It’s a Wonderful Job: Women at Work in the Cinema of Communist Albania

Bruce Williams. Studies in Eastern European Cinema. Volume 6, Issue 1. 2015.


‘When I get married, I will allow my wife to build factories wherever she wants’. — Spoken by a child actor in Xhanfise Keko’s Kur po xhirohej një film/While Shooting a Film [1981]

For the New Man of communist Albania’s cinema, dying while saving a floating crane in a shipyard from a wicked storm is a most-venerable bow. And to do so on one’s day of rest sets an even higher benchmark. And so it goes in Viktor Gjika’s Horizonte të hapura/Clear Horizons (1968), a film which illustrates both the honour of work and the idealised worker. Indeed, the nature of work and the model worker in the communist state were obsessions of the films produced by the New Albania Kinostudio from its first feature in 1958 to the fall of communism in 1991. In a 2004 filmography, the Albanian State Film Archives classified 20 films under the rubric of ‘Men Working’. And such a number is extremely low inasmuch as the theme of work constituted a major thread running through such other classifications made by the archives as Social Issues, Family, Women’s Themes, Children’s Films, Film Comedy and others (Arkivi Qendror Shtetëror i Filmit 2004). The English title of the category ‘Men Working’ is blatantly sexist, while the original Albanian title, ‘Tema e njeriut në punë’ translates better as ‘The Theme of People at Work’. This discrepancy is of particular significance in that the original Albanian reflects the frequent depiction of working woman in films of the communist period, which, although well in march with many of the tenets of socialist realism, is distinct in a number of ways from those of both Soviet and other Eastern bloc films. Such a dynamic is of particular consequence in that, despite Albania’s focus on the rights of women in the workforce, there was only one woman director at Kinostudio.

The drabness of such titles in the Men Working category as Montatorja/The Fitter Girl (Muharrem Feizo 1970), Një shoqe nga fshati/A Comrade Woman from the Village (Piro Milkani 1980), Në pyet me borë ka jetë/In the Snow-Clad Forests There Is Life (Rikard Ljarja 1978) and Pranvera s’erdhi vetën/Spring Did Not Come Along (Piro Milkani 1988) is misleading at the best. For amidst the orthodoxy of Kinostudio, there flourished a tremendous amount of creativity. As Abaz Hoxha stresses, all the while working under very difficult economic conditions and under strict control, Albanian filmmakers produced quality works that laid the foundation of a new national culture (Hoxha 2002a, 33). He further argues that Albanian films enriched the spirit of the people and honoured Albania’s ancient cultures (22). Along similar lines, in a discussion of the films of the sole woman director working in Albania under communism, I have asserted that Kinostudio’s Xhanfise Keko, was able to cut a path through orthodoxy which led to ‘subversive innovativeness’ (Williams 2013, 56). She succeeded in producing works of high aesthetic value, all the while working the system. In light of such often unrecognised creativity in the Albanian cinema of the communist period, this essay will focus on three films that foreground the notion of women at work, yet do so in the most inventive of manners: Viktor Gjika’s above-mentioned Clear Horizons, Fejmi Hoshafi and Muhharem Fejzo’s Kapedani/The Captain (1972) and Xhanfise Keko’s Kur po xhirohej një film/While Shooting a Film (1981).

The films to be analysed here have not been selected at random. First, they are representative of three distinct decades of Kinostudio, and evince thematic and, to an extent, ideological transformations, especially in what concerns the role of women as workers. Two of the films, Clear Horizons and The Captain fall under the category ‘Men Working’ of the filmography of the State Film Archives. While the former is an example of Kinostudio at its most orthodox, the latter is quite distinct inasmuch as it is a comedy, a far-less-common genre in Albanian cinema. In Hoshafi and Fejzo’s work, discussions of work and feminism come to the forefront much more than in the earlier film. The Captain, moreover, has been chosen by the Albanian Cinema Project for restoration. There already exists an English-subtitled version, which will doubtless be greatly improved for the restored version. Thus, it is a film that will soon be readily available to viewers. Although not mentioned in the filmography as focusing on work, the third film to be discussed, While Shooting a Film, constitutes a convergence of two discourses: (1) work (construction) and women’s issues, and (2) women at work in the cinema industry. Of special importance is that While Shooting a Film was one of the last films of Kinostudio’s only woman director. Given a recent upsurge in international interest in Xhanfise Keko—the 2008 publication of the director’s memoirs, two books published in Albania related to her work (Keko 2009 and Keçi et al. 2012), the 2014 restoration of Tomka dhe shokët e tij/Tomka and His Friends (1977) by the Albanian Cinema Project, two documentaries (one Albanian and one British) underway on her role in the Albanian cinema, and my 2013 English-language scholarly article—it is likely that the film will be released with subtitles. A rudimentary English dialogue list already exists.

Labour, Work, and Play

In the ensuing discussions, I will draw a distinction between the notions of ‘labour’ and ‘work’ in line with those made by Maurice Godelier (1980) and Ewa Mazierska (2015). Mazierska articulates:

The word ‘labour’, derived from the Latin laborare, imparts a sense of pain. Work does not have negative connotations; work is regarded as ennobling, as in the phrase ‘right to work’ […] Labour tends to be measurable, while work is not’ […]

People need work to survive mentally and socially, and to transform their environment—to exist and progress. However, the question of how much work is needed, who should undertake the required tasks and how they should be organised are a matter of debate, conveyed in religious systems, philosophical works, folk tales and proverbs, as well as legal documents, economic treatises, and managerial manuals. (9)

Given the glorification of the workplace and workers in communist Albanian cinema, particularly in light of early urbanisation campaigns, my discussions will focus far more on the representation of women and work rather than of women and labour, although the latter applies to early sequences of The Captain, which are set in a collective farm.

The relationship between play and work is especially a key in sequences involving the young actors of While Shooting a Film. My definition of ‘play’ is informed by the discussions of Lev Vygotsky ([1933] 2002), who argues that play demands that a child act against immediate impulse and learn to wait, to follow the rules of the game. For Vygotsky,

[observing the rules of the play structure] promises much greater pleasure from the game than the gratification of an immediate impulse […] All examinations of the essence of play have shown that in play a new relationship is created between the semantic and the visible—that is, between situations in thought and real situations. (Vygotsky [1933] 2002)

Play, thus, represents an essential process in the development of abstract thinking, an ability essential to a rewarding work life. As I will demonstrate in what follows, play is an indisputable tool for the maturing of the young diegetic actors, as well as a means through which Keko herself worked with her own child actors and developed a professional relationship with them.

Working Women in Socialist Realism and Beyond

During the 1930s, one witnessed a number of transformations in the representation of women in socialist-realist art. As Victoria E. Bonnell explains, female collective farm workers were often depicted alone or in front of the male protagonist, thereby privileging their importance what was construed an egalitarian state (Bonnell 1993, 57). Along similar lines, Pat Simpson has further clarified the representation of women during the Stalinist period. She argues:

[…] there were many ‘positive’ images of women ‘heroes’, including representations of women occupying traditionally male spaces—tractor driving, engineering and political speaking. The function of these images was to illustrate the benefits of emancipation within the Soviet state, and the legal equality of rights. (Simpson 2004, 195)

Vera Mukhina’s The Industrial Worker and the Collective Farm Girl is arguably the most famous Soviet sculpture. Originally presented at the International Exhibition in Paris in 1937, the work embodies the imaginary equality between men and women during the Stalinist period. Andrada Fătu-Tutoveanu asserts that the collective farm girl not only was presented as an effective labourer (building Socialism together with the factory workers […], but was associated with a powerful political role, based on a real necessity in the countryside, where people could have been (and were) reluctant to collectivization (Fătu-Tutoveanu 2010, 255). Bonnell offers further insights and clarifies that Mukhina’s collective farm girl combines the athletic and forceful depictions of the early 1940s with the more ample figures from 1934 onward. She explains:

[The collective farm girl] does not wear a kerchief, and her hair is cut short in the style of urban women. Like the krest’ianka of the 1920s, she carries a sickle, a symbol that had disappeared from posters after 1929. In this statue, the sickle and hammer function not only as class markers but also as a coat of arms of the Soviet nation-state. The eclecticism of the imagery contributed to its appeal, and the statue was widely reproduced during the Stalin era. (Bonnell 1993, 79)

In the Soviet cinema, Grigorii Aleksandrov’s Svetlyi put’/The Radiant Path (1940) is a quintessential examination of labour and work during the Stalinist period. Originally titled Zolushka/Cinderella and based on an eponymous play by Viktor Ardov, the film comprised a blend of dream sequences, fantasy and images of intense work. It follows the course of Tanya played by Aleksandrov’s wife, Lyubov Orlova, who makes her way from a peasant domestic servant in the countryside to a master weaver, and ultimately to an engineer in Moscow. As Anna Wexler Katsnelson asserts:

[Tanya] embodies both gender specificity and gender equality. [She] cross-dresses to the extent that she chooses workman’s overalls that obscure her feminine form at the factory. Her femininity and beauty are otherwise not only not eradicated but conversely and routinely emphasized, punctuated by frilly dresses, gauzy fabrics, parasols and bonnets—the proper accoutrements of conventionally constructed and construed womanliness. (Katsnelson 2011, 262)

The Radiant Path, moreover, deconstructs the consumerism present in the Soviet Union of the 1930s. As Katsnelson stresses, Tanya, in a dream sequence that recalls Through the Looking Glass, passes through a shiny mirror in a gilded frame, and the frame in turn becomes a border for a sequence in which the protagonist drives above Moscow in a sleek automobile. Tanya has become Stalin’s champion of labour, as suggested by her speech at the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition. Katsnelson underscores, ‘Labour has finally become (high) art, and the labouring body, that site of convergence of private and public, emerges as sublime under totalitarianism, transported onto a higher plane’ (264).

In comparison to The Radiant Path, Albanian films of the communist period may, at first glance, seem drab. Indeed, there is far less fantasy and upward mobility than that of Aleksandrov’s film. Nonetheless, they present insights into the notion of women and work as constructed by the Hoxha regime.

A Workers’ State: Gender and Film

In order to contextualise the discussion on the inscription of work in Albanian cinema, some words are in order regarding the development of Albania as a workers’ state, in particular with regards to gender dynamics. Here I must first offer a caveat; the following works discussed by Stavro Skendi (1958), Nicholas C. Pano (1968), and Anton Logoreci (1977) are all studies written by members of the Albanian diaspora, and thus, may differ sharply from official communiqué. All the same, they assist us in considering the world of work, and to a lesser extent, of working women in communist Albania. Skendi offered one of the first analyses of the workplace during the Hoxha era. He clarifies that, despite the claims made by Albanian labour leaders that over 11,000 youth had become qualified workers through vocational courses, there was still a dire ‘lack of skilled workers and technicians to operate the complicated machinery of the new industries’ (Skendi 1958, 144). For this reason, the First Five-Year Plan placed special emphasis on the training of some 8500 medium technicians and 54,000 semi-skilled workers, an initiative undertaken with the help of 500 technicians from the Soviet Union and offered primarily by labour reserve schools. Skendi stresses that for unskilled workers, who comprised the majority of workers, salaries were extremely low. While the employees of the state and local administration of the state economic enterprises earned roughly 4500 leks per month, an unskilled worker earned only 80 leks. This pittance, moreover, was reduced by tax and social security payments, forced subscriptions to publications, dues for membership in the Communist Party, trade unions, etc. (146).

Although the situation of women workers is not a major component of Skendi’s analysis, he does provide one interesting observation bearing upon issues of gender. He attributes Albania’s serious labour shortage to ‘the traditional belief that the woman’s place is at home and that the man’s “manly” profession is the peasant’s plow, the shepherd’s crook, or the soldier’s rifle’ (144). Thus, for reason of traditional gender roles, it was difficult for Albania to draw workers from the countryside. Hence, ‘the economic failures of the regime are principally due to the stubborn resistance of the Albanian mountaineers and peasantry to the pressure to abandon land and to accept work at state industrial and construction projects’ (144).

A decade later, Pano discusses the impact of the Albanian Cultural Revolution in the wake of its alliance with China. In this context, brief reference is made to the role of women. Pano explains that, during the spring and summer of 1967, Albania increased its campaign for the emancipation of women. He stresses that this campaign served two purposes: (1) it helped to bring women into the workforce to alleviate the country’s labour shortage, and (2) it sought to incorporate women into the mainstream of Albanian life and thereby reducing the conservatism that was deemed an obstacle to the construction of a socialist society (Pano 1968, 180).

Referring to the same time period, Anton Logoreci describes the state agenda, asserting that ‘if the régime was to carry out its comprehensive program of cultural, social and economic reforms, women, who constituted roughly half of the country’s population, had to become active members of the general labor force’ (1977, 158). He stresses that ‘the cause of emancipation was greatly enhanced by the prominent position that the wives of the three leading politicians—Enver Hoxha, Mehmet Shehu, Hysni Kapp—achieved during the post-war years’ (138). Logoreci explains that, together with their role as members of the central committee, these three women held other influential official positions. He further cites a statement issued by Enver Hoxha in February 1967 threatening anyone who ‘dared trample underfoot the sacred edict of the party on the defense of women’s rights’ (138).

Despite official attempts to improve the lives of workers, the situation appears to have remained far from optimal. Logoreci discusses the banning of the 1966 novel Tuneli/The Tunnel by Dhimitër Xhuvani, a work accused of portraying a hydroelectric construction site as ‘a place where workers faced a life of hardship, dreary monotony and sudden death, after being either forced to go there or else lured by high wages. The only relief from this miserable existence was drunkenness, brutality, and sleep’ (Logoreci 1977, 160). The overall condition of labour in Albania, and such indictments thereof as those proffered by Xhuvani’s novel, left Kinostudio no options but to make films that glorified work and the ideal worker. Such a positive depiction put forth to the masses could serve as an educative tool to align workers more strongly with the Party’s agenda.

Kinostudio made a clear case for the firm rooting of Albanian cinema within the socialist state. Arguing that prior to 1947, film shooting in Albania consisted of works by foreigners who exoticised the country, the film studio’s 1977 manifesto clarifies that ‘Albanian cinematography is the creation of the Party of Labour and the People’s power’ (Kinostudio Shipëria e Re [1977], 8), and stresses that ‘the main characteristic of all Albanian films is their proletariat partisanship’ (9). Kinostudio makes it very clear just who the ‘positive hero’ and the ‘new man’—once again, ‘new person’ would be a more accurate translation—are, stressing the ‘optimism’ and ‘revolutionary pathos’ of the masses and foregrounding that:

…their vigour in every field, their deep conviction in [sic] the cause of socialism, their determination and persistence in overcoming difficulties, the transformation of their psychology, their aspirations, the weight they carry in the life of the country, the relations between the Party and the masses and between the cadres and the masses are reflected extensively in newsreels, documentary, and feature films. (Kinostudio Shqipëria e Re 9)

Work and the New Man: Clear Horizons

Viktor Gjika is an example of an Albanian director who had the opportunity to study in Moscow prior to the break between Albania and the Soviet Union, and hence escaped what Abaz Hoxha has described as the isolation that prohibited contact with world art and culture (2002a, 80). He has been highly lauded for the formal qualities of his films and for the strong development of his characters. Natasha Lako has described Viktor Gjika as ‘a violent river that animates life’ (2007, 135). For Lako, Gjika’s work is characterised by fertility, dynamic movement, transformation and the reconfiguration of human continuity (135). She stresses that Gjika ‘continues to bring on the screen the life, concerns of people [and] to identify their Albanian and civilized existence’ (135). Similarly, director Gjergj Xhuvani describes Gjika’s films as a ‘school containing a deep meditation on our nation, our history, nature and our people, and all this has been embraced in great and infinite love’ (2007, 138).

Gjika’s Clear Horizons is arguably the most quintessential socialist realist film from the Kinostudio era. Loosely based on historical anecdote, its protagonist Uran, a worker at the port of Durrës, sacrifices his life to save a floating crane essential to the port’s operations. The film opens with a shot of a crowd at the Durrës shipyard, and the opening credits recognises workers of the Durrës port and of the Adem Reka crane—named after the real-life hero of the Durrës port—in particular as performers in the film. Despite significant changes between historical anecdote and film, such an acknowledgement intertextually links the diegetic hero to the national hero. It, moreover, establishes early on the importance of workers in Clear Horizons. The film is characterised by the omnipresence of heavy machinery and of the crane, which is central to the story. Its relatively simplistic plotline is subordinate to imagery which serves to render the workers’ work environment central to all diegetic events. Throughout the film, the crane is shot from diverse angles, many of which are very low and accentuate its stately grandeur. Special emphasis is devoted to the materiality of work machinery, and machines and instruments are treated with equal importance to the human characters. On a number of occasions, the crane itself appears humanoid. At key moments in the film, Uran and other workers are photographed carrying heavy parts, and such juxtaposition underscores that the ideal worker is inseparable from his work. Workers, moreover, evince a strong sense of pride in their work environment, as rendered clear by sequences depicting the cleaning or hosing down of their corner of the port.

For a feature film of almost 90 minutes, Clear Horizons tends to minimalise the use of close-ups or medium shots of a single character. Instead, it favours long or medium shots in which images of workers engaged in diverse activities in the background provide counterpoint to the dramatic events taking place in the foreground. One notes a preponderance of scenes with several workers thoughtfully and intensely engaged in their tasks. Clear Horizons, moreover, eschews the shot/countershot dynamic of the classical cinema in favour of rapid pans from face to face during meetings and encounters. Such a process reminds us that each individual is part of a group. A number of shots depict Uran alone, attending to his duties. Yet, the context of the port and of the crane is always clear. The model worker is frequently shot, like the crane itself, from a low angle, foregrounding his role as the ‘new person’ of socialist society. And his eye is surveying the port to assure that all is in order. The film’s sound dynamics, moreover, emphasise the importance of physical labour. At times, dialogues between characters are muted by the sound of heavy machinery.

Present near the site of the crane are a number of wall posters foregrounding the relationship between production and education or the importance of organisation and discipline. Foreshadowing the film’s tragic end is a slogan that advocates technical safety, stressing that a lack of attentiveness causes the risk of death. Following a sequence in which Uran questions the true motives of the project’s director, the protagonist is shown reading a Marxist-Leninist text which decries personal interest and stresses how this is a great detriment to the development of the socialist society. All of these discourses merge through Uran’s death. The film indicts carelessness and lack of dedication, and the glorification of the personal. Uran’s sacrifice is indeed didactic.

It is essential to note that Uran is not only a model worker, but also an ideal husband and father. Although very few sequences depict him at home as opposed to at the work site, one notes the caring attention devoted to his young son. Nonetheless, work remains Uran’s foremost endeavour. Prior to sunrise on his day off, Uran dreams of a number of cranes together, working in harmony in a manner not unlike a ballet. His attention then is drawn to the crane that is central to his existence, to the machinery necessary to its operation, and to the Albanian flag. In the protagonist’s dream, work and nation are thus inseparable. Uran awakens and, hearing the mounting storm outside, realises that he is needed at the port. Given that he will be unable to remain home with his son, he accompanies the boy to a nursery, where they embrace goodbye. For an Albanian audience already familiar with the story of Adem Reka, it is clear that this is a final embrace.

Although the vast majority of the workers on the crane are men, one notes the presence of a very dedicated female engineer who demonstrates a level of professional commitment similar to that of Uran. Her interactions with her male counterparts, moreover, suggest a high level of gender equality, recalling the typical presence of a female at a construction site in Albanian socialist realist paintings. Her stride is bold and assertive, and evident throughout is her passion for her work. Her collegiality is most evident through her highly-emotional reaction to Uran’s death. In comparison to the feminist underpinnings of The Captain and While Shooting a Film, the gender dynamics of Clear Horizons are understated. Nonetheless, the film responds to the demands of the Albanian Cultural Revolution, and specifically to the social climate in the wake of 1967, in its unequivocal call for the entry of women into the labour force.

Clear Horizons stands in noted contrast to Hollywood films dealing with heavy industry. Although the visual dynamics of Gjika’s film are surprisingly similar to Lewis Seller’s 1942 Pittsburgh, the ideological underpinnings are strikingly different. Pittsburgh follows two coal miners, played by John Wayne and Randolph Scott, who rise from a life of hard labour to the top of the corporate ladder. The countless images of machinery and labourers in factories take on a patriotic meaning as the protagonists find their raison-d’être in the war effort, deploying their expertise to create ‘the arsenal of freedom’. Although very few women workers appear throughout most of the film, a coda describing industry’s response to World War II shows women operating press drills and driving tanks. The two male protagonists have as their side-kick and love interest a socialite, played by Marlene Dietrich, who claims to have ‘coal mining origins’, despite the fact that she does not appear to work, until the very end of the film. As Pittsburgh concludes, Dietrich approaches the pair with her own designs for a recreation centre—replete with entertainment stage—that will comprise a key component of the model city that the protagonists are designing for their workers. Labour and capital are depicted as working together harmoniously for the nation’s (bellicose!) good.

Clear Horizons is doubtless one of the most orthodox of Kinostudio films. Yet, it breaks with this orthodoxy through its visual dynamics, which transcend the work’s predictable diegesis. In Gjika’s film, the crane and heavy machinery become objects of contemplation. They are abstracted or photographed at Dutch angles which force the viewer to see them with new eyes. In this respect, the evocative images in Clear Horizons, a combination of Gjika’s vision and the masterful cinematographer of Faruk Basha, far exceed the propagandistic agenda of the film. Gjika’s visual dynamics are subtle yet subversive. Most likely, Clear Horizons fell through the cracks of Kinostudio’s censorship mechanism, which easily could have banned it due to its inherent level of abstraction, due to the simple fact that the evocative images are always those of machinery and work. Albeit a film with strong poetic processes at play, Clear Horizons celebrates, at least diegetically, work and the worker’s state. It survived as one of the most venerated films of the Kinostudio era, and its structural complexity can now be properly assessed. As Josif Papagjoni has underscored:

Let us recall Clear Horizons, so full of poetry. Cranes bend their necks like giraffes, as though pecking with their beak, as though embracing and kissing each other […] And then an open horizon and sea and sky converging, while the floating crane [dives] into the blinding morning light. (2007, 128)

Women Workers Get the Last Laugh: The Captain

Of the 286 films from the communist period listed in the filmography of the Albanian State Film Archives, only 16 fall under the rubric of comedy. It is clear that this genre was far-less developed in Albania than, for instance, in communist Czechoslovakia or the Soviet Union. The Captain, jointly directed by Fejmi Hoshafi and Muhharem Fejzo, is arguably the most celebrated of Albania’s film comedies. The Albanian Cinema Project, which has committed itself to restoring The Captain as one of the five selected films intended for international re-release has described the work as ‘the Albanian It’s a Wonderful Life’ due to striking similarities between it and Frank Capra’s 1946 classic. One reason for the selection of The Captain for restoration by the Project is that comedy was such a rara avis during the Kinostudio years.

Unlike Gjika and Keko, who both studied in the Soviet Union, Hoshafi and Fejzo were products of exclusively Albanian training. Perhaps for this reason, The Captain lacks the formal beauty of Clear Horizons and the greater dramatic complexity of While Shooting a Film. Its plotline is simple, focusing on Sulo, a retired military officer unable to come to terms with the emergence of women into communist Albania’s workforce. Due to his age, Sulo is left out of the collective farm’s efforts to prevent a flood, and he blames this disgrace on the election of a woman as the farm’s leader. Sulo subsequently visits his son and daughter-in-law in Tiranë, where he is forced to confront the emergence of women in all sectors of society. The film’s portrayal of gender is somewhat over-inscribed, as is its exploration of the inter-generational conflicts that retarded Albania’s modernisation in the wake of its Cultural Revolution. Of special importance is that The Captain foregrounds work from divergent perspectives. Its notion of work comprises not only the activities of the collective farm worker or of the urban labourer, but also that of the skilled professional or the artist.

The Captain is framed by two dream sequences which depict the ideological state of the protagonist at two distinct junctures, one at the film’s opening and the other immediately prior to its conclusion. Sulo’s first dream recalls his bygone days of glory as an army captain. He is leading an Albanian regiment against a combined army of Turks, Nazis and Fascists, and has ordered his troupes to fire their canons once he has given a signal by pulling his long moustache. Sulo’s moustache and overall pompous demeanour provide humorous counterpoint to the canons, which are depicted in an exaggeratedly phallic manor. When his soldiers fail to respond, Sulo notes that they have been ordered not to fire by a woman, who we will soon learn to be the chairwoman of the collective farm where the residents of the protagonist’s small community work. The woman, dressed as a military officer, explains that they only have two projectiles left, which cannot be wasted. The appearance of the chairwoman as a military officer underscores the convergence of workers and soldiers present throughout the film, positing both as essential to the nation. This early dream frames the former captain as a man unable to come to grips with the gender equality that constitutes a key ideal of communist Albania. Sulo falls out of bed at the end of the dream, and hears the siren alerting villagers of the water emergency at the reservoir.

The final dream sequence takes place in Tiranë, where Sulo, during a visit to his son and daughter-in-law’s apartment, has swallowed a few sleeping pills too many. In this dream, he is put on trial by all of the women, from a taxi driver to the collective chairwoman, whose status he has deprecated throughout the film. The trope of a trial taking place in a dream is not unique in Albanian cinema. Also in 1972, Xhanfise Keko’s Kryengritje në pallat/Uprising in the Apartment Block focused on two brothers who, having wreaked havoc on other children’s playthings, are put on trial by their victims and sent off to space in a hot air balloon. They awaken, socially redeemed and actively engage in repairing the broken toys. Although we do not see Sulo’s transformation within the dream itself, it constitutes an ideological cleansing inasmuch as he awakens a changed man, ready to accept his daughter-in-law’s vocation as a dancer and even to embrace his other son’s love for the cooperative’s chairwoman.

During the water emergency, the chief of the collective assigns tasks at a meeting not in accordance to gender, but rather with regard to health and ability. Hence, any man or woman duly able to assist should report immediately to the reservoir. Others will be assigned to guard the cows and chickens as appropriate, or to stay at home if necessary. To this effect, The Captain presents an idealised vision of gender equality. Women and men are granted equal access to whatever tasks they are physically able to do. Such a vision is underscored by a brief sequence depicting young men and women tilling the fields together. A long shot accompanied by piano and orchestral music suggests the harmony present in their efforts, and as we move to medium close-ups, their dedication to the tasks is depicted by a complete sense of integration of mind and body. The images recall the poetic depiction of the movements of workers and machinery in Clear Horizons. They further evoke the depictions of farm work in the Stalinist musicals of the 1930s and 1940s, and in particular, Ivan Pyryev’s Kubanskie kazaki/Cossacks of the Kuban (1949). Referring to this Soviet film, Dana Ranga has explained ‘the Soviet musicals turned physical labour into choreography, giving the itself the same expression of joy and exhilaration as any Hollywood dance number’. When Sulo and his sidekick attempt to join in the endeavour, ‘making up for lost time’, their clumsy efforts stand in strong contrast to the harmonious movements of the workers, are met with laughter.

Another Hollywood comparison is in order here. The great respect that the labourers demonstrate for the tough collective farm chief stands in stark contrast to western depictions of the struggle between management and labour. For example, George Abbott and Stanley Donen’s The Pajama Game (1957) uses a romance between the male superintendent of a pajama factory and the woman who leads the company’s grievance committee to explore such tensions in the workplace. The film contains extensive shots of women and men at work performing gender-appropriate activities, the women stitching and ironing, the men lifting crates and repairing machinery. As the workers prepare for a strike, the message is ambivalent. They are demanding a seven-and-a half-cent raise, and in a musical number they calculate what this increase can yield over 5, 10 and 20 years. Despite their enthusiasm, there appears no prospect of future raises; if they win, it is probably the best they can do. Like Seller’s Pittsburgh, the film ends with the restoration of a harmonious environment between labour and management.

In the Tiranë sequences of The Captain, one notes an immediate shift in the concept of work and its relationship to gender. In contrast to the easily demarcated tasks of the collective farm, a much broader paradigm is present. This runs the gamut from the privileged position of performers (classical dancer, acrobat) and medical doctors to taxi drivers, bus conductors and barbers. Tiranë is depicted as a haven of gender equality. Sulo’s age and traditionalism are especially evident in a sequence in which he attends a ballet wearing a traditional white Albanian fez, with his enormous moustache a glaring contrast to the snap appearance of other members of the audience. Although the star performer is Sulo’s daughter-in-law, the villager is unable to appreciate the artistic quality of her dance since he is horrified by having caught sight of the panties that the female dancers sport under their tutus. Such a feeling of shock and dismay is further exacerbated when he is shown a photograph of his granddaughter, an aspiring acrobat, being lifted into the air by a boy, who spreads her legs wide and appears to gaze at her crotch.

Although not one of the most ground-breaking of Kinostudio’s artistic production, The Captain, nonetheless presents a sketch of a rural and urban Albania seeking to solidify the presence of women as unskilled labourers and skilled workers, as professionals, and as artists. It is significant to note that this theme, which was secondary in Clear Horizons, a film made only four years earlier, has now come to the forefront. The Captain, moreover, accentuates the disparity between rural and urban spaces, and does so in a light-hearted manner accessible to a wide audience. Although its message is heavy-handed and un-nuanced, it nonetheless serves as a valuable snapshot of Albanian society in the years leading to the heightened paranoia of the Hoxha regime of the mid-1970s.

Work, Women, and Family Life: While Shooting a Film

Xhanfise Keko’s film career predates Albania’s isolation, and she was one of the six future artists sent in 1950 for training at Moscow’s documentary film studio. Née Xhanfise Çipi originally studied film editing, and dedicated herself to this profession upon her return to Tiranë in 1952. In homage to the material aspect of filmmaking, it was Çipi who handed the scissors to Enver Hoxha to cut the ribbon in the ceremony opening the New Albania Kinostudio. Within the first 17 years of her career, she edited 140 films, mainly consisting of newsreels and documentaries. Her debut as a feature film director came in 1973 with Mimoza llastica/Spoiled Mimoza, which follows a bratty young girl who learns the value of friendship and social interaction. By her retirement in 1984, she had directed 10 children’s films, having become Albania’s foremost director of this genre.

While Shooting a Film is doubtless one of Keko’s most acclaimed works. Written in cooperation with poet Natasha Lako, it focuses on issues of family and feminism. Relating the story of Genci, a child actor who is currently a key player in a film about children during the Nazi occupation, and whose ability to perform is hampered by a depression over the absence of his father, the film was intended to instil in children a strong sense of family values and gender equality. In many ways, While Shooting a Film continues along the lines of the didactic films of the 1960s and 1970s, the period of Albania’s Cultural Revolution and its aftermath. All the while focusing on a film crew and a group of child actors, it nonetheless contains a sub-plot exploring women in highly skilled positions. The segments devoted to the film production, moreover, offer insights into acting as work.

The four main characters of While Shooting a Film are the above-referenced child actor, Liliana and Kujtim, his parents, and Drita, an assistant director on the film he is making. Liliana is an engineer, and holds a key position in the construction of a factory in a remote area. Kujtim, unwilling to accept her absence from home, intervenes and attempts get her reassigned to another project in Tiranë. The tense relationship between Genci’s parents leads to Kujtim’s virtual absence from his son’s life. Genci is subsequently taunted by other child actors, who fail to believe that he even has a father. Through the intervention of Drita and other members of the film crew, Kujtim realises the error of his ways and accepts his wife’s freedom to fulfil her professional duties, wherever they make take her. Once again, both parents become integral parts of young Genci’s life.

Genci is extremely proud of his mother’s work, as evidenced by a comment made by Drita, who recalls a time in which the film team had driven past the construction site. Such pride in work is reflected by the film’s choice of locations. The vast majority of the sequences of While Shooting a Film take place in the workplace as opposed to in the home, whether it is Liliana’s construction site or the location of the film within a film. A good deal of the dialogue in which Liliana discusses her relationship with Kujtim with a co-worker is either shot at the construction site or in an office where she intently works out the construction details. Although we note that her role in the project is indispensable, Liliana is rarely shot in close-up. Rather, she is depicted interacting with colleagues.

The sequences of the film shoot also foreground the collective and cooperative nature of work. The children interact closely with one another, and help each other with their homework. They are also extremely close to Drita and to the film’s director. During their spare time, the child actors dress up and play act, but not as their characters in the film. Rather, they perform the roles of the film director and other crew members. Recalling debates on the role of play in the education of small children (Vygotsky 1980: 92-104; Elkind 2007), we note another intersection, that of play and work. Through playing, the children explore the world of jobs that they have not yet held themselves, but that they have seen adult professionals do. Albeit in the context of pure fun, they offer a tribute to the work of the artist, reflecting a pride not unlike that of Genci in his mother’s position as an engineer.

As Williams has noted, While Shooting a Film is not without its autobiographical components, yet Keko, herself, is best represented not by the director, but rather by Drita, who most intensely bonds with the child actors (2013, 47-48). One might argue that such a choice served to perpetuate the pre-eminently masculine realm of the Albanian film director. Nonetheless, particularly in light of the complexity of Genci’s family life, most likely the director himself would not have had time to unravel the story and intervene as Drita does. The assistant director, like Keko herself, combines a dedication to work with an indefatigable caring for her co-workers and for the child actors. In a like manner, Genci is largely modelled upon Genci Mosho, a child actor featured in Tomka and His Friends, who grew deeply depressed while filming in Berat. Keko, in a gesture typical of the diegetic Drita, arranged to have the boy travel to Tiranë for one day to see his parents (Albanian Cinema Project 2014). Keko’s own methods for preparing her young actors, moreover, mirror, to a large extent, the play dynamics of While Shooting a Film. During the casting process for her films, she frequently visited Tiranë schools and chose children who most closely matched the necessary roles. She would then invite them to play in her apartment, located in the centre of Tiranë, where they could bond and gain confidence (Williams 2013, 46). By observing their play, Keko was able to flesh out subtle nuances related to the characters they would eventually portray. Thus, in the real world of Albanian cinema, the notions of play and work became inseparable for the child actor. And all of this served to instil in young audiences a sense of moral purity, self-sacrifice and a joy in work itself.

The blurred demarcation between film and reality in While Shooting a Film is underscored by both the opening titles and a subsequent sequence depicting the making of the embedded film. Following a brief shooting sequence that establishes both the participation of the children in the film shoot and the embedded film’s story line, the assistant director appears with a clapboard to mark a scene and take. Instead of the name of the film within the film, the clapboard reads Kur po xhirohej një film, Keko’s film. All credits subsequently appear on a close-up of the clapboard interspersed with sequences portraying happy days shared by Genci with his parents, both at home and in the centre of Tiranë. Such a trope appears later during a shooting sequence in which the title of Keko’s film once again stands as proxy to the film that is being shot. Emphasising the material aspect of the cinema, this device underscores the close relationship between the shooting of the embedded film and the labour implicit in the making of While Shooting a Film.

Do Women Workers Have a Future in Albanian Cinema?

The three films discussed attest to distinct moments in the discourse on work in the Albanian cinema. The superficial orthodoxy of Clear Horizons glorifies the self-sacrifice of a model worker, a theme characteristic of the Albanian Cultural Revolution. Yet, its intertextual dynamics and poetic structure distinguish it from a mere hackneyed reiteration of this theme. With regards to women in the workplace, the theme may well be secondary, yet it is very much present. In The Captain, the exploration of the emergence of women into the Albanian workforce is much more overtly textualised. All the while lacking the poetic beauty of Gjika’s film, The Captain nonetheless succeeds in bringing such gender debates to a wide audience. Finally, made at the height of the regime’s isolation, While Shooting a Film is far subtler in its depiction of work and working women than the earlier films. Its discourse, moreover, is considerably less idealised, and real-life challenges quickly float to the surface.

How might these films be contextualised within the broader scope of Eastern European cinema? Perhaps of most use is an extreme comparison, the diametric opposite of many a Kinostudio vehicle. When one considers the films of Dušan Makavejev, Albanian films at first seem relatively simplistic, and from a feminist perspective, reactionary. Nina Power has stressed that Makavejev’s women are ‘modern’, ‘strong-willed’ and ‘independent’ (2010, 42). The same might well be said of the female characters in a good number of Albanian films under communism. Yet, the Albanian women on screen lack the sexuality of their Yugoslavian counterparts. After all, as Power articulates, while Makavejev’s women are ‘ciphers for all that is left out in the Soviet vision of humanity—playfulness, desire, and a certain carefree autonomy—they are also fleshed-out, engaging characters in their own right’ (42). Rather than seeking a convergence between political revolution and its sexual counterpart, the women in The Captain and While Shooting a Film serve as stalwarts of the nuclear family, a role essential to the stability of the communist state. Indeed, the importance of family grows progressively over the course of three decades and throughout the three films discussed. While in such films as Keko’s Tomka and His Friends or Pas gjurmëve/ On the Tracks (1978), children’s loyalty is displaced from their parents, who virtually disappear from the narrative, onto the father of the country; the despondent child actor of While Shooting a Film longs for (and ultimately finds!) family unity in which a mother can integrate marriage, motherhood and a rewarding career. The containment of these three components within the confines of the conventional home serves as a metaphor for the containment of communist Albania itself.

A mere decade following the release of While Shooting a Film, communism would fall and with it the entire Kinostudio mechanism. But Albania’s communist past was not easily forgotten, although work was not given the same importance in post-communist films. The reassessment of the totalitarian regime made by independent films of the past 25 years has focused on such themes as dictatorship and immigration, and less attention has been devoted to the theme of work per se. Nonetheless, a radically different inscription of work under communism is to be found in Gjergj Xhuvani’s Parrulat/Slogans (2001), which depicts the futility of the harsh labour undertaken by a young man and woman who, as schoolteachers in Albania’s remote south, construct propagandistic slogans out of rocks on a hillside. Referring to this film, Dina Iordanova (2008) has questioned whether the participants in the construction of the slogans were those who pretended to participate and kept their heads down, or those who had truly been indoctrinated, the latter which she deems the more likely answer. Depicting a more recent era, Mevlan Shanaj’s Lule të kuqe, lule të zeza/Black Flowers (2003) explores the devastating impact of emigration on a small village near the southern city of Gjirokastër. It is characterised by a virtual absence of work—a doctor has no patients to examine, a teacher has no pupils and a young woman serves rare guests in a run-down café. Work has been replaced by scans which transport Albanians across the Greek border, and women workers by the victims of human trafficking, who are alluded to, but not seen. Albanian films of the post-communist period thus assume a highly distinct stance vis-à-vis the notion of work than did their predecessors. To paraphrase Abaz Hoxha, ‘Quo vadis work in Albanian cinema?’ It appears that model workers, women or men, took their final cinematic bow when Kinostudio bids its own employees farewell and dispersed them off to unclear horizons.