If we accept that art is magic, then Teta Xhano is the most powerful sorceress in the world!
Over the past 39 years, from the time the film Beni Walks on His Own (1975) was released, I have had countless journalists and fans of her films ask me how it happened that I was chosen by Xhanfise Keko to play the lead character Beni.
Before that fated day when Xhanfise Keko appeared in the courtyard of my elementary school "Kosovo" in the hopes of finding Beni, I was just a kid like everyone else. I could not have predicted that as a result of this encounter my life would be forever changed.
I can still remember that day well. It was a little overcast and my mood seemed to match the sky. The morning had not started well for me at all. While it began as my days often did, with me going to feed the pigeons that nested behind our house near the "Kemal Stafa" stadium, on this particular day, instead of encountering happy birds ready to eat, there were feathers flying everywhere. I immediately assumed that the cat who lived on the grounds of the East German Embassy compound, which was practically in our backyard, had attacked the pigeons once again. Not long ago, he had strangled and eaten several of them. Although we had done all we could to keep the cat away from the pigeons—we even built a large cage to keep them safe— this cat was a relentless hunter. On this morning I could not find my favorite dove, Nada. I called to her, but she would not come. Immediately, my mind was racing—No! I did not want to believe that once again this hairy, treacherous beast (in reality a beautiful Persian cat) had eaten my most precious dove. Where could she be? That morning she was nowhere to be found. I had already worked myself up into such a state, that it colored my mood for the entire day.
Ha - ha - ha! I laugh now, but that day I was full of anger and hatred for that furry beast and I began sobbing uncontrollably. Even my grandmother was overcome by my tears. Finally, my mother was able to get me to calm down and stop crying, and she took me to school.
I was still teary-eyed and unable to concentrate on my schoolwork when the classroom door opened and several strangers entered. The first in line was a woman, not very tall, but very attractive. She greeted our teacher, and then came to greet the class with a cheerful, " Good morning." My mind was still on Nada and my eyes were still welling with tears.
I thought that this woman was the doctor, and I mumbled to myself, "Now this day is going to get even worse, we have to be vaccinated! " So, I got up and walked towards her like a robot, rolling up the sleeve of my shirt to expose my arm.
“Why are you rolling up your sleeve?” She asked with a sweet voice.”
“To make it easier for you to give me the vaccine,” I replied .
She smiled and patted me on the head and said, “No sweetie, I am not a doctor, I am a filmmaker who makes films for children.”
We went outside and there in the school yard one of her assistants took pictures of us. Then, she asked me, “Do you want to be in films?”
I exclaimed “I do!”
“Good!” She said, “Let's try something, let’s pretend that you will play ball with your friends over there. Now, if you had the ball in your hand, what would you do? Let’s see...” She had a bunch of sweet treats in her hand and told me that when I was done showing her how I would play that I could eat some plum filled rolls that she had brought for us. And then she gestured to some other kids playing in the schoolyard to come and play with me. That was my first audition, I had never acted before.
I remember that when we finished playing for her, she offered all of us some of the treats to eat. She then asked us to show her how we would eat an apple. I explained to her that the first thing I do is I take off the stem, then wipe the fruit with my hand, then I eat it and I toss the core. I accompanied this explanation with exaggerated gestures and even mimicked throwing the apple core as far as I could.
" Ha - ha - ha ! " She laughed a moment, then suddenly became serious and asked me why I seemed so upset that I could throw an invisible apple with such force. She caught me off guard, as I didn’t realize that my expression had betrayed me and that my face still bore the marks of my morning encounter with the hungry cat. At that moment, she had such a kind and maternal look about her that I felt like I was talking to my own mother and I decided to tell her about the dove. Just recounting the story, I began to cry again, and she held me in her arms until the tears stopped. She told me that she was sorry to hear about my beloved dove, and she caressed me and promised me that she would try to find me another bird just like the one that I had lost. I was overjoyed. (To be honest, there were still about twenty other pigeons, but Nada had been my favorite.)
By Herion Mustafaraj
Translated and abridged from his chapter in the memorial book Teta Xhano.
Herion Mustafaraj was born and raised in Tirana, Albania. He went on acting in Kinostudio productions until 1988. He studied drama at the Academy of Art in Tirana. He is married with a child of his own, and continues to work as an actor, making his home between New York and Los Angeles.
Herion will be traveling to select cities in the UK and the US during the restoration screenings of Tomka and His Friends to share his personal stories of working as a child actor during the Kinostudio era. See Herion's cover of the TOMKA theme song here on YouTube.
From that spring day in 1975, for about two weeks, we would go every afternoon to the Palace of Pioneers to a room that was filled with hundreds of school children. On that first day I still didn’t know the name of this woman who had come to our school, but when she entered the room that afternoon several children hollered out, "Teta Xhano!" We rehearsed day after day, hour after hour, until the end of that two week period when just a handful of kids remained in the hall. It is impossible to convey in words what it was like to take part in these mass auditions, with hundreds of kids being asked to perform and mimic certain actions, and above all with a bunch of young kids who all want to go to the bathroom at the same time! I am not sure exactly how many, but surely, in those two weeks thousands of children from schools throughout the capital city of Tirana participated in these auditions.
So day after day I endured these group auditions and the chaos of that room full of kids, and, it seems to me the secret was that I always stayed seated in the front row. And, I was not too shy to raise my hand and volunteer whenever Teta Xhano asked for someone to come up to the front and do an improvisational scene. Meanwhile, those who had come only for laughs, or to escape their after school chores at home, or those who were just too shy, usually sat in the back of the auditorium.
Today, perhaps all of those other children have become lawyers or doctors, rather than actors. But, for me, the die had been cast, and my fate was sealed on that last day in the auditorium when Teta Xhano came to me with her smile and that distinctive sweetness that I had experienced during our first encounter at my school a few weeks earlier.
“Come here sweetheart, come here!”
For a moment I thought she was speaking to another child who was behind me, so I instinctively turned my head back, only to see that the auditorium was nearly empty.
“Come sweetheart,” she repeated with the same sweet smile. Teta Xhano had such a warm and melodious voice when communicating with children.
“I have a gift for you Herion!” Then she looked at me and told me to go and get the bag that was up near the front of the room. “I promised that I would bring you a dove, here you go! Now, don’t try to let him fly at this moment,” then she turned to one of her assistants who explained that he had secured the dove’s wings so that he could bring the bird into the auditorium.
There right before my eyes was a white pigeon, it didn’t look like my beloved Nada, but it was still beautiful, and more than anything, I was just overjoyed at her generosity. I jumped into her arms and forgot the pain that I had felt on losing Nada. In all the countless hours of rehearsals for the roles that I played in Xhanfise Keko’s films, even as I developed more as an actor and started to mature from a boy into a young man, I carried inside of me the spirit of that naïve child who she had met on that fated first day in the schoolyard.
“Herion, do you like the dove?” She asked me. And while I nodded my head, she continued, “Now I have really good news for you. I want to come to your house and meet your mom, because I have chosen you to play the role of Beni in my next film. Are you happy?”
I didn’t know which role was Beni, or that this character was the lead in the film, but I instantly jumped for joy that I had been chosen by Teta Xhano and that she would come to my house to speak to my mother to ask permission for me to be in the film. I didn’t know what else to do to express my joy besides running up and down in the corridors of the room, and then, I got so overwhelmed with excitement and wanted to share the news with my family that I ran right out of the building, forgetting all about my new dove. I ran into the yard and headed toward my house. Just as excitedly, Teta Xhano followed me.
I still recall this moment, over 30 years later, as one of the most exciting in my life. I miss so many things about that time, and working with Teta Xhano. She was such a powerful force in my life, and whenever I was near her, I always felt protected, and safe. A sense of calm would come over me.
When we traveled to Vithkuq (in the region of Korcë in southeastern Albania) to film on location for Beni Walks on His Own, she would come to my room and read to me each night until I fell asleep. I have never figured out why Teta Xhano always kept me so close during the making of this film, but I think that in some ways she was a little superstitious. I cannot otherwise explain why even when we were not shooting and even when there were other adults around who could look after me, she would keep me close to her. And whenever someone was shouting demands on set, or not listening to her requests, she would pat me gently on the head. Maybe she thought that I could bring her luck. I don’t know the reason, I only know that she and I did have a special bond, and all of the other kids sensed it too. That is why even today, after so much time has gone by, my love for Teta Xhano has remained the same as my love for my mother and grandmother.
This woman deserves to be put on a pedestal for what she brought to children’s films in Albania, and it is something that has been lacking in our children’s films ever since. I am convinced that if I sense this loss, so do all the others who worked with her and experienced her craft. She loved us just as she loved her own children. For all the misfortune that Albania experienced in this era, we—Keko’s kids—we were the lucky ones that had not only our birth mothers, but also Teta Xhano.
The more time passes, the more her legend grows. In my own life, I have not met another human being who has had the capacity to convey her talent and her artistic vision as Teta Xhano could. She was a mother and a teacher to me, and the one who encouraged me to open my heart and to bring to life unforgettable characters like Beni and Vaska.