this excerpt I was seeing – I would not be able to know what is it about. So, it is by going there and watching films, sometimes on print, sometimes in digital format, and with the help of the Archive staff, they explained what these films are about. Also they had a very proper system of documentation, everything was there – the dialogue, the script, the stills, the shooting schedules. They helped me walk through these films. I had an idea what these films are like, and, afterwards, when I returned home, I was in constant touch with the Archive, we discussed the possibility of showing this film or that film, and we came up with this idea.

YP: Would you say it was an easy choice, to pick precisely these titles for the programme, or you hesitated because of the vast range of films?

CT: I think I already had an idea of the framework, which was to divide the films in several screenings with separate themes. And this is what Cinéma du Réel has been doing anyway for the previous editions of this section. For this one, I wanted to divide it along different topics, for example the first screening is called The State: Visions of Albania. These are mostly officially endorsed representations of Albania, the so-called propaganda films. We have the first proper Albanian documentary from 1947, with Enver Hoxha traveling across the country in The Commandant Visits Central and Southern Albania/ Komandanti Viziton Shqiperine e Mesme Dhe te Jugut by Mandi Koçi. We have When November Comes / Kur Vjen Nentori (1964) directed by Viktor Gjika and written by Ismail Kadare. It is basically a cinematic poem, so it takes on a more poetic, lyrical theme, but is still in tune with the officially endorsed vision of Albania. Then from 1976 we have Our Capital City / Kryeqyteti Yne by Shkëlzen Shala. We selected this documentary, as it uses the before/after method a lot. Black-and-white footage of the past – “we lived in squalor,” now in socialist heaven – “we live in splendour,” and so on. I wanted to include this film, because somehow it shows how the communist authorities back then, how they were also using images from the past, they were also re-writing history in a way. And finally The Fall of Idols / Shembja e Idhujve (1993) by Kujtim Gjonaj that was made after 1989. It also uses the past and the present in order to talk about the future of Albania.
The second screening, The Silenced: Censored Voices, comprises of films that were banned or shelved. The third part is The International: Other Perspectives. People always have this idea about Albania as this isolationist country, but I wanted to emphasize that throughout history, throughout the communist period, Albania tried to make friends – first with Yugoslavia, then with the Soviet Union, then with China, before it basically broke off with everybody. So these films illustrate Albania’s changing relationship with other countries. The Aftermath: Reimagining History is about films made after the communist era: Fatmir Koçi’s Super Balkan / Superbalkan from 1998 and Roland Sejko’s The Awaiting / Pritja from 2015. These films again use footage from the past and then interpret it to tease out different meanings, re-imagining history after the Fall. Finally, of course, the screening we just saw, The Child’s Play: Xhanfize Keko’s Reality, in which one can catch a glimpse of the artist’s vision.

YP: I really admire the framework, because it is very systematic, I was just wondering when you had this idea to approach the programme through precisely these themes – you were looking into these specific directions before you saw the majority of films, or you got acquainted with the material first and then decided to split it by applying the aforementioned topics?

CT: I think I developed the structure after returning from Albania, when I had a rough idea of what they do have. It is only after that I could actually develop a framework of sorts, what I can put into this programme.

YP: I imagine the film of Mark Cousins was a major point of reference, as many of the films, whose excerpts I spotted in Here be Dragons, were actually included in your selection.

CT: Yes, his film was an influence. I have to say that Mark actually… he spent quite a bit of time in Albania, watching all these films, so obviously he picked the best or the most significant parts of them. And yes, his work provided me with a lot of hints or clues of what to look for.

YP: While I was watching Here be Dragons, it occurred to me that Albania might in fact be called “Scotland of the Balkans,” as there are plenty of similarities, not only in terms of geography, national pride, this idea of isolation, and etc. But I was wondering, in your research, did you find any points of interception between Albanian culture, including cinephile tradition, and Hong Kong, where you come from?

CT: Well, not exactly.

YP: Because in your introduction to the third screening you mentioned that Albanian cinema was very big in China in the 1970s.

CT: In China, but not in Hong Kong. Because during the Cultural Revolution China basically closed itself off from Western influences. The only foreign films allowed in the country were Albanian films, because Albania was considered, to quote Chairman Mao from 1966, “the socialist beacon of Europe.” It was the only pure marxist-leninist country in Europe, and one of the two such countries in the world, with the other one being, of course, China.
So the films were pretty big, they affected a whole generation of people, of how they watch films. Because back then, during the Cultural Revolution, things were quite strict. Everybody dressed the same, nobody dared to be different, so with all these characters in Albanian cinema appearing in dresses, in colors, in fashion of sorts, it really fired up the imagination and the suppressed desires. This is why Albanian films remained part of a collective memory, memories of growing up, for this particular generation.
When you go online to Youku Tudou, the Chinese version of YouTube, you can see Albanian films with Chinese subtitles or dubbing, because there is a demand for it. People in their 50s or 60s – they grew up with this, it is their dosage of nostalgia.

YP: People who saw this programme at Cinéma du Réel, the French audience or the international guests, now their entire concept of Albania depends on your selection. It is a really big responsibility, you have created a whole image of a country and its history. How do you feel about this responsibility?

CT: Yes, it is true, this is quite a big responsibility. Yet as I mention in my programme notes, as well as during introductions, this is only a certain representation of Albania. Of course, well, this is my representation of other people’s representations of Albania. So it is basically several removes away from reality, if there is something like reality. But at least, what I hope to do is to provide people with different perceptions, with different ways of perceiving Albania, rather than just thinking of Albania along the lines of dictators, bunkers, and so on. And a lot of Western filmmakers, when they go there, they make all these films about the same cliches. I am sure there should be more. I hope that this programme allows the viewer to understand there is much more than that.
And in the Archive, there is actually much more than that, too. The Archive is not exactly just a storing space for communist propaganda. There are films that do have their artistic qualities, and these are films we really need to look at, through different prisms, I have to say. Maybe we can look at them as a representation of the national narrative during a certain period in time. But we can also look at them as the work of artists trying to push the envelope, to do something different. By looking at newer films, like Fatmir Koçi’s Super Balkan or Roland Sejko’s The Awaiting – they are questioning the images. So it is not like I am trying to present these pictures necessarily as the Holy Grail, “these films are great,” it is not like that. I just want to bring these films to the audience, so we can judge them. And finally, at this time and age, I am sure that after watching these films, barely out of the Pompidou, viewers will probably go online, search for more information about Albania, which is good, hopefully this is what they will do. It inspires people to try and learn more. Actually, I welcome people to challenge my visions, my representation of Albania, as there is no “right” or “wrong” representation, just one of the many. I hope that people will question my selection, maybe, but also question the ideas concealed, obscured, conveyed by all these films.

Reposted from: festivalists

  Fatmir Koci
  Yoana Pavlova
  Ismail Kadare
  Ektoras Lygizos` Interview at Festivalists
  Albanian Cinema Round Table “New perspectives on old films: Albanian cinema during the Kinostudio era 1954 – 1992”
  Festivalists - Official Website
  Cinema du Reel - Official Website
  A Story Through Images: The Albanian National Film Archive (AQSHF) in Focus
  The Albanian Project - Official Website
  Albanian National Film Archive - Official Website
  altcine Explore movies by Country People To read
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