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Sisters making films: The Zenelajes

August 21, 2011|By Jodie Burke, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Greta, left, and Vilma Zenelaj made the thriller "In the Woods," now making the festival rounds.
Greta, left, and Vilma Zenelaj made the thriller "In the Woods,"… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

The Zenelajes

Albania is beautiful, but for decades it was cut off from the rest of the world by a communist dictator. "There were no foreign clothes, which was a big thing for us," Vilma Zenelaj says, drawing a deep laugh out of her older sister Greta, a dark-haired beauty often mistaken for Demi Moore.

Albania's communist regime collapsed soon after the Berlin Wall fell. Vilma left first, arriving in Oregon as a high school exchange student in 1996. Greta stayed in Albania to finish her degree in journalism, even as civil war broke out. Luckily, Mom and Dad, both doctors, won the visa lottery and emigrated to Michigan. Best friends, the sisters in 2003 packed everything into a red Volkswagen Beetle and headed to L.A.

They lived together and worked at a bunch of unglamorous jobs, saving every penny. Dipping into their nest egg, they proceeded to make two features in 21/2 years. "What Do I Do Now?" won best comedy at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival in 2009. Their second film, a thriller called "In the Woods," is making the festival rounds, and Greta is winning awards for her dramatic performance.

Ten-day shoots with only a handful of crew meant everybody had to wear different hats. "We had to hold sandbags and do cooking," says Greta, who starred in both films. She also ran the makeup and wardrobe departments. Vilma writes and directs. "Everybody became a grip, basically, between sets," Vilma adds.

The Zenelaj sisters are both beautiful and determined, but Greta has a big sister's friendly way of taking charge, and Vilma, despite being the duo's director, lets her. Another advantage to their partnership is having someone to turn to when people they meet in the industry patronize them. "You schedule a meeting with somebody," Greta says, "then you walk in dressed a certain way or you're a certain age or you've done your makeup nicely or whatever and they're like … ."

"Another pretty face," Vilma finishes the sentence for her. "I have a feeling they expect you to have a mustache, be overweight," she adds. "That's what they expect if you're a female director. It's a little bit annoying."

It seems paradoxical, even absurd, that people in Hollywood would cause a pair of Eastern European sisters to feel oppressed for being too pretty or too young. "We have each other," Greta says. "So a lot of the time it's like, 'Can you believe that person said that?'"

Continue reading about the Todd sisters.

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