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‘Open Door’ Helmer on Road Movies, Ancient Traditions, Social Pretensions

Albanian director Florenc Papas, an alumnus of the Sarajevo Talents program, is in competition at the Sarajevo Film Festival with his feature film debut, “Open Door.” The road movie follows two sisters, Rudina and the pregnant and unmarried Elma, who embarks on a journey to visit their strict and traditional father in the remote mountain village where they were born. Papas, who also works as a programmer at the Tirana Film Festival, is currently developing his next project, “Luna Park.” He has also taken part in the Berlinale Talents program, the Midpoint script and project development platform and the Goethe-Institut First Films First initiative. Papas spoke to Variety about his film, centuries-old traditions, the struggles of Albanian filmmakers and the civil unrest that engulfed his country in 1997, a period the filmmaker will explore in his sophomore feature.

What inspired you to make “Open Door”?

As a filmmaker, I’m drawn to the road movie, especially right now when so many of us are attached to our phones and social media. Everybody knows everything. Even Google is mapping the bottom of the ocean. I think the road movie still offers the promise of escape, change, adventure, salvation. This journey definitely changes the characters in my film, characters that I have met in my real life.

To what extent is the film a commentary on the clash between family and strong local traditions on the one hand, and the younger generation trying find its own path on the other?

Several years ago, I worked on a film in the middle of the Albanian countryside. You see old shepherds out in the hot sun with their flock, day after day, as they’ve done for centuries. When you see these people you realize that nothing changes them – not dictatorship, not democracy, not the Internet. As someone in his late 20s, it makes you feel secure but it’s also kind of terrifying too. I think this contradiction that is found in my country is the stuff of great cinema.

Do you see dramatic social change occurring in Albanian society today?

I think there have been enormous changes in Albania. Yet I believe you see these changes mostly in our capital, Tirana. One-third of our country’s population lives here. But I think those of us in the one-third don’t want to think about everyone else. As a filmmaker, I’m drawn to outsiders, traditional or non-traditional. Albania is filled with so many dramatic possibilities in this regard. But so far we have not been very successful in bringing them out for the world to see.

What role does humor play in the film in presenting the absurdity of family relationships?

I think appearance and perception have a lot to do with this absurdity. Sometimes we go to extreme lengths to present an idea of ourselves in the eyes of others. I even know of many people whose parents were divorced but on holidays they’d pretend to be living together when relatives came to visit. The irony is that usually everyone knows everyone else’s business anyway. This particular kind of Albanian absurdity is at the heart of my story.

You participated in the Goethe-Institut First Films First initiative, which launched in 2016. How important are such programs for young filmmakers in Southeastern Europe?

It’s lonely to be a filmmaker in Albania. Our capital has more than 1 million people but all our movie theaters show mostly Hollywood product. Our industry struggles for funding and support. There’s also very little community among Albanian filmmakers. I think these kinds of creative meeting points for regional filmmakers are very necessary. It’s always valuable when film directors can get together and find inspiration. An artist can carry this around for a lifetime.

What is your next project about?

I’d like to explore a moment in recent Albanian history, a near civil war we experienced in 1997. Coming out of dictatorship, we lived through several years of wild, unchecked capitalism. This resulted in many Albanians putting their entire life savings in pyramid schemes. When the schemes collapsed, Albania fell into almost total anarchy. No one wants to talk about 1997 now but I think it left a lasting wound. I’d like to tell a story about how this impacts the life of one family. With this story, I hope to reveal the broad chronicle of this national trauma. It was developed at the Torino Film Lab, the Mediterranean Film Institute and it won a prize at the Sofia Meetings.

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