The story of Albanian cinema is related to the ripple effect generated by the birth of the seventh art form itself. The Lumière brothers invention quickly echoed in the Balkans through the pioneer work carried out by the Manaki brothers, of Albanian origin, also known as the Lumière brothers of the Balkans. In 1909, Kolë Idromeno was the first Albanian ever to screen a motion picture in Shkodra. Later on, foreign films were commonly shown in the theaters of Albania’s main cities. In 1943, director Mihallaq Mone shot a 10-minute long motion picture for the first time in Albania, in Pogradec. It was entitled “A Meeting at the Lake” and featured actors such as Merita Sokoli, the Xhaçka sisters and then-renowned Albanian actor from Romania, Kristaq Antoniu.
At the start of the 20th century, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire brought disarray into the Balkans, as nations scrambled to redefine their borders. As the Albanian territory became a battleground for the Balkan Wars during the First and Second World Wars, foreign film operators embedded in their respective armies, were sent over by news agencies to document the mayhem in the area and captured footage that stands out as priceless evidence of those chaotic times. Some of this rare footage can be found today in Albania’s Central Film Archive. The earliest film account goes back to 1911 and shows scenes from the siege of Shkodra by the Montenegrin army. There is also documentary footage of Prince Wied’s arrival in Albania and early scenes from Tirana and Durrëss.
Albanian organized national film production began in 1947, as the National Filmmaking Enterprise was founded, which promptly started producing documentaries, newsreels and reports. As the “New Albania” Film Studio was founded in 1952, feature length motion pictures and documentaries would soon be produced as well. An entire generation of filmmakers from Eastern European universities laid the foundations of national filmmaking upon returning to Albania. The feature length “Scanderbeg” from 1953, was coproduced with the Soviet “Mosfilm” studio. The first Albanian short film, “Fëmijët e saj” (Her Children) was produced in 1957 by director Hysen Hakani. A year later, in 1958, director Kristaq Dhamo shot Albania’s first feature length film, “Tana.” These events marked the beginning of an energetic process, which would create the conditions for the passing, from one generation to another, of a national filmmaking culture and tradition. During the 1960-1980 period, filmmaking served ideological purposes, but the very systematic practice of the art created stability and wasn’t devoid of excellence. In the 1980s, Albania produced yearly as many as 14 feature length films, 30 documentaries and over 500 newsreels – figures comparable to those of other countries in the region and other small countries in Western Europe.
However, because the country was politically and culturally isolated from the rest of the world, Albanian filmmaking lost touch with contemporary cinema, and became provincial and impervious to avant-garde influences from other countries. As feature films had to deal with topics and subjects dictated by politics, all artistic alternatives were suppressed.
After the fall of communism in the early 1990s, young and not so young authors, based on the 9 filmmaking experience gathered during previous decades, started to make up for the time and opportunities Albanian cinema had lost, with new motivation and ambition. Today, the community of Albanian filmmakers has to face new challenges, as it tries to make Albanian filmmaking part of the global filmmaking industry. The last decade
has brought about international success and a new spirit to Albanian cinema, with several productions being of the Auteur category, enriching the national film scene with new individualities eager to find new forms of expression.
Why Albanian films are big in China: Cultural Revolution nostalgia
Films from Albania were a window on the world for millions of Chinese film-goers when the Balkan country was one of China’s few friends. Ironically, while Chinese today can watch them freely, Albania debates banning them.
Nostalgia for the Cultural Revolution is manifested in China in various ways, from hoarding Mao memorabilia, singing “red songs”, to queuing for revolutionary operas. And then there are those who watch Albanian films online.
During a period when China counted the Eastern European country’s Stalinist regime as a loyal ally against a backdrop of Western imperialists and Soviet revisionists, movies such as Victory Over Death, Clear Horizons and The Guerilla Unit were windows to the world.
Actress Joan Chen, for example, recalled a “sexual awakening” while watching 1967’sVictory Over Death as a teenager – partly through the admittedly chaste war-time romance between the protagonists, and also because of the clothes they wore. (Chen’s recollections echo the representations made about rural life in 1960s China in the 2005 filmElectric Shadows, when peasants were shown attending an open-air projection of Victory Over Death).