Photo by George J. Tanber
Letter from Albania
Film Producer’s Work Helps
Ease Scars from Communist Era
TIRANA, Albania – To truly appreciate and understand freedom you either had to have fought for it or lived under a socialist or fascist totalitarian regime.
Fabian Kati can speak with authority on the latter.
His uncle was a high-ranking official in the Albanian Workers’ Party, one of the most brutal and repressive socialist governments in post-World War II history.
His mother’s family was outspoken critics of the same government, which placed young Fabian firmly in the crosshairs of a chaotic upbringing with zero chance at normalcy.
Ironically, he’s telling me his story as we sit for coffee in a Tirana neighborhood where his uncle, Vasil Kati, and many other communist leaders once lived in homes unimaginable to the vast majority of Albanians at the time.
The communists were booted from power in 1990. Their leader, Enver Hoxha, a charismatic and ruthless tyrant in the mold of North Korea’s Kim II-Sung, executed thousands of dissidents and shipped thousands more off to prisons and labor camps. For 45 years, the country was shut off from the rest of the world: Albanians couldn’t leave and visitors were not welcome.
In that context, sitting here in a library that’s also a bar on a warm summer evening, tables filled with young couples and friends, stylishly dressed, seemingly free to do whatever they choose, seems surreal.
“You can’t compare Albania today in any way to the past,” says Fabian, who prefers his lifelong nickname, Fabi.
He’s 57 and has the look of a college professor with black-framed specs and salt and pepper hair. He’s wearing a gray tee shirt and brown shorts – appropriate clothing for traveling to our appointment on his bicycle, his preferred mode of transportation in a city choked with vehicular traffic.
“So,” I ask. “How did you end up back here?”
“The answer to that,” he says, “will take some time.”
An Ill-Advised Marriage
Fabi’s father, Vangjel Kati, fought with the National Liberation Movement [forerunner to the Albanian Communist party] during World War II against the Germans and Italians, who occupied Albania. At the time his brother Vasil already was a high-ranking member of the group’s leadership.
Following the war, Vangjel Kati earned a degree in electrical engineering in Prague before returning to Albania in 1952. He met Flora Kallajxhi soon after, which is when the family’s problems began. At the time, Flora’s father, Mashar – Fabi’s grandfather – was serving a 15-year prison sentence for anti-government activity. Word of his brother’s relationship reached Vasil, who was working his way up the party hierarchy.
His father was told to break off the relationship. He refused, left the communist party and married Flora in 1954. Immediately, the couple was expelled from Tirana and forced into exile elsewhere in Albania. They remained away eight years.
Eventually, two things happened: Vasil’s rank within the party was prominent enough that he arranged for Vangjel and Flora to return to Tirana. Also, a construction boom in the capital required skilled electrical engineers, precisely Vangjel’s talent, and he was hired by the country’s state-owned construction company.
The Katis continued on with their lives. Fabi’s sister, Anila, was born in 1957, while the parents were in exile. Fabi came along in 1963. As he grew, it didn’t take long for him to figure out he was living in a dysfunctional home.
He remembers: “When we visited my uncle there were bodyguards. Even though I was young I felt all the elements of what power was. Then when we visited my mother’s family, it was the opposite. It was a completely different way of life. They were the overthrown people. They had lost everything. And my grandfather had spent all those years in prison.”
The visits were frequent to both families. I ask Fabi how he was treated by his mother’s family.
“Well,” he says, matter-of-factly, “although they were against the regime they were interested in surviving. They wanted to maintain a good relationship with my father’s family as they knew that through us they could survive.”
“How did that make you feel?” I ask.
“Deep down, I knew how they really felt.”
As for the monthly visits to his Uncle Vasil’s palatial home, just down the street from where we presently sat, Fabi remembered an incident when he was around 10 that caused a major spat between his parents. As the family gathered at Vasil’s there was a phone call: A high-ranking party official would be arriving at Vasil’s in 30 minutes. Vasil’s mother – Fabi’s grandmother – quickly recognized that Flora’s presence could be a significant problem.
Fabi remembers: “She said to my father, ‘You and Flora have to hide somewhere in the house.’ So, they hid. You can imagine in a child’s mind thinking that my parents are hiding while in my uncle’s house and wondering what is wrong. But I could understand very well what was going on.”
A crisis was averted. But on the way home – everyone walked everywhere in those days – Fabi remembers his mother yelling at his father: “I’ll never, ever visit that home again. I refuse to be humiliated.”
Arrest and Prison
Two years later, in 1975, Fabi’s world came crashing down. His uncle, who had become Minister of Foreign Trade, was arrested along with the ministers of Internal Trade and Industry and another major party official. The charges? Sabotaging Albania’s economy. [Every year various charges were drummed up by party leaders against officials in all government sectors mainly as a scare tactic to keep any possible rebellions at bay.]
Vasil and another minister were sentenced to 20 years in prison. The other two were executed.
Suddenly, Fabi’s family was treated like lepers. The communists considered them traitors while Flora’s family expressed little sympathy because of their previously privileged life.
Fabi will never forget the feeling he had after his uncle was arrested: “Although I was only 12, I felt like I had to grow up in one week.”
His life spiraled out of control. Both of his parents lost their jobs. The resulting despair had a devastating effect on their health: His mother died at 46 in 1980. His father followed three years later. He was 56. Meanwhile, Fabi’s sister Anila, who suffered from mental issues, was shipped off to an institution. In seemingly a blink of an eye, Fabi’s family was gone.
It got worse. Five months after his father died, Fabi was arrested on two charges – trying to escape the country and spreading political propaganda. The alleged crimes were serious enough that he could have been executed. It was his good fortune that the presiding judge had been friends with his father’s family and that he was only 20. Fabi received a 5-year sentence.
Two years later, in 1985, the country’s leader, Hoxha, died. The following year his successor, Ramiz Alia, pardoned all prisoners serving terms of seven years or less.
Fabi was a free man.
A New Beginning
As Fabi tells me his story, I marvel at his calm, dispassionate demeanor, like he’s recapping a trip to the beach. I’ve seen similar dispositions in other Albanians I’ve interviewed. Maybe it’s a national trait. Perhaps in a country devoid of civil liberties so long even subsequent generations are burdened by the legacy, as if it’s a never-ending hangover.
Although Fabi was released from prison freedom remained elusive in Albania in 1986. He waited four years, hoping for a change in government. When that didn’t happen he sought and was granted political asylum at the Italian embassy in Tirana in July 1990, along with hundreds of other Albanians.
Once Fabi arrived in Florence, Italy, at 27, it was if he had been reborn.
“I was truly free for the first time in my life,” he says.
Like immigrants arriving in the U.S. with nothing but hope and opportunity, Fabi attacked life with unaccustomed vigor. He quickly found work and enrolled in college, where he earned a B.A. in political science. His Albanian girlfriend gave birth to a boy. They named him Evans Kati. [The relationship didn’t last. Evans, now 30, is a musician living in Glasgow, Scotland.]
After nine years, Fabi had an opportunity to study at the Universty of Manchester in England. He loved the city so much he stayed and eventually became a British citizen. American companies based in Manchester found Fabi’s language skills useful, and over a period of 10 years he worked in communications for several firms, ending with Bristol Myers. Meanwhile, Fabi had returned to school to pursue a growing interest in film production. When his contract was not renewed at Bristol Myers, he invested some of his severance package in video equipment and set off on a new, unchartered career as a documentary film producer.
Return to Albania
We had been talking for nearly two hours before we finally got around to Fabi’s current life. Evening had turned to night. The bar filled and became so noisy it was hard to hear. We moved to a quieter spot.
Once Fabi decided to produce films he needed a project. His sister, no longer hospitalized, gave him an idea. He traveled to Albania in 2011 seeking a copy of a documentary produced by the communist government in 1972. The film followed a group of young Albanians traveling around the country and enjoying its beauty in a carefree, unencumbered manner, which was impossible at the time. The target audience was the limited number of tourists allowed into the country. It was pure propaganda and never seen by Albanian audiences. The film was presumed lost. After weeks of searching Fabi found a copy in the government’s disorganized archives the day before he was scheduled to leave for England. His first film project was a go.
“The Hidden Documentary,” released in 2013, tells the story of the original documentary through interviews with some of the original actors. The film was shown at several festivals in Europe and in Albania and received excellent reviews.
The success of his first documentary helped him attract financial support for other films, two of which are currently in production. [He divides his time between Albania and Manchester.] One of them involves a church in his father’s family’s village, Labova of the Cross, in south Albania on the country’s border with Greece. According to local legend, the Dormition of the Lady Theotokos Church was entrusted with an ancient cross in the 6th century by Byzantine church officials in Constantinople. The cross remained in the church 1,400 years. During the communist era, when Hoxha declared Albania an atheist state, the cross was kept hidden by villagers. According to Fabi, the villagers were aided early in their quest to save the cross by his Uncle Vasil of all people, presumably because he was raised in Labova. Near the end of communist rule, in 1988, a party official asked for the cross. Confusion ensued and the cross ended up missing. Fabi hopes to unravel the mystery but he’s not hopeful.
“I think it’s been destroyed,” he says.
His work as a film producer has stirred up resentment in the country’s media industry, which Fabi says is controlled by former communist party members and their allies who prefer glorifying the past rather than produce meaningful content about current events.
“They are still powerful, and they don’t like me being around,” he says. “I’m one of the few independent film producers operating in Albania.
The irony of his current profession is not lost on Fabi. His grandfather was imprisoned for speaking his mind. His mother struggled mightily as the sister-in-law of a powerful Communist leader. It eventually destroyed her family. Yet despite the old guard’s influence in the country’s media, Fabi is free to produce stories critical of Albania’s past and current system, something his mother’s family could not have imagined.
“In that sense,” he says, “things have changed a lot for the better. You can express yourself.”
How do you think your mother and her family would feel if they were still around? I ask.
“I feel that if they were watching they would be very happy about what I’m doing.”
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Editor's note: Fifth in a series from a reporting trip to Albania Aug. 10-13, 2021