The fourth in a series of 52 interviews with Albanian women in the public sphere #52GraShqiptare.
Artes Ferruni in an award-winning Albanian filmmaker, accomplished Latin dancer- a talent she nurtured from the tender age of eight years old, a vlogger, has had a successful career in marketing and has opened and run her own dance and fitness studio. Having lived in Slovenia, Germany, and Ireland, she is now due to jet off on a six-month, all paid for, round-the-world trip as a part of the “Your Best Life” initiative, designed to help young bright sparks, live their best lives. Artes has achieved all of this by the age of 25.
Tell me about yourself as if we were meeting for the first time?
When I was a child, my mother used to take me to all kinds of classes- ice skating, sports, dance, and dance was the one that stuck. I started Latin and ballroom dancing at the age of eight and did it professionally until my late teens. I did all I could in Albania- media, awards, competitions, television and I wanted to grow more professionally but was restricted.
Then, I won second prize in a contest on a television show called “Star Academy” and with my $1000 dollars prize money, I moved to Slovenia. I was 15 years old and while my mum came with me at first, I spent almost a year there on my own, living alone, taking care of myself and dancing.
I loved it- even the most mundane tasks like washing my clothes or food shopping- it was an amazing experience. My trainers were world champions and the scene there was so supportive- everyone wanted to help and encourage each other. But it was tough as well- the classes would cost between EUR 50 and EUR 300 for 40 minutes and costumes could be very expensive- sending me there and letting me pursue my dream was thanks to a big sacrifice from my parents.
Eventually, I returned to Albania, not because of the cost or anything else but because of visa issues. We tried again to get another visa but it just became too complicated and I returned to Albania. I was 16 at this point and we decided to try going to Germany instead but ran into the same issues with my visa- it was so frustrating and in the end, we decided it wasn’t worth it and I returned home.
Aged 18, I decided to open my own dance studio teaching dance and Zumba fitness. I had no cash to realise the project at first, so I asked clients to pay for three months in advance and I used the money to set up and decorate the studio. I did it all- from designing the layout to teaching classes, marketing, and even cleaning the toilets. Remember, I was just 18 at this time- it was so funny, there I was, this young girl, teaching grown adults how to dance!
It became more and more successful with over 150 clients a month so I took on some staff to help me. It was very hard- mentally and physically and I was working 24/7. Even though I had plenty of customers, the costs were very high as I was paying EUR 1300 just for rent, then taking into account staff salaries and taxes, I was working every hour possible yet making very little money. Finally, I took the decision to close it. Yes, I learned a lot and it was an amazing experience but I knew that it wasn’t what I really wanted to do. I wanted to learn, not to teach and I felt that if I taught, I would stop learning. Also, I wanted to be free, not burnt out and tied to the studio.
After that, I cobranded with Nobis for a while and taught my Zumba classes there, before going to work with my brother in marketing. I worked for his company and a couple of others and spent time building my skillset in marketing, social media and digital content. Then, craving freedom away from the 9-5 I moved into freelance marketing. I made money from it, but again, I knew that this was not what I wanted to do with my life- I wanted more.
Around this time, aged 20, I started making videos and that is where the next chapter of my story began.
Tell me why you decided to become a filmmaker?
I have always been obsessed with documenting my life- maybe due to my bad memory, but also because I love to tell stories.
My first video was about how to move your eyebrows- it was one of my most successful, despite the fact it was just me being silly. I always wanted people to get something from my videos, to get a message and to feel something and even with this humorous video, I tried to give people something back- to inspire them and give some value.
Filmmaking is an art and I love to incorporate a lot of creativity and art into my work. I choose to do my videos in English- something I have been criticised for- but I chose this because I wanted my work to be accessible to everyone. It’s not that I think I am posh or think highly of myself, I am just making my content accessible to everyone. I love Albania, I love that I’m Albanian but I consider myself a citizen of the world.
How would you describe yourself in three words?
Ambitious, empathetic, and honest.
How has your journey shaped who you are?
Here in Albania, it was rough. When I was a kid, I had people physically do things to me to try and make me fail such as intentionally trying to injure me to stop me from competing. Also, when I was eight years old, I was on a TV show called ‘Little Genius’. I got enough points to qualify to the final but the parents of one of the other children pressured and threatened the producers to eliminate me. They would add in extra tasks just for me like “learn a new routine overnight” and I did it- my feet were bleeding but I still did it. In the end, they told me they just had to cut me out. I put on a brave face but when I went home I just cried my eyes out.
The pressure was immense and the dancing world is a very judgemental one. Hanging out with dancers that were very slim, where perfection is the aim, I would be constantly judged on my weight. I was healthy, athletic, and slim- I had the ‘perfect body’ but I was still being bullied for my weight. The pressure to look a certain way and be a certain weight was damaging and when I got older it really affected me. Society is ridiculous, we are told we have to look a certain way and play by certain rules and even when we do, it is not enough.
After I stopped dancing, I put on a little weight and people would comment to me “oh, you got fatter” with a smile as if that made them happy. This was traumatic- all people cared about was whether I was looking perfect or not, they care too much about appearance and for a kid that is a lot to deal with. This pressure got inside of my head but thankfully I worked on my mental health and now, I am ok.
Also, I missed out on quite a lot of school and was outside of the system for a long time. This has not held me back, in fact, quite the opposite. I don’t really like the current education system as I believe that education is a lifelong thing and something you get from life. I have got jobs that those with Masters degrees didn’t get because I have the life experience and a good worth ethic- I feel I have educated myself a lot through my experiences. But of course, people always want to know “what school did you do?” and when I tell them that I haven’t they are shocked and surprised!
We are all a product of our environment and experiences and I have been lucky that my family gave me freedom. I do think though that if they had tried to be more strict, I would have fought against it as I have always been independent. Since I was a teenager, I wanted to pay my way, earn my own money, and be successful on my own. I am also a perfectionist and my biggest critic, I come down very hard on myself and that pushes me further.
My mother used to say that I never left her any choice because I wouldn’t ask, I would tell them what I was going to do and how I was going to do it. But, I credit a lot of who I am now to them.
What were your biggest obstacles?
My biggest obstacles have been external ones, the things that were beyond my control. I am talented and hard-working but have been held back because of issues like money and visas. The toughest lesson I have had to learn is how to deal with things that are beyond my control.
Another obstacle I have dealt with was an internal one- my fear of time running out. There is so much I want to do and I have to live with the fact that time is fleeting and we are not on this earth for long. Society tells you that you must achieve everything when you are young, and yes for some things that is true but not all. I was fixated on time running out but eventually, now, I have understood that it’s ok and I still have time to realise my dream. I rearranged my brain and now have some crazy goals to reach before I am 30!
What is your five-year plan?
By 25 I thought I would have achieved all of my dreams and it hasn‘t happened but that’s fine, I am setting new goals now.
Over the last five years, and even before, I have had many difficulties but I believe that Albanian’s are very creative with their limitations. We are not born in lucky circumstances and that means we are blessed with finding solutions and opportunities where there are none.
I was struggling, mentally and generally and when I was 24 I gave myself one year to change my life- and I did it! As a result, I am now doing everything I wanted to. I have won an iEmmy and recently won a six month round the world trip where I will be visiting 10 countries and documenting my experience.
I also want to make a documentary of the next five years, and also to travel to Argentina, Cuba and Spain, learning the eponymous dances of each region.
As for my other goals- I have given myself a deadline of 30 but I cannot tell you what it is as you never know how life will work out!
I just want to take my storytelling to the next level. I was never that girl to dream of a wedding and kids, there will be a time for that and everything else but right now I just want to create passionate, meaningful content that engages people with my story and makes the world a bit of a better place.
If you could go back and speak with your younger self, what would you say to her?
I would tell her that it gets easier and that she should take life less seriously. I think I missed out on a lot of fun things when I was a kid, as well as just being a kid.
I would tell eight-year-old Artes just to breathe and to remember that there is still time. She needed to know that life will not always go as you planned and that is ok because as long as you follow your gut, you will end up where you are meant to be. In my case now, that is extraordinary places.
This article was originally published on The Balkanista.