In 2013, in the highlands of Albania, an 18-year-old girl named Gjyste Paplekaj was shot and killed. According to the ancient code of conduct called Kanun, which despite different efforts to outlaw, still regulates life for a large part of the population in the north and centre of Albania – reconciliation is possible between the family of the victim and that of the killer. It is a process that can start a year after the killing and involves priests, friends, and acquaintances. Marija Zidar’s film captures the weight and the pain of this attempt at mediation, and in the process, reveals the depth of the cross-generational conflict that culminated in Gjyste’s death.
The weight of what remains
Each shot of Zidar’s film bares the weight of what remains in the aftermath of the young girl’s death. Both sides – her family and the family of the killer – are hurt, and the ones attempting to have them reconcile, go back and forth. They offer understanding to the victim’s family, and space to repent to the other side, trying to create a middle ground. In their consolation efforts, they almost sanctify Gjyste, building a monument in her name and suggesting people can educate their children in her spirit. They tame down the killer’s attempt at calling the incident an accident. They appeal to the authority of the Kanun and of the Christian faith. But their efforts are a struggle. With each step, why that is becomes clear gradually, as each new layer of the truth is revealed.
There are three versions of the incident that led to Gjyste’s death. One is that the girl was shot by accident when her father threw injuries at the man that killed her, and he eventually ended up shooting two shots in the air, somehow accidentally killing her. The girl’s father’s version is that the she tried to protect him like a hero. The last is that the girl was throwing stones, incited by her father, and the conflict escalated. But as the stories unfold, the depth and history of this conflict come to light to reveal a feud that was passed on from generations.
Each shot of Zidar’s film bares the weight of what remains in the aftermath of the young girl’s death.
The film explains a few elements but does too little to contextualize the story. That lack of proper context, though, doesn’t take away from it or its emotional strength. Reconciliation can stand as a story of its own, but then the stakes – like the reasons behind the effort to reconcile – are difficult to grasp, and so are the problems with Kanun regulating life and the reasons efforts were put to outlaw it.
The biggest problem is that this set of laws legitimizes blood feuds and retaliation between families. This results in murders and alters the lives of entire families in a profound way. Conflicts are passed on for generations and force people into confinement, a life of loss, fear, and hate.
The code was passed on orally until it was put into print in the early 20th century. Comprised of 12 books and some 1262 articles, the official name is the Kanun of Leke Dukagjini, a man who is thought to have been a 15th century Albanian nobleman. Little else is known about him. In the past, it sought to regulate blood feuds, defining rules and limitations of who can be killed – no women or children under the age of 16. Knowing this, explains Gjyste’s father, Gezim’s remark at one point in the film, where he says that ‘they even killed a woman’.
The Ottomans at first and then Albania’s communist regime, led by Enver Hoxha, sought to outlaw Kanun. But its power persisted as a parallel set of rules, and when the communist regime fell and the rule of law was weak, Kanun saw a revival. And in this revival, the regulations had been eroded, leaving vengeance a matter of right and honour in these Albanian tribal communities.
It is in this context that the need for reconciliation becomes powerful and crucial. Reconciliation, more than forgiving – it means burying the hatchet. The killer had already been sent to prison for 14 years. While in other societies, this would mean the matter is closed and forgiveness would become a private matter of the heart moving forward, in this case his sentence is only a detail that does nothing to make sure others won’t be killed. Without the process of reconciliation succeeding – in which many people are involved – the conflict simply remains, with even more reason to find revenge. This hatred has defined the lives of Gjyste’s family for at least two generations. It was passed to her and her siblings. It is ready to be moved on to their children too.
Little chance for anything else
The stunning shots of the Albanian landscape add yet another dimension of this reality. Living in relative isolation surrounded by beautiful mountains and views, the landscape offers little chance for anything else but what is. There is little dynamic in the daily life, life is spent amongst family members, and in a tribal society that means loyalty is strong. What is inherited is preserved and cherished, and if hate is inherited, that becomes a static reality, with moments of escalation, and little to challenge it or offer new directions to move ahead.
The Christian value of forgiveness is put to test at such a great extent in this context that it becomes pure weight, counterbalanced only by sadness. Zidar’s film does so well at capturing that, in a show don’t tell approach that does more than any words could. It is clear that finding the means to forgive, and by that, liberating one of the burdens and defining power of hate means freedom. But the perspective of this freedom is unknown in a family that inherited hate, that is more defined by what that brought to their existence – a hate that is familiar, making the building blocks of their identity. Stepping out of it has no dimension in this static reality, and it is that dimension that the mediators try to convey, linking to the family’s values and portraying a future in which the family would be set in an aura of uniqueness and moral depth.
Tradition is generally understood as valuable and good, and Reconciliation challenges that. Living within the boundaries of tradition becomes a claustrophobic trap if what is passed stands on the side of darkness. More than about forgiveness, Zidar’s film illustrates the weight of not being able to forgive, its emotional price, the ubiquitousness of it and the devastating suffering it brings about, all maintained and passed on by toxic believes masked as tradition.