Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Thoughts on Amnesty

by Michelle Asbill

I’m a realist.  Therefore, when I watched the movie “Amnesty”1, it took only a few minutes before I was nodding my head in confirmation.  Tall, bland communist blocks enveloped in a soft gray stillness.  However, this is not a desired, peaceful stillness, but a forced silence. There is no joy, no hint of mercy, and no sign of a hero.  Director Bujar Alimani immediately pulls his viewers into the seemingly rampant poverty by introducing his main characters who have an overwhelming number of reasons to despair.

In brief, the film tells the story of two individuals (a man and a woman) who meet via the prison system, as both of their respective spouses are in jail.  Both are trapped in different life circumstances, which ultimately causes them to open up to each other and their relationship begins.  However, just as their relationship starts to bloom, the Albanian government announces that all prisoners will be released earlier than expected.  This unexpected development brings a close to their relationship and the realities of their “pre-relationship” lives return.

Again, Alimani wastes no time in showing off the bleakness and overall emptiness of Albania.  Scenes of joy and happiness are fleeting.  Instead, we watch people wait (at the bus stop, at the prison, at the unemployment office) completely indifferent to anything going on around them.  This societal indifference is also represented by a plot directed tour of the many dysfunctional systems hard at work, particularly the educational, judicial, and economic systems.

As I stated before, I am realist.  As having lived in the Balkans for three and a half years (Bulgaria) and having had the opportunity to visit several Balkan countries (however not Albania), I can testify to these scenes.  I have seen the poverty, I have met the apathy, and I have witnessed the function of the dysfunction.

Yet, half way through the film I found myself resisting Alimani’s message.  Of course, the argument can be made that this story needs to be told.  The world should be aware that people are oppressed in Albania.  That life is often hard and that the goal for most is to survive.  While I appreciate his honesty, I found myself wondering if this would be the only impression of the Balkans, which the viewers would be left with.  For much of my first year in the Balkans, I was also tempted to focus simply on the negative.  It is not difficult to produce something which negatively depicts the Balkans.

Yet, the reality is that the Balkans is not simply a collection of apathetic and pessimistic people.  The Balkans is an area rich in culture, tradition, and history.  There are tales of courage, friendship, and devotion to community, which if turned into a film in the United States would be marketed as a heroic love story.  I agree that some of these more negative qualities are woven into the cultural and societal fabric of the Balkans, but there are many often overlooked brighter materials sewn in alongside them.

While I appreciate Alimani’s creative honesty, I would encourage everyone to pick up a good book2; about the Balkans, visit a Balkan country (or restaurant), and as result develop some positive impressions of the Balkans.  I think you will discover that the Balkans is quite wealthy in some things: a commitment to family, devotion to friends, and generous hospitality.

1The film has been selected as a Global Lens 2012 film by the Global Film Initiative and more information can be found at their website: http://www.globalfilm.org/index.html

2For those interested in a good, fun to read introduction to the Balkans, I would recommend Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts and then he has written a sequel as well entitled Eastward to Tartary.

Michelle Asbill is a first year student in the Master of Arts in European Union Studies (MAEUS) degree program at the University of Illinois.  Her previous graduate work has been in the area of social work (MSW—U. of Wisconsin-Madison) and community development (Wheaton College).  Michelle lived in Sofia, Bulgaria for three years (2008-2011), as both an employee of a small Bulgarian non-profit organization and also as a graduate student at New Bulgarian University (degree pending defense of thesis).  Michelle has been awarded a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowship for Bulgarian language study for the 2012-2013 academic year.  Her research interests include EU policies and programs related to combating trafficking and how they impact the effectiveness of non-profits working in this area, as well as Bulgarian agriculture.


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