The Old exits, the New enters, a game of mirrors where the optical illusions reveal distorted figures, transmuting ectoplasms behind a series of doors, lifeless figures, long-reaching shadows from history. Oppressive regimes, freedom destroying dictatorships, authoritarian gerontocracy surviving from one Short Century into a longer one, with their hordes of torturers, henchmen, wheeler-dealers, taking front and second rows as the cruel Praetorians intent on stopping the winds of change with their own hands, even when the winds are blowing relentlessly.
Psychologically contorted and distorted, humanity and inhumanity in conflict, reality and illusions existentially competing one with the other. A microcosm of ideal-type characters in the Albania of the early nineties, performing, fiercely and intensively, and the subtle screenplay of Bujar Alimani in THE DELEGATION, winner of the last Warsaw Film Festival.
Albania 1990, the last bastion of orthodox Communism. The film opens in the canteen of a prison where the inmates (at a first glance you understand that they are not your common delinquents) are commenting on the TV news – a delegation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is visiting the Land of Eagles. A man is disembarking from an airplane, smiling discreetly and appearing naturally distinguished – the diplomat, Sasha Loherin. He is the person that must be “talked to”, convince that Albania is doing everything possible to leave behind its turbulent past, and that the present government’s democratic reforms are more than just mere words. The task is important, at stake, Europe.
«They only want the money from Europe, they’ll do the same as they did with the Russians and the Chinese. They also tricked them”, comments one of the inmates, with a harsh shrewdness.
Leo, an old prisoner, a professor, an intellectual. By definition, an enemy of the state, an inmate for 15 years, imprisoned for subversive activities. He cannot even conceive that he is going to be the bait of the new con. Or maybe yes, judging from the intense way he is staring at the images on the TV. The look of someone who knows something. At dawn the next day, Leo is woken up by guards, taken to the barber, re-clothed and put into a jeep. Nobody knows why, and nobody knows where he is being taken.
Perhaps to a place of execution, as the barber suggests. «It already happened with Luan, the painter. They woke me up in the middle of the night and told me to shave him. They say, he ended up in a madhouse. But I don’t believe it, because to have him shaved and then put him in a madhouse, well …».
Unlikely, they would go to all that trouble for such a long trip. It is quite obvious that the destination is Tirana. Why? Accompanying Leo, the prison guard, Comrade Spiro, a bigwig in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and Asilan, a henchmen of the old regime.
Enver Hoxha’s Albania, after 40 years of dictatorship has suddenly been stripped of its identity. Like the three characters of this journey through the snow-capped mountain peaks, along gravel and potholed roads. Each of them has different reasons for seeing a future through different eyes. Who will survive the political change, who will have to conceal their past?
Asilan and Leo. It’s not the first time the two have met, they have already clashed in the past over their opposing positions. Obviously, Leo lost and this Asilan, who has dedicated his life to “protecting the state” from contamination, is still welcomed. For him, the professor, after 15 years, is still a dangerous threat. Arrested for “political agitation and propaganda”, sentenced to forced labor, Leo will be released from prison in 1996. Or maybe before, owing to the amnesty that Europe has requested for political prisoners.
“Did you deserve this punishment?” (Asilan)
“Only the state knows.” (Leo)
In April of 1990, Ramiz Alia, the successor chosen by Enver Hoxha before his death in 1985, opened up the country to diplomatic relations with the United States, the USSR, the European Community, requesting to participate in the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The austere state of Albania until that moment (the only country in Europe) had resolutely refuted the Helsinki Final Act, the declaration on principles regarding security, cooperation and human rights that, in 1975, had sealed the East-West detente.
In the early nineties, the European geopolitical scenario was completely overturned – the implosion of the USSR, the end of bipolarity, the war in ex-Yugoslavia, and the expansion to the east transforming the Conference into a permanent “builder of peace”, institutionalized in 1994 with the founding of OSCE. It was difficult for Albania to remain apart, especially after the impressive wave of protests that, in 1990, led to 80,000 people, including workers and students, occupying Skanderbeg Square in Tirana.
The European delegation demanded a concrete signal from Ramiz Alia’s government – the release of all political prisoners. According to the figures of Helsinki Watch, in March 1991 (when the official visit took place), there were about 2,700 political prisoners, including 51 women, held in Albanian prisons.
In 1990, Albania was still a very backward country. The journey to Tirana is a difficult one, the jeep makes slow progress, inching forward until it finally breaks down. They need a mechanic, someone in the middle of nowhere who knows how to repair it. It all needs time, too long a time to keep the lid on the animosity between Leo and Asilan. The tension between the two escalates, eloquent but subdued conversations summing up, in a continual round of reciprocal thrusts, the present historical situation. Who is the enemy of the people?
“You belong in prison.” (Asilan)
“But you too are in prison, only you don’t see it.” (Leo)
“Schooling has ruined you.”
“If you had gone to school, I would not be in prison.”
However, Asilan Beshiri is a hanger-on, a torturer by profession. He had not been fortunate enough to be able to study abroad. While those who had had the opportunity, like Leo, have become the enemy. “What have you given back to the party? You will never change.”
Not even the reasoning of the state has changed. Its lack of mercy forces Asilan, on the orders of Comrade Spiro, to give up his jacket to Leo. “This would never have happened before” mutters the sadistic cop.
There are no shocking scenes in THE DELEGATION, only just touching on the historical situation underlying its background – the remote causes such as the more recent events in Albania are only skimmed over. This is probably the intention of the director, who, it seems, is more focused on the more general complexity of the human relations between the character and subject (the political intellectual prisoner, the ruthless policeman of the regime, the astute party official).
“These are difficult times and we must be ready. Have you seen what has happened in Romania?” he responds to the young female party official worried about the disappearance of the cooperatives and the privatization of the economy.
Meanwhile, in Tirana, where, incredibly but a reality, it is difficult to communicate by phone – the curtain has risen despite there being no main actor. The mise en scène has begun, in Leo’s pretend house, with Leo’s pretend mother ill with Alzheimer’s (and hence unmoved by any comradely memories of Sasha Loherin), the pretend memorabilia of a time that “seems to have stopped here”, the medal, the pen, the photo taken in Prague when Leo and Sasha studied together at the beginning of the sixties, before Communism placed them on different roads.
Sasha Loherin is playing the game, or perhaps he has fallen into the game. It matters little, he will not meet Leo, not even this time. He has already tried different times in the past, he remembers, but he has never obtained permission to enter Albania.
“But it’s not our fault” the official adds quickly “the former regime isolated us from the rest of the world”.
A surprising finale where a tragic loyalty involving themselves is placed on the stage in a country where the Old, with its final dregs, still contaminates the New on which it feeds. In March 1991, Enver Hoxha’s Party of Labor won, though narrowly, the first multi-party elections in Albanian history.