Takeaways from the New York Premiere of Documentary Film Bekim Fehmiu

Rafaela Prifti

The New York premiere of feature documentary Bekim Fehmiu on Saturday night at Producers Club Theaters paid tribute to the Kosova Albanian movie star of international recognition. The organizers Diar Xani, Arenc Leka, Fation Zogiani said that they timed the screening with the celebration of the 16th anniversary of Kosova Independence Day.

Albanian filmmakers, director Valmir Tertini and screenwriter Fahri Musliu, limn the portrait of an artist that gave life to numerous movie characters yet his own ended with some obscurity when he was found dead at age 74 in his Belgrade residence in 2010. The film runs for 66 minutes as a non-narrative depiction with English subtitles. Taking the audience back in time, the documentary features stock photos, archive footage and interviews with his widowed partner and actress Branka Petric Fehmiu, brother Arsim Fehmiu and a whole gallery of A-list stars of theater and film in Albania, Kosova, Bosnia Hercegovina, Croatia, Serbia, Italy, among them Faruk Begolli, Fadil Hysaj, Enver Petrovci, Piro Milkani, Roza Anagnosti, Miljenko Jergovic, Goran Markovic, Milan Vlajcic, Branislav Lecic. The unique ensemble shared memories and impressions of the actor of humble beginnings whose career seemed destined for Hollywood and whose life ended abrupty leaving the audience wanting something more.

“I laughed, I cried, I was in awe watching this documentary,” said Aida Gashi, Manager at a Real Estate firm in New York. An ethnic Kosova Albanian, Ms. Gashi appreciates the premiere’s showing on Kosova Independence Day. “Bekim Fehmiu, one of out greatest cultural figures, not only left an indelible mark in the international world of cinema, he left a lasting impression on all those lucky enough to have known him and worked with him – that of dignity and resolute character. His talent and steadfast path to the pinnacle of success are a testament to the human spirit.”

Bekim Fehmiu was the six child of eight offspring of Ibrahim and Hedije Halili (the patriarch had the family name change to Fehmiu) The youngest of the male siblings, he was born in Sarajevo on June 1, 1936. His father, a teacher and activist, was jailed by the Yugoslav authorities and the family moved a lot, including two years in the north Albanian town of Shkoder from 1939 to 1941. The family relocated to Prizren where Bekim completed high school and gets recognized for his acting skills. His talent got him at the Belgrade Academy of Dramatic Arts in Belgrade, where Bekim was admitted upon one condition: learning the Serbian language.

Young Director Tertini who had traveled from Albania, to be at the premiere, greeted the theater audience speaking briefly about filming in six countries and overcoming scheduling issues with interviewers. The one night New York premiere had two back to back screenings at the Midtown Producers Club of Freddy (Alfred) Tolljas. It is the first show in the US and follows last year’s European premieres in Albania and Kosova. It is worth noting the significance of those locations in terms of impacting the actor’s life: his childhood and high school education including his acting career, in Prizren and Prishtina, a memorable visit with Albania’s film artists, directors in 1972 on the heels of his breakout roles ushering critical recognition beyond the continent’s borders.

The documentary depicts Fehmiu’s professional career chronologically starting with his big break in the 1967 Yugoslavia film Mbledhesi i Puplave (I Even Met Happy Gypsies, English Translation) – a portrayal of Roma life of feather traders, written and directed by Alexandar Petrovic. The film won two awards in Cannes and an Oscar nomination. It got the attention of Western filmmakers, including the US. Fehmiu signed a contract with the acclaimed producer Dino De Laurentiis. In 1968 De Laurentiis, effectively launching his international career, cast Bekim in the main role of the TV mini-series Adventures of Ulysses, The Odyssey, a huge production of Italian national Television RAI, directed by Franco Rossi, Mario Bava, Piero Schivazapp.

As an actor, Fehmiu had an instinct for perfecting every detail of the craft from the makeup and hair all the way to the “macho appearance” as the press referred to it. An interview reveals a telling detail of his character and work ethics: during the filming of The Odyssey, Bekim was displeased with the work that the hair and makeup team did on his character, Ulysses. He kicked them out and unbothered by the complains made to the producers, Bekim procedeed to apply the cosmetics as he saw fit. And it worked!

According to IMBD, Bekim Fehmiu has appeared in 41 films between 1953 and 1998. He stood out among actors of his generation who performed in a series of roles in theaters and movies beyond South East Europe, acting in numeorus productions in French, Italian, German, Spanish, and a handful of English language appearances. Writing about the opening of the Yugoslav movie at the city’s Regency Theater on March 21, 1968, the New York Times praises the star Bekim Fehmiu “a young actor who looks and behaves a lot like Jean-Paul Belmondo and who in 1966, won the Silver Arena in Pula for his performance in “The Journey”. Just a few years later, he would be performing alongside Dirk Bogarde, Ava Gardner, in Permission to Kill (1975) and many big names in the business like John Houston.

For Aida Gashi, his name spells a feeling of pride stemming from his outsize impact in the movie world. “He has left a lasting legacy not only for Albanians but for global cinematic history.” The documentary may feel like a soft attempt to make it right by the ill-fated actor. A subtle comment in the feature made by one of his close friends, Milazim Salihu, currently Director General of Cineplexx movie theater, recalls how Bekim, during his visits in Prishtina, spent a lot of time at the lounge, where he met with people he knew and cared about while quickly sending away those who he said did not deserve his attention or time. Despite a successful career spanning dozens of movies, he was never cast in a leading role of an Albanian-language film. Now 30 year old Albanian director Valmir Tertini with screenwriting by Fahri Musliu, a retired journalist, author and decadeslong Belgrade correspondent of Kosova media, have dedicated a feature documentary to Bekim Fehmiu.

The Head of Mission at Consulate General of the Republic of Kosova Fatmir Zajmi, Ana Mani, Executive Assistant to the Ambassador, celebrated members of the artistic community like Bujar Alimani, Diar Xani, Arenc Leka, Avni Abazi, Herion Mustafaraj, Blerim Gjoci, Faton Macula, Andi Gjoni, Shpendi Xani, Adonis Filipi were among the audience at the Producers Club premiere.

The documentary was supported financially by Albania’s National Cinematography Center. The New York screening was made possible thanks to TV Alba Life, Qemal Zylo founder and owner, Kozeta Zylo, cofounder, Albanian American Association Skenderbej, Board representative Fation Zogiani. As member of the organizing team, Diar Xani, actor and producer, thanked sponsors of the event: TV Alba Life, Albanian American Association Skenderbej, Bright Side Adult Center, Sergios Ristorante, Paesano of Mulberry Street etc. The filmmakers intend to have future premieres in Prishtina, Belgrade, Paris and Rome.

Photo: New York premiere of Bekim Fehmiu at Producers Club on February 17, 2024

New York Times Archives, March 21, 1968

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