Here’s the interview with Robert Budina, the director of Agon, published by Illyria newspaper in October 2012
Albania’s Agon is among the impressive list of 76 movies selected to compete in the foreign-language film category at the 2014 Oscars.
This is the longest list of foreign productions ever presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Montenegro is submitting for the first time as an independent country. Kosova is yet to make its debut. There will not be a film from Macedonia this year, but Serbia has a movie based on the life of a real Serbian soldier who risked everything to save Muslims in Bosnia.
Agon has already been screened several times in the United States as a participant and also award winner in several film festivals.
During one of those trips to the US, Robert Budina, director of Agon gave the following interview to journalist and scholar, Ermira Babamusta, published in Illyria in October 2012.
Director Robert Budina talks about the making of Agon
Interview by: Ermira Babamusta
Agon tells the story of an Albanian family trying to integrate in Greece. How do the two main characters Saimir and Vini incorporate parts of their Albanian culture while living in Greece?
Robert Budina: The main character, Saimir has inherited from his family traits such as a parent’s care for the children, the love and care of the elder brother and sister for the younger ones in the family, the incredible close relationship between the family members. Unlike the western culture where the individuality and self is the emphasis, the Albanian culture portrays a very strong bond within the family and its communal aspects.
With the death of his father, Saimir finds himself to take on the role of the father figure for his younger brother. It is this caring and loving aspect of his character that drew in his Greek girlfriend, Elektra and her father, Nikos, who sees in Saimir stability for the future of his daughter.
The movie showcases how quickly Saimir is able to integrate to Greek culture, and also how he earns the respect of his fellow friends in the social circle there.
Unlike, Saimir, his younger brother Vini, who is an artist, seems to struggle as a young teen in fitting in with the new culture and making a name for himself in Greece. He feels that Elektra’s father is trying to control his life, thus he distances himself from the entire family.
How well is the family accepted in Greece? Is it a natural transition or a difficult one, struggling to find the balance from the old with the new culture?
Robert Budina: Saimir is received quite well, and he seems to be the ideal husband for many Greek fathers, who want to trust their daughter’s life in the hands of a responsible, dedicated, loving, respectable and hardworking man. The character of Vini, however, blinded by his own bias and his reality, feeling under pressure of not being able to fit in a new place, tries to prove to his brother that he is independent and does not need his brother’s help. He wants to make it on his own.
For Saimir the integration is very natural and with ease, and he brings out the best of the Albanian culture and values. But for Vini, his inexperience, immaturity and persona showcase his temper, and the inability to contain himself during difficult times.
In this type of situation, how does one maintain their identity, but yet integrate into a new culture, without given up who they are?
Robert Budina: Saimir tries to find a balance between the new Greek family, that represents his future, and the Albanian family, that represents his past, and his roots. Finding this balance is not easy, because in order to marry his Greek girlfriend, Saimir must change his religion and his name to be accepted in the new community. However he is torn between pleasing one side over the other, but tries to be considerate and respectful of both.
What are some of the obstacles that the family faces while away from their homeland?
Robert Budina: The biggest problems that people face when trying to integrate in a new place is the prejudice from the locals, especially towards the newcomers from less developed countries. In general, immigrants are seen as a ‘threat’ because they take on jobs with lesser pay to survive in a new place, which drives the wages down. The expectation is that immigrants will get involved in crime and are often treated as second class citizens.
Another aspect, that is also a challenge, is the cultural difference. The language, traditions and the moral code differs from the two countries, which hinders communication. Especially for those entering illegally, who can’t have the basic rights due to limitations, they often become victims of unfortunate situations, or have the tendency to become more aggressive to this very difficult new reality they must survive. As a result, you see stereotyping from both sides.
How does their cultural view shape their understanding of the new culture? What influences do they have?
Robert Budina: In order to understand the new culture, it is important to not judge it based from your understanding of your own culture, but rather appreciate it for what it is, without making any comparisons that create dividing barriers, rather than unite you with the new social settings. In order to achieve this, it is important to be educated and have the right mindset and be open-minded, which is lacking oftentimes. But over time new opportunities come and people are able to showcase their adaptability to the new culture.
Are immigrants open or bias towards the new culture/ideas?
Robert Budina: For those families that immigrate with many family members or settle in their own community in a foreign country, find it difficult to integrate because they retain those close relationships that make them feel comfortable. However they do not open up to the locals and miss out on many opportunities of the new culture. Perhaps it’s more doable for those coming at a young age, where integration and adaptability to a new culture seems a bit more natural.
I find it that the new culture enriches the emigrants, and when they return to their homeland, they see it with an objective eye and a different perspective. Also their life experiences and work opportunities make them more prone to success, which brings their best nature in life.
Personally I think that by taking the best of all cultures brings out the goodness in humanity. Adapt but maintain the originality – this is the future. By better understanding one-another we have a better opportunity of living happy and in peace.
What important events in Saimir and Vini’s life shake their foundation?
Robert Budina: The care that Saimir has for his younger brother Vini, comes across as loss of control, and loss of freedom on the latter. He feels that every step Saimir is taking is a pretext for his brother to be accepted and liked by the Greek family, not because it is his honest feelings. This was just the beginning. When Vini realizes his bad ways with the mafia and prostitution, he yearns to return to his old self and honest ways of living. His teen innocence brings out the best and worst of his nature and he gains some mature along the way.
They seem to be two brothers who take two different paths in life. What does this say about the personal choices of the individuals?
Robert Budina: I wanted to express that important life decisions should not be taken spontaneously, without any thought or maturity. This is what I wanted to highlight in the movie that you suffer repercussions when you take decisions at the spur of the moment and when you make wrong moves in life.
From the director’s point of view, when finalizing the movie ‘Agon’ what prejudices you wanted to debunk?
Robert Budina: First, there should be no second class citizens or category B nations. Despite the cultural difference and the economical/social development, human beings are the same, and so should be their treatment.
Secondly, crime has no ethnicity, it has no nationality. Crime should be seen in a superficial way, to better understand it, there needs to be a deep look at the actions of a criminal to be able to foresee the end-result. Sometimes, good people become victims and turn to crime for lack of better judgment.
From the storytelling point of view, how do you humanize the personal struggles of Majlinda, without stereotyping?
Robert Budina: The character of Majlinda, is not the type who is lied to and made prostitute with the promise to find work. Majlinda is a girl who at the climax of her struggling relationship with her boyfriend, decides to be brave and break up with her boyfriend. As a punishment she becomes a prostitute as a way to punish her husband, who loved her a lot but was way too possessive. Her husband immigrated to Greece to start a family there, but ended in jail because he beat up someone who owed him money. When he was released, his dream of having the ideal family was gone and he is absorbed in taking revenge. Their story is told from a human context, not social.
What about Ben, as a trafficker and mafia gang, how does this character intensify the drama in the story?
Robert Budina: Ben is a human trafficker, but he is smart and educated. He tries to take advantage of the situation by using his brains, to make a quick profit, without getting into any deep risks, mainly by creating false documents. Often times you find these people in society, who are not able to earn an honest living, but are looking for a quick buck here and there. This leads to corruption, loss of faith in government and so on. Such people delay social development and progress.
What is the message that you want the audience to take away from watching Agon?
Robert Budina: I want to debunk the typical stereotypes about Albanians. My message is that Albanians are not criminals! In fact this inspiring story showcases how people through sacrifice, display immense strength and positive attitude, to bravely handle even negative situations. Secondly, I want to stress through this movie that family is the dearest and most important thing. Albanians will overgo any struggle and make sacrifices at all costs to protect their family.
What does this movie say about human struggle, family relations and settling in a new country?
Robert Budina: The solution to every struggle is rooted in a healthy, strong family, despite the contradictions/difficulties.
What are you most proud of about this movie?
Robert Budina: I am proud that Albania was leader i production, and lead this great project when competing with places like Rumania, Greece and France; the project earned two Golden Palmes in Cannes. Romanian Producer Daniel Burlac, who won in 2007, and the director of photography, Marius Panduru, winner of Golden Plam in 2006. I am honored that such high caliber was part of creating an important project like Agon.
What are your hopes and expectations for the Chicago International Film festival?
Robert Budina: Our hope is to find a distributor in US to make the movie AGON available for the public there. We are honored to be accepted at the Chicago Film Festival which selects the best of the best from the famous European festivals. This is a very prestigious and important festival that recognizes true art, innovative directors and actors. It is truly an honor to be present amongst the best in the filmmaking industry, both European and American.