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Film Review: Albanians at the London Film Festival

by John Watkins


Although there were no Albanian or Kosovan films being shown at this year’s London Film Festival, three films featured Albanians in contrasting roles and contexts.

 

Gassed Up was shown on the enormous screen at BFI IMAX. Directed by George Amponsah, it won the Audience Award for Best Feature. The film is set in London and focuses on a group of teenagers who turn to motorbike crime for survival. The film follows a twenty-year old called Ash (Stephen Odubola) who is trying to get money to look after his teenage sister and pay for his mother’s rehab. Ash joins a gang led by a charismatic young Albanian called Dubz. When a robbery goes wrong, Ash finds it hard to extricate himself from the gang.

 

Dubz is played by Taz Skylar, a rising star in British cinema who has recently had roles in The Kill Team (2019), Villain (2020) and Boiling Point (2021). Skylar co-wrote Gassed Up, and although he plays an Albanian, this film is primarily an action movie with lots of hand-held camera shots and a thumping sound track. If you are going to make a film about gangs and want to make it seem edgy, you may as well have an Albanian gang leader.


Gassed Up, BFI publicity still 

 

If you’re looking for a more thoughtful critique of what it is to be Albanian, go and see Housekeeping for Beginners, a North Macedonian film directed by Goran Stolevski. Housekeeping for Beginners centres on a chaotic household in Skopje. Some of the group are Roma, most are gay - outsiders by caste and sexuality. The person trying to hold this anarchic, humorous and sometimes violent group together is a Kosovar woman called Dita, played by a Romanian actor, Anamaria Marinca. Dita herself is gay; she is in a relationship with a Roma woman called Suada, played by another Romanian actor, Alina Serban. Suada has two children. When Suada is diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, Dita fights to get legal custody of Suada’s children, teenage Vanesa (Mia Mustafa) and the younger, sassy Mia (Dzada Selim).

 

Dita is a healthcare worker, the only one in the household with a regular job. Most of the time, she is a calm presence at the centre of her unruly household, the only one with a connection to the more conventional world of work. The clash between those two worlds is used to great comic effect when Dita has to marry her gay friend Toni in order to gain custody of Suada’s children. When Dita and Toni are invited by Dita’s well-meaning colleagues to celebrate their wedding, the evening ends in disaster when Vanesa takes it on herself to explain where babies come from to a roomful of young children.


Dita mixes easily with her colleagues, but although she is closer to mainstream North Macedonian life, as an Albanian she is still an outsider. The issues surrounding Dita’s ethnicity were acknowledged by Stolevski in the discussion after the film, but Stolevski’s main interest is in the Roma community and sexuality, both of which provide him with rich material without embarking on a discussion about the role of ethnic Albanians in North Macedonia.

 

So we are left to make up our own minds about why Dita should be so protective of her Roma family. Partly, she has a personal connection with the community through her relationship with Suada. But more broadly, the film suggests that Dita’s own status as a member of a minority gives her an innate sympathy for her charges. At the same time, she can use her position within conventional society to access the legal system and gain custody of Vanesa and Mia.


 Film poster, Housekeeping for Beginners

  

The third film with an Albanian element is Europa, directed by Sudabeh Mortezai. Filmed entirely in Albania, this film explores what happens when a mystery corporation called Europa decides to expand into the Balkans and tries to buy land in a remote valley.

 

Shot around Poliçan and Skrapar, the film dramatizes the tensions between traditional, rural values and the promises of wealth that come with economic development. The two central characters embody these conflicting value systems. Beate (Lilith Stangenberg) is the Europa executive charged with finding a location for the new enterprise. Jetnor, played by non-professional actor Jetnor Gorezi, is the farmer who stands in her way.

 

Jetnor’s is a hard life. He tends his bees and goats and grows vegetables on a smallholding. He is religious and takes part in a Bektashi ceremony on Mount Tomorri where sheep are sacrificed. Despite Beate’s promises of a better life, Jetnor refuses to sell his land. As Beate herself comes under pressure from her bosses to complete the purchase, she tells Jetnor that he has no legal right to the land. Jetnor counters by saying that he inherited the house and that he has papers to prove it. When Beate presents him with a contract, he tears it up.

 

Then, for reasons that are not clear but maybe have something to do with his daughter Besa (Mirando Sylari) who has been offered a scholarship by Europa, Jetnor changes his mind. He doesn’t bother to read the contract; for him, a handshake is enough. The next morning, two bulldozers enter his field. They tear down his shed and smash his beehives. Too late, Jetnor realises that he has been cheated.


In an interview, the film’s director, Sudabeh Mortezai, has spoken about dramatizing the “hypocritical disconnect” between “a promise of certain values and human rights, promises that ring hollow in the face of economic and social inequalities that are the reality of Europe”. On the one hand people in poorer parts of the continent want better living standards; investments by foreign corporations are often seen as a means of generating wealth. But at the same time, exploitation and redevelopment destroy the more traditional values that have sustained farming communities across Europe for centuries. Mortezai thought that Albania, in its current stage of development, encapsulated these disconnects: “I found Albania ideal to have a story set in this context,” she said.


Film poster, Europa

  

The result is a film strong on its depictions of rural life. Some of the sequences, especially the sheep being sacrificed on Mount Tomorri have an almost documentary feel. In other ways, the film seems more like an allegory pitting two antithetical value systems against each other. Jetnor’s values of trust, respect and his deep spiritual connection with the land are under severe threat. We the audience are left in no doubt where the film’s sympathies lie.

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