In a rare moment of tranquillity, at the start of Taken 2 (2012), ‘Bryan Mills’, a retired US government assassin played by Liam Neeson, tells his daughter ‘Kim’ (Maggie Grace) that what he knows about Istanbul and its role in East-West history he derived from a travel book read during his flight to Turkey, where the film is set. The fact he mentions in citing this source – the role of the Bosporus as a water link between Europe and Asia – is so banal one cannot help wondering how someone with such a scant education about the world might have been hired in any responsible position by the American authorities. His former employing service is left unnamed but, by inference, would be imagined as the Central Intelligence Agency.
The comment contradicts a later scene in which ‘Bryan’, a ‘first-time visitor’ to Istanbul, delivers surprisingly, to his barely-comprehending wife Lenore or ‘Leni’ (Famke Janssen) a detailed set of instructions on how to escape from a hiding place in the middle of the Turkish city’s famously-complex Grand Bazaar. He instructs her in turning this way and that among confusing corridors and corners that even a resident born in the city might not know.
But ‘Bryan’ is less than expectedly-competent in other matters. He appears to have let his ex-wife and daughter know that killing people in clandestine operations was his official profession. This is not acceptable behaviour – it is indeed illegal – for a US spy, antiterrorist elite military squad member, or other individual performing such tasks, who is supposed to keep them secret even from his spouse and offspring. Such seemingly minor details suggest that Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen may have put together this under-researched and badly-written script during an air flight, perhaps while suffering excessive jet lag. Resembling blabbermouth ‘Bryan,’ they do not hesitate to indulge the disreputable motive for these films: profound and undiluted Islamophobia, and the dissemination of abominable libels against the small and little-known nation, to outsiders, of Albania.
The Taken films are, indeed, both anti-American and prejudicial to Albanians. In them, Americans excel at brutal killing, and Albanians at human trafficking and torture. All else is trivial. The full catalogue of absurd gaffes is too long to mention, but here are some of the cultural, religious and linguistic errors in which the sloppy script abounds. They may appear insignificant, but they nevertheless reflect lack of serious ‘backstory’ research.
Muslim characters in both films are said to have tattoos in their hands. Like Jews, Muslims are prohibited from getting tattoos. A Muslim from Tropoja in the North of Albania, the place of the origin of the film’s main malefactors, would not give his son the name ‘Marko’, attached to the villain (played, unfortunately, by an Albanian actor, Arben Bajraktaraj), in Taken, the first iteration, released in 2008. The child of an Albanian Muslim father and a Christian mother in North Albania might be called Mark. But that would not be sufficiently ‘Balkan’ for a Besson-school film gangster, so the criminal is given the Slavic name ‘Marko’ – even the Serbs should complain about this! The main Albanian character in Taken 2, the father of ‘Marko,’ who pursues ‘Bryan’ and his wholesome family through Taken 2, to avenge the death of ‘Marko’ in the first film, is called ‘Murad’. Albanians spell this proper name with a ‘t’, as ‘Murat‘ and not with a ‘d’. Tropoja, the place from which this family is supposed to come, is shown as a roadless and backward scrubland (the film was photographed in Turkey, not Albania), when in reality it is a high mountain district that attracts increasing tourism, especially hikers and skiers.
Albanians in Taken 2 are presented as obsessed with revenge, and to punish their enemies they would stop at nothing, including attacking women. This approach reflects second-hand knowledge of the unfortunate prevalence of blood feuds in Albania. In that culture, ‘satisfaction of blood’ is governed by Albanian customary law, known as Kanun. This traditional legal system is very specific about protecting women from injury in blood feuds. The recent death of a young girl in a blood feud in Albania shocked the whole Albanian nation. But Albanians are not addicted to blood-feuds. Most such conflicts have disappeared from Kosova, and Albanians in general want them to end altogether.
In addition, the feral ‘Murad,’ though ostensibly coming from Tropoja, the heart of Kanun country, seems intent on dragging ‘Bryan’ back to the residence of ‘Murad’ to be ‘tried’. This is a further violation of the Kanun, under which violence cannot take place in one’s home – either that of the avenger or of the target.
Moreover, Albanians are very proud of their tradition of keeping a promise or besa, which translates as ‘word of honour’. Towards the end of Taken 2, ‘Murad’ is depicted as someone who goes back on his word.
These mistakes may not be as gratuitous as they may seem. Unfortunately, there appears a method in the madness of Luc Besson’s team.
With Taken and Taken 2, Besson has added a new facet to the ‘cinéma du look’ movement which, as Guy Austin (1999) observed, favours style over substance and spectacle over narrative. Besson apparently believes that cinema offers him, aside from permission to invent whole cultural complexes and dubious plots, licence to misrepresent, demean and defame the image and people of a small, real nation struggling for proper recognition and dignity. As David Gritten of the London Telegraph remarked, ‘Taken is notable mainly for its racist stereotyping of Arabs and eastern Europeans’. John Podhoretz commented in The Weekly Standard: ‘it’s about an American who goes to rescue his innocent daughter, slaughters dozens of evil Muslims in the process, and doesn’t give it a second’s thought.’
The anti-Arab bias in Taken has been ameliorated in Taken 2 by having Neeson’s ‘Bryan’ do ‘security’ work in Istanbul for a rich Arab. The decadent Arabs are replaced by equally corrupt Turks. As for Eastern Europeans, they remain Besson’s cartoonish adversaries, represented exclusively by ‘the Albanians.’
To complete their self-imposed ‘noble’ mission to enlighten the world to the Albanian danger, Besson and his co-script writer Kamen and directors Pierre Morel (in the first example) and Olivier Megaton, who directed the second in this series – hired a roster of actors of Albanian, American, Armenian, Dutch and Turkish descent. Their biggest asset in the Taken films remains Neeson, regarded highly by his fellow Irish ‘for the great distinction he has brought to Ireland’.
Neeson is assisted in demonising the Albanians by the Croatian-born actor of Serbian descent, Rade Serbedzija. Playing the Albanian gang patriarch ‘Murad’, Serbedzija would probably blame the Albanians in Kosova for the bloody and shameful end of Serbian ambitions in the past two decades.
Serbedzija helps Neeson to effectively, in the words of ‘Bryan’, ‘Do what I do best!’ by supplying people upon whom the Neeson character can practice his homicidal skills. In his review of Taken 2, Neil Smith of Total Film concludes that ‘while it’s fun to watch Neeson take out the Eurotrash, we’ve seen him do it better’. This comment by Smith is revealing: ‘Eurotrash’ emerged in America as a term referring to youthful Western European immigrants and tourists with money to spend and arrogance on display. Like Besson, Neeson and Serbedzija, Smith apparently believes that ‘Eurotrash’ consists of Albanians, Turks and Muslims. In the era of Geert Wilders and similar Islam-baiting demagogues, this is hardly an uplifting or even a minimally original view. In another subtextual element, the American family is fresh-faced, clean and pleasant, while the Albanian family is unattractive, dirty and violent.
The Taken films gratify an American addiction to cinematic violence – which gave Taken 2 a surprising financial boost on its release – and Western European anxieties about immigrants and the ‘clash of civilisations’. The Besson crew, however, plays to two markets that otherwise are markedly different. Serious American film-makers, even of the ‘action’ genre, have more recently taken their distance from anti-Arab or anti-Muslim scripts.
Nobody denies that crime exists in Albania and that some Albanians, like members of every other nation, commit crimes outside their own lands. Albania also has a film industry, which has attracted the support of leading cinema personalities such as Francis Ford Coppola, and media that investigate and report on corruption assiduously.
Albanians are one of the oldest peoples in Europe and we do not have space here to do justice to their virtues and achievements. There is a long list of names of Roman rulers (Diocletian), doctors of the Catholic church (St. Jerome), popes and other figures from the eastern Adriatic shore and its hinterland, to which may added enough notable military and other figures to rescue the reputation of the Albanians. But to do so would mean to dignify with a historian’s reply the anti-Albanian slanders of Besson and Neeson.
A nation that counts Mother Teresa as their daughter does not need to worry about trashy films. What value Albanians place on human life and dignity was seen during the Second World War when at great personal risk, they refused to hand over a single Jew to the occupying Nazis. To the best of our knowledge, this was not a feat repeated anywhere else in the Balkans or across Nazi-dominated Europe, East or West. The role of Albanian rescuers as ‘Righteous Gentiles’ is recognized by Israel.
Releasing Taken in February 2008, the month when Kosova declared its independence, and Taken 2 in the autumn of 2012, shortly before Albania celebrates the centenary of its independence in 1912, might be anything but a coincidence. The strengthening of an Albanian presence in European affairs, especially with the US backing Kosova, is bound to dismay the enemies of the Albanians in the Balkans and test the European countries that in some cases (France stands out as an example) were reluctant to support the US rescue of Kosova from Serbian aggression. In France as elsewhere, the unredeemed pledge of the European Union to complete the accession of Turkey also may figure in the ideological background.
The support the United States offered to Albania immediately after the collapse of communism in early 1990s, and especially Bill Clinton and George W Bush’s backing of the Albanians in Kosova against a long and oppressive Serb colonisation were bound to more than unsettle those who look with chauvinistic hatred on the Albanian nation, in the Balkans as well as in Western Europe. This was not the first time the US had saved the Albanians. Were it not for the timely intervention of President Woodrow Wilson in 1919, the existence of the Albanian state as we now know it would have been very much in question.
Albanians have a long historical memory and do not harm Americans. The Kosova capital Prishtina boasts a boulevard, a large mural, and a statue commemorating Bill Clinton, and American politicians are honoured by street names in other Kosova cities. By depicting the Albanians as psychopaths consumed with hatred for a US citizen they are bent on capturing and transporting to Albania, with the only purpose of killing him slowly, one may argue that Besson and his mercenary team are trying to undermine the special relationship between the US and Albanians both in the Balkans and around the world. The US-Albanian alliance is especially resented in France and Britain – notwithstanding the crucial role Tony Blair’s government played in NATO’s Kosova campaign – where Serbian pretensions to Balkan hegemony still have the support of Serbophile elements among the political elites.
The choice of Tropoja as the region in Albania whence the human traffickers allegedly hail is also an issue worth exploring. It is possible that Besson and his team’s decision to single out Tropoja as a crime haven reflects their poor knowledge of the country, based on flimsy reading of Western media headlines about Albanian criminal gangs. One could also argue that the image of Tropoja and of the North of Albania in general has suffered over the last twenty years as a result of political opposition to Sali Berisha, Albania’s current Prime Minister, who comes from a village in the Tropoja district.
Tropoja and the North of Albania became victims of anti-Albanian propaganda late in the 1990s for another reason. Living near the border with Kosova, during the war in the latter territory, the people of Tropoja were at times terrorized by the rockets of Serbian forces. The minions of Milosevic attempted to intimidate the people of Tropoja from assisting Kosovar Albanian fighters, while also playing the well-known Balkan game of provocation – divert attention from an existing war by threatening its spread. Like the rest of their fellow countrymen in the North of Albania and throughout the country, the people of Tropoja were not impressed.
Besson’s stigmatisation of this particular region of Albania is no different from the unconvincing efforts of the Swiss publicity seeker Carla Del Ponte, a former prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, and another Swiss political character, Dick Marty, who are determined to depict the Kosovar Albanians’ movement against Serb repression and the formation of the Kosova Liberation Army as masterminded from start to finish by the ‘Albanian mafia’. Del Ponte and Marty are infamous for peddling a conspiracy theory involving alleged theft of human organs from Serb captives, centred purportedly in Tropoja. The Del Ponte-Marty accusations about organ-trafficking have produced no convincing evidence. They reflect little more than a ‘politically correct’ effort to ‘balance’ the cruelties of Serbian aggressors with invented crimes by their Albanian victims – the familiar and despicable game of ‘moral equivalence’. Unfortunately for Del Ponte, Marty, Besson and Neeson, the world knows what happened in Kosova, though it may be forgetting, and should not do so.
Anti-Albanian Slav and Greek propaganda is keen to disparage the Albanians as predominantly Muslim, and the Albanian lands as a haven for Muslim terrorists. Different from their neighbours in the Balkans, who have used and continue to use religion unscrupulously to justify their unjust claims over Albanian (and each others’) territories, the Albanians have distinguished themselves more typically for their religious tolerance.
The essential subtext in the two films is that the Albanians are not just ordinary criminals but Islamic enemies to the US government and US citizens. Equally important is the other deduction that Turkey is unsuitable to join the European Union because, as a Muslim country, it is incapable of controlling, nay it facilitates, the activities of Islamic criminals and terrorists. Albania, Turkey and Islam will always pose a threat, apparently, not only to US and other Western citizens but to the security of the EU, the US and the West. That is the effect of these films on the general public.
Some questions should be addressed to Liam Neeson about his acceptance of this role. In Schindler’s List (1993) he played the eponymous protagonist, a ‘good Nazi’ who saved Jews in Axis Europe by exploiting them in his business. In Michael Collins (1996) he performed well as an Irish revolutionary hero, who resorted to terrorism in the struggle against British imperialism, but with remorse at having to act heartlessly. After playing defenders, however ambivalent, of nations small in numbers and long in the history of injustice – the Jews and the Irish – has he felt no distress at making money by insulting another small and denigrated nation, the Albanians?
Perhaps Neeson could star in a new film like Schindler’s List, but in which he gives vent to Nazi rage at the expense of repellently-depicted Jews. Or he could make another feature about the Irish revolutionary movement, in which he characterises the freedom fighters as ugly and sadistic brutes. Both anti-Jewish and anti-Irish biases once affected European public opinion widely, as Islamophobia and contempt for Albanians do now.
But of course a blatant pro-Nazi feature, or anti-Irish film, would not make money, or even be considered for production, and rightly so. Unfortunately, Albanians and their friends have much to do to educate their neighbours and peers about the realities of their history and, most of all, to dissuade Albanian actors from accepting roles that put their nation in such a negative light.
Meanwhile, Taken 3 has already been advertised as a likely addition to the franchise.
Director: Pierre Morel
Producer: Luc Besson
Script writer: Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen
Main Actors: Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Leland Orser, Jon Gries, David Warshofsky, Katie Cassidy,
Famke Janssen, Arben Bajraktaraj
Music: Nathaniel Méchaly
Release dates: 2008 in France; 2009 in the US
Running time: 93 minutes
Budget: $25 million
Box office: $226,830,568
Director: Olivier Megaton
Producer: Luc Besson
Script writer: Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen
Main Actors: Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen, Rade Šerbedžija
Music: Nathaniel Méchaly
Release dates: 2012
Running time: 91 minutes
Budget: $45 million
Box office: $317,567,436
About the authors:
Dr Gëzim Alpion
Albanian-born Gëzim Alpion holds a BA from Cairo University and a PhD from Durham University. He is currently Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Birmingham, UK. Alpion is considered as ‘the most authoritative English-language author’ on Mother Teresa. Initially published by Routledge in London, New York and New Delhi, his controversial study ‘Mother Teresa: Saint or Celebrity?’ (2007 & 2008) was released in Italian by Salerno Editrice in Rome in 2008. Alpion’s other books include ‘Foreigner Complex: Essays about Egypt’ (2002) and ‘Encounters with Civilizations: From Alexander the Great to Mother Teresa’ published in the UK, the US and India (2008, 2009 & 2011). His plays ‘Vouchers’ (2001) and ‘If Only the Dead Could Listen’ (2008) have been successfully performed across the UK.
Stephen Schwartz is the Executive Director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism in Washington DC, and author of ‘The Other Islam: Sufism and the Road to Global Harmony’ (Doubleday, 2007). He is also author of ‘Sarajevo Rose: A Balkan Jewish Notebook’ (2005), published in the US by Routledge Macmillan and in Britain by the Bosnian Institute and Saqi Books. In 2002, he published the bestselling ‘The Two Faces of Islam: Saudi Fundamentalism and Its Role in Terrorism’ (Doubleday). His ‘Kosovo: Background to a War’ (Anthem Press) was published in 2000 with an introduction by Christopher Hitchens. Schwartz is an Adjunct Scholar of the Middle East Forum. He has worked and written widely in the Albanian lands and issues associated with them.