"Maybe Albania's tragedy is to be too close to that peninsula: for the good times, and the bad times, its destiny is tied to Italy."
- Isabella Stasi Castriota Scanderbeg, Albanian writer and producer
Since March 26, 1999, when NATO launched air strikes on the former Yugoslavia, more than 800,000 ethnic Albanians have fled their villages. About half of them have left Kosovo to escape the Serbia's crusade of ethnic cleansing and are now seeking refuge in the neighboring countries Macedonia, Montenegro, and Albania. The current refugee crisis underscores the paradoxes of NATO's intervention. For nearly a year Serb president Slobodan Milosevec has been ordering attacks on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, who made up about 90% of the population in the Serbian region. Although the NATO air strikes were launched with the intention of terminating Milosevec's program of genocide and of protecting Kosovar Albanians from Milosevec's attacks, as refugees, the Kosovar Albanians have come to be in the way of the war.
Because of Albania's limited number of airplanes and runways, NATO must prioritize its agendas of continued military intervention and of placing the refugees in other parts of the world. Paradoxically - though perhaps not surprisingly - those for whose benefit the war was intended have become a hindrance to the war's continuation. Arthur C. Helton, professor of law at New York University and expert on refugees, considers the refugees to be a sort of weapon because of the destabilizing effect they have on the countries that receive them. He describes the proposal - now abandoned - to temporarily house 20,000 refugees at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. military base in Cuba as an effort to "naturalize refugees as a weapon of war."
In the Kosovar refugee crisis, the ethnic Albanians constitute both a "weapon," and a pitiable people in need of protection and aid. This polarized representation echoes the discourse surrounding Albanian immigration to Italy.
Chronology of Albanian Immigration to Italy
"Children of the Same Sea": Italy's Conflicted Responses to Albanian Immigration
"If their jackets were real leather and their gym shoes were real Nikes, they could be confused with anyone living in the periphery of a Southern city."
(Permlutter, 304, quoting from La Repubblica, March 27, 1997)
The 1991 "Albanian exodus" was considered a national crisis in Italy. The arrival of over twenty thousand Albanians forced Italy to reflect on its own history as an emigrant nation, and posed immediate material challenges. In March of 1991, after the first democratic elections were held in Albania and Ramiz Aija's socialist dictatorship crumbled, more than 24,000 Albanians docked in Apulia within the span of three days. Although this deluge was considered a national crisis, the refugees were welcomed warmly. Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti suggested that families "adopt" Albanians (Stille, 33). Italian politicians claimed that Italy and Albania are part of a common Adriatic culture, and thus had special bonds and obligations to one another. The Albanians who arrived in March were granted work permits and placed throughout Italy, in a program designed to integrate the refugees.
Yet by August of the same year, the response became markedly less enthusiastic. On August 7-8 over 15,000 Albanians docked on Apulian shores and were greeted by riot squads, detained in a stadium with no bathrooms, and provided with food dropped off by helicopters. Five days later most were given $40, and a new T-shirt and pants and were airlifted back to Albania (Economist, Aug. 17, 1991). Altogether, 17,466 Albanians were deported during the third week of August 1991 (Economist, Aug. 17, 1991).
Since 1991, Albanians have come to occupy a paradoxical position in Italian cultural consciousness. Albanians have been both warmly welcomed as "children of the same sea," and portrayed as essentially sinister. Italy's polarized response to Albanians indicates the way in which they have come to represent Italy's history as an emigrant nation. The paradoxical reception of Albanians finds a basis in the perception of a shared cultural heritage.
Freud's concept of the 'narcissism of minor differences,' and Slavoj Zizek's reworking of it, are useful in understanding Italian responses to Albanian immigration. In Civilization and its Discontents Freud writes, "It is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and in ridiculing each other" (61). This notion sheds some light on the particularly fervent antagonism towards the Albanian immigrant, and the ardent empathy that counters it. He continues, "It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestations of their aggressiveness" (61). Italian responses to Albanian immigration are "transferred aggression," but rather, 'manifestations of their aggressiveness;' with the 'manifestations,' interpreted broadly.
The response to Albanian immigration in Italy is a conflicted reflection of its past as an emigrant nation and its present condition: a somewhat culturally homogenous nation struggling to integrate large numbers foreigners. Zizek's describes the representation of the 'other' is a symptom of ideology, "a disfigured representation of social an antagonism" (126). The conflicting representations of Albanians in Italy since 1991 coalesce into a symptom of the tensions within Italian culture and history.
Of course, Italy is a country with great regional variation, and considering the response to Albanian immigration to be symptomatic of Italy's narcissism of minor differences is, to a large degree, a cultural diagnosis that can only be made from the position of, for example, an ethnocentric American. To consider the differences between Italians and Albanians 'minor,' is to maintain a philosophy about what constitutes difference. Nonetheless, I do think that the responses to Albanian immigration in Italy are markedly different from responses to Moroccans, Nigerians, and Filipino immigrants. The responses to Albanians in Italy encompasses both an energetic hostility and a great empathy towards Albanians. This is, in part, because of the perception that Albanians are racially and culturally similar.
The epigraph of this section suggests that Albanians are perceived as counterfeit southern Italians. The logic of the statement hinges on the condition that there be no Albanian living in the peripheries in southern Italy. The statement seems to indicate a fear that Albanians could live, disguised, among Italians, though, obviously it also reflects the economic disadvantage of many of Albanians in Italy. This statement certainly does not reflect the ideology of all Italians. However, it does indicate the way in which Albanians, unlike Moroccans, Nigerians, and Filipinos, three major immigrant groups in Italy, because of their physical resemblance to Italians, are likely targets of a 'narcissism of minor differences.'
Several other elements contribute to the perception of Albanians as being like Italians. Albanians who emigrated in 1991 arrived with a conception formed in part by its television programming. Italian television waves reach Albania, and television broadcasts were among the few glimpses of Western culture that made their way into Albania under Enver Hoxha's fifty year communist dictatorship - though Italian television was strictly forbidden. In addition, many Italians whose ancestors emigrated from Albania in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries retain Albanian cultural traditions and consider themselves Arberesh. In southern Italy, about 300,000 Arberesh live in 70 townships, in addition to the many Italian outside of these communities who can trace an Albanian heritage.
Albanians remind Italy of its past as an emigrant nation and as a nation associated with a myth of being a "backwards" nation in modern Europe (see Agnew). Albanian immigration to Italy exploded just after Italy implemented a its Martelli law, the first major attempt to regulate immigration in Italy. Immigration legislation was a necessary precondition for Italy to become a signatory of the Schengen Treaty, which enables individuals to move freely between signatory nations. One Italian diplomat expressed frustration with Albanian immigration because it prevented Italy from signing the Schengen Treaty: "This is why we can't join Schengen, we still have to find ways to keep these people out" (Economist, April 1, 1995). For Italy, which was referred to as, "The back door to fortress Europe" (Hooper, 1) border control and immigration legislation became integral to the country's participation in the European Community. Because Albanian immigration led to suspensions of the Martelli law in June of 1990 and March of 1991, it constituted a threat to Italy's efforts to control its borders and fight its reputation as the secret portal to Western Europe.
The discourse surrounding Albanian immigration frequently invokes Italian national identity. Giuliano Zincone, a commentator for the Corriere della Sera wrote, "The Albanian tragedy forces us to look into the mirror, forces us to be without pity" (Stille, 2). This mirror, for Zincone, reflects an emigrant nation, not a nation capable of welcoming Albanians. He does not make clear whether he means that Italy must consider the Albanian immigrants to be a mirror, or whether Italy must reflect upon itself. Were Italy to look into the mirror of its own history, it would find the parallels of an oppressive dictatorship and emigration. Yet Zincone's conclusion, that the "mirror forces us to be without pity" instead takes Albania to be the mirror, asserting something like, "we are Albanians, how can we pity them."
Yet, epithets employed to describe Albania liken Italy to America and West Germany: "our Kuwait" (Permlutter, 210) and "Our East Germany" (Permlutter, 210). Zincone concludes, "We are not the America of the Mediterranean" (Stille, 2). This assertion evokes Italy's history as an emigrant nation, because of course, what made America the America of the Atlantic was, in part, Italian immigration. The statement thus announces, "we are the Albania of the Atlantic." Paradoxically, in this example, we see that when Italy is seen as 'like Albania,' a conservative political program develops, and when it is considered to be 'like America,' a more liberal, if infantilizing, program emerges. However, this paradox of the political interpretation of historical constructions is not omnipresent in the discourse surrounding Albanian immigration to Italy. In Gianni Amelio's Lamerica, a historical awareness mediates poles of this paradox.
The pervasive stereotype that Albanians are involved with organized crime mirrors stereotypes about Italian Mafiosi. Statements made by Francesca Marcelli, an organized crime investigator for the Italian government indicate the interpretive leap that takes place from an acknowledgment of the association of some Albanians with organized crimes to generalizations about the character of the people: "When they started appearing here in 1993, they were much different than other immigrants. They have strong motivations and are very violent" (Fleishman). Marcelli continues, articulating her annoyance at two Albanian brothers' use of Italians as underlings: "The brothers used Italians as their runners to pick up the crates at Leonardo da Vinci Airport. Before, it was the Albanians who were the runners" (Fleishman). She predicts that the Albanians will not be successful Mafiosi because of their nature: "Albanian gangs and the powerful Italian Mafia has run smoothly, but some investigators say the Albanians' penchant for control may upset things" (Fleishman).
Marcelli seems to frustrated with the way in which Albanians are usurping stereotyped images of the Italian. Marcelli extends the circularity of these images of national identity into cinematic representations when she compares the Albanian criminal in Italy to the representation of the Italian Mafioso in American film: "It was amazing. Like something out of a Scorsese movie. Some of them actually pulled machine guns on the son of an Italian Mafioso. To do that in Italy is unbelievable" (Fleishman). She compares the Albanian in Italy to the stereotype of the Italian in America, while expressing annoyance at the Albanian immigrant, who acts out this role. In doing, she at once acts as an American stereotyping Italians, in being an Italian stereotyping Albanians into the exact role (a character in a Scorsese movie) and as one defending Italy's right to that stereotype.
Italy's reception of Albanian immigrants carries associations about acceptance into the European Community, shedding the myth of backwardness, its history as an emigrant nation, and its sense of a shared cultural heritage with Albania. In its struggle to make room for an Albanian population, Italy faces material challenges of housing and work, as well as pressures from the international community both enforce borders, and to accept refugees and provide humanitarian aid. From this set of contradictions, and from a narcissism of minor differences, a strong animosity has developed toward the Albanian immigrant paired with a sense of sharing a common heritage.
"The Symbol of the New Albania": Lamerica's Transitive Historical Consciousness
"It's like America here."
- Diana Mejzinolli, a Kosovar refugee saved from the mud pits at the border of Macedonia and placed in a camp in with clean water, food, medicine and soap, quoted in The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Gianni Amelio's 1994 film, Lamerica juggles the contradicting representations of Albanians and reassesses the Italian traditions of humanism and cinema. Refashioning these traditions, Amelio proffers a neo-neo-realism of dreams and a humanism of historical consciousness and compassion. Lamerica begins in 1991 when, after Albanian socialism collapsed, tens of thousands of Albanians docked in Apulia. Two Italian entrepreneurs, Fiore (Michele Placido) and Gino (Enrico Lo Verso), arrive in Albania to set up a bogus shoe factory in order to receive large sums of money from Italy under a foreign aid and development program. Escorted by a corrupt Albanian official, they visit an old communist prison to find an Albanian to act as the dummy chairman. They select Spiro Tozaj (Carmelo Di Mazzarelli), who, though moribund and delusional, is literate enough to sign his name and doesn't ask questions. They escort him to the Bureau of Industry to complete some paperwork, then set up shop - a crumbling warehouse with a couple broken inoperative machines. When a bureaucratic bungle arises, Fiore, the elder and more experienced entrepreneur, leaves Gino to escort Spiro to Tirana, to take care of it with a few signatures.
Gino returns to the orphanage to find Spiro gone. A teenager hanging out in front of the orphanage wearing Spiro's suit, points Gino to the train. Gino catches up to Spiro's train, Spiro gets off the train, Gino gets back to his car to find that his tires were stolen. Gino finally catches up with Spiro in a hospital where he is treated for asphyxia, after being dragged into a roadside cement igloo like oven by some kids who want his shoes. The nurse explains to Gino that Spiro is not Albanian, but an Italian named Michele Talarico, who, having deserted Mussolini's army, which invaded Albania in 1939, took an Albanian name, and was imprisoned for the duration of Hoxha's socialist dictatorship.
Together Gino and Michele travel across the barren Albanian landscape, awash with Kosovar Albanians crossing Albania on foot with the hope of emigrating to Italy. Amelio explains Gino's plight: "he loses everything - his money, his car, his clothes, his passport - and he becomes an Albanian." In their growing hunger and fatigue, Gino and Michele come to rely on one another. Gino becomes more tolerant of Michele when he learns that they are compatriots, Sicilians. After the trying journey to Tirana, Gino learns that the factory deal fell through. With lots of cajoling and money, he secures permanent housing for Michele at Hotel Tirana. The hotel manager's initial unwillingness to house Michele and his hesitance to accept the money suggest that Michele won't last long at the hotel. Gino's departure from Albania is intercepted by police who inform him that Albanian government collapsed and that under the new law he is a criminal. Bribing the clerk, Gino gets out of Albania and onto the "Partizani" a ship bearing the name of the Italian resistance movement and thousands of Albanians emigrants.
Lamerica begins with footage from a fascist propaganda film chronicling the Italian occupation of Albania. The announcer boasts, "April 7, 1939: Italian troops disembark on the other side of the Adriatic and the political union between Italy and Albania is made in the name of fascism." The footage continues, centered on the screen, until the announcer declares, "the history of these days is brief and significant." Following these words, the footage slides to the left of the screen while the opening credits roll on the right. The history presented in the fascist documentary consists of a series of treatises signed and speeches given to crowds of enthusiastic Albanians. With this fascist documentary footage, Amelio acknowledges the history of the cinematic tradition that he inherits. Italian neo-realism, rightly considered a cinematic movement committed to progressive social change, finds its roots in fascist documentary filmmaking. Rossellini, hailed as the father of neo-realism, began his career making fascist documentaries about the war. Many of the stylistic features of neo-realist cinema were developed in the making of fascist documentary film. Throughout the film, Amelio is engaged in a dialogue with the tradition of neo-realist cinema.
On a stylistic level, Amelio advocates a cinematic remembering that parallels the historical consciousness he espouses within the fiction of the film. Amelio's use of amateur and professional actors illustrates the way in which he adapts neo-realism, forging a cinematic style both makes use of material resources and technology while celebrating the memory of wartime filmmaking and its social awareness. Amelio cast an unknown Sicilian fisherman in the role of Spiro/Michele. Because of this casting decision, the revelation that Spiro is an Italian named Michele comes as a surprise to the viewer as well as Gino. The disclosure forces the viewer - and Gino - to reflect on the relativity and, constructed-ness of "Italian-ness" and "Albanian-ness."
Amelio discovered Carmelo di Mazzarelli, who plays Michele, on a road in Marina di Ragusa, Sicily (Amelio, 23). Amelio later discovered that Mazzerelli had been in the armed forces that invaded Albania and had clear memories from his times (Amelio, 24). Unlike the character of Spiro/Michele, the two Italian entrepreneurs are played by well known Italian actors. These casting decisions represent a merging of cinematic traditions of neo-realism and contemporary, Hollywood influenced filmmaking and mold the contrasting cinematic traditions to the historical consciousness that the film emphasizes.
Amelio breaks with neo-realist filmmaking tradition in using a blue filter to shoot the scenes in the communist prison and the defunct shoe factory. Thus, the two locations that one would most expect to see (and indeed, does), in neo-realist cinema are made to seem surreal. The blue filter has the effect of creating an onerous look, imbuing the locations with the sense of the despair of the subjects who inhabit them. In addition, though Michele may be the epitome of a neo-realist character, throughout the film, his squinting gaze throws the film into a dreamy style. It is almost always accompanied by echoic music. This trance like music conveys Michele's sphere, which revolves around the impossible dream of returning to his wife and newborn son whom he left in Sicily when he joined the army.
In addition to the history of neo-realism, the opening credits engage Lamerica in a dialogue with contemporary television. Amelio tells Cineaste, "I believe Italy has invaded Albania twice, militarily in 1939 and today, or more recently, by television" (Crowdus and Porton, 7). With the opening credits, Amelio asks that his film be viewed within the context of - and ultimately, as a correction to - this invasion by television. Throughout Lamerica, Amelio shows the corrosive influence of Italian television in Albania. He repeatedly illustrates the warped view of Italy conveyed by Italian television and its role in shaping a paradisiac conception of Italy.
The television programming Amelio shows, contrasts sharply with the desolate reality of those who watch it. The impact of television in Albania is made to seem especially destructive when a young girl at the Hotel Tirana dances like the dancers on Italian television for Gino as her mother begs him to bring her to Italian television. With this episode, Amelio invokes the specter of prostitution, which is commonly associated with Albanians in Italy. Later in the film, however, Amelio gives another example of a girl hoping to go to Italy. Before the final sequence of the ship sailing away from Albania, a young girl teaches a group of Albanians some basic words in Italian, her soft voice commanding, "Water, Hunger, Dream, Bread, Shoes, Ocean, Ship," in Italian and Albanian.
By juxtaposing the credits of his film with this fascist rendition of history, Amelio offers a radically different sort of history, of similarly "brief and significant" days. After the opening credits, the film cuts to a riotous scene at the gate of Durazzo in 1991. The image of Albanians leaving their country changes enormously in the course of the film. The initial image is a long shot of rioters being beaten by police. Would-be expatriates run across a field to the border as others chant, "Italia Italia tu sei il mondo" ("Italy, Italy, you are the world"). This sequence recalls the "enthusiastic Albanians" of the fascist documentary. Furthermore, the long shots have the dehumanizing effect of making the Albanians into an undifferentiated, violent bunch.
In an interview with Cineaste Amelio explains, "I feel at the height of my directorial powers when I am filming just one person's face" (Crowdus and Porton, 7). Indeed, it is with a series of faces that he concludes the film. The camera directions call for shots of the "faces of young and old, one after another, in a silent gallery of humanity. In the end, between all the expressions of hope, sadness, joy, resignation, force, anger, the image of a smile" (Amelio, 163). The opening and closing sequences mark the transition the film shows - first representing Albanians leaving for Italy as a dehumanized mass, then as individuals.
"Questo vecchio potrebbe essere il simbolo della nuova Albania." (This old guy could be the symbol of the Albania).
In addition to individualizing Albanians, Amelio illustrates the relativity of nationality, and denies the existence of an essential difference between Albanians and Italians. When Fiore and Gino go with Selimi to the prison, the prison director asks why they need a prisoner; Fiore improvises, "to shake the public opinion of the West. This guy could be the symbol of a new Albania." On the level of plot, Fiore's statement is ironic given that the Albanian they select is a Sicilian. Despite this irony, in a sense, Fiore's improvised response is accurate. Indeed, Michele could be a symbol of the new Albania. When the prison director asks whether the Albanian they choose will be on Italian television. Fiore answers, "sure, why not?" Like Fiore's earlier answer, this line proves to be untruthful on the level of plot. However, Michele, as a character in Lamerica, is indeed projected onto screens in Italy. If Michele is a symbol of Albania in Lamerica, it is in part because he is in fact Italian. Michele is a symbol of a new Albania in Lamerica in that he exposes the constructing of "Albanian." In an interview with Cineaste, Amelio explains: "throughout the film I was trying to show in the relations between the Italians and the Albanians that, in a certain sense, we're all Albanians" (Crowdus and Porton, 8).
Amelio's remark raises the questions: "Who are we?" and "What is meant by Albanian?" The implicit answer to the first question is "Italians." In order for the statement not to be redundant, such an answer depends on the mutual exclusivity of the terms "Italian," and "Albanian." The comment, then, delineates the categories it claims to eradicate. Yet Lamerica's portrayal of Albania as Italy's past mediates the poles of this paradox. Throughout Lamerica, Albania is likened to Italy fifty years ago. The film establishes a trajectory of nations in which Italy is now as America was, and was once as Albania is.
Yet, if time is the factor that distinguishes Albania from Italy, then the character of Michele undermines such a trajectory by the way in which he confounds nationality and time. Michele's age is constantly fuddled with. Initially, Fiore and Gino place Michele in an orphanage. Furthermore, he thinks that he is twenty years old, and believes that he left his wife about three or four years earlier. His confusion is not simply a matter of having lost the memory of fifty miserable years in prison. His reassessments of where he is and how many years have passed since he left Sicily change throughout the film. The film's introduction of Spiro is Selimi's description of his odd actions to Fiore and Gino: "every night he gets his stuff together and says good-bye to his friends, saying: 'I'm going home I'm going home.' He goes to the gate, stands there for a half hour, and then comes back, saying, 'I leave tomorrow.'" Michele's insanity undermines the trajectory of nations in which times is the factor that separates America, Italy, and Albania. His delusions make such a trajectory seem absurd compared the an individual's experiences and dreams.
Michele's inability to locate himself geographically or temporally points to a profound humanism of bread: while is never quite right about where he is or where he is going, he is always willing to share bread. Amelio explains the humanism of bread at the heart of the film: "I would say it is about the ability to understand the importance of a piece of bread, which is a theme repeated throughout the film. I think that the memory of history is important to all of us - not to remember the date o f a battle, let's say, but to remember who we were, to understand who we are today and where we're going. A person who was hungry once will always be able to understand the feelings of someone who's hungry today" (Crowder and Porton, 7).
Spiro: "mangiati stu pane... Chistu ti fa bene" (Eat some bread... it will make you better).
In the final moments of the film, the dying, hallucinating Michele slips into a state of happiness, as he leaves the Albanian shore, thinking himself to be leaving mainland Italy for New York. His happiness makes for an almost playful flip of Italians playing at being Americans in Albania, with a frightfully sad reminder of Italy's past as an emigrant country. The series of delusions with which Michele is possessed provide a sort of history of emigration and international relations between America, Albania, and Italy, while allowing them to linger in the abstract realm of an individuals dreams and homesickness.