From: Alice Taylor
An Interview with Albanian-Australian Actor, Screenwriter and Director Dritan Arbana

Dritan Arbana was born in Tirana but now lives and works in Australia. An accomplished actor, he is also a screenwriter, producer and director. ‘Australia My Home: An Albanian Migration” is an upcoming documentary that depicts the lives of three generations of Albanian migrants to Australia, their significant contribution to their respective communities, and efforts to preserve their heritage.

When did you decide you wanted to become a filmmaker? 

I graduated as an actor at Charles Sturt University in Australia, and while working as an actor during the first few years after my graduation I got hooked on photography. I think people have an innate love and capacity for storytelling but not everyone is able to do it well for various reasons. I think what helps though is, in the case of film, love of great imagery and the unparalleled technological advances and access to great filmmaking tools that we have today.

That is definitely the case for me at least, as a love of great imagery is what got me into this in the first place, and since I composed the soundtrack too (except for three songs that one of my favourite Albanian bands from the Arberesh community in Italy called Peppa Marriti Band were kind enough to let me use), the countless days I spent geeking out over music composition software and hardware and working on the sound of this documentary definitely give a certain mood and feel that I believe will add to its uniqueness.

As an actor, I played in a few of the best known Australian TV dramas, but my real love lies in horror films and grittier dramas which I got privately involved in (meaning not through my agent). That is still the case, although I am as keen to swerve across other genres today as I was then. That is definitely the case with this documentary.

The journey to get here has had its ups and downs of course, as any artist will tell you, but the support and the camaraderie I have found among friends and fellow filmmakers in Australia has been unparalleled. I wish I could say the same thing about Albania. I do believe that this a more cut-throat individualistic society and the level of altruism that exists in Australia is virtually non-existent from a professional perspective.

Do you still feel connected to your Albanian roots?

I returned to Albania over three years ago to be near my parents who as expected are not getting any younger, and make up for the last two decades of separation. I met my wonderful wife Jona in the process and from a personal point of view, my last three years in Albania have been the most beautiful and fulfilling. I was always connected to my Albanian roots despite having little contact with Albanians in Australia for many years.

The main culprit that kept me away from Albanians is my profession I believe, as you can count the number of Albanians working in the Australian film industry on one hand. I actually thought I was the only one for many years. 

During just under two decades spent in Australia, I spoke to my family on a weekly basis, and keeping in the loop with major issues here in Albania was something I always did despite the distance and commitments.

What is the premise of the film?

This is a story told with sincerity, humor, and melancholy, and an insightful and somewhat moody journey into the lives of one of the many communities shaping modern Australia.

This documentary showcases the experiences of Albanian migrants and their descendants who embody the best qualities their culture has to offer, and through their traits of hard work, loyalty, tolerance, and acceptance integrated and excelled in the country they now call home.

Shot in both Australia and Albania, and returning to the birthplace and relatives of those who sailed into the unknown over a century ago, this film also showcases the unique beauty of both countries as well as the lingering trauma of separation.

What was the process of realising it?

The producer of this film and one of my best friends Reg Qemal is himself a second-generation Albanian-Australian and the mastermind of this project. This is something I also wanted to do for a very long time, and we had discussed making the film for years before it actually happened. He came to Tirana two years ago and we decided there and then to finally start the pre-production process. I wrote the script within a month after that and things moved quickly afterwards. 

This was not a cheap project to tackle as we had a crew, albeit a small one, travelling across the vast Australian continent for a month in aeroplanes, rented cars while staying in hotels and having all their other expenses met. As things stand at the moment Reg is the main financial contributor. We had expected to have parts of the post-production covered after my return to Albania, given the theme of the documentary and its cultural significance for Albanians anywhere, but in contrast to the enormous support we have received from the Albanian-Australian community, the response here has so far been lukewarm, to say the least.

TV executives in Albania have a habit of not even replying to messages, and the National Film Center which was our main hope had a rule at the time (which they later scrapped) that a single person could not have two credits in the film, which automatically disqualified me, being the screenwriter and director of film at the same time.

The importance of the Albanian National Film Center coming on board could not be underestimated, as that meant that the Albanian Government would give the film its stamp of approval, which for Albanian-Australians who supported this project from the get-go holds enormous moral significance, as opposed to the financial one which we were prepared to tackle either way. 

As I mentioned earlier, we travelled far and wide to shoot this film and went to places that few people on the planet get to experience, including Australians themselves who are for the most part not exposed to the raw beauty of their immense and uninhabited country. 

For the Albanian leg of the production, we focused mainly on the city of Korca, as most of the protagonists of the film hail from there. Speaking of the protagonists, finding them was a collaborative effort and a successful one at that, as they have interesting stories to tell and they do it well. They come from all walks of life, from an internationally renowned doctor to farmers, lawyers, radio presenters, etc. 

What are the plans for the release?

We were actually going to have a premiere of the film on the big screen in Australia in May, but that was postponed due to the unfolding situation regarding the epidemic and restrictions following it.

The film is almost finished, and we want to release it by the end of the year but that will depend on the situation both here and in Australia. The premiere will still take place in Australia because this is an Australian production. We intend to enter a couple of festivals first before having it shown on TV.

Talks with main Australian TV broadcasters are underway, and I intend to negotiate its release with the main Albanian TV channels in the region soon. We will also have another Albanian version of the trailer (with Albanian subtitles) within two months.

After this, do you have any plans for future productions yet? 

I have applied for funding at the National Film Center for a short film recently and will see how that comes about. The film will be made one way or another regardless, as I have always considered funding something that one gets around of either way and something that can be tweaked depending on the circumstances.

I am also writing a feature at the moment, but it is early to go into details. When we embarked on this production we realized that it was actually much cheaper buying some of the equipment than renting it. As a result, I own a fully-fledged film studio, focusing mainly on post-production but also a significant chunk of the production itself. I am also currently doing sound design and music on two small projects that are not mine.