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Astra Film Festival

Astra Film Festival 2000

The Roma

Introduced by Michael Stewart.

Special section: “The Roma” of the Astra Film Fest 2000 draws attention to the Romany experience of what it means to be an eastern European. This is a perspective which even today is rarely brought into public view. And yet in so many ways our societies have come to depend on the very Gypsy people whom we so often ignore. The Roma section of the festival tries to come to terms with this peculiar position of the Gypsies in eastern Europe: a people central to the social life of the region (not just musically but also at many times economically and socially) and yet commonly ignored. With a series of recent films about different aspects of Romany lives we hope to allow a chance to hear some of the untold stories as Gypsies would hope to tell them themselves, were they able to do so.

For so long popular parlance has had it that 'the Gypsies' have no culture of their own, no 'true' language (just an argot of borrowed words), and are in all senses of the word 'parasites' on the societies in which they live.

After World War Two it became impossible to talk of the Jews in this way in polite society. Now the Romany peoples have taken their place. The films we will watch and the discussion around them will, we hope, enable a truer picture to emerge of the distinctiveness of Romany cultures. We do not want to prejudice here the responses of our audience to the films we will present, but would just bring to your attention one feature of the relationship of Roma to film which should concern all of us who are involved in representing Romany lives in the cinema and television. Like some other minorities the Roma are intensely aware of their image in the wider society and more or less succesfully try to use that image to their own advantage. The British Social Anthropologist, Judith Okely, in a study of English Romany travellers, showed how English Gypsies made use of the mistaken stereotypes of their non-Gypsy neighbours - of Gypsy women as 'romantic' or 'luck bringing' - to enjoy and also enrich themselves. Okely's pioneering  work (published in 1983) points to a more general feature of Romany cultures: here are a people with one of the world's great performance cultures. Non-Gypsy Europeans are of course aware of this through the renown of Romany musicians from all around our continent from Spain, through France, to Romania and Russia, not forgetting Czechoslovakia which is represented in our selection here in Sibiu. But there is much more to Romany performance than the production of music, either for themselves or for their non-Gypsy neighbours. In their own lives, amongst themselves when the pressure to conform from the outside world is less severe, the performance of 'the Romany way of doing things' lies at the centre of their idea of what it is to be a true human. For the film-maker this offers an opportunity and a challenge. All observational film tries in some way to encourage its subjects to perform themselves. Observing the Roma, the film-maker has only to allow her or his subjects to feel free to act themselves. But equally there is the challenge to get behind the official presentation of the self, either to the gadze, the non-Gyspies, but also to fellow Roma. To find other, less well known performances of the self. We hope that our films show some of the richness of both the chances and the challenges.

Our festival is of documentary films, but inevitably the language we use is shaped by the more popular form of non-documentary, fiction film. In this light it seems that the last Romany film of Emir Kusturica may open a new era in the relationship between Roma and film-makers.

Until Black Cat, White Cat - and whatever place one gives this film in the hierarchy of Kusturica's work - every fiction film about Gypsies dealt with what is (dangerously) known in eastern Europe as 'the Gypsy question', that is with the specificity of Romany lives on the margins of European societies. In this format Kusturica's masterpiece, Time of the Gypsies, gains its force from its unique insight into the logic of Romany culture. But in Black Cat…, the Yugoslave film-maker has achieved something even more important seen in a long-term perspective: a film with Roma, about Roma, but which, while never abstracting from the specficity of its subjects' lives, speaks directly to all human beings. Here, in my view, is the first Romany Shakespearian drama. And as such it ought to change the way we, documentary film-makers, treat our Romany subjects. Why should they remain mere 'victims' of others' racialist prejudices? How can we reach a fuller understanding of Romany experience through film? It is widely believed that the only way Roma relate to non-Gypsy interest in their lives is  through an increased desire for secrecy and concealment. But this is a superficial view.

And now let me give you a personal experience: in September this year I sat with an eighty year old woman who lives on the edge of the town of Sibiu where we are to hold this meeting. I had been interviewing her about the period in 1942-4 when she, together with her entire family, were deported to Transnistria as 'nomadic Gypsies'. At the end of our talk she gave me some unsolicited advice about the book I am writing about this period of persecution: "Tell them how we suffered. Say to them how we died from hunger. Say that they took us to a land where there was no water. Tell them that of one thousand who left my home town only three hundred returned." For this woman there was no question that the kind of dialogue between peoples that this festival encourages might be one way in which her suffering and subsequent life might be acknowledged and validated.


I hope that this section encourages all participants towards a richer and more subtle understanding of the relations between different Romany peoples and the non Romany majority, a majority which despite its own nightmare visions of a 'minority which controls the majority', still manages to set the terms of debate in a one-sided fashion.

Michael Stewart received his Ph.D. from the London School of Economics. He has since been a documentary producer with the BBC and is currently a Leverhulme Research Fellow at LSE. Recently he published "The Time of the Gypsies" (Westveiw Press, 1997)


Modern Slavery

Director: Kőszegi Edit
Country: Hungary
Year: 1998
Length: 75

A simple conflict of some Roma families and Hungarian homeless people arrives to be sorted out by the apparatus of justice as a case of ethnic discriminatory action. The way in which the press covered the incident played an important part in this misinterpretation. As a result, the court sentenced the Roma to years of prison, basing its decision exclusively on the exaggerated allegations of the homeless.


Black and White in Colour

Director: Mira Erdevicki
Country: Czech Republic
Year: 1999

A vivid documentary portrait of Vera Bílá, a Gypsy singer acclaimed in the international music world. The film explores Romany culture and what it means to be part of a marginalised minority group. Without sentimentalizing, it questions the prospects for mutual understanding. The character emerging from the film is a woman deeply attached to her family and her origins. Her music provides an opportunity for relieving her anxieties about securing sufficient food and money, but it also sweeps her into a competitive business which has little regard for her mood or feelings. The film reveals the exceptional energy Vera brings to her music and her relationships with her family and other members of the band. Shot as a journey with encounters and stories, the film shows a woman with an impressive and challenging personality.


American Gypsy: A Stranger in Everybody's Land

Director: Jasmine Dellal
Country: U.S.A.
Year: 1999
Length: 80

There are one million Gypsies in America, who most people know nothing about. They continue to live according to traditions that remain mysterious to outsiders. This is at least in part because a central aspect of Gypsy culture is the limiting of contact with non-Gypsies. The film tells the story of one Romani family in the American Northwest that has defied the wall of silence surrounding their people. Jimmy Marks, a flamboyant community leader, and his family struggle to regain reputation and property after a racially motivated police raid in their Spokane, Washington home. “American Gypsy” unravels the history and culture of the Roma and the prejudices about their way of life that have arisen over the centuries.


Commemoration of Gabor

Director: Dan Curean
Country: Romania
Year: 1998
Length: 22
On the first day of November, people from Transylvania celebrate “The Day of the Dead”. They bring flowers to the graves of their beloved ones and light candles. The film shows an unusual celebration, in a Gypsy family. The Gabors are not some ordinary Gypsies. They are wealthy people and the rest of the community looks up to them as aristocrats. They gather to commemorate old Gabor, the charismatic patriarch of the family. Following their tradition, they drink and sing by the grave, to the astonishment of the other people in the cemetery.