Movie Poster for the movie Slogans, made in 2001, director Ghergi Xhuvani
Part of the comprehensive training we receive in Peace Corps is cultural in nature. In addition to living with host families, we have regular discussions, presentations and movies covering different cultural practises of our host nation. In one instance, we watched a movie that was made during communist times which explored the partisan movement against the Nazi’s. It was a story of a group of young school boys and their experiences living with and resisting the fascist occupiers. It was well done in all aspects, and also, of course, showed the valor and moral superiority of the Albanian people against the evils of the Nazi occupiers. Throughout the movie there were articulate monologues of communist principles performed by darling children as they organized to overthrow the occupying army. The natives here lament the lack of good modern Albanian films, and part of the US Mission in Albania is to help preserve the old films as part of the Albanian cultural heritage.
Our class was treated to a relatively modern Albanian film recently entitled “Slogans.” The film was made in the early 2000’s, but covered Albania in the 1970’s. The story was about a teacher who was assigned to a mountain village school and his experiences integrating into the local communist party system. During that time, it was the custom to have teachers, very respected leaders of the community in those days, be assigned slogans by party officials to be displayed on local mountainsides with whitewashed stones. The teachers and children spent hours mining stones and dragging them to hillsides to form letters for the phrases. Favored teachers would get short phrases, while teachers who were not as enthusiastic about party propaganda often got long sentences (pun intended) to assemble and tend.
One of the school officials was the local party representative, and used his position to basically oppress and terrify the villagers and his fellow teachers. In one instance, a child reciting basic geography, misspoke that China was socialist, instead of communist. He was reported to the official who had him called into the teachers meeting for questioning. He was asked who told him to lie about China, he said he misspoke and corrected his mistake in class (which he did) and after intense questioning, the official decided to interrogate his father who must have poisoned the child’s mind in this matter. And so goes the movie, which shows how the system was designed to keep everyone in a state of panic over being turned in to the officials for trial, work camp punishment or worse. In one instance, someone was punished for not clapping enthusiastically enough during a political rally. In another, a person was sanctioned because a herd of sheep had overturned the stones on his slogan.
After the movie, the conversation that ensued was quite interesting. The younger Americans were simply confounded over the hypocrisy of the party officials. As I have family in several countries that endured communism for decades, I was more familiar with the pointlessness of such activities as the “slogans.” I had also been part of a citizen diplomacy exchanges in Moscow and St Petersberg in the early years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of both the USSR and Yugoslavia. I heard many stories throughout the years, as well as reports from people from the recent falls of communist nations
My family had their lands confiscated by the communists and their homes overtaken. Party officials forced them to share their home with tenants who moved in without their permission or desire. In one instance, drains were put in closets to make defacto bathrooms for the “new tenants,” and a three story home that was in my family for generations was made into three apartments courtesy of the government. My relatives to my knowledge did not receive rent from such arrangements. My family had to have their children baptized in secret, in dark basements, because if they were found out, things like education, health care and job advancement would be denied. My relatives were hauled into jail on weekends when workers for roadwork was needed, and were put to work on crews. This also happened in cases of nuclear waste clean up, causing the painful cancer deaths of several beloved aunts and uncles. It is for these reasons, I cringe when I hear how certain religious groups in the US cry discrimination if they hear “Happy Holidays” in December at Walmart when they are rushing in to get a $100 flat screen TV’s at 3 in the morning. Such complaints of religious oppression in the states are so hollow when compared to what has been endured throughout the history of humankind. I thought about this as I was watching “Slogans.”
What is it about human beings that tolerate oppression and certain forms of irrational political structures? I asked my teacher why the Albanian people went along with the regime. She said that right before the communist dictator Hoxha, there was the one and only Albanian King. He apparently was elected, and after World War 2, fled the country with all it’s money and gold. Hoxha offered some sort of organization and recovery from the war and theft of their economy. Albanians were completely isolated until he died, then with the loosening of the grip, the Albanians started to get televisions, see the outside world, and then the rest they say is history.
As someone who absolutely adores history, and buries myself in it when I am feeling concerned about current events, (I want to see if humans had encountered something similar in the past and what worked, what didn’t work so as to see how to approach the current problem,) I am eager to learn more about the Albanian history of the late 1980’s and the formation of the modern state. But my deeper question is, while obviously there are major differences, in some ways, we Americans are also guilty of our own slogans.
In one culture class, we were presented with the structure of the government and health care system, the corruption involved, and then basically told: (my words, my understanding of the purpose of the lesson) here is the problem, this is why you are here, solve it with your talents. This was told to me by a wonderful teacher who is basically living in Italy most of the year because she can not find work in Albania.
In order to help another, one must heal ones self. So how is my culture doing “slogans?” What are “slogans” ? What did the “slogans” represent? What are the historical and modern counterparts?
In my training site, my other site mates are involved in watching “Game of Thrones” I will admit, I am a bit of an addict in terms of this medieval tella novela, but I honestly can not bear to re watch the non-stop violence and such. The story is a fantasy based on the real Earth history of the War of Roses in Medieval England. As two of the site mates supported the other Game of Thrones novice during an especially shocking segment, I noted the essence of this epic cable mini-series is actually all about the manipulation, exertion and confiscating of power in terms of warring kingdoms, families and business interests. It dawned on me “Slogans” the film, and current political turbulence is really all about power. Again, how has my nation used “Slogans” in the past and or present?
The era of McCarthyism comes to mind, where people’s loyalty to the USA was demanded by oaths and all sorts of things. For me to volunteer at the Fullerton Arboretum in Southern California, to be an adjunct faculty at the School of Medicine at UCI and other jobs related to the State of California, I had to sign and swear an oath to the state and the constitution. I was not really clear how I would uncover a communists threat to America during my garden tours at the Arboretum, but I went along with the oath thing simply to expedite the process. I would also venture to say that traveling on a plane these days rivals the communist hysteria in Albania; The humorless TSA agents who confiscate toothpaste and baby formula came to mind when I was watching the party officials in the Albanian film, apparently if you refuse to give up your seat that you paid for, you can get dragged off the plane and beat up by airport security for protesting your treatment. If you run away from the police, in some cases if you tell them you are getting your wallet so you can show your ID, you can get shot, especially if your ancestors come from the Southern Hemisphere. Depending on the mood of our current president, you can also be denied entry to the country, even if you have lived in the USA for years, with a business, American born children, pay taxes and create jobs for others if you are from certain countries, read a certain religious text or have brown skin. And then there is the entire history of slavery, the treatment of Native Americans and those Pilgrims were not what one would call a free and easy crowd allowing creative expression and alternative viewpoints from their community members. What would the slogan be for these actions?
Many issues come up for me personally, when I ponder the film we saw during our cultural session, the history of Albania and the US, and what I am witnessing over most of the world. It is all about power really. I am fascinated as to what people will tolerate, why and what exactly changes their minds. Obviously in certain circumstances, say if you live in a country where you can be stoned to death if you are a female who dares to lift her head scarf to eat a sandwich in public, publically whipped for some perceived slight to some religion, the tactics are quite persuasive in getting a community to accept oppression. But still, the tactics are tolerated by the population, and they persist. The minority controls the majority who complies with whatever stupid rule the minority makes up about most anything. It is a question as to what structure, purpose and to whom tolerating such rules serves.
It seems that power is often justified through offering security. But what is real and deep security? Can democracy actually give both power and security?
Freedom is messy. A successful democracy depends on the population being educated and also having a stake in the system. True security comes from meeting basic human needs, food, shelter, water, health care, absence of violence. Power comes actually from within, and true deep power does not actually come from oppressing anybody or anything, because if you have to oppress others to maintain your power it is always tenuous and best. Yet we humans keep thinking if we oppress others, if we arm our selves or become violent, somehow those we want to control will just give in. They might for a while, but history shows that in the end, violence simply prolongs the cycle and never really results in anything other than creating more violence where the oppressors just trade sides every few generations. A healthy community is also dependent on the good will and basic kindness towards ones fellow human beings.
As I have traveled the world, my experience is that there are good people everywhere. The bad ones get more attention and press, but basically we are still here on the planet after thousands of years because people care about the future, they care about their friends, families and communities. Hopefully the era of slogans and the environment that produced them is over in Albania. I am also hopeful that the American public is also quite tired of the various infringements on our democracy that go beyond having rocket launchers in our garages without permits or background checks. I hope as Albania develops, she will develop into a nation with real security as well as deep democracy. I also hope deep democracy comes to America, and that we focus on true security for our people that does not come from weapons or military might.
I feel that the good people of both of our nations will work with the good people of all other nations to create a world where there is real security and deep democracy exists. When slogans and all they stand for are simply a relic of the past, a confusing era that no one understands anymore, where all people regardless of their background, faith, age or class have an equal voice and a stake in our collective future. Maybe that would be a good new type of slogan, it would take up a lot of space, but it is certainly something to aspire in these transformative times.