THE HERO: A Devastating Portrait of Betrayal and Corruption in Kosova
by Stephen Sylejman Schwartz
The Hero [Heroi], a 2013 feature film produced in Kosova by Luan Kryeziu, with Arben Bajraktari as its protagonist, is a magnificent film achievement. It is also a work that must leave Albanians and non-Albanian friends of Kosova alike with feelings of disgust and shame. It has been released with English subtitles, which is useful and offers hope of a wider audience.
In simple terms, the motion picture shows the desperate predicament of veterans of the Kosova Liberation Army (UÇK) who find themselves, after the war, ignored or solicited to participate in corruption, when they are owed a substantial and honest reward for their service to the nation. The Hero begins with what appears to be authentic footage of Serbian chetniks burning and looting houses, refugees in flight, and the arrival of a handsome, modest man in unform, "The Hero," an UÇK volunteer who organizes civilians effectively to defend themselves against the aggressor.
The film continues with many brilliant cinematic turns. Appearing to dig a grave, The Hero buries his Kalashnikov and returns to civilian life, welcomed by the people, who carry Albanian, American, British, and German flags. He gets married; his wife is played with great talent by the luminously-beautiful Adriana Morina, and the wedding is celebrated in traditional style. Many praise him for his bravery and capacity in arms.
But opportunities for corruption – which he refuses – appear immediately. Working as a teacher, he lives in a tent with his wife and, soon, a son, but he is dismissed from his post and enters a long and fruitless search for employment. One of the main individuals who has promised to help him but proves indifferent to his plight is a government minister portrayed with profound insight by the Kosovar theatre personality Haqif Mulliqi.
The Hero includes a bitter denunciation of UN usurpation in Kosova. I will not give away further details, some of which are predictable, others not, except to say that the movie presents an extremely thorough and detailed description of the corruption and hypocrisy of which the great majority of Kosovars complain today, almost 15 years after the liberation war. I saw The Hero in late February, as the Balkan republic was swept by rumors of a change in government and, if not, a major political upheaval.
I found The Hero, which drew only a dozen or so viewers at a showing in Prishtina, deeply unsettling. But we seem to have entered a new period of social cinema. The Hero reminded me of Wadjda, the 2012 Saudi Arabian feature about a girl who wants to buy a bicycle. Like Wadjda, The Hero reveals the tragic reality suffered by ordinary people but hidden by triumphant and self-righteous rhetoric in many countries.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia showed wisdom and courage by recommending that Wadjda, notwithstanding its severe criticism of his dominion, be submitted to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Hollywood for the category of Best Foreign Language Film, but the production failed to be nominated. This absurd lapse by the Academy reflects similar instances of neglect and even critical assassination of worthy films about the Balkan wars. The outstanding Bosnian production Perfect Circle (1997), directed by Ademir Kenović, was assailed stupidly by Stephen Holden of The New York Times, while the inferior No Man's Land (2001), directed by Danis Tanović, received an Oscar as Best Foreign Language Film.
But Perfect Circle exalted Bosnian resistance to Serbian fascism, while No Man's Land portrayed the Bosnian conflict as a matter of moral equivalence between invaders and victims. American film critics prefer, too often, the latter outlook to exposure of objective truth. The extraordinary Serbian feature Cabaret Balkan (1998), a lacerating examination of the moral collapse of Belgrade society during the recent Balkan wars, failed completely in America. The profound Croatian film Witnesses (2003) was ignored, effectively, in the U.S.
While Saudi King Abdullah backed Wadjda, it is impossible to imagine that the politicians presently in office in Kosova, with their power circumscribed by the foreigners who control the country, would endorse The Hero. That is because those who occupy high positions in the Kosova government are responsible for the desperate condition of UÇK soldiers, and cannot be expected to promote a creative work that discloses their own ethical failure.
After watching The Hero, I told the attendant at the ABC Cinema in Prishtina that every Albanian everywhere should see it, and that foreigners should be compelled to do the same. It is distasteful, to say the least, to think of the posturing by Kosovar and other Albanian advocates in the homeland and abroad – including in the U.S. – while those who committed themselves to combat and deadly risk in the liberation war are neglected, overlooked, and humiliated. I am informed that 13 veterans of UÇK have committed suicide. In Kosova, every city has a street named for the "Martyrs of the Nation" – "Dëshmorët e Kombit" – along which those who have been martyred while still living walk hopelessly.
Let us do all we can to make The Hero a success in Europe and the U.S.