“Pharmakon” : particles in the air of a mental “solution” for the Albanian society

Interview with the young Albanian filmmaker and anthropologist, Joni Shanaj

Today for Albania News and its readers joins us the young Albanian filmmaker and anthropologist, Joni Shanaj.
He comes to us for a conversation based on the exchange of views over his professional activity about vital topics that currently involve the Albanian society, especially to bring us the latest news about the realization of his first feature film, “Pharmakon”, where his personal role is as a director and screenwriter.

joni_shanaj Who is Joni Shanaj?

Joni Shanaj was born in Tirana in 1976. He has completed his university studies in Sweden, majoring in Social Anthropology.
He realized the documentary “Ivi Tirana Punk” as a director. “Pharmakon” is his first long length feature movie.

The movie “Pharmakon” during this year took part- with a lot of success by the critics- in many important festivals like the Göteborg International Film Festival, in Sweden, where he also had his international premier, at the East End Film Festival in London where it had an excellent reception, including a number of other festivals, among them The International Film Festival in Lucern, Switzerland, where he got the Award of Merit.

The most important event, in addition to winning the Special Jury Award at the 13-th Albanian Film Festival, is that the “Pharmakon” film, had a special column in the most prestigious magazine of the worlds cinematography, SIGHT and SOUND, on January 2013 issue. Among other positive evaluations, “Pharmakon” gets rated as a ‘Masterpiece’ by the famous critic of the world cinema, Mark Cousins.

“Pharmakon” was shown in all cinemas of Tirana, including the Millenium cinema, Agimi, Imperial Sheraton and Kristal.

Whereas, on the 11-th edition of International Film Festival “Levante” in Bari, Italy, the Albanian actress and the protagonist of “Pharmakon”, Olta Gixhari, was honored with the award “Best Actress”. With the role of “Sara”, directed by Joni Shanaj, in this movie the young actress interprets the first big role on the big screen meanwhile she has interpreted some roles on the theater before. “Pharmakon” is the latest cinematic project of “Zig-Zag Film” produced by Mevlan Shanaj, financed by the National Center of the Albanian Cinematography and by the Albanian Television.

Plot of the film “Pharmakon” brought to you by the author himself:

Sara, a young girl, who is pretty and charming, working at the Central hospital of Tirana, has a seriously ill mother from cancer. As we know, our hospitals are unable to provide existent cures for these types of diseases. Sara and her mother were offered to be helped by the head ward Dr. Socrates, a doctor and an experienced oncologist, who has a reputation of an old specialist in his field. Sara is completely subordinated by Dr. Socrates.

Besides helping to cure the mother, Dr. Socrates has asked the girl for sexual favors. Sara responded positively and the old doctor’s relationship with her has continued secretly as these relationships are known to be like it, secret.

Dr. Socrates has a 25 year old son, called Branko. During his visits at the hospital in order to meet with the father, Branko has noticed Sara and was completely drawn to her. Sara responds to the guy’s interest and they start a normal and a simple relationship with no concerns. Dr. Socrates is not aware of the relationship of the young couple and on the other hand, Branko is not aware of Sarah’s secret relationship with his father. On the center of the film is Branko and he remains a character through which we pursue the drama. This is the drama, or otherwise the narrative skeleton around which the film has been constructed.

The fable is constructed in a form of a problem that I somehow humorously would call it “mathematics”. Thus, we have an equation with at least two unknown factors, which Branko must resolve, on one side, his relationship with his father and on the other hand, with the woman that he has just started a relationship with.

On the other hand, this plot is built in a defined context. Furthermore, we have the background of a failed health system which fails to provide the basic medicines; a doctor who owns a pharmacy and supplies it partially with medications dedicated to the public hospital; a young man, who works at his father’s pharmacy and who accuses his father that supplies the pharmacy with expired medications and a girl who is left almost undefined. The dramaturgic skeleton of the film as well as the relationships between the characters are based on these circumstances as part of a larger social context and a structural one in the nowadays Albania.


Hello Jon by welcoming you to Albania News. First of all I want to congratulate you for the success on your film, “Pharmakon”!

Thank you Adela and Albania News

“Pharmakon”, your first feature film, your first creation, as a combination of a double position, director-screenwriter, did you feel an internal need bringing it to the big screen, with such a plot?

Firstly, I felt that I needed to do something for the internal decay of the patriarchal order which has captured my country. It does not talk so much about the external things other than what the mechanism power in itself is set up over a system which in the core it practically ‘eats’ his own child. With that I mean the short vision of egos who unintentionally hit the present and the future of others.

I felt the need to implement this movie, in order to pass further or I can even say in order to feel somewhat liberating. “Pharmakon” is the intermediate space for me to overcome a threshold that goes beyond what can be seen or displayed in the form of a fable. I have this timely belief in the supervision of the cinema and somehow in the laying of a mental “solution” in the air, which ‘with’ or ‘without’ consciousness, can set in motion something in mind or in subconscious. Over this, I needed material from my subconscious and I was not afraid to dig it in. The external and internal world is connected and the film includes both.

Once, when they asked William Burroughs about which would be his greatest achievement of his literature, Burroughs replied by stating: “To achieve to kill someone with a sentence”.

There is an old transgression between the magic and the written text, from where comes the term “Pharmakon” of Plato’s “Fedri” and afterwards in “Plato’s Pharmacy” of Derrida. Just like the written text and the movie the moment it appears, can be seen as separate from the author or his direct authority. I won’t get into this any deeper since I would have to get into both of these texts and yet I do not have the authority to explain them. I just simply realized a film in order to strike a mythology of a status-quo that I do not like.

From “Plato’s Pharmacy”, ‘Pharmakon’, equal to an explosion of opposite connotations: poison-cure; life-death; the good- the bad; father-son; to be-to become; beautiful-ugly; day-night, etc. Aren’t your film performances- somehow antagonisms of human dilemmas, which one faces with daily, in a direct and indirect way, despite the imposing of a defined context?

I am not sure, I believe in internal revolutions, or in other words, one’s successive revival. Over this, the following techniques of thinking, like the writing, or the written word, or even further the film, as in the figure (because there is however, a difference between a conversation and figure/image) can be ways to touch the past, freezing them in time and maybe the cure for the present and the future.

Techniques remain forwarding thoughts, simultaneously synchronic and diachronic ones. A thought is in motion among everyone and in continuous negotiation in whatever the circumstances, all though, connected to the particular character of cultures and people. But on the whole and universally no matter what the circumstances I believe that a strenuous intellectual effort eternally would be towards the approaching of truth. Not all people are ready for the change of things and unfortunately they are unable to understand that things change with or without their participation.

To make matters worse, a large number of people in the moment of confusion want to go towards regression and yet the other part is very capable on benefiting from the changes that others bring. However, this is not very important to everyone, this goes to the one that has the momentum inside and the demand of what I can call a “Hegelian” push towards freedom, I believe that you understand me and that is well understandable by others who share similar thoughts and feelings in the world. We are connected to each other more than we ever think we do, because we live on the same globe and the spirit of time is the same for everyone, in the time where nothing human is foreign for no one.

You mentioned some controversy or binary oppositions but, I believe more in what is intermediate and indefinable. In this space, I believe in the power of dialectic synthesis, be that within contexts or in conditional recognition of unwanted situations.

As a highly traumatized population, Albanians unfortunately have turned their back to the truth. On the other hand, I have this conviction that whatever bothers an Albanian is not foreign to anyone and vice versa.

The achievement of this movie, do you consider it “art”? You yourself, why did you choose cinema for the expression of an artistic side that you perceive as it belonged?

Because, I can manifest myself as an author, a rational choice as a person would chose a weapon in a war or in a video game. Sometimes even when I see people playing ‘candy crush’ it seems as an artistic act. Life has so much art within that sometimes a movie it better be just a movie.

If you would not choose cinema as an “unfolding” of art within you, what area would you choose to give space to your artistic passion?

In the time when a large number of visual artists gushes towards the cinematography, or they try to approach to the film as much as they can, I would like to go towards conceptual art. It is a different direction but it belongs to the same path.

Art in itself can appear in many forms, be that in raising a child, in a car race, in baking or cooking a culinary recipe and all the way to politics. Perhaps a large part of people deal with ‘art’, in a universally accepted meaning of the word, in order to feel somewhat more independent, since there is a universal cliché that accepts some extended limits of a lifestyle for artists.

We often fall for this myth at a very young age, but this does not make others less of ‘artist’ than the artists themselves. It is like a type of pittance that the convention people give to artists, since I think that in the core of it all they have this type of respect for their creation. I am not sure if art is within us or not, but we all have it in certain frequencies. Human creation comes out in different forms and this is the beauty of life. Artists are not special people from others this is one of the biggest lies by which we ourselves often fall for too.

What is special is the work of art in itself and the biggest value of it is the fact that there is no useful function basically it doesn’t contain any apparent value. In the moment that we understand this, we would want to understand to love the human widely and deeply and at this moment, art perhaps, on the whole would best play his role.

Something tells me that, – beyond the intent to bring on screen a defined set of an Albanian society- is your formation as a social anthropologist that has stimulated you to test yourself in such a confrontation. Could this be a wrong perception of mine, maybe?

I am not sure, I think that anthropologists have a mission that over time only an anthropologist or a philosopher or even an erudite here and there understands it.

I was mostly influenced by Freud and Derrida in this film and a number of other filmmakers, which may partially include Pasolin and Bresson.

I am not able to make a direct link between anthropology and the film “Pharmakon “, but had I not graduated from social anthropology, in a period between the first version of the script and the last one maybe the movie would not have the continence that it has today.

In general, academic work maybe made me have more patience that have driven me in more than one idea, this because I also like simple movies that do not require you to pay attention heavily, but are just simply with a direct and spontaneous tone. In the first version of “Pharmakon” there was more blood, violence, drugs and perhaps even murdering. It was different in the first version. Something must have happened on the way and I see this when I compare the two different versions of scenarios that I have done.

I have tried to get to the core of a problem and for this anthropology maybe has helped me somehow.

In the Albanian society- that not necessarily is any different from other ones- how do the social side and the cultural side of anthropology “clash”?

I think that Albanians have constant clashes like any other country does, with the survival strategy that people in particular moments have or they think they have to follow. In general, the economic, cultural and global circumstances change faster than we are able to adapt. We have to accept the fact that we have never been the epicenter of development, but we have moved with inertia in relation to the world by carrying with us a heritage once pastoral, once post-colonial, post-socialist and today just simply by representing all three of these grafted with an applied experiment as a ‘practical joke’ of an extreme neo-liberal version turned in a normality for us. This is our dystopia.

On the other hand, culturally, for me the Albanian population remains a multicultural model and an example in this direction, similar to the inhabitants who today live in the biggest metropolis and cultural epicenters of the world. I say this because, while at the same time we have quite a problematic society in modern harmonizing, post-modernity and tradition, we have a population who in many issues is well emancipated, in some particular ways that I assure you it would take others centuries to overcome. We have to be careful on preserving this, because if we also lose this power we will get abolished.

I emphasize that in some aspects Albanians are more open minded and free than many others, be that the richer upper class and economically more successful than us. Albanians will need time to adapt the techniques of civilization it is a challenge that remains ongoing. Civilization build on values and laws is the only key that we need in order to return our vital force of diversity as a creative potential.

Let us not forget that we have a new population with a very young age. We have the largest creative potential and the greatest wealth that this world may have. It requires intellectual geniality and the leading to convert the best and the most powerful side that we have, in energy for progress and not consecutive implosions that ruin the future of new generations. We need new creative elite that knows how to cooperate, that overcomes the price as an instrument that has a striking appearance but, in the core suppressing to our own people.

Self hatred and self despising that characterizes all the oppressing, suffering and poor nations like ours, unfortunately was used and continues to be used by the cynical elite in order to benefit and worn this country in the most shortsighted way. I hope that there would be a whole generation that is totally smart as to understand and see the common interest beyond our small envies. This applies to the whole world, but in this case we are talking about Albania.

On the set of shooting, did you feel as a confident director, or did you have any fear? With actors and the whole technical crew how did you cooperate?

A big part of directors become directors, in order to feel like ones on set. There are many of them who love more than anything else to act out the director. I do not fall into this category. I was making a different film from what others were making. Everything was expected.
On set I was there like any other artist, at work and with his material, sometimes confident and sometimes just careful.

When on set, what you had in mind- what you only knew about- you would give it a form and share it with others- how hard was it for you?

In the movie you have to give space to others to create, starting from where your fantasy ends. You let an actor with a relay or a torch on his hand after you had shown him the path. The rest of the road, he/she takes it, you simply follow them with a camera from behind.

In the end when the movie ends it seems as if everything was done by itself. I had a project that was extremely detailed up to the smallest detail and I am convinced that when you go prepared to a set, this reflects. Ji-Hwan Park from Korea and Ram Shani from Israel, my main collaborators as the photography directors were my closest and the clearest people when it comes to requests I had.

This also goes to Anon Lennartsson, my Swedish friend and the composer of the movie. This trio represents the ‘three musketeers’ of the movie.

On set, in order to select the camera spot was it something spontaneous for you, or did you have to think about it and change your mind a few times?
In your formation as a director- except your father- who else has also influenced you; yet other directors, Albanian or foreign ones that you especially value?

The only thing that is not spontaneous in the movie is the placement of the camera. I was dealing with the scenario for a long time, with the camera spots, etc. However, I have worked without any detailed storyboard. With a detailed storyboard work all the taught amateurs’ in all the schools they go to around the world. It is astonishment by the effects of world publicity. There are different types of directors and different methods, but I have learned this ‘knack’ mainly by Antonini, Rosellini, Pasolini and at times Ettore Scola. There are four directors who have mostly influenced me with how to make a movie.

I mentioned four of the Italian ones above, but furthermore I can say chronologically of influence can be Jim Jarmusch, Godard, Bresson, Melville, David Lean, Powell & Pressburger too and above all, Hitchcock. Over the last years, I like the British cinema more and more. Today there are some special directors who I would recommend, like Bertrand Bonello, Naomi Kawase or Carlos Reygadas. I also admire authors who are intelligent and brave such as Ken Russell, David Cronenberg, who is my no. 1 favorite.

To interested readers for quality movies I recommend them, to follow the ranking on annual magazines “Cahiers Du Cinéma” and “Sight & Sound” which every year ranks the 10 movies they consider to be the best. The order in itself is not that important since no one takes it completely serious, but if you annually follow it, you understand the best authors of these 10 years and I believe that a lot of people need to somehow open their eyes and understand what ‘cinema’ as art in itself means. I say this because a lot of people that love movies are not sure how to get oriented.

Actors directed by you, can they improvise anything themselves, or they are not allowed to?

Not so much.

pharmakon An ambitious project as “Pharmakon”, how was it taken by all actors and shooting crew, technical staff?

With a rare exception, the perceiving of the staff is the same as a lathe worker who produces an engine part, let’s say of an Alfa Romeo and one day he buys a car in order to take a ride or two, or to spoil the future girlfriend.

On set experience, the most difficult moment and the best one? Before the appearance of the movie at the cinemas, did you get more concerned about the expectations of the public or by the ones of the critics side?

My main concern was to do a good job and not anything that would make me turn out as stupid. However, in the end there were moments when I had some type of fear by the general public, the critics I knew I had them on my side. In the beginning of the shooting, we got this type of ‘notoriety’ that we were shooting an erotic movie, I don’t know why and I don’t know how. There were many funny moments about it.

Olta comes one day for the shooting crying with a newspaper on her hands. That type of a reaction was normal, because no normal actor would be happy to hear that there is a making of an erotic or a pornographic movie. There was something like tragic-comic in the middle but it passed. The real joke was when the Tax came to require for us to pay the taxes for the pharmacy we had built. The Tax police just couldn’t understand that it was simply a decoration.

How important is the role of the Albanian cinema to tell a story- mainly from the real stories, detached from the Albanian reality- and what are the actual possibilities for these realizations?

The cinematography has an unsubstituted role in the image transformation of a country. This is a well known cliché, but in our case, it is not important on how we appear in others eyes, but primarily it is important on how we see ourselves. In our case, I think that as Albanians we have to learn how to see ourselves differently. The last one for me is the main battle for the nowadays Albanians.

If we want to change our current mentality, we have to know how to respect ourselves and one-another. For this reason, by knowing the power of the movie with an immediate impact, I believe that cinematography should be an asset with cultural strategic priority in Albania.

I say this, considering the tradition that we have in circumstances we are in. The most important job that we have to do is to change Albania, primarily conceptually. Through a feature movie and a documentary we can recognize our present situation in all its articulations and in the moment that we see it realistically in our eyes, others will respect it as well. I believe that the cinematography can achieve this, of course not by producing two movies a year, like it’s been happening so far. I believe that image transformation and creative power will happen to us and will automatically come with increased production. To know oneself a society should know its creative voices.

There is a whole new generation that is expecting to be articulated, but it has to be articulated by one’s own truth, and not by thinking to accommodate to the expectations of others, or what one thinks should do in order to be accepted and to get an existing license from the presumed powers, but which are essentially inexistent.

According to Plato- I am not sure how much you’d agree- in order to analyze a father, you have to analyze the son more than the father himself.
Does it condition in your profession the last name that you carry? The expectations that the public “draws” for you, being led by your parent’s names, quite prominent in this field- Mevlan Shanaj and Natasha Lako- they hinder, help, complicate?

Not that I think of this very much.
People unfortunately believe quite a bit in different and all kinds of definitions, ranging from the already crashed mythology, of heritage genes and DNA, in the defining of character or personality up to the most confusing global conspiracy. None of these are true and they have nothing to do with the personality.

We are a country with limited economic resources and up to date with inability and without fearing power to appear and self formulate the mission of every generation.

I think that I have strong connections with my generation globally, rather with the previous one. Even though as part of post-modernity, I somehow still like this modernist arrogance connected to the past. This is why I somehow like the architecture and the building industry. I do not like tradition at all, all though I love my parents and my grandparents.

Joni during his childhood, has he ever followed his father on any shooting sets?

Less than what I would want to, now that I am all grown up. I have been present very few times. I would want him to take me more often and know his world from within and his friends, beyond home boundary.

Your favorite actors- Albanian or foreign- female and male figures?

I like Vincent Gallo and Joaquin Phoenix because they have been continuously going as more interesting actors, though there are plenty and an endless number of good actors. I like actors who maintain their continuity and choose roles through which they speak. In our country, for example this type of a role was magnificently held by Ndriçim Xhepa of the 80’s. For anyone with a rebellious spirit, Xhepa of that time will remain an icon.

He was this type of an ‘enfant terrible’ of that time and I believe that he gave an urban look to the 80’s, times when I grew up. Albanian actors were generally mascots of freedom for us. The actor came in with a force of freedom of life itself and it would disturb every rule of the system. This applies anywhere in the world.

Nowadays this line, of course, with a more analytical form I believe, keeps Niko Kanxheri, who within the last twent years has the largest boost in Albania. Albania has excellent actors, for whom it is little to say true stars, where I would highlight for example, Timo Flloko etc, who continue to have large potentials and a lot to say and unfold to the nowadays cinematography. As per actresses, I would choose Roza Anagosti.

I enjoy her acting whenever and as rare as I watch Albanian movies and I always want to see them over and over again. I am not sure why but I have discovered that Shkodranian actresses are my favorite ones.

Currently, a creation that you would like to become your next film?

I don’t know these things remain top secret.

How is your private life going?

You entered into deeper secret territories, Adela.

Future professional projects?

We have to civilize this place, to build and establish benchmarks of a social structure by bringing back some things to life. We have to make this place habitable, and not available only for a certain category of bandits.

I mainly speak here for the culture, the academic world and the education system in general. Nowadays, I think this is more important than one or two personal projects. It looks maybe a bit quixotic (Don Quixote), but a place has some historical moments that cannot be ignored by simply having others finishing their own works.

Without building functional systems in many fields, individual efforts will remain in surviving stage and just simply of academic or museum importance. I will work on my ongoing projects but, in this period I will try to sway over some urgent matters.

I am 37 years old and I know that I do not have more time anymore and later I may not even have the energy. I take it as a duty of the generation that I belong to, as the last one that remembers both systems, to give his contribution in a place that is culturally vulnerable. Otherwise, we risk raising surrendered generations one after another that may be sold from their cradle and that could be very cynical too.

On top of it all, what you can do in your pursuit and what you can do in a more direct form for yourself and others, these two are not as separate as many people think they are.

Thank you Joni that you made this pleasant conversation possible for Albania and I wish you further success! We look forward to your next movie!

Thank you I wish you lots of success and as much great work as possible.


First published in Italian language under the title “Pharmakon”: nell’aria, particelle di una “soluzione” mentale per la società albanese
You can read also in Albanian language under the title “Roli i pazëvendësueshëm i kinematografisë në shndërrimin e pamjes së një vendi” .

Translated by Saranda Shala