- Two Degrees of Separation:Xhanfise Keko and the Albanian Children's Film
Many children's stories begin with the words "once upon a time." So does Kusturica in Bila jednom jedna zemlja/Underground (YU, DE, FR, BG, CZ, HU, 1995). And so will I. Once upon a time, there was a country where vigilance in service of the State was an expected duty. Eyes were open, and mouths informed. This country was Comrade Enver Hoxha's Albania, and we knew very little about it. We knew even less about its cinema. And once upon a time, there was a woman in Hoxha's Albania who directed children's films. Her name was Xhanfise Keko,1 and she was indisputably Albania's most highly regarded woman director. Best known outside of Albania for her film Beni ecën vetë/Beni Walks On His Own (AL, 1975), Keko was an essential member of the artists who built the New Albania Kinostudio (Kinostudio Shqipëria e Re) in the 1950s.2 Together with Beni, which has been deemed a masterwork of the Albanian cinema, Keko is mostly associated with a series of "child spy" films made between 1977 and 1980. On a surface level, these works, which include Tomka dhe shokët e tij/Tomka and His Friends (AL, 1977), Pas gjurmëve/On the Tracks (AL, 1978), and Partizani i vogël Velo/Velo, the Little Partisan (AL, 1980), underscore the firm relationship between cinema, and ideology, and foreground—in particular, the dogmatic demands of the children's film in a country whose cinematic mechanism was tightly controlled.
But to deem Xhanfise Keko's children's films works of pure propaganda would be to misread them on both diegetic and formal levels. Although superficially closed texts, they are imbued with surprising innovations that encourage the viewer to see beyond the overt dogma of the post-Cultural-Revolution period. All the while extolling the Communist cause, Keko's [End Page 40] protagonists are larger than life, individualistic, and occasionally uncanny. Her work at once supports and challenges the systems of both State and Kinostudio. On a deeper level, it reconfigures concepts of family and nation in a manner that can well be deemed subversive.
Despite Keko's importance, her work has remained relatively unexamined both at home and abroad. This is largely due to the marginalization by Albanian critics of two voices, those of the woman director and of the children's film. The former absence betrays the inherently patriarchal underpinnings of the de jure egalitarian society, while the latter, in conformance with many international contexts, reveals how the genre has been needlessly discredited. These two voices conflate in the work of Keko, undisputedly Albania's prime proponent of films for and about youth. Awarded the prestigious title People's Artist, Keko, wife of director Endri Keko and mother of the late novelist Teodor Keko, has garnished little scholarly attention within Albania. With the exception of the critical analyses of Natasha Lako, herself a screenwriter, novelist, poet, and former director of the Albanian Central Film Archives, virtually all criticism thus far has been written by men, and these have paid little notice to Keko's films.3 It is noteworthy that such critics as Abdurrahim Myftiu4 and Abax Hoxha5 devote more attention to women in other capacities in film than to Keko. To date, there have been no lengthy scholarly discussions of Keko's work. Even cursory examinations of Albanian film clearly mention her importance, but say very little. The 1977 The Albanian Film, a treatise published by Kinostudio which presents discussions of the entity's ideological stance and brief discussions of important films, is no exception.6 Nothing is present to suggest Keko's uniqueness. Likewise, although Hoxha's 1986 book-length encyclopedia of individual films affords the same degree of attention to Keko that it does to all other Albanian directors,7 his 2002 history of Albanian film virtually neglects her. It simply lists Keko as one of Albania's most important directors.8 From a more critical perspective, Myftiu's study of Albanian cinema mentions only that Keko's Beni Walks on His...