Bloodlands. 2017. Directed & Written by Steven Kastrissios.
Starring Gëzim Rudi, Emiljano Palali, Suela Bako, Alesia Xhemalaj, Florist Bajgora, Fioralba Kryemadhi, Edvin Mustafa, Ermal Sadiku, & Ilire Vinca Celaj.
Not Rated. 82 minutes.
For any Albanians who may be reading this article, I wanted to first say I hope to be respectful to you in my writing, as the film’s so closely related to the country – not simply for the fact it was shot in Tirana County, also for how it presents the folklore + culture of Northern Albania specifically by way of a horror fable. So, please, if there’s anything incorrect or especially if anything comes off as insensitive, let me know.
Bloodlands is the second film from Steven Kastrissios, whose previous work in The Horseman – a brutal and emotional revenge story – already ensured I’d watch anything he does. This time around he’s tackling revenge in an entirely different sense, from the perspective(s) of a family in a small community amongst the Balkans.
If you’ve heard of a blood feud, those in the Balkans take on a wholly other, more vicious meaning. Of course, these feuds don’t happen anymore, at least officially: in Kosovo, for instance, mass reconciliations during the 1990s supposedly took care of thousands upon thousands of them. However, everything from ‘selective interpretation’ of the peacemaking process to the lack of consistent law and order(/justice) is said to have extended blood feuds in Kosovo and Albania into the 21st century. Kastrissios uses dark fantasy, mingling it with all too real and pressing socioeconomic situations of those in Northern Albania, and what emerges is a horrifying allegory for the endlessness of these bloody feuds.
“Blood is rewarded with blood”
To start, the words Gjakmarrja (blood taking) and Hakmarrja (revenge) refer to blood feuds in Albania. This practise comes from The Kanun – traditional Albanian laws, which were codified in the 15th century as the Kanuni i Lekë Dukagjinit (Kanun of Lek). The Kanun sets out rules concerning church, family, marriage, home/livestock/property, work, transfer of property, spoken word, honour, damages, crime, the elderly, and then certain exemptions. Within these laws are those concerning Gjakmarrja and Hakmarrja. Essentially, boiling it down, these are considered social obligations in the Kanun. In that, should a member of one’s family be killed (or if a ‘moral humiliation’ shames them/the unit as a whole), there’s an obligation of honour to then seek revenge. So much so is all this laid out by rules that, should a young man be involved in a blood feud, these laws dictate if said young man is in his own home, then he can’t be killed. And this has led to many young men being confined to their home by their own families, many times forcing the young women of the same families to then take up typically Albanian male responsibilities (i.e. providing for the family, et cetera).
What Bloodlands does is present the viewer with a blood feud situation, but not a typical one. Skender and his family barely survive with the little business he gets at his butcher shop. His wife, Shpresa, tends to their home, and she’s also known around the community for believing in the local lore about a witch in the mountains. Their son Artan and daughter Iliriana are looking to get out of their hometown, to move somewhere bigger, better.
The family’s modern world collides with history, both ancient and relatively recent, after Skender sees a man called Olek, whom he believed had “died in a blood feud” years before. Thus begins a disturbing series of events, in which Skender finds himself forced to kill while protecting his son, unwillingly setting into motion the process of Gjakmarrja.
Disclaimer: Beyond this point, there be spoilers. If you haven’t actually yet seen the film, don’t proceed – else ye be spoiled!
Well, the witch in the mountains is quite real. Skender gets whisked away by her followers – young people, her children. This is where so many of the themes in Bloodlands begin to truly unfold.
First, the witch’s followers are significant. Albanian folklore calls such an entity a shtriga; a vampiric witch. She sucks blood from children while they sleep. Northern Albanian lore frames the shtriga as not women born as witches, instead that they are, effectively, turned into one by either being barren or having her children die. The witch of this story, Drita, has collected a group of young people with whom she lives in the Balkans, and it’s suggested they’re all victims of blood feuds. She resurrects them, and they die, and she resurrects them again. And they, in turn, take more children. Therefore, the witch + her young followers are symbolic of the perpetual cycle of violence that make up the ugly of traditions of Gjakmarrja and Hakmarrja.
Second and by no means any less important, the story of the witch herself is revealed in the film’s finale. Drita was actually a woman in the village. She had a secret relationship with Shpresa’s father. He evidently wanted none of that, so he killed her, and along with her died the child in her belly. Drita became a witch, further becoming another symbol of the revenge in these sorts of feuds. It also seems that she is a woman of colour, touching on an even more uncomfortable issue of ethnicity in Albania, and I’ve already overextended my limited knowledge so that’s a topic better left to someone more educated than I/an actual Albanian.
Finally, we come to the fact Shpresa’s been told the lore of witches all her life, only to discover her own father created the local one up in the nearby mountains. This is a significant commentary on patriarchal hierarchy in Albania. Usually men are involved in these feuds. In the end, Iliriana is the main leader of her family to take revenge for her father’s killing, alongside her mother; her brother’s initially reluctant. Even though they discover Drita’s story, it’s still an important moment to see Iliriana and Shpresa do most of the shooting and killing.
The ultimate parable of Bloodlands is, the cyclic nature of blood feuds defies any supposed honour implied in the traditional laws of the Kanun, as most times the original feuds are entirely lost to history or forgotten, and all that continues is a lingering hatred with no discernible roots to the contemporary family lines. Moreover, Kastrissios gets to the core of the issue by juxtaposing the ancient Albania – signified by Drita the witch – with the modern Albania and its cellphones, its economic and social struggles, as well as its gender divide.
Truly, Kastrisios is a director-writer worth paying attention to, as his second film about revenge shows his talents behind the camera, and also a willingness to tell difficult stories. Bloodlands is retroactively going on my Best of 2017 list. This article only scratches the surface, it could’ve been (even)longer if it took into account more of the creepy imagery. There’s a brutishly grim quality running throughout the film. Never forget or take your eyes off the beating and bloody heart driving it, though, being the family’s story, one that – despite its allegorical brush with the supernatural – is very raw and real. This is a story of hidden histories – of families, of cultures, of nations. For Albania’s first horror film, this makes it over the stands, out of the stadium, and smack dab in the far reaches of the parking lot. Home run doesn’t even being describing its power.