Friday, June 3, 2011

Changing Albania's image!

I thought I'd pass along this interesting tidbit from BIRN ( a strong activity to change Albania's image by Albanian artists!

Artists Defend Their Take on Albania’s Battered Image
Ben Andoni

For nearly half-a-century, until the Stalinist regime of Enver Hoxha collapsed in 1991, Albania was one of the most isolated places in the world, often compared to the likes of North Korea.

The few Westerners allowed into Hoxha’s self-proclaimed “proletarian paradise,” described the regime as a brutal world in which people were constantly under the watch of the feared “Sigurimi” secret police.

Two decades on, the country has opened up to the world, has joined NATO in 2009 and is now tracing a path toward EU membership.

But although Albania no longer jams foreign TV stations and young people no longer end up in jail for listening to rock music, the transition to democracy has done little to improve its battered image.

Foreign media often describe Albania as Europe’s wild east, a land where extreme poverty, lawlessness and medieval vendettas overlap, an hour’s flight away from Western capitals.

The stark contrasts of a society in which luxury Mercedes dot pot-holed streets has been the theme of many Albanian artists, as they try to make sense of the country’s contradictions.

Many reside abroad and, apart from the international media, are the main communicators of Albania’s reality to the Western public.

But with the authorities desperate to attract more tourists and investment, their works are often criticized as not doing enough to present a rosier picture of the country.

But the artists themselves resent the idea of being used as salesmen, pointing out that such suggestions miss the whole point of what their artistic endeavour is all about.

“Although some art is a hymn to beauty, it’s more likely to portray what is ugly, fearful, violent, immoral and inhuman,” Arian Leka, a poet and publisher based in Tirana, explains.

Although Albania has always received its fair share of bad press, a 2006 travel feature in the Sunday Times by British writer A A Gill really infuriated local intellectuals and the media.

Gill mocked Albanians as "short and ferret-faced, with the unisex stumpy, slightly bowed legs of Shetland ponies."

He also described the Albanian language as "a ready-made code for criminals", adding: "There are four million Albanian citizens… three million of them live at home, the fourth quarter work abroad, and what they do is mostly illegal."

Gill escaped a reprimand from the British Press Complaints Commission, after the Sunday Times made the case for the author’s harsh words, referring to sources from Europol, Save the Children, the EU, the World Bank and the Italian public prosecutors.

But the vitriolic writer - famous for his scabrous verbal assaults on his targets - usually members of the British royal family – still received death threats by email from Albanians who felt offended and enraged by his words.

Albanian artists are themselves not above mocking their own homeland, albeit rather more gently and affectionately.

Italian-based filmmaker Edmond Budina’s latest feature film, Balkan Bazaar, takes a jibe at the region’s jumble of nationalities, drawing on the history of the village of Kosine in southern Albania.

There, Greek nationalists in 2006 unearthed what they alleged were the graves of Greek soldiers who had fallen in World War 2.

Greek nationalists have long staked a claim to southernmost Albania, calling the region Northern Epirus.

Balkan Bazaar takes a critical look at both Greek and Albanian nationalism through the eyes of two foreigners, a scheming journalist and his superstitious driver, and the script has drawn heat both from Albania and Greece.

Budina does not feel inclined to apologise. “I think we hang on to an old mentality about the image of the country,” he says. “Many think that it’s enough to draw a nice postcard and send it, and that will give Albania the place that it deserves,” he adds.

The “old mentality” that Budina describes was rooted in the xenophobic culture of Hoxha’s half-century regime.

Although the Communist authorities keenly sponsored the arts, the results had to conform to the strict rules of Social Realism, while at the same time singing the praises of the party and of Hoxha’s own provincial brand of nationalism.

Leka says that although art is no longer seen as a propaganda tool for a ruling elite or ideology, the public expectation remains that writers and painters should build up their country’s image.

“Its not the role of art or literature in general to create images about specific places,” he says. “Literature speaks to the world… and to all of humanity,” he added.

Filmmaker Budina agrees. In the art world, artists make use of the images that a country projects - not the other way around.

“Albania is a country with its good and bad sides, its beautiful and ugly images - the important thing is how you use them,” Budina maintains.

“Inspiration can be found even in what is ugly and evil, and by narrating this we can grow richer and better [human beings],” he concludes.

This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programm


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