This week our cultural experience was to watch a movie made in 1956 about an Albanian Hero from the 16th Century. As we have been told, and certainly I have experienced, Albanian cinema from communist times is very well done. Scanderbeg was filmed in color. The costumes and sets, much of them the stunningly beautiful countryside of Albania, as well as the acting could rival anything I have seen from American movies of the same era.
Scanderbeg could be considered the Albanian version of Charlton Heston’s “The Ten Commandments” in that the story surrounds a charismatic leader uniting his people and leading them to freedom. They both tell the story of a native son, raised in a foreign enemy court, who leaves the luxury of his foster family to help his people achieve nationhood. Both leading characters were barrel chested men with beards and booming base voices. In the case of Scanderbeg, he was taken hostage as a young boy by Turkish warlords to be raised in the Sultan’s home. He was given the name Scander in honor of Alexander the Great (whom it seems everyone in the Balkans from the Greeks to Macedonians to the Albanians claim as their own) Skander’s Albanian name is George, (Gjiergi) which of course I was quite proud since my Dad’s name is George. The entire film was about warring Albanian tribes forgiving each other and uniting to defeat the Turks, who incidentally all looked quite scruffy and had terrible dental health compared to the clean, handsome and well dressed Albanians.
The film showed many battles, and several scenes of Albanian dancing and music. What struck me was how all the continuous slaughter, even of Scanderbegs sister, (who married someone she didn’t love to unite warring tribes and fought like Boadicea in a chariot against the Turks only to be killed in battle by an arrow from a Turkish foot soldier who looked like he needed a shave as well as a front tooth implant or two,) was all seen as glorious, passionate and purposeful.
What I learned from the film that set it apart from other war hero legends was how the Venetians and Serbs were willing to let the Albanians be Turkish slaves and colonies in order to maintain good relations for trade agreements. Even a local priest was in on the betrayal, Catholics were seen in the film to be in collusion with the Venetians, in that he lied about an Albanian city state prince’s last will and testament saying that the province was to go to the Venetians instead of the dead man’s stated wishes that it go to his heir. The local Albanian soldiers dutifully destroyed villages that did not go along with this so called “will” and when confronted with why they were burning huts and mowing down vineyards, the soldiers kept saying “the decree” which told them to do so. It was sort of the 16th century Albanian version of “I was just following orders.”
The Venetians and Serbs were not portrayed in a very positive light in this film to say the least. The real history behind Scanderbrg is remarkable, and unknown to most in the West, but it is important to know so that comprehension of world history is more complete. What was going through my mind was the length of time involved in the film, 25 years to be exact, where the Albanians under the leadership of Scanderbeg were continuously fighting the relentless onslaught of the Turks. And while the film shows healthy clean and extremely enthusiastic Albanian soldiers, and just distant shots of the burning and pillaging of Albanian towns where women are fleeing their homes with children in their arms as their thatched roof homes are torched, it seems there is another part of the story that is not being told, the one I heard repeatedly from my own Grandmother as to what it was like to live as an occupied warring people with numerous uprisings and their consequences. It is amusing to me that after all the horror of the Turks, the 500 year occupation and what not, that the rage in Albania is now Turkish Soap Operas, which are on all the channels, every night, with repeats for those who might have missed them in the early morning hours of the week end.
I am reading Testament of Youth by Vera Brittan. It is an epic autobiography of a British military nurse during World War One. It also has been made into several television mini series as well as a recent film starring heart throb Kit Harrington as the leading male character. The theme of the book is the story of grief and horror of interrupted love and youth through the mechanized slaughter of modern warfare, of how the citizens experienced the war and the nurses and families who picked up the pieces of their maimed sons or mourned the loss of the dead. Her descriptions of the mangled septic messes that would return from various battles over several meters of trenches showed the futility of war. The recognition that the opposing sides soldiers had nothing personally against the people they were murdering was also quite poignant. Throughout the book, Brittan keeps harping on how her life, and the life of her generation was completely stolen by the war. The letters from the front and conversations in the book also deeply questioned the constant slaughter of young everyday boys who just the year before were debating literature, preparing for exams in college and engaging in the conquests of romance.
As I was watching Scanderbeg, especially the tender moments between he and his wife, who lovingly supports his constant warfare and preoccupation with killing Turks, I kept thinking of Testament of Youth. The beautiful wife smilingly tells him on the day he forgets their anniversary, that loving him is loving Albania and that all her sacrifice and difficult life is worth it for the freedom of their people. I wonder what the real wife actually thought of never truly having a partner in life, of her emotional and physical needs being always second to the relentless needs of a nation of people, of wondering every time he was away if he would return, of her son’s eventual participation in war and of living under constant fear of being raped and killed by gangs of angry Turks when the local Albanian men were on the battlefield.
Scanderbeg the film was made in the mid 50’s when Hoxya was about ten years into his power. The nation at that time was unabashedly communist, but the religious oppression had not taken hold yet. The Albanian people had been through nearly 500 years of various occupations by foreign powers and recently had experienced the Nazi regime. They were still recovering and rebuilding from World War Two. The film is a masterpiece of showing traditional Albanian culture in terms of costume, music and dance. It also shows the beauty of the land, and the necessity of uniting as a people to protect them from the outside world. The film also not so subtly shows the treachery and betrayal of most of Albania’s neighbors, and for me it was interesting that it was presented in terms of a merchant economy (aka Capitalism.)
It is also interesting to me that currently, the world basically does the same thing, we are willing to tolerate oppression, war and what not, all in the name of maintaining trade agreements with nations who are not friendly and oppress their own and other nations people. In the film, the trade routes with the Turks were maintained, Venice and Serbia made a lot of money in the process, and the screaming Albanian women in mountain villages who have no food or shelter for the bitter winters, they obviously do not count since protecting them might harm trade relations with the Turks.
What was interesting to me was the difference between Scanderbeg and Testament of Youth. I have yet to read anything substantive written in the 16th century decrying war and violence. I am only aware of Hildegard of Bingen, 12th Century German mystic writing on women’s menstruation saying that such blood was holy and clean and part of giving life to others and that when men bleed it is usually because of war, which was not exactly holy so women should not be ashamed of their reproductive processes. But what is it about making war entertaining and necessary that seems to be a consistent theme in human history?
I have always been fascinated as to how quickly humans can rally into war, which, in my never to be humble opinion, is legally sanctioned mass murder. Other community efforts seem to take long periods of time, like agreeing on how to plant a school garden. Women’s experience of war is particularly brutal in that rape and destruction of home and land go along with their “participation” in war. So much work goes into growing, preserving and preparing food, pregnancy and tending of children, of maintaining a home, all to be wiped out in a moment for no other reason than another nation needs a direct route to trade. To have your children raped and slaughtered in front of you when the original plan for the day was laundry and making bread would be shocking at the very least. As a women, you would have no recourse but to wait for your side to do the same to the other sides women, which isn’t really a solution. Why do we continually tolerate this cycle? Why is this glorious, passionate? The film only shows smiling women in beautiful costumes cheering on their men as they march. The war drums were really amazing in the film though, quite large and well played by costumed men, by the way.
It seems the World War One generation was the first to document the less than enthusiastic participation in legally sanctioned murder. Brittain’s book certainly describes what happens in the aftermath of the battles. World War One is also the first to report battle fatigue and what they used to call “shell shock” and what we would now call “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” I am also fascinated as to her description of the differing male responses to the impending battles, some are quite adept at the process, where others are truly terrified as well as unsure they will be capable of violence and proper decisions. In Scanderbeg, most of the soldiers were peasant farmers. In one instance we see a sheepherder defeat Skanderbeg in an arm wrestling match. He returns throughout the film with the sword Scanderbeg gave him, and we see him kiss the sword before battle. He also seems to come out of every battle with his hat, no blood or dirt on his lovely heritage white costume. In Testament of Youth the soldiers were tradesman, farmers and college students. All answered the call from their country to defend, and were thought of fondly by the press and community if they happened to die in the process. The women were left to deal with the gaping wounds in their souls having their loved ones killed on distant soil.
Now adays, we have drones and mega bombs dropped from thousands of feet away. The more rudimentary warfare is done by suicide bombers who think that blowing up women buying vegetables in open air markets, or driving a truck through civilians at a carnival somehow honors their god and shows their courage. As I watched Scanderbeg, read Testament of Youth, and watch Albanian TV news showing the aftermath of current bombings and terror attacks, that old 60’s folk song keeps running through my mind, “when will they ever learn…….when will they ever learn.”
War has not really touched American soil in over 150 years. Yes, we have endured a few terror attacks here and there, but we seem to be more intent on killing each other in malls, schools and movie theaters with semiautomatic weapons than other nations people, but the local slaughters are not orchestrated for any other purpose than for lone nut balls wanting to send a message of their insanity for all the world to see. Our nation is comfortable with the random slaughter so that the minority of gun owners can somehow feel the constitution is being honored. Other citizens “right to life liberty and happiness” apparently is trumped by the second amendment, so any psychopath on medication can purchase machine guns on the internet. In our own way, we let the “war” continue so as not to interrupt the trade and commerce of guns I our own country. In both cases, that of Scanderbeg and America’s gun idolatry, the women are left to deal with the aftermath. War and occupation is very fresh in the Albanian mind, it is only 25 years since the fall of communism, and 10 since the civil war, and as the nation forges ahead in terms of how to participate in the modern world, it seems at least in terms of religious fundamentalism, they have learned not to succumb to that insane justification for violence.
But nationalism is taking the world by storm, at least now, just through elections. Turkey just voted to basically become a dictatorship. France is poised to elect a fascist. The Germans for now have held onto their democracy, it seems that even though they have had an influx of refugees and endured several terror attacks, the Germans see the benefit of democracy and have learned that nationalism isn’t very productive in the end. Neighboring Balkan nations are also grappling with holding fascism at bay and avoiding ethnic conflicts within their borders. What frustrates me personally is that we have access as no other generation before, to documented information in terms of books, news articles and film as to the consequences of nationalism and fascism, so what is the appeal, why the rush to do the same thing that has proven to be costly in terms of life and ineffective over the long run? So far, it seems only the Germans, Albanians and Canadians are getting the lessons of history.
I told my mom my experience of the Albanian people as compared with other Balkan people is they seem more sedate. Where the Macedonians and Serbs seem to relish in passionate arguments and breakout into violence at the drop of a hat, I am not noticing this trend here for the moment. As I study the Balkans, and feel they are a bridge to the future, a future where the focus of culture will be transitioning from west to east, I am wondering if the Albanian experience will translate into the sturdy bridge to the future. Religious coexistence seems to be a very important part of a harmonious culture. As for now, it really seems to be part of the people. Everyone celebrates every holiday regardless of their background. I hope this holds as challenges loom. I hope more people learn about Albania and her history, especially the modern history and example. Yes they are struggling, but I am witnessing some very important contributions that Albania has to share on the global field. I just hope these contributions do not get lost in the rush to a market economy and the turmoil across her borders.
I do highly recommend watching Scanderbeg though, it is well done and highly entertaining, as well as giving an Albanian perspective on a very tumultuous period of world history.