Little Mao, Big Trouble Francisco Ferreira reviews "Mao Tse Tung"

in 30th Moscow International Film Festival

by Francisco Ferreira

The competition of the 2008 Moscow film festival] presented a heterogeneous group of films from Spain to China, appropriate to the prestigious international event, now thirty years old. This was not, we must confess, what we were expecting: Before coming to Moscow, we thought this would be a rare opportunity to measure the present state of Russian cinema against a poor selection of films assembled from Western festivals. (Another report published here observes that this strategy is being employed elsewhere, in the south of the country, in the framework of the Sochi Film Festival.) Should Moscow regret its programming decisions? Perhaps. The festival is completely open to the city, and Russian cinema could benefit from the obviously commercial ambitions demonstrated by festival president Nikita Mikhalkov.

There was another question on our minds in Moscow: Are Russian films interested in reflecting the recent history and politics of the country? Can Communism still be found everywhere, written on people’s bodies or carved into in their memories, even if it now seems like little more than a vanishing shadow? This is a suspicion that obviously extends beyond Russia to all the territories of the former USSR. Only two films helped us on this, and in a completely different manner: Roman Balayan’s The Birds of Paradise (Rayskie Ptitsy), a film that deals directly with the past, and Once Upon a Time in the Provinces (Odnazhdi vi provincii), the impressive second feature by Katya Shagalova.

In addition to Balayan and Shagalova’s films, we must add a third, Mao Tse Tung (Mao Ce Dun), a totally unexpected Albanian title directed by Besnik Bisha. We must underline that we know almost nothing about this director. Born in 1958, Bisha has made several documentaries and features, with the 1997 Bolero perhaps his most famous. The word ‘fame’, however, is relative when discussing Albanian cinema, whose international presence is practically non-existent. Mao Tse Tung really looks like a standout: Premiered at Thessaloniki in 2007, the film was selected by Sofia and was shown again in Karlovy Vary after the Moscow festival.

The plot of Mao Tse Tung is totally unexpected. In a small southern Albanian town in the mid-1970s, Hekuran Romalini, leader of an Albanian gypsy community camped by a river, decides to name his ninth son after one of the most idolized men of his country, the Communist Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung. At first, everybody opposes Hekuran’s choice, including his sweet-natured wife Sultana, but the idea starts to spread around the community, and then the town, and ultimately to the entire country, until the name finally accepted by the government with the blessings of the Chinese consulate in Tirana.

Hekuran cannot believe what happens next. Hailed as an hero by the local authorities — who’ve never had to deal with a case this popular — he receives an apartment and goods from the government, leaves his nomadic community and finds himself transformed into Albania’s newest superstar: He’s an example to be followed. Nevertheless, Hekuran never forgets his origins as a gypsy leader, a community proud of its own. And slowly, we’re led to understand that he’s not so proud of his son’s name that he won’t capitalize on this miraculous opportunity to make some money from it. A cynical hero? You could say that, though perhaps the question could be posed a little more delicately.

Hekuran’s situation will soon be transformed into a political problem. After all, he’s an unexpected spanner in the works of power, an individual hero in a country where individualism is not allowed. What’s more, he couldn’t care less about politics. We can’t forget that the People’s Republic of Albania was led at that time by Enver Hoxha, famous for his anti-revisionist theories on Marxist-Leninism as expressed in the USSR and subsequently China. For this small Balkan country, politically isolated from the rest of the Europe, this means that Mao was far more popular than any European Communist leader. Besides that, Albania, through the figure of Hoxha, was one of the most (if not themost) patriarchal countries in the world; the presence of Hekuran, the hero of a marginalized community and the father of nine, starts becoming an embarrassment to the established powers.

Mao Tse Tung is far from being a masterpiece, but it has enough generosity to believe in its gypsy father-hero and in the legend he creates around him. The film transcends its picturesque backdrops and its sui generis view of Marxism to reflect on the history and mythology of a nation. We could expect a vulgar comedy here, but in the end what we find is a farce that no one will want to laugh at; a comic premise that becomes an authentically absurd situation, and one that’s far more complex that it appears. Where do we find the absurdity? More than in the situation itself, it’s in the vicious circles of the characters’’ speech. Words have no meaning here; they’re just protocol, wallpaper, a preparation for the violence to come in the last shot. Basically, Hekuran spends the whole film telling the same big joke, while the Albanian authorities repeat the same big lie.

In its feature competition, Moscow also presented Absurdistan, a pitiful German production shot in Azerbaijan. The goals here are clear — to turn the name of a remote country into an exotic label; to explore a grotesque and spicy war of the sexes in a cool video-clip look, and finally to sell it to as large an audience as possible. But there’s nothing absurd about Absurdistan beyond its title — especially if we compare it to Mao Tse Tung and the odyssey of its gypsy hero.