- Bosnia and Herzegovina
- All Balkan Countries
The widow of the Yugoslav-Albanian acting legend recalls her late husband’s film successes, love of tango, pride in his roots - and, finally, the resolve with which he took his own life.
Dressed tastefully like a stage actress from a bygone era, Branka Petric- Fehmiu arrives at Belgrade’s Zvezdara Theatre in a coat, scarf and cream-coloured hat.
It’s a small but prestigious theatre. Petric- Fehmiu has acted here often, the last time in 2011. She still acts, but not as much as she used to. Now 74, she the same age as her late husband, Bekim Fehmiu, was when he took his life in 2010.
Fehmiu was an acting legend both in Yugoslavia and abroad, appearing in more than 40 films. He starred in the 1967 film “I Even Met Happy Gypsies,” known as “Skupljaci Perja” in Yugoslavia, which chronicled the lives in Roma living in the Vojvodina province of Serbia and which won the jury prize at the Cannes film festival.
“This movie opened doors around the world,” Petric-Fehmiu recalls. “When he returned from Cannes, he was received like a hero. All of Yugoslavia was happy about the success of the movie.” Fehmiu was 31 at the time and married Petric-Fehmiu a year later.
Proud of his identity:
“Radiance and Sadness,” the second part of Fehmiu’s autobiography, published in October, reveals that the acting legend received various offers to join political parties, but Petric-Fehmiu says politics never interested her husband.
“He did not want it [politics]. He wanted to be totally free,” she says. “He didn’t want to belong to anyone.”
On screen, Fehmiu played roles in a variety of places and languages, but never in Albanian. But Petric-Fehmiu says Fehmiu wasn’t suppressing his identity.
“This shouldn’t be seen as contempt,” she says of his non-appearance in Albanian-language films. “He absolutely was an Albanian. But you are forgetting that we were in Yugoslavia at that time. He belonged to everyone.
“When we started to see who was what, what happened, happened,” Petric-Fehmiu says, referring to the disintegration of Yugoslavia.
Far from scorning his origins, when a number of people in the film industry asked Fehmiu to change his name, he refused.
“They asked him three times but he didn’t accept,” she says, recalling what happened when Fehmiu was making the 1970 American film “The Adventurers”.
“The filming stopped and Bekim told them that he wouldn’t change his name, and if they didn’t like it, they could change the actor. In the end, they gave in.”
Passion for tango:
|Fehmiu and his wife, Branka Petric-Fehmiu, out and about in Belgrade|
While Fehmiu was an actor by profession, Petric-Fehmiu says tango was his private passion.
“He danced tango very well,” she says, adding that her late husband turned down offers to pursue dancing in Argentina professionally. “He taught me, too. We celebrated success and joy by dancing together.”
At home, she says, life was normal. “But there is no word that can describe life after him. I don’t even want to find those words.”
Petric-Fehmiu, wrinkles her face as she reflects on families who maintain that their domestic life is only “good, good, good.”
“Our life was like a ship that cruises with sails but sometimes needs oars. Sometimes it appeared to be sinking but we always managed to get to port, and there it would be fixed to sail again”.
There was always an anchor: “That was the love that Bekim had.”
Devoted to family:
Fehmiu was something of a sex symbol. In an obituary, the British Daily Telegraph noted his “youthful conquests and acquaintances with the likes of Brigitte Bardot and Ava Gardner.”
But Fehmiu was devoted to his family, especially his mother, his widow recalls. “He would see her whenever possible,” she says.
“I’m just sorry that I never managed to learn Albanian … [but] each time I’d go [to his mother’s house], everyone would speak Serbian.”
|Branka Petric-Fehmiu says her late husband was a family man.|
Today, Branka Petric-Fehmiu lives with her youngest son, Hedon. The eldest, Uliks, is an actor in the US. “I am blessed to have two children,” Petric-Fehmiu says. “Bekim wanted 12, but I said we should be happy with two. Maybe I feel a bit sorry we didn’t have a third.”
‘He ended his life as he lived it’:
In July 2010, Fehmiu ended his life by shooting himself with a revolver. According to his will, the ashes were thrown into the river in Prizren, in Kosovo, the town where he spent much of his childhood after his birth in Sarajevo.
“He ended his life the way he lived it,” Petric-Fehmiu says. “He was determined and never in doubt.”
That same resolve led him earlier to abandon the theatre in 1987. He was performing “Madame Kolontine” at the time in Belgrade when he left the show. From that moment he never appeared in the theatre.
“He threw down the anchor and that was it. Finished,” Petric-Fehmiu says. “At the time, in the 1980s, all the anti- Albanian propaganda was starting [in Serbia under Slobodan Milosevic]. He abandoned the theatre and, in the 1990s, his international movie career, too.”
|In his later years, Fehmiu spends time with his sons, Uliks and Hedon.|
The couple sent their children out of Serbia to avoid military service as war broke out in the former Yugoslavia.
Petric-Fehmiu says it was a difficult time for her husband. “He had great faith in humanity, and at that moment, that faith started crumbling down.”
Feeling powerless, Fehmiu decided that the best way to make a statement was by not saying anything at all.
“Only when he left this world did people understand the meaning of his silence.”
This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.
It may be a transit zone for truck drivers right now but Savamala was once the beating heart of Belgrade - and will be once again if a group of artists have their way.
Is everybody in? The ceremony is about to begin…