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When occupying Nazis set up camp on their soccer field after the withdrawal of Mussolini’s Italian forces, a group of boys vows to defend it. Together with the partisan resistance, they fight for freedom from fascism – and have quite a bit of fun in the process. Xhanfize Keko’s Tomka and His Friends (1977) offers a unique spin on a sub-genre of child adventures, grounding it in history while infusing it with patriotic pathos. (RMM: 4/5)
Review by FF2 Associate Roza M. Melkumyan
Tomka and His Friends (in Albanian, Tomka dhe shokët e tij) takes place in a small Albanian village during WWII. A group of boys is playing on the outskirts of town when they see a convoy of German tanks roll in. For context, this story occurs at a rather interesting time in Albanian history. When Italy invaded in 1939, it used the country as a puppet state. After Italy surrendered in 1943 and Mussolini’s regime was overthrown, the Nazis moved in to occupy the land until Albania’s own communist partisan party liberated the country in 1944.
The partisans play a large role in this film in regards to both plot and dialogue. The village boys look up to them, and both often and freely express their hatred of fascism. When the Germans take over their soccer field, the boys exclaim that “these fascists are the greatest thieves in the world” and decide to fight back. In an expositional song akin to an anthem or battle cry of sorts, the young “Gëzim” (Genci Mosho) introduces himself and his three best friends, “Tomka” (Enea Zhegu), “Vaska” (Herion Mustafaraj), and “Çelo” (Artan Puto). In case it wasn’t clear that Tomka is the main hero of this story, Gëzim sings, “Tomka is our leader, the bravest of us all.” He drives their mission home with the line “freedom is our desire.”
This nationalistic vein runs deeply and proudly throughout Xhanfize Keko’s work yet is imbued with the light, adventurous spirit of its characters’ fun-loving yet determined nature. Tomka rallies the boys of the village behind him in defending their land. Even when the Germans set their guard dog “Gof” loose on them, the boys do not give up the fight. They sing and dance a traditional Albanian dance in front of the camp to demonstrate their defiance. Later, they team up with the partisans to destroy the camp.
I struggle a bit to describe the atmosphere of this film accurately. In some ways, it reminds me of The Sandlot (1993), which chronicles the summer adventures of a group of boys who spend their days playing baseball at the local sandlot. Both films carry a sort of fun and lighthearted energy embodied by the boys and their playful, innocent youth.
Perhaps the most significant difference lies in power dynamics. In The Sandlot, the “enemies,” so-to-speak, are the adults simply because they are adults. The children both revere and fear their parents and their scary neighbor because they are older and have more agency than the children. But for Tomka and friends, the enemy is much more terrifying and real. They’re up against actual Nazi soldiers who could easily kill them and their families and destroy their homes. The children’s determination is both cute and incredibly admirable because they face foes far more sinister than any child from the sandlot has faced. Gëzim’s song further ingrains in the audience a sense of fighting spirit while framing their story as a daunting plight that they must endeavor to overcome.
Though the film’s narrative is compelling, I’m not sure I like its heavy-handed patriotic rhetoric. I appreciate Xhanfize Keko’s embrace of it, if only because she does not seem to care what her audience thinks. For me, though, the constant cries of “death to fascism” started to feel rather preachy halfway through the film. However, it is interesting to see the partisan party through a child’s lens rather than through a historical lens. The children practically worship the partisans. When one child asks where they live, another one answers, “in the mountains where the eagles fly.” Vaska admires the partisans so much that he dreams of becoming one. He has romanticized the idea of war and fighting to an almost dangerous degree. Tomka’s retort that “war is not fun and games” reminds him, and us, that the boys’ schemes do not and should not compare to a real battle.
Patriotic pathos aside, it was refreshing to see an instance of kids’ actions making a substantial difference in a situation. So often—and especially today in America—there exists a disinterest in politics that is almost suffocating. More and more people feel that their voice doesn’t matter, that their vote doesn’t matter and that their actions don’t matter.
But for Tomka and his friends, though they are children up against fascist soldiers, actions matter. They not only provide useful intel to the partisan cause, but they carry out tasks that beget tangible success. With their contributions, the partisans manage to successfully infiltrate the camp, plant a bomb, and blow up a weapon center. Being young and little is often seen as a disadvantage, but here it proves to be an asset (they can climb trees and observe the camp unnoticed, for example.) When the light from the subsequent flames wakes the village children, their faces are so filled with glee that it might as well be Christmas.
An important plus to this film is that though historical context might aid in understanding the story, it is not required. This introduction to history might even pique your interest in the subject, as it did mine. After watching, I found myself reading up on the entire history of WWII in Albania. Tomka and His Friends reminds me that a source of entertainment can prove a useful tool in learning about the world around you.
© Roza M. Melkumyan (10/15/20) FF2 Media
Featured Photo: From left to right stand Tomka, Çelo, Vaska, and Gëzim
Photo Credits: Albafilm-Tirana
Women in the town briefly discuss donating clothing to the partisans. Otherwise, the film focuses on Tomka and his friends, who all are male, as well as the partisans.