September 11th is the date of the key events from which Ardit Sadiku’s documentary portrait Alexander reverberates, as New York migrant Alexander Gruda and his wife Marjana retrace the steps of a loss that has helped define who they are today. Yet Alexander’s 9/11 was not in 2001, but rather back in 1990, when he and small group of fellow Albanians hijacked a warship docked in Shkodra and used it to cross Lake Shkodra to Montenegro under constant heavy fire from men stationed along the coastline. This daring escape would see Alexander and his comrades dubbed ‘terrorists’ by local press, not unlike the men who flew hijacked planes into the Twin Towers – although Alexander’s aim was flight rather than violence, and the only person to be harmed in the incident was Alexander and Marjana’s own five-and-a-half year old daughter Anisa, shot dead by a soldier’s bullet.
Ironies abound here. Alexander’s act of wild derring-do is a plucky triumph tinged with deep tragedy – and given that the repressive Communist regime which Alexander and others were so desperately fleeing would unravel and fall shortly afterwards anyway, this whole heroic escapade comes steeped in its own pointlessness, at least in retrospect – and that pointlessness extends to Anisa’s death. “You left for a better life,” Alexander’s friend Paulin says. “It went as it went. If your daughter was alive, she’d be a mother with children.” Such counterfactuals permeate Sadiku’s documentary, where a fluke of bad timing and improbable trajectory (the bullet that struck Anisa first passed through a hanging portrait of Albania’s late Communist leader Enver Hoxha) led to an entirely unnecessary death and to a different life, even as the same freedoms which the Grudas sought abroad were about to be won back at home. Meanwhile, now settled in New York, Alexander has worked over the last 25 years as a doorman at Trump Parc, and no doubt – although it is never stated in the film – bore witness to that second 9/11, which again would change lives forever and cause harrowing collateral damage.
So while Alexander, like Sadiku’s previous documentary Freestyle to Montenegro (2021), catches up with a man who once miraculously escaped Communist Albania across dangerous waters, it is also concerned with the unpredictable, overwhelming sweep of history, and the individual course that we must all navigate through it. Sadiku tracks Alexander’s return trip to Shkodra to oversee the inauguration of a monument commemorating his daughter’s sacrifice, even as he gets Alexander to retrace his earlier journey in a landscape that has long since changed, politically at least, and also interviews Alexander’s ageing friends and relatives, and fellow escapee Marjan Kola who left for a much less happy life in South Australia, and even the ex-soldier turned Trumpian landlord who seems likely to have fired the artillery that killed Anisa.
That fatal bullet was the hard end of a nation’s ideology, not just stopping in its tracks the future that an innocent girl might have had, but permanently scarring her parents. Yet life (to a degree) moves on, history (to a degree) repeats, and like the sign and sculpture recently erected on a clifftop overlooking Lake Skhodra, this film commemorates times and events too easily forgotten, yet still rippling and reechoing in new lives and new worlds. In his globe-trotting adventures, Alexander is like his ‘Great’ namesake, while the ‘sacrifice’ of his daughter to facilitate a boat voyage for others recalls Iphigenia in Aulis – which is to say that this ageing émigré, though an ordinary, utterly unassuming man, was once at the helm of extraordinary, even mythic deeds. Sadiku, however, tells his tale plain and straight, leaving us to discern all the resonances and vagaries of fortune for ourselves. For here, as Alexander reveals its subject’s luck to be all at once good, bad and indifferently dumb, fate proves a messy interchange at the ever-shifting borders between victory and loss.
strap: Ardit Sadiku’s bittersweet documentary retraces the triumph and tragedy of a man’s daring early-Nineties escape from Communist Albania
© Anton Bitel