INTERVIEW: Capturing a Country in Transition

AMNESTY director Bujar Alimani, discusses the role of the artist in Alabania.

Painter-turned-filmmaker Bujar Alimani sat down with Rob Avila to talk about AMNESTY and Albania on the cusp of a new era…

Albanian filmmaker Bujar Alimani was born in the southwestern city of Patos, the center of Albania’s oil industry, in 1969. He trained as a painter and a stage director at the Academy of Fine Arts in Albania’s capital Tirana, before emigrating to Greece at the age of 19 and turning to filmmaking. After making three award-winning and internationally popular short films, he completed feature-length drama AMNESTY—a gorgeously lensed and finely acted story of doomed love set against a backdrop of social change in his native Albania. It won the Berlin International Film Festival’s C.I.C.A.E. Award in 2011 and was Albania’s official submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the 84th Academy Awards. AMNESTY is currently being screened throughout the United States and Canada as part of the Global Film Initiative’s Global Lens 2012 film series.

I met Alimani on a brisk afternoon this past January in New York, a serious-looking man of solid build, with short-cropped black hair and a friendly, thoughtful demeanor. He cut a stoical figure as we sat in the bustling lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, not far from the Museum of Modern Art where AMNESTY was making its U.S. premiere as part of Global Lens. We were joined by Sonila Autumn, who acted as translator, as we discussed Alimani’s first feature and the task of capturing, in dramatic form, the current moment in Albanian society.

 

Robert Avila: The film depicts a very intimate story, concerning a doomed love affair between two people, but it resonates with larger social changes and issues. What was your inspiration for the film?

A scene from film AMNESTY, when the two main characters meet for the first time in a café.

Bujar Alimani: The inspiration came while I was reading on the internet something in the Albanian press. The article was saying that the Albanian government wanted to take certain steps to become closer to European Union regulations, and one of these was in the area of human rights, facilitating conjugal visits in prisons for married couples—making special rooms and so on, so that couples deprived of intimacy would get to see each other. As soon as I read this, I knew this would be the story that my feature project would revolve around, that it could reflect [in dramatic terms] the bigger picture of the political conditions [in Albania].

Why this story in particular?

The controversial nature of the subject is partly what attracted me to it. Film directors in Albania are usually taking on subjects that are already very well saturated in a way, things like immigration. The idea of treating something important that people don’t yet like to talk about—because it’s taboo or risqué—this is the challenge, to go against the normal trajectory of the way such subjects are treated. I wanted to be closer to the pulse of what’s going on at the moment. What attracted me was this mismatch between the efforts of the government to be part of the EU (and making all of these changes as a result) and how the Albanians themselves don’t seem to quite embrace such changes. Another example would be gay marriage. Obviously, this is another right that people have to discuss and decide about. Even though the government is trying to synchronize itself with the EU rules, the masses themselves, in the everyday talk of neighbors, don’t match the advances made by the government for the sake of trying to be part of the rest of Europe. For an artist, a filmmaker, this is a very appropriate thing to treat.

Do you see this tension as in any way related to the transition from the Communist system after 1990?

It’s a generational divide. Basically, it’s something that goes back further than just the Communist era; it’s traditional ways of life versus more contemporary ways. At the same time, it’s definitely worth mentioning that the Communist system kind of compounded this repressive traditional culture, being very rigid and contained, not very open. For example, in the Communist era, if two work colleagues had a sexual relationship and were found out, they would be punished for it, dismissed from work and so on. And if one of the colleagues were married, it would have been considered more or less criminal. Obviously this overlap of system and tradition strengthens this rigidness, as opposed to being open with what you really feel or want to do with you life.

AMNESTY centers on the newly implemented conjugal visitation rights for married prisoners in Albania.

You’ve made several short films before this, but AMNESTY is your first feature. Does it relate to the earlier work stylistically at all? And how did you go about casting the feature?

The approach in the earlier films is minimalistic, the characters say very little, and the camera works a lot to inform the viewer. In the feature, I wanted to do the same thing but on a bigger scale. Regarding the cast, I knew some of them already. I wrote with some people in mind. Knowing an actor and also knowing the character you want to serve, sometimes these things can feed each other.

Were there any particular challenges you faced producing this first feature?

To materialize the project financially and logistically, [we relied on] EurImages, which is a European council to support European films. Albania has become part of this since, I think, 2009. It didn’t used to be part of it. But now that it is, it allowed the cooperation between three different countries [Albania, France, Greece], three different producers, to pool money to make it actually happen. So the budget for the film, which was sufficient for this part of the world, was around $700,000. That was money provided by those three different producing countries.

How have audiences in Albania responded to the film?

The reaction was split, as you might expect, given this confrontation we were talking about between the old and the new—half the people tending to embrace it and the other half resistant to the whole idea of this changing mentality and being open to talking about things you were formerly not allowed to talk about. Also, there were [expectations deriving from] what is to be considered the norm for filmmaking in Albania. Some people expect a movie to conform to the classic way of making films, and [AMNESTY] is very different. For instance, they like a happy ending. Some people ask why should we expose to the world this idea that we solve a situation with a murder? Because that’s what happens at the end, when the father-in-law kills the woman and her lover—it’s an honor killing, which doesn’t happen everyday but it does happen. It’s the reflection of a reality. Even they know it exists, some people don’t like it being broadcast and would like to see portrayed happier and more positive images, rather than such realities.

AMNESTY, a film by Bujar Alimani

Your film has a very different style than other films made in Albania, you said. Can you expand on just what makes it unique in this context?

Loads of directors in Albania come from a theatrical background, and to them the dialogue is at the center of the film. So the characters speak about everything. I chose to use the camera to observe, to allow the audience to read what the camera is looking at. I’m reducing the volume of words and giving more importance to the image.

It lends a contemplative quality to the experience.

My personal choice was to go against a didactic approach, to steer away from sloganeering. It should be the picture itself that speaks to the status of the people, what the characters are going through. When you see Elsa going through the long line of laid-off workers, that is already a statement, a visual rather than a spoken one. When, for example, Spetim and Elsa meet together for the first time in the cafe, he mentions how cold it is. It’s really not so much about the literal temperature outside, but about how cold he feels, how bad he feels at that moment. So [the film’s ideas express themselves] more at the symbolic level than the literal. Jean-Luc Godard said it’s through the mundane, through the everyday, that a film can point to the most important things.

Is your fine arts background a continuing influence here?

My background as a painter influences my choices in terms of framing and so on, and leaving time for the audience to absorb the images—at the same time, giving enough time to the actor as well, to see the inward process come about. So it’s not only giving time to the image to be absorbed, but to the actors to express themselves. In a way, the director is there to let that happen and capture whatever comes out of it.

Painter-turned-filmmaker Bujar Alimani showcased the stunning landscape of Albania in his film AMNESTY.

I was doing a lot of painting and drawing up until I was 19. Then I decided that to open up further my capacity for creative expression meant embracing another medium—a camera—and attaching this visual aspect to a body of stories. So it’s a continuation of this visual articulation. Painting is more of a part-time practice now, but this background nevertheless sharpens my judgment in terms of composition.

As you see it, is this a good time for Albanian cinema?

The way it works, the National Film Center in Tirana, the capital, has a set budget and will green-light two projects a year only. In addition, there will be two or three shorts, and maybe two documentaries following some public figures or celebrities and so on. It’s very limited. Filmmakers who live outside Albania will be more likely to materialize their projects and do something that is resonating and reflecting more than the traditional [mainstream] films. Whatever does manage to get green-lighted in Albania tends to reflect the more traditional way of filmmaking. So it’s not a very encouraging environment. I requested support from the Film Center and was turned down twice. So to achieve the project and not hold back, I managed to support my own first short film. All the money I saved by immigrating, living in Greece, I risked by putting it into a short film, hoping that I’d strike gold at some point.

How do you feel now that AMNESTY is being distributed in the U.S.?

I’m very grateful for the support from GFI and the Global Lens program, which is giving such exposure to the film. The fact that the film is being shown at MoMA as well is an absolute honor and privilege. After the Berlin success, this is another really fabulous experience.

Rob Avila is a San Francisco-based writer, and film and stage critic. He is a regular contributor to SF360 and the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and has worked with the Global Film Initiative on a range of projects and programs, including Global Lens educational resources, filmmaker interviews and the Initiative’s Granting Program.

 

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