Directed by Malik Bader; written by Nickola ShrelI
Cash only is an independent American film set in the Detroit area. The surroundings of the city are home to thousands of Albanians. The film takes place in this community.
Elvis Martini (played by screenwriter and initiator of the film, Nickola Shreli) is the owner of a small building. Most of his tenants – including a friend of his (with whom he is having an affair with the wife or fiancée), a stripper-prostitute and a marijuana grower (whose business takes up most of the basement) – are behind on their rent. The bank is about to seize the property. He also owes $10,000 to a neighborhood gang.
Elvis is generally in a bad state, having lost his wife two years prior. He has a beloved daughter, Lena, but can no longer afford to send her to the parochial school.
When a large sum of money more or less falls into his lap, he begins to pay off his various debts. Unfortunately, the money turns out to have been stolen and its “rightful owner” is eager to get it back. The latter kidnaps Elvis’ young daughter and gives her until midnight the same day to raise $25,000.
Elvis tries by various means, just and filthy, to raise money. When he shows up at the appointed time with the money, or part of it, things only get worse. He falls into the hands of a psychopath out for revenge.
First, there are attractive elements for Cash only. It takes place in a recognizable setting: battered and declining America. The chilly and dirty streets, the ugly housing, the “convenience stores” that mainly sell junk, the factories and warehouses that are mostly closed, the unattractive bars and social clubs, the harshness of relationships between people – these are characteristics of everyday life. life for millions of people, not just Albanian Americans.
The dialogue too, partly in English, partly in Albanian, rings true for much of the film. Shreli and the other performers are efficient.
In a statement, Shreli explains that “I wanted to write a bold little street tale about a place and a fabric that I knew very well.” He describes Elvis as “a conflicted misguided one”, who “unfortunately barked up the wrong tree trying to right some wrongs”.
Shreli continues, “That’s what we were trying to capture, regardless of time or budget constraints. We wanted to give audiences a chance to mount a shotgun and hang out with this guy in the uncomfortable trenches of the Balkan underground Detroit with a really visceral vibe.
Budget constraints are not an issue, as far as the viewer is concerned. The film is shot, directed and acted with professionalism and efficiency, even with elegance. The difficulties are elsewhere.
He is Something show portions of the real recognizable world in a drama, and perhaps more today than ever, but it is not all. Considering the demands and responsibilities of art, ultimately it’s not even that much. Cash only works according to a kind of formula. It draws on our curiosity for these streets and these people, seldom seen on screen, and takes us into their orbit, but then does very little of it. Shreli and director Malik Bader followed the recipe of “avant-garde”, “independent” cinema to create an attractive surface, but no more than that.
The final and bloody denouement reveals the severe limits of the filmmakers. It’s just lazy and evasive. An encounter with a sadistic madman “solves” the dramatic and real problems posed by the film’s own logic at the expense, however, of social and psychological truth. Nothing is really resolved, simply postponed, pushed out of the frame of the film. We still have to consider for ourselves – without the help of Cash onlyultimately––what a human being would actually do if they found themselves in the economic and social impasse of the central character.
We’re not far from movies like Nick Gomez’s Laws of gravity (1992), set in the “gritty” streets of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, or for that matter, Martin Scorsese’s average streets (1973), set in the “gritty” streets of Manhattan’s Little Italy, each with its inevitably violent and predictable conclusion.
This reviewer would easily choose Rola Nashef’s semi-comedy Detroit Unleadedabout Lebanese Americans in Detroit, who show greater concern and affection for people, more Cash onlywho claims to be tough-minded and unsentimental, only to find himself on the doorstep, both metaphorically and physically, of the Albanian Catholic Church.
Life is richer than most arts right now, which isn’t quite how it should be. In March 2014, for example, the media reported the case of a certain Tomo Duhanaj, 44, of Troy, Michigan, an ethnic Albanian from Kosovo in the former Yugoslavia, who pleaded guilty to activities of loan sharking within the Albanian community of Detroit.
According to CBS News, “Duhanaj lent hundreds of thousands of dollars at high interest rates, sometimes exceeding 100% per year, to community members on the understanding that failure to repay the loans would lead to violence.” CBS reported “federal prosecutors describe Duhanaj, an undocumented immigrant…as a ‘tough guy’ in the Albanian community.” US Attorney Barbara L. McQuade explained, “This defendant used his contacts in his community to prey on people who were desperate for money.”
This is clearly the general territory in which Cash only works. But there is another angle to Duhanaj’s story, which is more intriguing and sinister.
In 2007, Duhanaj appealed a decision denying him asylum in the United States and apparently lost that appeal. How he managed to stay in the country and continue his loan sharking and related money laundering for another half-decade is unclear.
However, in his 2007 appeal, Duhanaj claimed that in his youth he “spent his time [to] work for a free Kosovo. While living in Michigan in the 1990s, he explains that he “got involved in pro-Kosovo political organizations and joined the local branch of Lidhja Demokratike e Kosoves (“LDK”), the Democratic Party of Kosovo, with which he had been affiliated in Kosovo. Duhanaj testified that he participated in fundraisers and demonstrations for the cause of a free Kosovo. After war broke out in Kosovo in 1998, he attended a meeting in Michigan sponsored by the LDK and the Kosovo Liberation Army (“UCK”).
The link between Washington-sponsored “Kosovo liberation” and reactionary communalism and gangsterism is once again confirmed. As the WSWS noted in 2009, after the BBC presented evidence of KLA torture and killings in a secret network of prisons in Kosovo and Albania, “the fact is that the KLA played a key role in the US strategy to break the Yugoslav Republic into its constituent parts, thereby securing US hegemony in the Balkan region and threatening Russia’s wider geostrategic interests.
In his 2007 legal appeal, Duhanaj, the loan shark, “submitted photos of himself with prominent Kosovar Albanian, American and UN officials and politicians, including President [Bill] Clinton”! Unfortunately, this fascinating little history of the Detroit area, with all its social and geopolitical implications, would not be of much interest to our contemporary filmmakers.