Unbroken Waves: Alexander Gruda’s Journey

Director: Ardit Sadiku
With: Alexander Gruda, Marjana Gruda, Marjan Kola
Running time: 80 mins

Directed by filmmaker Ardit Sadiku, this powerfully moving documentary has been selected as the official entry for Albania in the 96th edition of the Oscars. Centred on its eponymous subject, the film tells a gripping story that is equal parts inspirational and shot through with deep personal tragedy.

As the film begins, we’re introduced to 69 year old Alexander Gruda, an Albanian immigrant who lives in New York City and works as a doorman in one of the Trump Hotels. Though he’s lived in America for over thirty years, Alexander is regarded as something of a hero in his home town in Albania, for an act of rebellion and bravery that came at great personal cost.

Sadiku’s cameras follow Gruda as he travels back to his home town for a visit. Whenever he meets anyone, there are hints at the story that is to follow, before he eventually begins to tell the tale, ostensibly to friends and villagers, but also for the cameras.

In 1990, Gruda was working as a ship’s mechanic in Albania’s navy, when he found himself facing a court martial for dissent, due to the hostile communist government. Fearing for his life, Gruda gathered his pregnant wife, Marjana, their young daughter and around sixteen other people and together they hijacked a warship, taking the soldiers hostage and navigating the ship to the safe waters of Yugoslavia. However, the daring escape came at great personal cost, as Alexander’s daughter was killed by a stray bullet, becoming the only casualty of the hi-jack.

Throughout the film, Sadiku allows his subjects to tell the story, following them around with his camera and allowing them to talk, but never interjecting his own voice. Alongside Alexander himself, we hear from his wife Marjana, a number of other people involved in the escape and various friends who were left behind in Albania.

Perhaps the most interesting subject choice is a man who was effectively on the other side, a soldier for the army, who shot at the warship as it was escaping Albanian waters. To that end, Sadiku includes some inventive editing decisions, having both the former soldier and Alexander visit the same location (a vantage point with a view of the lake) on separate occasions, but intercutting so that it looks like the soldier is observing Alexander as he relates that part of his story to a friend.

Alexander himself proves a charismatic and colourful figure, captivating the audience at every turn, particularly when he re-enacts details from the story in their actual locations, such as having to steer the boat with his feet while he was being shot at. Fellow escapee Marjan Kola proves equally good value, though there’s an underlying sadness to his story, as he reflects that his life in Australia hasn’t been all that better than it would have been if he had stayed in Albania.

Though the story of the escape is thrilling, the film delivers its devastating emotional punch in the second half, as it becomes increasingly clear that Alexander’s moment of great personal triumph is tightly bound to a moment of great personal loss and tragedy. To that end, it is literally impossible for him to tell the story without someone mentioning his daughter, just as everyone appears to have reached the same heart-breaking conclusion, that her sacrifice ensured that everyone else survived.

In short, this is an emotionally engaging documentary that resonates with courage, hope and humanity. It’s also a powerful reminder of the need to keep telling immigrant stories, now more than ever.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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  • Matthew Turner

    A lifelong film fanatic, Matthew Turner (FilmFan1971) is a London-based critic and author, as well as the co-host of Fatal Attractions, a podcast on erotic thrillers. His favourite film is Vertigo and he hasn't missed an episode of EastEnders since 1998.