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In the Realm of the Censors

In the Realm of the Censors

The proposal to ban films made during Albania’s communist era from the country’s television schedules must be resisted.

Mark Cousins

Something troubling is happening in the film world in Albania. Some weeks ago, the country’s Institute for the Study of Communist Crimes proposed that films from the country’s communist era (1946-1991) should be banned from television. They argued that screening movies made during these 45 years would encourage nostalgia for the old Enver Hoxha regime which was, of course, an oppressive dictatorship in many ways. Its labor camps and prisons were places of terror. Many were murdered because of  their political dissent or non-conformism. But banning the estimated 200 films made by the Albanian Film Institute from 1945 and then the Kinostudio from 1952 would be a counter-productive way to deal with the wounds of the past.

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Akaki Khorava as the great warrior in Skanderbeg.

Many of the best Albanian films were made under communism. Sergei Yutkevich’s Skanderbeg (1954) won two prizes at Cannes. Some of the 15 fiction features and 25 documentaries made by Viktor Gjika (1937-2009) are distinctly poetic. Xhanfise Keko (1928-2007) made beautiful films about children living through World War II, such as Tomka and His Friends (1977) and the modernist When Shooting a Film (1981), in which a divorce and the making of a film are interwoven. In addition to these, an average of  15 animations, many of them good, were made each year from the mid-1970s.

Of course, a large number of the films from these times were ideologically shrill, and there are many films and TV programs which need to be shown with care or with careful historical contextualization. German Nazi-era movies are toxic because they are openly racist or anti-Semitic. Leni Riefenstahl was a technically brilliant filmmaker but, for example, her use in Tiefland—shot during World War II but only released in 1954—of Roma and Sinti extras from a Nazi concentration camp, many of whom later died in Auschwitz, means that it would be irresponsible to show that film without telling the audience of its exploitative methods. Black and white minstrel TV shows were not consciously intended to be offensive, but certainly are now.

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Director Xhanfise Keko (right) on the set of When Shooting a Film. 

In comparison, Albanian communist-era films seldom preach hatred, nor are they
usually so thoughtlessly denigrating. Those that are poisonous should similarly be framed in ways that prevent their original iniquities from being repeated. But more often the Kinostudio films are about workers’ solidarity, anti-Nazism, feminism, the inventiveness of children and so forth. Those that show great improvements in the status of women within Albania, or rises in healthcare and education, are telling the truth. To ban them would be to simplify the complexity of the country’s past.

More broadly, banning films for their communist or leftist intent would rob us of Sergei Eisenstein’s early work, some of the movies of Abraham Polansky in America, Ousmane Sembene’s great Senegalese films, the work of China’s Xie Jin, and the Japanese documentary masterpieces of Tsuchimoto Noriaki and Ogawa Shinsuke, to name just a few. I personally find Eisenstein’s Strike (1925) and October (1928), for example, are compromised by their ideological fervor, but I love them for their cinematic fervor.

Ray Edmondson, who authored the General Guidelines to Safeguard Documentary Heritage for Unesco’s Memory of the World Programme, and who is a board member of the Albanian Cinema Project (on which I am also an advisor), recently wrote: “Censorship of the past never works and is antithetical to the whole notion of archival preservation and access, to programs like Memory of the World, and to the stance of bodies like Unesco.”

It is politically and socially wrong to prevent these films from being shown. As film lovers, filmmakers, critics and scholars, shouldn’t we, the readers of Sight & Sound, say that it is aesthetically wrong too? Films didn’t commit the crimes of the Hoxha era. His notorious secret police—the Sigurimi—whose numbers reached perhaps 30,000 (in a population of about 3 million) did. They killed and incarcerated people. The Sigurimi files have still to be properly investigated.

The Albanian people endured great suffering in the 20th century. As old movies are like messages in bottles, in that they are dispatches from another time, watching them might stir painful memories, or ire. That is not good, but the alternative, for the country, is intellectually or historically worse. Dr Julian Bejko, in the department of sociology at the University of Tirana, calls it the “condomisation of memory.”

The old Albanian movies—like any country’s movies—are not better or worse than their times. They are their times: evidence of what was thought and felt. They are aesthetically daring, socially utopian, sometimes condescending or galling. They mix great acting, inventive staging, predictable stories, archetypal characters, questionable mythologies and complex craning. They are part of cinema’s world heritage. Film is a global language. Albania’s best directors spoke that language with aplomb. The proposal to remove their films from TV should, with due respect to the past, be dropped.

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This article appears in Sight & Sound‘s June 2017 issue, in the column “Dispatches.” The editors of Sight & Sound, and Mark Cousins, have granted FQ permission to reprint it.

To learn more about the work to save and screen Albanian cinema, visit the website of the  Albanian Cinema Project. 

 

Header image: Artan Puto as Çelo in Tomka and His Friends (Xhanfise Keko, 1977).

Full disclosure: FQ Associate Editor Regina Longo is a founding board member of the Albanian Cinema Project.

Update June 18, 2017. Film scholar and FQ contributor Brian Winston’s letter to the editors of Sight& Sound is in the July 2017  issue as “Letter of the Month.”

“Mark Cousins is spot-on about the stupidities and futilities of film censorship, including that of noxious political works.” (Sight & Sound July 2017, page 95)

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