ALBANIA: Student movies at risk, says rector

The row over ownership of Albania's only film school, the Marubi academy in Tirana, has entered its fifth week with renewed attempts to cut off access to its premises by staff and students. The academy - set up five years ago as a public institution in part of a 59,000 square metre spread of former state film studios - is embroiled in a row over rights to the studios and classrooms used by its staff, 25 international visiting professors and 30 students.

Albafilm, a state body that reports to the former secretive communist state's ministries of culture and economy, is demanding that an outside theatre, gardens hosting student art and an area where a international human rights film festival is planned for late April, be handed over to turn into a car park for a nearby television studio.

The academy - which has attracted thousands of signatures on an worldwide internet petition from supporters including revered Hollywood indie feature and documentary figures that include directors Gus Van Sant, Nick Broomfield, Jon Jost, Rick Linklater, Abel Ferrara, Chris Hegedus, D.A. Pennebaker and Albert Masles - says student course and diploma film projects are beginning to suffer.

The latest stand-off occurred when Albafilm officials and private security contractors tried to erect a second fence around the entrance to the academy - only to have it torn down by students. The move suggested the government was not ready to give up its claim to the film school's premises, Kujtim Cashjku, the Albanian filmmaker and academy rector, told University World News.

"There were two fences around the entrance to the academy - it looked like a small prison, with a fence and gate and another fence and gate before the entrance of the school," Cashku said.

"It is now 35 days since we had proper access by vehicle to the academy, which is our only way of getting filmmaking equipment in and out, which means students cannot make the movies they need to as part of their academic projects."

Students were required to complete a five-minute film in their first year, a 10-minute project in their second year and a 20-minute movie for their diploma work, the rector said. Competition for places at the academy was fierce and standards high: last year only eight out of a graduating class of 12 were actually awarded their final diplomas.

The clash between the government and film school has already claimed one high-profile victim: Culture Minister Ylla Pango who had been leading the assault on the school and was sacked last month by Prime Minister Sali Berisha for gross misconduct.

Pango was dismissed after a leaked tape was broadcast on television where he was allegedly heard asking a female job candidate interviewed in his private villa in Tirana to take off her shirt and show him how she looked in a bikini so he could assess her suitability for a ministry post.

Pango's dismissal had done little to change the situation for the film academy, Cashku said, because the executive orders he signed while in office concerning the film school remained in force.

"This situation is traumatic to students. They are art students who need to be inspired and not live under permanent tension," he said.

US-based Albanian-American filmmaker Thomas Logoreci, who is closely following events and helped organised the online petition, said: "The ex-minister of culture Pango scandal opened up a huge parliamentary debate that had the opposition claiming this was just the tip of the iceberg as far as corruption goes.

"Some observers believe it could even affect democratic Prime Minister Berisha's chances when he goes up against socialist candidate and mayor of Tirana Edi Rama this summer."

Jon Jost, whose track record as an indie filmmaker and defender of cinematic democracy dates back to the 1960s when he was a founder of the Chicago Film Coop, told Variety: "I am always in support of those whose voices are suppressed, whether for political reasons, or economic ones.

"Albania's history is still raw with the experiences of [ex Communist dictator Enver] Hoxa, so the kind of heavy-handed attacks which the school there has taken is of special concern, indicating a still-living tendency in the state to suppress anything which might challenge its controls."

Gus Van Sant, whose latest film "Milk" about 1970s gay rights activist Harvey Milk stars Sean Penn, said in remarks published on the film school's website: "I hope that this school can continue to teach and inspire the film students of Tirana, film is difficult enough to learn without schools like Marubi."