(2001, dir: Gjergj Xhuvani; French co-production; language: Albanian; original title: Parullat)
Slogans is an ironic/black comedy set in 1970s Albania, when the country was gripped by poverty and a repressive Communist regime led by Enver Hoxha. It is based on an autobiographical story by Ylljet Alicka. I chose it partly for its subject matter, and partly because it was the only Albanian film available at the city library.
The film is about Andrea, a young teacher from the capital who arrives in a small and poor Albanian village to teach at the local school. His first task is to choose a communist slogan for his class, out of two party-supplied alternatives. Choosing the shorter one, he learns that each class of students and their teacher must inscribe their slogan on the surrounding hillsides using whitewashed stones. A physically demanding task meted out and monitored by the school principal and the party representative, longer slogans are used as punishments for (perceived or actual) transgressions or disloyalty towards the party. As the film progresses, the paranoia and demands around party loyalty are revealed to Andrea in their bleak idiocy, and there’s little or nothing he can do about it.
The film did a great job of conveying the pettiness, emptiness and futility of the required exhibitions of loyalty to the party above all. The children seemed to learn little in the school apart from communist doctrines and propaganda on a level of abstraction and language well above anything that makes sense to 10-year-olds, and indeed many adults. One of the young pupils accidentally refers to the USSR as socialist and China as revisionist, instead of the other way round (contemporary Russian communism being out of favour with Hoxha’s regime), and this sparks a kangaroo-court trial at the schoolhouse where the boy is accused of deliberate subversion, his family punished, and the child left in tears. A similar trial falsely convicts the boy’s illiterate herdsman father of destroying the stone slogans, where Andrea’s character comes to the man’s defence saying, “the slogans are meaningless… for him, I mean, for him.” But they are essentially meaningless – the film isn’t actually about Communist ideologies, about the content of the slogans, but rather about the slogans themselves as political and social capital. Another villager has carefully maintained his stone slogan, “Vietnam will win!” for the past decade, faithfully following his original orders, without anybody having informed him that the war had ended.
These are all absurd, of course, and that’s where the wry comedy of the film is found. The slogans are meaningless, but their maintenance is paramount – when they fall down the hill in a mudslide, then, Sisyphus-like, they must be replaced. The climax of the film, where the town is getting ready for a high-ranking official to drive through, sees the whole town labouring to adequately perform to the high standards of adulation required of them by the local party representative, and yet the official, when he comes in his fancy black car, just drives past the village without slowing or acknowledging the people cheering him. Nobody seems to care about their efforts, except for the party rep who was happy to punish those who did not seem to be cheering and clapping with enough enthusiasm.
The film, for me, was one about people and the different ways we have of gaining and exerting power over one another. The village, where they had so little, was nevertheless mainly concerned with its own microcosm of power – where the length of a slogan built from stones (the only thing the village seemed to have in abundance) could tell you more about your place in society than the actual content of the words. The film-maker has stated that with Slogans he aimed for something other than a simple critique of Hoxha’s Communist regime, but to hold up a mirror to what life was like then:
“Albanian people want films that explain their life. They’re tired of the films and the culture of propaganda,” Xhuvani says. “For me the best thing to do is show how things were, not just to say that communism was bad, but to make films like a mirror. Some film-makers want to show democracy as a miracle – but it’s not a dream, it’s not a miracle, there are a lot of problems.”
I get the feeling that Slogans has achieved that. While predominantly financed by France, the film seems to put Albanians first, presenting them not as lumpen proletariat stooges under the yoke of a communist dictatorship, but as human individuals with a variety of responses to and strategies for coping with the reality of their situation.
As a film, Slogans is attractively produced, sharply written and engaging. If the topic seems bleak, the execution is nevertheless wonderfully wry, with enough moments of pure comedy to keep the viewer upbeat. Indeed, it is in some sense a typical fish-out-of-water comedy, where the city boy comes to the little isolated village, falls in love with the local ‘bad girl’, and shakes things up with his new perspectives and lack of knowledge of ‘how things have always been done’. It’s just that in this film, the girl gets sent away, and the shaking up has no effect other than to see some liquor, cigarettes and garlic change hands, and the protagonist get sentenced to 6 months hard labour, before returning to the unchanging village.