“Communism is like Prohibition – it’s a good idea, but it won’t work.” – Will Rogers
Unbelievably, a week has passed already since ‘Osama’ – a week in which I happened to catch the amusing Australian comedy/drama ‘Kokoda Crescent’, starring Warren Mitchell and a Bahamanian (I think that’s the demonym) short which will very likely be discussed in detail when that country steps into the spotlight. In the meantime, I scoured the internet for a trailer to this week’s entry: the excellent, dark Albanian comedy Slogans, and found absolutely nothing, so we’re stuck with my description of the film instead.
Directed by Gjergj Xhuvani
Slogans is a wry and entertaining commentary on the excesses of Communist Albania in the early 1970s. Andre, a new biology teacher posted to a school in a remote mountain village, soon finds the staff and students there to be far more concerned about the upkeep of the Communist slogans they have depicted on the surrounding hillsides in large white stones than the Three Rs. Failure to devote one’s full time to this endeavour will supposedly earn the wrath of district party officials, although as the film progresses, it quickly becomes clear that the village itself seems far more obsessed with the task than the rarely seen bureaucratic overlords themselves, and failure to uphold the zeal for rearranging the stones becomes ammunition for the true believers to engage in witch hunts against anyone they have personal grievances. Andre and those of the village not fully enraptured with the community’s purposeless raison d’etre find themselves forever treading through a minefield of contradictions, paranoia and party dogma that could explode around them at any moment.
Elevating Futility To A High Art
The film is an excellent study in farce, and claiming to be based on real events, it is a very welcome and healthy progression for Albanian society to be able to laugh at the absurd, almost Orwellian blind alley they once stumbled down. Indeed, Slogans takes many delighted pot shots at the futility of the locals’ single-minded determination to pepper the hills with important-sounding slogans – the meanings of which they are unable to actually explain, such as the declarative ‘American Imperialism Is Only A Paper Tiger’ and ‘Finish Successfully The Campaigns Of Our Harvests And Sowings’. The loss of a generation of children, so tired from spending their days building giant letters for phrases they cannot hope to understand that they have no energy left for actual studies is all the more tragic because of their excited determination and uncomprehending devotion to the task, reminiscent of the first generation of the children who grew up in Mao’s China, becoming the most devout party members of all, yet the most ignorant.
“The film is an excellent study in farce and a very welcome and healthy progression for Albanian society to be able to laugh at the absurd, almost Orwellian blind alley they once stumbled down.”
‘Slogans also shows the way in which the real world continually steps in to foil the Party’s designs and is punished for doing so. The giant letters are continually unearthed by fauna, romances evolve, and children play, all resulting in stiff penalties for the unwitting transgressors. One of the most touching scenes for me features Andre and a dirt-poor, illiterate herdsman, who implores the teacher to help him convince the local government to provide him with better housing. The poor peasant, whose lack of education precludes him from understanding anything of the local politics, is ultimately destined to be condemned for his ignorance, his plight an excellent metaphor for the absurdity and failure of the Communist ideologies, which have been stripped away of every last scrap of meaning and do nothing for the people who actually matter. Ultimately, any such efforts at normality are quashed, and the final message of the film is clearly that the people are slaves to the system they themselves willingly perpetuate, which is ultimately too powerful to resist. Thankfully, history has proved this not to be the case.
Yet it is important to remember that Slogans is as much a comedy as it is a drama, and thankfully, both writers and director have enough faith in their story to let the farce come organically from the events themselves, with the humour often understated and capable of sneaking up on you. There is an almost Pythonesque quality to the absurd situations characters find themselves in (exemplifying the old axiom that truth is stranger than fiction), which will draw laughs of their own accord, and indeed I found myself chuckling away several times at the inherent contradictions, such as a scene in which the school Party leader condemns a child for accidentally referring to China as ‘revisionist’ and then proceeds straight-faced to make a similar mistake himself.
“There is an almost Pythonesque quality to the absurd situations characters find themselves in.”
While some may argue that you have to have lived through a Communist dictatorship such as that under Enver Hoxha to truly appreciate the fear, uncertainty and for Slogans in particular, the sheer madness that occurs when purpose becomes a shell, all societies are powered by these irrational drives to varying degrees and audiences should have no trouble appreciating that absurdity for what it is and seeing the funny side as the film intends. Touching, amusing, sad and hopeless, Slogans runs the gamut of emotions, striking a fair balance between them in its efforts to be lighthearted while not diluting its core message. As to the subject matter itself, perhaps the final word should go to Hungarian writer/journalist Sándor Márai:
“No one is so stubborn and dangerous as the beneficiaries of a fallen idea – they defend not the idea, but their bare life and the loot.”
Coming up next on World On Film: a country in turmoil as terror walks the streets and ordinary citizens fight for normality one day at a time in the moving Algerian drama, Rachida. You can see a trailer here.