BY Rafaela PRIFTI
On March 25, at the screening of the movie “Growing up fat and Albanian” at the Academy of Mount Saint Ursula, Dielli sat down for a first time interview with the director, co-producer and actor, Elza Zagreda.
Q: Your Albanian descent has shaped much of your personal identity and artistic experiences which are integrated in your American education and career. As a woman artist, how do you think you have combined your identity, your persona and experiences?
A: I feel that all three things identify me. I feel that my life experiences come from a culture that didn’t value the voice of women. In graduate school, I studied Kanun as part of my thesis and I remember going to a lecture where there were literally five men on the panel. I had read it thoroughly and I raised my hand to ask a question about the meaning of a reference in Kanun that a woman is a sack made to endure. The panel members were so off-put with my question that they said it no longer pertains, and that we’ve moved beyond such characterization. I think the quest for understanding became part of my own self discovery in graduate school.
The Political Science Degree at Fordham University furthered the exploring of my identity. When I went to NYU and studied film, and particularly women in film, I learned the importance of naming in terms of its denotation and connotation. In such context, I realized why I couldn’t call my aunt by her proper name since she was to be addressed only as ‘nusja’ in and outside of the family. I made naming the focus of my first play. It arches back into the answer I was given at the panel representing the male perspective that the reference about the female role is no longer important. I say “IT IS IMPORTANT” because I could see that as first generation here, those traditions were kept very much alive. My personal life experience is interwoven in the movie for example in the scene where “nusja” is being told to put on the act of crying at her wedding, because that is what is expected of her. I did watch my cousins fall and marry at 17 and 18 to sheepherders because they were of that age. As shown in the movie, I was a headstrong person who was blessed to have a progressive Albanian father. I cannot overstate its importance on my life. My parents allowed me the freedom to participate in after school activities which was where I discovered drama and writing, The solo plays, the comedy and the scripts, all started from there. My first experience about learning to be married was when I was 5 or 6 years old and I remember writing about it in my diary. I remember my cousins saying that I would have to marry a stranger and I would have to sleep with him. I remember as a child internalizing all this and not knowing what to do with it. I was born in a country that is obsessed with the idea of love. Yet I had to marry someone who was chosen for me. It was something I had to work through and it was only in graduate school that I found my identity as a woman. Later I fell in love, but he wasn’t Albanian. To this day, the community encourages us to stick to our kind. I find it interesting that the marriage rate, whether you marry Albanian or American, is still 50/50.
Q: You are a Bronx native to Albanian immigrants from Ulqin, Montenegro, who came here three weeks before you were born. Your bio comprises an impressive list of acting credits in theater, television, movies and a current teaching position at Pace University. What would you say has been your driving force?
I admire strong people and particularly strong women. I want people to understand how I grew up here and I have tried to pay homage to that beginning and to the risks that my family took coming here. We were a tight knit family. My cousins and I raised each-other. My parents who only had 3rd grade schooling believed in my pursuing a solid education. In my school days, I would have to translate for my parents at parent teacher conferences. I studied political science to discover my Albanian identity. Coming from Montenegro, there’s a skewed perception that we still have Albanians there that don’t understand that we’ve been panslavanized. My family was not! I drew my motivation from my roots and I was encouraged by the teachers and mentors who believed and supported me, like Shqipe Malushi, one of my first mentors, who did her own thing, and the Women’s Organization, Motrat Qiriazi. One of my favorite books Edwin Jacques’s The Illyrians from Past to Present blew my mind away with the knowledge of who it is that we were as people.
Q: You have been described as a filmmaker, writer, actor, scholar, a gifted mimic, sophisticated yet down to earth, and more. What would be your own definition, if you have one?
I’d describe myself as a storyteller. Whether on stage or on camera, the form that best describes me is storytelling. I teach at Pace University, I am an associate teacher of women and gender studies. This is the first year that I get to do Women in Film course, in the past and present. I bring women up to date on female filmmakers, producers, and costume designers but I also talk about movies that have motivated me. In my class I am telling a story that resonates with you.
Q: Your film “Growing up fat and Albanian” is seen as an Albanian take on a similar theme in the 2002 movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Your solo shows and stage productions such as Divorce, Albanian Style and Dirtbags, Dating and Depression, A Love Story are satires of stereotypes and misperceptions. Have you and Nia pursued a similar pattern?
Nia Vardalos had performed her one-woman stage play at the same theater that I did when I took the show to Los Angeles but at that point she had gotten her big break.I am not waiting for that one person, I’m just doing it on my own and putting the film out there myself. I am not at that level. I need to carve that out myself. I do favor ‘one woman shows’ to stand-ups, I prefer the whole story rather than one-liners. Some comedians are going down that route, for example Kathy Griffith is a storyteller.
Q. Your advice for aspiring students is “Keep going and keep growing and if your work isn’t there, create your own”. What advice were you given when you were young?
“Take that chance!”
I was a quiet girl in 8th grade and I had that creativity spark. I wrote comical essays and my teachers encouraged my writing. In 8th grade I received the award “The pen is mightier than the sword”. Had the mentors not seen that spark, I really wouldn’t be where I am today. Today I mentor a group and I recognize the importance of mentoring in following your dreams and pursuing your talents. It wasn’t until grad school that I discovered my voice as a woman and as an Albanian woman. I pursued the writing and the dramatic writing and my focus was women, and particularly Albanian women.
Q: How risky are productions that address issues of minorities, immigrants, women, in terms of connecting with an American audience that may be unfamiliar with the cultural context? What has been the response?
I find it surprising and interesting. One of the questions from the midterm was “How has gender, race and class affected you?” This notion of gender construct is still instilled within all of us, white girls, irish girls, black girls, italian girls. I’ve been able to reach a wider audience because it is not just about Albanians. There’s a universality to using your voice. I’m pleased that other cultures have similar experiences of being afraid to use their voice in their families, husbands or even to themselves. I feel that it resonates with them. I’m happy it’s a by-product of the movie.
Q: Next to your character in the movie as well as in real life, there is always the father figure. He represents an older generation of men who grew up in a patriarchal society, yet does not fit with the stereotype. Does the women’s education go hand in hand with men’s?
My cousin’s experience was very different from mine. She was not allowed to wear pants and was married off at 18. In my family, my mom was all about food and the perfectness of being Albanian. At that time my coping mechanism was overeating. My mother always took my lead from my father. That’s why I look up to him. Particularly to the fact that my father never differentiated. When my baby sister was born, my uncle and my father were doing shots and crying. As an eight year old, I couldn’t process this. When we visited my mother, she was holding the fourth daughter and crying. My father’s response, as shown in the movie scene, was a crude in Albanian, that may not translate well, and the audience bursts into laughter, but what he meant was “I love her just the same”. He loved all of us just the same. He would point at my uncles who were marrying off their daughters and say it was wrong. I do believe that my voice came from my father. And it’s very important for women to have that relationship with the father. I have been blessed. And a lot of Albanian girls haven’t had that bond and that’s why my heart breaks for them.
Q: What is the life of an artist after a project is completed or between projects? What kind of support system does the artistic community have? Are there generational differences?
The bonds that are formed on the sets last a lifetime. The production times are an inexplicable rush that are followed by a crash. Bu after taking a break, you get right back on that horse. For this movie, I did so much. I wrote, edited, casted, etc. I have collaborated with the award-winning director Dhimiter Ismailaj-Valona in other productions. As far as differences, the much younger generation of Albanian artists today like Bebe Rexha Dua Lipa have sexualized components that we were not allowed at the time I was growing up. It is an interesting dichotomy to notice.
Q: What’s in pre-production for you at the moment?
I’m finishing a music video which is filmed here on Arthur Avenue. with Aldo Shllaku, the Albanian composer of the award winning original score of the movie and Martin Malota of “Find my Way”. There are parallels between the rapper’s story and my story. Through the explorations of questions about the meaning of being a woman today, the project is a journey of self discovery.