Thursday, August 18, 2011

Parrullat (Slogans)

A catch phrase.  An advertising jingle.  A right-wing talking point.  The rote recitation of prayers over worn rosary beads.  All serve the same function of constantly reminding us of what the dominant forces in our societies want us to retain.  To internalize.  To accept without question.  It's a frighteningly effective technique that touches us all. 
Don't agree?  What comes to mind when I say, "You can take Salem out of the country, ...?"  If you are an American of a certain age you most certainly finished the phrase with, "... BUT, you can't take the country out of Salem!"  And you probably put a lot of stress on the "but" part of the jingle, just as it was originally sung back when it was still legal to advertise tobacco on American TV.  Granted, these light-hearted rhymes used to encourage us to buy smokes, or cereal, or B-O-L-O-G-N-A don't seem all that important, and certainly not sinister.  Move to the realm of political or governmental sloganeering and the power of these phrases begins to emerge. 
These Guy's Slogan Must Have Been: "Get Your Sh*t Straight!"
"Uncle Sam Wants YOU!"  "Loose Lips Sink Ships!" Powerful phrases which stir deep emotions even in those of us who weren't alive during WWII.  Governments know the power of slogans and, when they really have nothing else to offer their citizens, they excel in the art.  Albania was a classical example of that under communism.   
There is a great film entitled "Parrullat" (Slogans), made by Gjergj Xhuvani which illustrates the extent to which this obsession with slogans extended to under Hoxha's regime.  A commenter on the IMDB website summed up the movie very well: 

 Slogans' is a wry and entertaining commentary on the excesses of Communist Albania in the early 1970s. Andre, a new biology teacher posted to a school in a remote mountain village, soon finds the staff and students there to be far more concerned about the upkeep of the Communist slogans they have depicted on the surrounding hillsides in large white stones than the Three Rs. Failure to devote one's full time to this endeavour will supposedly earn the wrath of district party officials, although as the film progresses, it quickly becomes clear that the village itself seems far more obsessed with the task than the rarely seen bureaucratic overlords themselves, and failure to uphold the zeal for rearranging the stones becomes ammunition for the true believers to engage in witch hunts against anyone they have personal grievances. Andre and those of the village not fully enraptured with the community's purposeless raison d'etre find themselves forever treading through a minefield of contradictions, paranoia and party dogma that could explode around them at any moment.

The film is an excellent study in farce, and claiming to be based on real events, it is a very welcome and healthy progression for Albanian society to be able to laugh at the absurd, almost Orwellian blind alley they once stumbled down. Indeed, 'Slogans' takes many delighted pot shots at the futility of the locals' single-minded determination to pepper the hills with important-sounding slogans - the meanings of which they are unable to actually explain, such as the declarative 'American Imperialism Is Only A Paper Tiger' and 'Finish Successfully The Campaigns Of Our Harvests And Sowings'. The loss of a generation of children, so tired from spending their days building giant letters for phrases they cannot hope to understand that they have no energy left for actual studies is all the more tragic because of their excited determination and uncomprehending devotion to the task, reminiscent of the first generation of the children who grew up in Mao's China, becoming the most devout party members of all, yet the most ignorant.

'Slogans' also shows the way in which the real world continually steps in to foil the Party's designs and is punished for doing so. The giant letters are continually unearthed by fauna, romances evolve, and children play, all resulting in stiff penalties for the unwitting transgressors. One of the most touching scenes for me features Andre and a dirt-poor, illiterate herdsman, who implores the teacher to help him convince the local government to provide him with better housing. The poor peasant, whose lack of education precludes him from understanding anything of the local politics, is ultimately destined to be condemned for his ignorance, his plight an excellent metaphor for the absurdity and failure of the Communist ideologies, which have been stripped away of every last scrap of meaning and do nothing for the people who actually matter. Ultimately, any such efforts at normality are quashed, and the final message of the film is clearly that the people are slaves to the system they themselves willingly perpetuate, which is ultimately too powerful to resist. Thankfully, history has proved this not to be the case.

The slogans now are mostly gone.  You catch a glimpse of one now and then on a dilapidated factory wall or under the peeling paint of a rural school building.  In fact the farther you get from Tirana, the more likely you are to find slogans that have not been erased or painted over too well.  And you can't get much farther from Tirana than Shistavec. 
South of Kukes, snuggled up against the Kosova border at almost 1,500 meters above sea level, time passes un-noticed in Shistavec.  Life is controlled by the passing of the seasons, the coming of the snow, planting, harvesting.  Things change slowly. The old building still bear their parrullat.

"Socialist Albania Marches On" and "Glory to Marxism and Leninism!"

This one says, " The Seventh Five-Year Plan Is A Work Of The Masses."  Evidently the people were so overwhelmed by this work they were too worn out to re-do the whole slogan every five years.  You can make out under the word "Seventh" the outlines of the word "Sixth."  

The film had a wonderful scene where the district party official was inspecting the route Enver Hoxha was expected to travel through a village and he stops at a one-shack village and demands to meet the "keeper of the slogan" which is prominent on the hillside above the road.  It says "Vietnami do te fitoje", or "Vietnam will be victorious!"  The local leader points out that Vietnam has already won the war against the Americans and the village will be assigned a new slogan which must be ready before Hoxha's visit.  The new slogan is very, very long.  The old man protests that he is the only male left in the village and can't possibly finish the task in time.  The official relents and tells the old man to put up a slogan of his choosing.  During Hoxha's drive-by we see the new slogan "Mbahu Vietnam" created from the old slogan with minimal work.  "Hold On Vietnam!"
These little guys won't have to live through the tyranny of slogans their parents and grandparents did.  With luck, Shishtavec will be spared from the invasion of modern parrullat for some time yet. 


Mom said...

You and Mike would run into the living room to see the "country but" commercial; TV was very new to us. This was around 1965. Glad the writing bug is back. M

Beyond Belief said...

"Give me the boy to age 7, I'll give you the man."

Ostensibly a Jesuit saying, but captures the idea that if you can force enough slogans into a kid before their mental defenses are established, you can have them hooked for life.

Sadly true. Teach skepticism to kids.

Mumbles said...

I know I'm late to this, but I've just discovered your blog. I really enjoyed reading this--sloganism has always interested/irritated me, and the extreme here is amazing. I wonder if I can find the film here in the states? Subtitled, of course!