Xhanfise Keko: Tomka and His Friends (Tomka dhe shokët e tij, 1977)
reviewed by Konstanty Kuzma© 2016
If one seeks to deliberate the role that children play in our society, it makes sense to introduce children’s films and literature into one’s inquiry at some stage or other. Why? Because our dispositional attitude towards them not only reveals, but partly constitutes that role. How we speak to children says a lot about them. This is why it makes sense for Cinema of Childhood, a film series that brought 17 feature films about children to UK audiences in 2014, to have featured certain films that were clearly devised for them.
That said, confounding these two aspects when facing children’s films and literature may lead to serious exegetical confusions. Tomka and His Friends, a 1977 Albanian WWII-film part of that selection, highlights how difficult it can be to distinguish a children’s film’s being about them—which is here true in a double sense (first because it features children, second because of its dispositional insights mentioned above)—from its being devised for them. The primary risk is that one can end up basing one’s criticism on the “about” without taking into consideration the “for”: theoretical analyses may bring out interesting and hidden aspects of a children’s film, but they are hardly sufficient for exacting fundamental reinterpretations if based on categories unintelligible to children. Trivially, it makes no sense to say that a seemingly pro-violence children’s film is actually pacifist if gaining that insight requires film theoretical knowledge and vocabulary.
The recent restoration of Tomka and His Friends—a joint initiative of the Albanian Cinema Project, the Albanian Film Archive, and the US Library of Congress Audiovisual Conservation Center—has renewed interest in the film and put pressure on the question how it should be correctly interpreted. As US-Albanian filmmaker Thomas Logoreci notes in an essay commissioned for the Cinema of Childhood series, the film takes up a “pivotal yet controversial place in Albanian cinema.” Though clearly entrenched in many people’s hearts, it both originates from a time “most Albanians would prefer to forget”, i.e. the years of Communist leader Enver Hoxha’s isolationist dictatorship (1944-1985), and itself shows signs of totalitarian ideology. Needless to say, Tomka’s female director, Xhanfise Keko, would have been unable to complete it if it hadn’t been for her connections to the regime. Keko was not only privileged enough to be sent to Moscow for training early in her career. She was also among the founding members of the “New Albania” Film Studio, which opened in 1952 and soon became the central (and mostly the only) production facility of Communist Albania. Keko worked at the studio first as editor, then as documentarist, and finally as director to the dozen or so children’s films for which she is known best.
A key figure on Albania’s cinematic landscape, Keko’s work was central for fulfilling Hoxha’s dream of making cinema an ideological platform which combines education and culture, making her an ambivalent personality to say the least. Some historians, notably Bruce Williams, have been led to emphasize Keko’s cinematic skills and downplay her ideological commitments. Logoreci, too, leaves open what her intention “may have been” in making Tomka. Presumably, both do so in order to underscore Tomka’s aesthetic and historical value and make a case for Keko. In my opinion, their restraint on moral judgements and emphasis on film theoretical analysis misses the seemingly obvious point that Keko made a film for children. Tomka’s “controversial” status should not be brushed off as resulting from an inability to come to terms with Albania’s past (as Logoreci suggests) or an inability to look behind the film’s propagandist façade (as Williams suggests), but accepted as the common, unnegotiable requisite for discussing its aesthetic and historical value. In other words, I claim that the film takes up a controversial place in Albania’s cinematic history because it deserves to. Importantly, ignoring its being a children’s film not only stems from a wishful reading of Keko’s work, but further keeps one from appreciating the ways in which Tomka is in fact “pivotal” aesthetically speaking.
A few words about the plot are in order. Tomka opens with an impressive tracking shot which introduces us to Tomka and his friends, the film’s indigent but principled child heroes, and continues with a series of expositions. On a remote hill overlooking the nameless city where the film takes place—the film was shot in Berat, Albania—, the boys stumble upon a neglected armory, then witness Nazi troops entering their town, and finally bump into an Italian deserter whom they take into hiding. Albania is falling prey to another fascist occupation after the Italian one (1939-1943), one of the boys remarks, and it turns out that this abstract political fact has very immediate implications for the gang: the Nazis take away their favorite spot for playing ball to set up a military base. A subsequent song has them announce that they will fight for the spot “even though we’re just kids” which is roughly the film’s plot, although it takes considerable time for the boys’ profound hatred of and plotting against the Nazis to fully unfold.
If the boys gain considerable autonomy over the course of the film—note that it’s them who reflect upon their discoveries without adult assistance—, they are not up against the Nazis all by themselves. Tomka soon finds out that his dad and brother are partisans, allowing his gang to adopt the “Death to Fascism” salutation, and generally most families in town appear to loathe the occupiers. (Two farcically overdrawn nationalists are the only Albanian characters who hint at a divide within the nation, which is interesting given that Tomka and His Friends can itself come off as rather patriotic when framing the occupier question as national or when appealing to ancestors and fathers.) Once the boys and partisans establish a relationship of mutual trust, the film morphs into a child spy film, which explains why Tomka is often considered to be part of Keko’s “child spy trilogy” (together with On The Tracks, 1978, and Velo, the Little Partisan, 1980). Supplying the partisans with information and aid, the boys take up an active and independent role in blowing up the Nazi camp and reclaiming their playing field. Their wit and perseverance are aided by the fact that they are “just children” and thus able to infiltrate the Nazi camp without being noticed (only an especially ambitious attempt leads to one of the boys getting beaten up).
As becomes clear early on, Keko emphasizes her character’s outer life rather than their psychological nuances, with every emotion made explicit for viewers to recognize. For instance, though Tomka and his friends visibly suffer at the hands of the Nazis who take away their favorite spot for playing football, the boys further articulate their hatred through expository dialogues and songs. Similarly, they celebrate each time that the occupiers suffer a defeat, as if every event needed to be provided with an explicit interpretation and normative classification. Like the melodramatic music meant to balance our emotions with those of the characters, such expressivity could be deemed “kitschy” or “naïve” in an adult idiolect or, worse yet, taken to result from a paternalistic conception of children as less ambitious viewers. But that is precisely not so, as Keko seems to appeal to children’s ability to revel joy, justness and happy endings rather than their inability to deal with complex narratives. If some degree of materialism is surely at place in a children’s story (there is a reason why Astrid Lindgren’s Karlson personifies an imaginative ersatz as a way of addressing child solitude), its use neither keeps one from tackling difficult subjects, or of treating children as demanding viewers capable of appreciating narrative threads that would fall prey to most adult viewers’ supposedly superior critical apparatus (as David Foster Wallace once put it, people tend to mistake irony for a sign of maturity).
This draws notable stylistic parallels to neorealism, an evident stylistic inspiration for Keko, though the fact that children also figure prominently in that movement (think of big classics like Bicycle Thieves or Germany Year Zero) clearly points to common ideological ambitions as well. Recall that neorealist directors primarily emphasized the social status of their characters because their films were meant to have generalist implications: crudely put, the tragic fate of any given working-class character was said to be caused by his/her being a member of the working class, not due to his/her personal idiosyncrasies. (Indeed, it’s the lack of emphasis on the latter that made filmmakers like Fellini or Rossellini slowly turn away from neorealism in search of a style more individualistic with regard to its choice of characters, stories and styles). Which arguably explains why children often appear in neorealist films: as innocent and helpless members of society, they seem to stand for the fate of the proletariat while allowing for more immediate and categorical viewer-identification than adult characters might. Tomka, too, both uses emotionally manipulative techniques and, being shot 30+ years after the time it depicts, can be viewed as a portrait of the war-time generation of Albanians who were subjected to fascist occupation: the story advances from poverty and submersion to brutal resistance to the glorious victory of the partisans over the Nazis.
If this sounds like the opening up of a dialectic, the carving out of Tomka’s ominous moral deficiency, it does so only because we’ve been deliberating what the film has to say about children. Yes, Tomka’s plot does square perfectly with the way Enver Hoxha’s regime conceived of Albania’s recent history, and yes, it provides an ideological vindication of the former. Still such meta-interpretations are surely not what children ponder about when watching the film, and thus not the main reason why I think that Tomka is not the kind of film we want our children to see. In fact, Tomka’s neorealist touch equally points to Keko’s sensitivity for the child’s perspective, hinting at why it seems to work so well as a film devised for children: it quite simply manages to reach them. Put in an autonomous position, her characters give children’s dreams maximum space to evolve. Worries that would otherwise seem trivial against the backdrop of war – e.g. not being let in on secrets or not having one’s playing ground at disposal -, are treated with genuine care and sympathy, never scrutinized as “childish” laments resulting from immaturity or softness. In doing so, Keko encourages children to embrace their intuitions and do what they like doing most—playing, plotting, fantasizing.
How did she do it? One can quickly drift into essentialism here, especially given that Keko’s skills seem to be secondary to and derivative from her motherly nature. Affectionately known as “Aunt Xheno” among her former child stars, those who knew her describe Keko as a “model for human kindness”, a woman who, like her films, radiated warmth and a profound understanding of children’s needs. It’s hard to imagine how else Keko could have managed to involve her children in devising key scenes, or that the latter should have achieved such a degree of authenticity without that trust (take the boys’ memorable dance in the scene where they seek to drown Nazi songs with their own singing). Her child actors’ nostalgic recollections are testimony to the fact that the lines between acting and reality were blurred on set: Keko really was documenting children’s natural behavior, streamlining it only with her clear aesthetic ideas and occasional sternness. (What is still the case must have been even more extreme back in the day: to be a woman director in an industry that is virtually all-male requires a special kind of assertiveness). If Tomka is childish, it is so in the very best sense of the word—anyone who wishes to honor Keko’s film should do so by way of acknowledging its emotional and perspectival primacy.
Which is easier said than done, for how should one make explicit the workings of a film like Tomka (beyond saying just that) without either (a) constructing one’s argument around vacuous predicates like “authentic”, “genuine”, “real”, or (b) providing a theoretical analysis which is conclusive, but unable to account for that intuitive accessibility of children’s films that an approach like (a) is driving at? This difficulty seems to underlie Bruce Williams’ analysis of Keko’s films (Williams 2013), which quite rightly criticizes critics for disregarding Keko’s works because of their genre, but ends up offering an analysis that simply disregards their being children’s films. Thus, he challenges the idea that Keko’s work should be brushed off as “pure propaganda” by appealing to its “deeper level, [where] it reconfigures concepts of family and nation in a manner that can well be deemed subversive”. For instance, he takes the fact that Tomka’s protagonists “think outside the box and solve problems unconventionally” to hint at a separation between them and Albania’s dictatorship: “They become rugged individualists who, although meeting the needs of society, explore their own capacities to the fullest degree.”
Apart from the question whether such appeals to hidden meanings are generally quite as useful as Williams takes them to be, they seem off-key when we’re dealing with children’s films. Surely, we don’t want to exonerate Keko for integrating ambiguities which may or may not point to “subversive” tendencies in a children’s film which is otherwise unambiguously compliant with state ideology: her film not only prescribes obedience (Tomka explicitly takes up the role of gang “leader”), but further suggests that the ends justify the means, as one of their orders is to kill a dog guarding the Nazi camp. Generally, the film is packed with over-explicit slogans and vaude vecums like “We hate the occupiers, freedom is our desire” which are difficult to either reinterpret or overhear. To say that Tomka is not “pure propaganda”, then—or to suggest that it is unclear what Keko’s intuitions were in making it (as Thomas Logoreci does) —, is either to say that its child addressees can reasonably be expected to dissect its (supposed) hidden meanings, or that one doesn’t take them to be children at all. Neither of these claims seems to commit viewers critical of Keko’s children’s films to rethinking their position - the first is wrong while the second begs the question.
In an important sense, Tomka has more to say as a film about children than as one devised for them, giving us insight into the way they may have perceived the Second World War, and, on a meta-level, into how they were touched by Communist ideologues in Albania. A case is to be made that this justifies analyses of the kind Logoreci and Williams conduct—it may for example be interesting to ask what Keko really thought about Albania, and to question whether her on-screen slogans are truly tantamount to her off-screen views. Yet this is not to pay tribute to Tomka as it was intended and as it works best. Whether they are really there or not, it’s not critical undertones that make Tomka and His Friends a film worth remembering, or neorealist dramatizations, or its historical role, but the way it manages to reach children. Once that is granted, the interesting question becomes how someone who understood children so well could have betrayed that trust by misusing it for ideological ends...
1] CINEMA OF CHILDHOOD (2014). Tomka and His Friends.
3] As has been brought to my attention, other contemporary children’s films from the region were similarly inspired by neorealism, for instance the Yugoslav features Mirko and Slavko (dir. Branimir Tori Jankovic, 1973) or Train in the Snow (dir. Mate Relja, 1976). The Georgian classic Magdana’s Donkey (1955, dir. Tengiz Abuladze, Revaz Chkheidze) is also worth mentioning here as it is, though neither from that time or region, an early sign of neorealist influence in Eastern European cinema, then as later coupled with child characters playing an autonomous and key role in the narrative.
5] Of course, though Keko is clearly addressing children, she is not addressing them as children. Instead, she uncritically makes her protagonists act upon categories not of ethical and unethical, but of right and wrong as delineated by a political value system. Rather than arguing for the uniqueness and inviolability of childhood (cf. Pippi Longstocking), Keko’s characters gain their autonomy by becoming adults in the very worst way. But that only strengthens the intuition that Tomka is morally objectionable; any attempt at acknowledging Keko’s talent for reproducing the child’s perspective leads to the insight that she did so at the expense of contaminating it with ideology and moral destitution. Ironically, it’s her understanding of children that seems to explain both the film’s aesthetic appeal and its moral baseness.
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Jakiša, M. (2012). “Memory of a Past to Come – Yugoslavia’s Partisan Film and the Fashioning of Space and Time,” In T. Zimmerman (ed.), Balkan memories. Media Constructions of National and Transnational History, Bielefeld: Transcript, pp.111-120.
Williams, Bruce (2013). “Two Degrees of Separation: Xhanfise Keko and the Albanian Children's Film.” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 54. 1: 40-58.
Tomka and His Friends, Albania, 1977
Color, 80 minutes
Director: Xhanfise Keko
Screenplay: Nasho Jorgaqi
Cinematography: Faruk Basha
Editing: Xhanfise Keko
Production Design: Shyqyri Sako
Music: Aleksandër Lalo
Cast: Sotiraq Çili, Pavlina Oça, Zehrudin Dokle, Xhelal Tafaj, Enea Zhegu, Herion Mustafaraj, Genci Mosha, Artan Puto, Selma Sotillari
Producer: Nikollaq Taja
Xhanfise Keko: Tomka and His Friends (Tomka dhe shokët e tij, 1977)
reviewed by Konstanty Kuzma© 2016