FEATURE: Shooting the Past and Present of Albanian Cinema

Thomas Logoreci is a filmmaker, sometime journalist and occasional film festival programmer living and working in the Balkans.

Thomas Logoreci, co-writer of GFI grantee WORLD, discusses the evolution of cinema within an ever-changing landscape of Albania…

Thomas Logoreci here. I used to live in San Francisco. I produced and edited Caveh Zahedi’s Bay Area indie comedy I AM A SEX ADDICT which was released back in 2005. Five years later, I picked up and moved my entire life to the East European nation of Albania. I’m half-Albanian but owing to the country’s fifty years of North Korea-like communism, violent civil unrest in 1997 and the 1998-99 war in neighboring Kosovo, I did not get to Albania for the first time until 2005.

Even though I barely advanced my Albanian language skills, I ended up visiting the country several times, eventually earning a modest income rewriting scripts for some of the country’s foremost filmmakers. In 2008, I was asked to come back to the capital to program the country’s Tirana International Film Festival. During the frantic fest week, I met Iris Elezi, a talented cineaste who pitched me her script titled BOTA (the Albanian word for ’world’), which she intended to direct.

We ended up reshaping the story together – a group of outsiders working in a café at the edge of a haunted swamp cope with the arrival of a highway. Eventually, we got the script into the Berlinale Script Station, and were awarded grants from Goteborg and Hubert Bals Rotterdam before finally getting support from the Eurimages funding body. In between all this activity, Iris and I fell in love, got married and I moved out to Albania to start work on the film.

Iris and I were extremely pleased to receive a production grant from the Global Film Initiative for BOTA this past year. We were even more honored since GFI has provided backing for some of Albania’s most exceptional talent. Writer and director Artan Minarolli’s ALIVE was a recipient for the 2006 funding cycle. Most recently, the GFI provided support for our good friend Bujar Alimani’s debut feature AMNESTY, the first Albanian film to play at the Berlinale.

By the monolithic standards of Hollywood, this kind of funding may seem pointless but by Balkan standards GFI support is nothing less than salvation. Believe me, attempting to make a film in Albania, or any artistic venture for that matter, is not easy.

In Albania’s capital, Tirana, with its population of a little over one million (one third of the entire population) there are no casting agencies or equipment houses. A production company typically makes most of its money producing wedding videos. Albania is the one of the few remaining countries in Europe without a cinematheque or rep theaters.

The main entrance to the Kinostudio film complex in Tirana, Albania

Theaters in Tirana show Hollywood fare and rarely screen Albanian films. Last week, the management of one theater refused to honor its contract with the decade- old Tirana International Film Festival, opting instead to book the latest Twilight installment. Scrambling to find a new venue, the festival director discovered that all the other theaters in the city were also showing the Twilight film.

For filmmakers here, a little money can go a long way. In 2007, I assist directed and rewrote scenes of director Fatmir Koci’s TIME OF THE COMET. COMET, a period film based on a novel by the acclaimed Albanian writer, Ismail Kadare, had an unheard of budget of three million euros. Most feature films are made for well under a million dollars with financial backing often coming from three or four countries at once.

Though Iris and myself would love nothing better than to work on BOTA full time, we also have to work day jobs. It was one afternoon, wrapping a history of documentary class at the Marubi Film Academy, that we met two Dutch video artists who were eager to visit the Albanian Central State Film Archive. So the next day the four of us took a ride to the outskirts of the city, the home of the communist-built Kinostudio complex. As we opened up the door, in this poorly-funded state institution, we made a sad discovery.

Wafting through the air was the tell-tale smell of vinegar, a sign of serious film degradation. When we were shown the main negative vault, we noticed that the walls were wet with condensation and mold. Even mushrooms had started sprouting in the corner.

A subsequent visit revealed that for several months in the dizzying 100 plus degree heat of the previous summer, the cooling fans had stopped running and the temperatures had risen till it was even hotter than outdoors. Though we were overwhelmed with the task of prepping Iris’ film, we felt the urgent need to do something, anything, to try to halt Albania’s entire film heritage from turning to vinegar.

Through an experimental filmmaker friend in the US, I managed to connect with an energetic Bay Area archivist, Regina Longo. After being apprised of the situation, Regina used the chance to attend a preservation conference in London to make a detour to Albania. Her week here allowed her to spend time carefully analyzing the situation at the endangered archive. In addition, she was also able to meet with the minister of culture plus do a whole slew of television and press interviews to make our case to the Albanian public.

Regina returned to the US. Owing to her continued dedication to the Albanian cause, she was able to secure a donation of 10,000 cans from the George Eastman House along with the promise of a title to be restored by Colorlab Corp. in Washington DC. Regina began to build a mass of support from concerned scholars, archivists and film directors the world over. Out of this was born the Albania Cinema Project, a non-profit initiative dedicated to rescuing the archive collections.

Title card from the restored version of Albanian director Victor Gjika's 1982 Nentori i Dyte (The Second November).

Since 2012 is the centennial of this Albania’s independence, we chose for the Colorlab restoration, a 1982 drama about this country’s turn of the century struggle for freedom – the badly faded NENTORI I DYTE (The Second November). Coincidentally, this was also the year of our 13th Festival of Albanian Cinema, an event that occurs every five years. Every feature film, documentary, animation, and student film produced in the last half-decade in Albania and Kosovo are shown for free, nightly, to packed houses.

Though it seemed a difficult task in retrospect, we decided to see if it was possible to get the restoration done in time for the festival. As November approached, while Colorlab began working with the negative, me and Iris labored to create English subtitles that were essential as well as literary. Our spirits were lifted when Regina Longo managed to enlist Library of Congress preservationist, Ken Weissman to come to Albania the same week as the fest to try to find a solution to the mold and vinegar disaster.

Though it took nearly a decade and a half of planning, design and construction, Weissman was the manager behind the relocation of much of the Library of Congress nitrate film collections to the Packard Campus. Weissman’s feat was even more impressive since he utilized a decommissioned depository that had originally been planned to protect government officials in case of nuclear attack.

Weirdly enough, during Albania’s paranoid communist regime, the Marxist dictatorship built hundreds of thousands of concrete bunkers along with several massive ones in caves outside the capital. It was Regina and Ken’s hope that just maybe one of those bunkers have the potential to keep the negatives cool for years to come as had been successfully done with the Packard project.

Two weeks ago, Regina and Ken arrived in Albania for the premiere of the restored NENTORI I DYTE. Owing to the chaos brought about by Hurricane Sandy, Ken barely was able to bring with him, Colorlab’s new version of the film from Washington DC in time for opening night. Yet on Friday, November 3rd, the film opened to a capacity crowd at the downtown Millennium Theater.

Not having being able to see even a frame of the new version before the show, I believed, that at most, I would see something a little brighter and slightly more colorful. I did not expect to see what I saw on the screen that night -a wide canvas of vibrant colors that owed more to Kubrick’s BARRY LYNDON than socialist realism.

Why? Over the course of the week, we discovered that when it came time to create prints from the original camera negative, Albania had a serious handicap in 1982. Owing to its isolation from the rest of the world, the country was unable to import the necessary chemicals to produce proper color projection prints. So dire was the situation, that often they would often dilute or reuse the same chemical bath over and over which placed a murky grey sheen over the images, turning white walls into a grimy blue.

In some ways, what we did goes beyond restoration. Though the films original cinematographer, Lionel Konomi, was able to see the result, the director of NENTORI, Viktor Gjika, who passed away in 2009, was never able to see the look he had originally envisioned. Albania simply did not have the resources to make the colors come alive. Our research revealed that directors like Gjika would overlight interior scenes and shoot exteriors in the blazing mid day sun in the hope of attaining a fraction of the color they intended. This was the best they could do. That night Iris and I realized how important it is to save Albania’s negatives. They are full of untold secrets.

Some semi-happy endings. While in Albania, Ken Weissman found an abandoned military installation with eighteen cavernous bunkers, each one suitable to contain the entire film archive. Now we just need to convince the Ministry of Defense to co-operate with the Ministry of Culture to make it all come together. The restored NENTORI I DYTE will begin playing at festivals around the world early next year. And now, after a few days rest, me and Iris can resume work on BOTA knowing we are moving forward to protect the tradition of Albanian cinema that we hope to be part of for years to come.

Print Friendly
Facebook Twitter Email

Leave a Reply