Photographed in memory

(On Joan Collins and Albania)


By Ruben Avxhiu

Fadil Berisha, an Albanian-American photograph of global reputation, had this week another shooting session with Joan Collins, a British-born actress, famous among other things, for her role as Alexis Carrington in Dynasty, the successful and addictive television soap opera of the 80s.
Many learned about the shooting from the gracious comments twitted by both Berisha and Collins, a few days ago.
“Shooting with the ageless beauty [Joan Collins] love her,” wrote Berisha on Monday and posted a photo of the small screen of the camera showing Collins during the shooting. The actress was among those who re-twitted the message. Later he would add: “Great working with you again.”
The well-known actress, who is also a columnist, was similarly happy from the encounter: “loved working with [Fadil Berisha] & we shot some amazing new looks!” she wrote to her thousands of followers of her twitter account.
In many ways, it may have been just another day of work for Collins and Berisha, but to millions of Albanians in the Balkans this may not be a run-of-the-mill celebrity story.
The success of Dynasty in the 80s coincided with an unprecedented mass rebellion of citizens in the isolated and communist Albania. Hundreds of thousands defied the ban on foreign television by using hand-made devices that would circumvent the nation-wide jamming of TV signals imposed by the dictatorial regime.
By mid-eighties, while the state propaganda spewed poison against everything American, numerous Albanians were hooked up on Dynasty. The country was run by a Stalinist regime obsessed with the “global revolution”, however its citizens had now an obsession of their own: the conflict between Alexis and Christie (played by Linda Evans), the former and current wives of Blake Carrington.
Some people were denouncing the plots of Alexis with a passion the communist party would have wished to see against “foreign imperialism”. It was hard to keep people awake with speeches about the glorious battles that the working class was supposedly wagging around the globe, but then they were agitated and fired up by the last incidents involving Carrington’s children.
Living isolated from the world, in some kind of “European North Korea”, Albanians had rarely seen foreigners in their lives. Foreign TV programs introduced the world to them and Dynasty was going to be criticized later for offering them a distorting view of the American reality. However many missed the main point in this phenomenon.
To many Albanians, Dynasty was not just about wealth and politics. Communism in Albania did not forbid just political dissent and left the country poor and backward. Social and family traumas were beyond public discussion as well. Officially there were no dysfunctional families in Albania and the communist moral prevailed unchallenged. However, as in every society, Albanians had their own private episodes of impossible loves, bitter divorces, competing emotions, hurtful and secret cheating and the traumas that followed many of the unexpected turns of life. It was just not allowed to talk about them.
Therefore with all the Carrington family conflicts out there in the air, for everyone to see, debates exploded as never before among Albanians of all ages and walks of lives. They could not talk much about their own problems but hey, everyone had an opinion about the fictive American family in Denver, Colorado, brought to them every week, by some Yugoslavian TV. Word in the street was that families of the ruling communist elite were addicted to Dynasty too. Yet, they still did not want the rest of us to see it.
I remember attending one impossible regional youth conference in Tirana, where I was bussed together with other high schools students and where for an entire hour a speaker barked against Dynasty and berated us for watching it. It was strange that he knew (or assumed) that we were watching it and for someone who hated it so much, he was quite informed with what was going on with the characters.
Alexis had understandably very few fans in the family-oriented Albanian society. The soft-spoken, naïve and positive Christie seemed to work better with the Albanian crowd. But it was a different matter with the actress behind the role. Joan Collins was the extra cultural clash to Albanian viewers.
In a country where women were supposed to be strong like men and reject any bourgeois influence in their life style, caring about themselves was not in their plans. You had females in their 40s with “grandma look” and mid-20s was some time too late for marriage. That a woman in her 50s would cut such a splendid appearance, a sex-symbol of a different version was unimaginable in Albania. Considering that Alexis look was probably revolutionary in the West as well, one can imagine the impact on Albanian women, their self-contemplation, and the way they perceived themselves in society.
Nowadays, you have magazine headlines announcing that “life begins at 50” or that “60 could be the new 40”, not to mention an entire make-up and fashion industry that hopes to keep the baby-boomers in the market. The road which pioneers paved is seeing now a stampede, although as the last three decades have shown there’s only one Joan Collins.
To many Albanians communist isolation feels today more like a bad dream that may have never happened. I have lost count of how many models from Albania have been in Fadil’s studio in Manhattan. For a society where women were practically sold as goods via arranged marriages and then during communism were pressured to turn into sexless revolutionary robots, few changes can be more symbolic. Fadil has played himself a personal role in helping Albanian women step into the global stage and by default brave a more dignified presence back in the Albanian world.
When one looks back, the 80s may not be that far in past, but the world we are living now is certainly a different planet for Albanians and many other people on that side of Europe. As improbable as it may have seemed in those years, Collins and the makers of Dynasty had their own interesting role in this immense change that has transformed all of us forever.