Tiny nation leans on co-prod'ns to boost profile

TIRANA, Albania — The tiny Balkans country — where thousands of egg-shaped concrete gun emplacements and bunkers still disfigure the land, a reminder of the paranoia of the past — is pushing hard for European Union membership, with some 90% of the population behind it.

That may be a long way off — even with support from southerly neighbor and EU member Greece.

But filmmakers in a country where cinema all but collapsed in the last 20 years have a secret weapon: Eurimages.

Albania joined the European co-production club in September, and Xhevdet Ferri, a former actor who heads the Albanian National Center of Cinematography, believes the investment could see a five-fold increase in local production in the coming years.

“Albania is a small country with a small market. If we spend all our money only on making films here alone, we shall remain isolated,” Ferri says. “Albanian national policy is to be integrated into European structures and we see co-productions as a way to bringing more Albanian film to a wider audience.”

The national film center has a tiny budget — around $2 million a year, and the maximum it puts into an individual production is about $300,000. That has not prevented it from helping to prime the pump for five features and eight shorts in the past year, with another five features in the pipeline.

With few modern cinemas in the nation — just five in Tirana and a handful outside the capital — the domestic market struggles to attract audiences.

But Gjergi Xhuvani’s light-hearted nostalgic comedy “East West East” about a national cycling team permitted to leave Albania at the end of the Communist era to travel to France via Italy, has booked 20,000 admissions since its release in November, marking a new record in post-Communist cinema attendance.

A screening at the seventh edition of the Tirana Film Festival last week was packed, and even technical problems that briefly halted the screening at the national theater did not spoil the mood of the audience — it seemed just another reminder of the old days.

International filmmakers are showing an interest in Albanian stories and locations.

American director Joshua Marston, whose Spanish language story of a young woman who becomes a drug mule, “Maria Full of Grace” won the audience award at Sundance five years ago, is prepping a feature here about the country’s ancient and deadly tradition of blood feuds.

The practice was also the subject of this year’s Albanian production “Alive!” directed by Artan Minarolli.

And acclaimed Serbian director Goran Paskaljevic just made the first ever Serbian-Albanian co-production, fest success “Honeymoons,” which premiered in Venice in September.

The Albanian film center contributed $300,000 of the $2.2 million budget for the film, which features parallel stories of two young couples seeking better lives in Europe.

It’s not all clear sailing: an ugly dispute over property rights at the private Marubi Film Academy, located onterritory of the old Russian-built film studios in Tirana, has seen students and staff beaten by police and bulldozers tearing up parts of a small garden.

Perceived lack of support from the wider film community led Marubi’s rector Kujtim Cashku to boycott last week’s Tirana fest.

Cashku says that attitudes must change within Albania if the country is to become more integrated into Europe — and start making better films that audiences and critics want to see.

“Albania has a long tradition of looking to other cultures for a quick fix. In Communist times, it was first the Soviet Union and then China,” Cashku says.

“Today we need to understand that to become more integrated into Europe is not just a matter of finding a way to achieve visa-free travel. We need to develop a more European mentality in our own culture first.”

Bujar Alimani, an Albanian filmmaker who has lived and worked in Greece for the past 15 years, believes there’s potential for greater integration with European film structures to help boost an Albanian new wave. But first producers and directors would be best advised to pay more attention to detail — and the boring, but essential necessities of administration.

“Albania has been in Eurimages since September but, so far as I am aware, no scripts have been approved yet. There is a lot of bureaucracy involved in accessing public funds for filmmaking, and mastering this is an essential part of the process,” Alimani says.

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