Who Wants to be an Albanian?

The representation of Albanians in the Serbian movie "The Hornet"[1]

Do you remember 1999? From today's perspective, it seems very hard to imagine how the world looked like in
Serbia before 1999. After this date, it became impossible to go back. This essay will not be an attempt to re-create time before so-called ‘NATO intervention’ in FR Yugoslavia, nor will it deal with the real political actions of that time. This essay is an attempt to give a short analysis of the representation of the Other- in this case, the Albanians - in the Serbian movie ‘The Hornet’ (1998), seen as one of the rare attempts of Serbian (pro-democratic) culture establishment to deal with this sensitive issue. If we consider movies as one of the most powerful media, the fact of lost chance to change the dominant stereotype presentations of bloody and chaotic Balkans and Serbia (or Yugoslavia) with this movie becomes increasingly unforgivable. Instead of an attempt to explain the background of existing conflicts to the 'Western' but also to domestic, Serbian public (by telling a story on "love between a Serbian girl and young Albanian boy, placed into the vertigo of ongoing Balkans' wars"[2]), in this movie we find a shallow, banal and completely misunderstood interpretation of the problem. By telling a story without saying anything really, it is just the same strategy used by Serbian former government to put the problem of Kosovo 'under the carpet'. Instead to offer an alternative, deeper view on relations between Serbs and Albanians, the authors have succeeded to produce something that doesn’t differentiate from the breaking news seen on every pro-Milošević TV station of that time.


The Hornet was a project produced by independent production company, Cinema Design, but also supported by the main national TV station (Radio Television of Serbia), television strongly controlled by Milošević’s regime in that moment.[3] The public had great expectations about this work: it has been a really long time from the last movie where it could see a story about Albanians, and Serbs and Albanians. Also, the team working on it was a very well known one; the casting was perfect. The producers couldn’t find a better moment - it has been shown in cinemas during ‘hot’ year of 1998, at the moment of culmination of Serbian and Albanian conflicts, but when the possibility of reconciliation of two sides still had existed. One of the most important reasons for such high expectations was that among 12 movies produced in that year, only this one had the ‘courage’ to start this issue of war that was about to happen. Unfortunately, the expectations were completely betrayed.[4] Without analyzing its artistic achievements, the story seen in the movie was a great disappointment. The surprise of Serbian public was even greater having in mind the fact that it was directed by Gorčin Stojanović, known as strongly ‘anti-regime’ and ‘pro-democratic’ theater and film director.[5] The screenplay was inspired by a novel[6], “based on the true story of the Mafia executioner, code named 'The Hornet', an Albanian from the Yugoslav province of Kosovo, whose own destiny was as cruel as his job.”[7] This movie is, in fact, a drama of love between two young people, a story that was possible to have a happy ending if they weren't a Serbian girl and an Albanian boy. The problems between Serbs and Albanians, the problem of cultural, social, or class differences is minimized and reduced to the problem of Mafia. So, the tools for crisis solution suggested by this movie are strictly the ones used in the destroying the Mafia cartels and in breaking the chains of drug dealers and criminals. The aim was to cut off the tumor from the healthy national body.


When we read some more details on this movie, we learn that "The Hornet is a first film co-production treating the subject of Albanian mafia, powerful and uncatchable network of criminals ruling the drug transport from the Middle East to Western Europe and the USA. In comparison to the Sicilian Mafia, the Albanian mob is also basically founded on the power of big families and its members are utterly devoted to their cause. Furthermore, they seem to be even more ready to sacrifice themselves for the organization and even more close-mouthed then their Italian counterparts."[8] So, the problem of Kosovo province is seen as purely 'criminal' in its nature, the problem is drug trafficking, it has nothing to do with wrong politics done in past few decades. It is not the consequence of wrong political moves of Serbian government that has been cultivating this conflict, and racist behavior toward the Other; as we learn, the problem can be solved with a simple, effective police intervention. Probably the stronger reaction by ‘independent’ and ‘pro-democratic’ cultural establishment on this film lacked considering the ‘democratic’ reputation of the team that made it; the disappointment was so great that it was better not to mention it at all.[9] But also, soon after the possibility to see it in the theater, the reality was completely changed. Everyone had more important things to think about.

On her and him

Her name is Adriana; she is a young and innocent Serbian, or
Belgrade high school girl, living in a surrounding of 'high risk', chaos and constant danger (the first frame is showing her in front of the high school, hiding herself during the shooting on the café across the street).[10] As expected, she can not resist a charm of a little older guy with shady past, speaking in English, presenting himself as an 'Italian'. He offers her a shelter and safety of the material world, although of unknown origin. Nevertheless, our heroine is different from the regular 'sponsored girls‘; she is searching for love and serenity, finding it in the arms of this young 'Italian'.[11]

He is a generous and elegant young man with sophisticated taste and habits. He is taking out his beloved one from Belgrade 'in war', going with her right to Swiss lake, relaxing her in a jacuzzi-bath, having dinner in a sushi restaurant, presenting her spectacular intimate dinners with candles and classic music in his 'modest' villa. They perfectly speak English, the only language they can communicate with. Nevertheless, during a romantic drive in a boat, she suddenly discovers that he is not 'an Italian count', but just a 'common' Albanian from Kosovo. His name is Miljaim Isa; he is damning the Balkans and its 'poverty' and life in 'ghetto', promising her to save her from. We find out that he was forced to eat ground as a little boy, as he starved to death. So that's a reason why he wants to forget the Balkans, to get the Serbian language out of his mind that is, as we may assume, the main reason for this Balkan 'misery'. He teaches her that the first thing in freedom is to "learn to speak English", the universal language of human rights and freedom. Our young heroine has no problem with this discovery, and she is completely giving herself to the passion. Nevertheless, their cute love nest soon becomes her prison as well. Due to the cultural rules he was brought up in, he doesn't see this 'imprisoning' of women within the house walls as a problem. But she starts to choke and loses patience, waiting for him to change something. They can't find their happiness neither in Europe, nor in Belgrade (where they have come back for his killing 'job'), and he is taking her to Kosovo, into his own village, to his parents. He has to run away that same night to Albania, but she also succeeds to run away from his parent's home (who, by the way, do not mind it at all). She finally comes back into the safe arms of her father.

On 'us' and 'them' – The police and the mafia

The parallel story is following the life of Miljaim's older brother, Abaz, who has crossed to the other side, e.g. as a member of Serbian police forces he fights against 'his own people'. This level of narrative is providing us with a lot of interesting details. Abaz's commander, Mr. Boban, had decided to fight to the end with 'Shiptar Mafia'. The coincidence is that Adriana's father asks this same commander for help, since he used to be his professor of biology in secondary school. As a personification of 'intelligent' and 'joking' Serbian policeman fond of basketball, Boban doesn't approve of his former professor and his ''liberal'' upbringing of his daughter. This kind of upbringing brought us to the fact that she has escaped "with a Shiptar". When we see Adriana's father next time, he is got a bruise on his eye, after some 'encounters' with local boys, trying to find some trace to his daughter. When Mr. Boban sees him, he asks him, laughing, if he has gained this 'souvenir' at the public demonstrations.[12] After this one, we can conclude that Serbian police is highly organized, disciplined, professional, and effective, in dealing with problems of missing daughters, interventions toward 'disobedient' citizens/students/professors, or breaking the international chains of drug trafficking.

The specific 'spice' in this police story we have after the entrance of Swiss detective Helmer, looking more like philosophy professor than like a policeman, in comparison to his Serbian colleagues. Before his arrival to these 'dangerous' parts of the world, Helmer is telling to his Swiss friend that they (the 'West') has no interests in finding out what these Balkans' wars are about. They just want to break the chain of drug trafficking; the rest should be left to the domain of 'human rights'. It seems that nobody really cared about this Balkans' 'situation'. It was left to be solved by itself, so the bloody outcome was inevitable. During his visit, Helmer is completely confused about what he sees, but we have Mr. Boban to help him understand. He finds out that Shiptars are, in fact, "Albanians that calls themselves Shiptars, but getting insulted when Serbs do the same". We see that every bakery / pastry shop was just one more point in this organized drug trafficking, that it seems that every Serbian penny paid for a cake was invested in weapons and opiates from the East.[13] It looks like Serbs were stupidly eating sweets and peanuts, giving money to Albanians that were wisely investing into 'right' things. The Serbs took the wrong way - liberalism, and the Albanians were holding strongly among themselves and their relatives, and the moment of rebellion of 'hungry, poor, and oppressed' people has come. They are fighting against Serbian language, Serbian 'hegemony', they have learned English and became free. But, as we all know, you need 'two for the fight'. In our case, we see victims on both sides and relativism of responsibilities of both for the deeds done is just a shortcut to erase the responsibility for all of it. Both sides must be capable to understand the truth from the other side.

Abaz, a policeman, as ‘an outlaw’ in the Albanian eyes, had to be punished, sooner or later. The person chosen to 'eliminate' him is his own brother, Miljaim. In the beginning, Miljaim refuses to do this, but he meets their father saying that this would be the way to lose them both (Abaz has already been lost, in a 'symbolic' way). He kills a boy that had the task to eliminate him since he hadn't obeyed the demand to kill his brother, and changes his decision. After a modest dinner in quite a rich interior of the house of ' an Albanian policeman somewhere in the Kosovo province', Miljaim kills his own brother. Nevertheless, effective Serbian police realizes very soon that their policeman is being threatened, surrounding this house in the very moment, but Miljaim commits suicide by activating a dynamite, laid all over his body in front of the eyes of the policemen, Albanians, Swiss detective, his beloved one and her father.

Where, in fact, are the Albanians?

As already mentioned, one of the things connected to this movie is, almost totally, lack of the reaction of the public and culture establishment. It looks that a Serbian culture establishment comes to a dead-end when it should react or criticize work of the authors considered to be the representatives of the alternative and 'democratic' point of view. This situation is one of deep amnesia and blindness in front of the ongoing problems and has no excuse; it is far from representing more different way than dominant 'nationalistic-chauvinistic' politics. Considering this, we should pose the question of authors' responsibility, of so-called representatives of democratic values in today's
Serbia, and creators of its 'New' modus of life. The authors couldn't resist creating a movie that follows the line of Milošević's politics. Also, they didn't resist making a work inside the stereotype framework of representation of the Balkans created by the 'West'. Banality, simplification, and the absence of the attempt for deeper understanding of the problem. Things we have already seen for many times.

When we analyze this movie in a deeper way, it might look like a little childish psychodrama where Serbs pretends to be Albanians. It means that almost every role is played by famous Serbian (or, more precisely, Serbian, Montenegro, and Macedonian) actors.[14] This fact makes us to believe that Drama Faculty in Priština wasn't able to produce any Albanian actor that could be interesting to us for all these years of its existence. Maybe it was too much subversive to give a job to an Albanian to play Albanian; maybe it was too subversive that some Albanian takes money from a 'poor' Serbian colleague. It seems that a main plot is on the question of language. Serbs speak Albanian, Albanians have two fractions: the one that wants to speak Serbian and the other that doesn't. But, nobody has a problem to speak English. 'Our' actors had an excellent professor of Albanian, and maybe nobody bothered to find an Albanian who would (even on the screen, for the sake of his profession) speak Serbian. In this way, the spectators can hardly believe in the 'authentic/realistic' background of the story, since they see no Albanian in the movie. Serbs play themselves, make love to themselves, and make war with themselves, committing suicide in the end.

Seen this way, we find these words of anthropologist Aleksandar Bošković as a suitable illustration of the problem: “In the projection of our origin backward, we came to the ethnical groups that have lived in the Balkan peninsula much earlier than Slovenes. We came to the ethnical groups mostly known as Illyrians. Even though Albanians are not Illyrians, they are closest to them. As such, they symbolically represent the connection with the past, the connection that other (Slovene) people just try to find. As such, they are (as the Other) reminding 'us' (as the Others to Albanians) on the tradition (the Antique times, when Mediterranean basin and South-East Europe were indeed the 'cradle' of European civilization) we want to be part of, in the same time reminding us (with their hardly understandable culture, language, customs, etc.) how far we are from this tradition. In some way, all we (the Slavic inhabitants of the Balkans) would like to be Albanians with a 'link' to this famous (heroic) past.”[15]

The next question, with no answer, here is the reason for the failure of this love story. We should remember the love story of the Macedonian man and the Albanian woman shown in the movie Before the Rain, a relationship full of tensions and clearly pointed obstacles for the realization of their love from their youth days. Here, we see no such thing: Adriana is a liberal Belgrade girl, with a support of her liberal father. On the other side, when Miljaim introduces her to his family, his mother is accepting her with a plan to teach her the specific way of life in their family, throwing away the fact that she is a Serbian girl since she has an "Albanian name". Miljaim's mother had a plan to teach her to speak Albanian, but our heroine didn't learn a word, so we have no chance to see a slice of even one character transformation in the movie. So, these two young lovers throw away the possibility to fight for their love, since they have no obstacle on their way. The authors are giving us another stereotype representation, e.g. the artificially created picture that this kind of love is a priori impossible so we need no facts to prove that.

If we keep aside a 'domestic', Serbian public opinion, we might ask ourselves about the possible reception of this movie in the 'West', or try to answer why this movie didn't have much attention abroad, having in mind its ‘hot’ subject. The Balkans is seen as a place of poverty, misery, blood, ashes, sticky fog from the Hades. So, we can assume that 'Western' spectators would like to see this kind of pictures, but the movie has failed to fulfill their desire. We hear our heroes talking all the time about this 'misery, poverty, ghetto and the ground you must eat if want to survive', but we see nothing such on the screen. All characters ('Serbs' and 'Albanians') are very well fed, urban, driving (more or less) luxurious cars, clean, ironed; there has no difference between social classes (the apartment of our 'liberal' professor of biology is luxurious just as a house of 'Albanian policeman somewhere in the Kosovo province'). Their 'war' looks more like childish game compared to the well-known scenes of violence seen in the (documentary) movies on the life in LA. So - where did disappear so wanted blood, ashes, bones, cruel crimes, rapes, poverty, and chaos, imagined by the 'West'? We hear them speaking about it, but see no evidence that this has really existed. There are two possible answers: or nothing of this has ever happened, or our authors have never left their comfortable armchairs in the very heart of Belgrade. Maybe Belgrade wasn't capable to realize at all what had been happening until the night of March 24th, 1999 came their way, the night that has changed everything and it was impossible to go back.[16]

Where to go from here?

The situation in which we have founded ourselves in the Balkans at the end of the 20th century has clearly showed us the mechanisms of producing/constructing the image of the 'Other'. The construction of the Other as a main opposition on which the creation of the Self is based has become the symptom of all 'conflicts' we had. The creation of 'ethnic' Others (Serbs vs. Croats, Bosniacs, or Albanians) or the 'Other among us' (spies, students, and the others 'paid by the West') was a precondition for the creation of every conflict situation. Thus, the question of the Others, of the mechanisms that are creating it, has to be the main question in the all-Balkans' public. In this movie, Serbia is represented by a young, innocent, open-minded, tolerant, and emotional girl; 'they'/Kosovo are the passionate, explosive, powerful, sophisticated, liberated, but above all, dangerous killers. She, or 'we', didn't resist him and was seduced in the first place, but soon realized that the road made of 'liberal' aspirations leads right into the gorge. She is coming back to secure, 'conservative' world (we would say, a nationalistic-chauvinistic one) as the only possible option. Feels like reading one of the leading Milošević's daily newspapers: we gave to them (Albanians) to much freedom, we made a marriage condemned to fail. So, the best solution is to go back to our 'truly', 'primordial' essence and let the others to decide who will take care of our children (we might not have any, as seen in the movie).

Maybe we wouldn't be so surprised to find historical data like this one that during centuries Albanian families have guarded Serbian churches, monasteries and sacred places all over Kosovo, the fact well hidden by both sides.[17] Maybe such facts wouldn't be so strange to hear if we have all tried to find examples of life in peace and harmony of Serbs and Albanians in the past when they didn’t mind to learn the language of the others, instead of searching for the examples of conflicts. It is still a question when these sides 'in conflict' will start a dialogue again, since we see no readiness on the both sides to fight against these artificial pictures of the Other. Conservatism, hostility, animosity is breaded on the both sides, from a different background but with the same aim: to keep this conflict alive, and the (ruling) radical political parties on the power. We should be scared by the fact that we have on the both sides persons considered to be the leaders in the 'democratic' future that are actually just the pupils of the same school, the old school attended together with the persons from the replaced regimes. If we managed, so easy and so fast, to learn English (as a language 'of freedom', not the language of the contemporary most powerful 'Empire') and became free, it may be reasonable to try to do something different from what they thought us to be. To learn Albanian (or Serbian), to look into the dictionaries and get surprised when we see so many equivalent words. If it hasn't become too late. 

[1] The first, shorter version of this essay was published in ‘Prelom’, No.2-3, January – June 2002, Journal of the School for History and Theory of Images, Belgrade 2002

[2] The information at the official web site of producers, Cinema Design: www.cinemadesign.com/movies-hornet.htm.

[3] It was filmed as Serbian-Italian co-production, sponsored by Avis and Diners Club International also. See  more in: Andrew J Horton, Vignettes of Violence: Different Attitudes in Recent Yugoslav Cinema, Central Europe Review, Vol.1, No.18, 25 October 1999, www.ce-review.org/99/18/kinoeye18_horton1.html  

[4] The official number of people that have seen it in Serbia and Montenegro goes from 161.464 (the results from the Federal Bureau of Statistics, the information from Film Institute Yearbook, Belgrade 1999), to 183.566 (the non-official results from the distributors). In both cases, the number of people who has seen it was very under expected (the most popular domestic movies in past years had each more than 1 million of people that watched them in theaters). Also, it seems that producers had really high expectations too, since it has been released in Italian theaters soon after it’s Belgrade opening.

[5] After October 5th 2001 and democratic changes in Serbia, he was appointed as manager of Yugoslav Drama Theater in Belgrade, one of the most important theaters in Serbia and ex-Yugoslavia.

[6] Screenplay by: Zoran Popović (also the author of the novel), Srdjan Koljević, and Faruk Begoli.

[7] The information from the official web site also.

[8] Ibid.

[9] It was really a problem to find film critics or daily newspapers analysing this movie;  the both sides, pro-regime, and opposition, were silent.

[10] Although we are forgetting this all the time, since Mirjana Joković, an actress that plays her is almost twice as older of the character she should be.

[11] During the 1990s, people in Serbia were witnesses of a phenomenon named 'sponsored girls'. This title described very young teenage girls that had only one thing in mind: to meet a rich (usually much older) man, probably a criminal, who will provide them with luxuries. The girls offered their companion in return, but with no sexual obligation. 

[12] He is speaking of the civil and students protests in the winter 1996/97 raised against the stealing of votes on the elections. During more than 3 months, the police forces were sent to beat civilians and students.

[13] In the former Yugoslavia, the most common owners of bakery and pastry shops were Albanians, Macedonians and Gorans.

[14] Except Enver Petrovci, an Albanian actor, in a supporting role, seen by the Serbian public as a 'domestic actor'.

[15] Aleksandar Bošković: Kosovski bozuri, Magazine Arkzin 06, Zagreb 1998.

[16] The night when 'NATO intervention' began.

[17] After 1999, most of them were destroyed by Albanians (or, more precisely, Kosovo Liberation Army).