Tony Gatlif's film Gadjo Dilo furthers the Roma cause
05 September 1999
Notebook section of this issue of Roma Rights opens a discussion on Romani identity. In the article, Erik Rutherford offers the view that Tony Gatlif's film Gadjo Dilo has had and will continue to have a positive impact. Romani activist Gregory Kwiek, film critic László Orsós, and the ERRC's Claude Cahn respond. Contributions to the Romani identity discussions are welcome.
(Erik Rutherford is a writer living in Paris. He studied literature at McGill and Oxford Universities.)
Last December, I asked Dimitrina Petrova, Executive Director of the ERRC, if she had seen Tony Gatlif's latest film, Gadjo Dilo. She said she had and recounted the following anecdote. A New York colleague of hers, himself a rights activist, had sent her a message that summer, declaring rapturously that he had seen an "extraordinary" film by a French director of Algerian and Romani descent. It was, of course, Gadjo Dilo, and he believed its broad distribution would be the single most effective thing that could be done to promote Roma rights in Europe.
Dimitrina obtained the video cassette and invited a group of Roma and non-Roma to view it in her Budapest office. One day in June, around fifteen people gathered and sat through the film in silence. It was the tale of a young Parisian named Stephane who, having embarked on a sentimental quest to find a Gypsy singer named Nora Luca, much beloved by his deceased father, ends up living for several months in a Romani settlement somewhere outside Bucharest. Stephane carries a recording of Nora Luca's voice, hoping that someone will recognize it. Late one night, cold and with nowhere to sleep, he encounters Izidor, an elderly Romani musician, drunk and declaiming theatrically against the Romanian authorities who have imprisoned his son Ardjani. Izidor welcomes this disoriented gadjo (non-Rom) as some form of godsend, and claiming to know the voice on the cassette, leads Stephan back to his village.
The village Roma gradually accept Stephane, and he adapts himself into the community. Soon he falls in love with Sabina, a dancer who performs with Izidor at local celebrations. With her help as interpreter, Stephane systematically records and documents local Romani musicians and singers.
Tragedy strikes when Ardjani returns after six months. In a bar confrontation, he throws a glass and unintentionally kills one of the local Romanian authorities, which triggers a mob attack on the Romani village. During the pogrom, everyone is chased away, Ardjani is burnt to death, and the village is left in ashes.
As the final credits rolled on, Dimitrina looked about the room and saw that, like herself, many of her colleagues were moved by the film. Then she saw that some of the others, especially the five Roma, seemed not to share her views. In a discussion that followed, she learned that they had unanimously disliked the film. They said it was hurtful stereotyping, another false gadje version of Romani character. Some said the lovemaking, and more particularly, the vulgar cursing between the Romani villagers, should never have been revealed to gadje, as this was humiliating. Others felt the Romani behaviour shown, especially the vulgarity, was quite simply a false representation of how the Roma really are. Once again it was an outsider claiming authority over the already abused Romani image. If Tony Gatlif was of Romani descent, he had "betrayed" his people. In short, the general opinion among the Roma was that far from being a vehicle for greater understanding of the Romani plight, it was perhaps better the film didn't exist at all.
Dimitrina was forced to rethink her initial reaction. In the days that followed, she watched the film again, this time conceding that the film did stereotype negatively.
Dimitrina's story surprised me. I had watched the film in a tiny cinema in the fifth arrondisment of Paris. The audience was clearly drawn in, laughing at appropriate moments; at the end, holding back tears and reluctant to leave the cinema. For all its apparent flaws - less than perfect performances, continuity problems, some awkward editing, stylistic inconsistency - I came out feeling profoundly stirred. I read afterwards that at the Locarno film festival, the 3000 spectators rose to their feet and applauded Tony Gatlif for a full ten minutes. The film was received with equal passion at many other festivals around the world. In interviews, Gatlif claims that while his other films are cinema, his "Gypsy triptych" - which includes Les Princes (1982) and his documentary about Romani music, Latcho Drom (1993) - is "something else: a mission." ((All citations of Tony Gatlif from "Lions Gate Releasing Presents Gadjo Dilo", Opening July 10, 1998, Samantha Dean and Associates, New York; and Tony Gatlif interview with Antoine Duplan and Thierry Sartoretti, "L'hebdo" magazine, No 14, April 2, 1998.) Gadjo Dilo, he says, is a film of "absolute honesty and truth": "Whenever I present that film, I feel that same emotion with the audience... The magic is that the public feel exactly what I wanted to communicate." For Gatlif, then, it is mission accomplished.
What does the film communicate? How and to whom? With what result? Gatlif's claim to honesty, combined with the film's evident emotional effect, makes more urgent the question of the representation of Roma. Has Gatlif shown a "truthful" Roma community that could actually exist? Has he done so in a way that will help break apart popularized anti-Roma stereotypes or promote Roma rights? Or are the Roma of Gadjo Dilo wrongly and harmfully portrayed?
As the film's title suggests, Stephane - the "crazy stranger" - will be the outsider in what is traditionally a community of outsiders. Rather than the usual story of a shifty Gypsy appearing in a gadje milieu, it is the gadjo Stephane who becomes the object of suspicion and disapproval in a Romani milieu. This ironic reversal of roles is a main source of humour in the film and one of its novelties. When Stephane emerges from Izidor's house in the morning, the villagers point at his torn shoes and dirty clothing yelling, "He's a bum!" Tension mounts as he's fleeing and more villagers emerge: "Look, he's a thief! His bag is filled with chickens! Assassin! Bandit! He's going to steal our women!" The negative stereotypes usually reserved for the Roma are now applied to Stephane - "like in the commedia dell-arte," says Gatlif, "when the idiot treats the king like an imbecile. Who is the imbecile of the other?" As one would expect, the Roma who played the scene enjoyed themselves: "They were happy because they were getting their revenge," says Gatlif.
It would be a mistake however, to think the subjective eye of this film is Romani. When Stephane is called names we are watching "them" watch "us" - and we laugh only because their perceptions of Stephane are unfounded. Indeed, to say this film reproduces the non-Romani viewpoint is merely to state a fact - Gatlif may be of Romani descent, but both the protagonist and the camera which follows him throughout are gadje, and it is through their lenses that events unfold and the Roma are seen. What matters here is that, arriving in the village, Stephane experiences, at least partially, what it is like to be the marginal scorned "other", and thus the metamorphosis of his character can begin.
The Roma then, are to a large extent catalysts for Stephane's process of self-awakening, their griefs always dominated by the film's narrative motivations. For example, when Izidor dances next to his dead friend's grave, we are being prepared for the film's final scene where Stephane will imitate Izidor's dance. The close range shots of the Romani accordion player and Izidor crying are deliberately punctuated by images of a respectful and attentive Stephane observing. In the longer-range shots which take in all three characters, Stephane is seen standing off to one side. The effect serves to emphasise that we are watching grief, not "participating" in it. The same distancing is felt even when Sabina finds Ardjani in the charred remains of her house. He can only play a supportive role. But it is exactly in that role that he will further develop a consciousness of self. Thus, while the destroyed village is a place of pain for Sabina, it is in another way a place where redemption, or at least self-illumination, is possible for Stephane.
Gadjo Dilo is, therefore, not a film about the Roma as some describe it. It is about a Frenchman and his encounter with the Roma, and the universal process of confrontation, understanding, and acceptance. But the fact that a Frenchman is our hero, and that the film is made from the perspective of Western non-Roma (for whom the film is obviously intended), should not be grounds for criticism. The matter of who represents the Roma is, in the end, of secondary importance to how they are represented. There is room and need for many perspectives on the Roma. Claiming that only the Roma can possess a clear, accurate vision of themselves, and that any representations should come from within their own situation, is to suppose that different cultures are somehow wholly self-validating and mutually incongruous. If that were the case, dialogue would be an impossibility, and it would be ridiculous for Roma and non-Roma to tell each other anything. As much as another's perception of me is motivated by his own beliefs and interests, I need him to get a grip on what I am, to offer an exterior, refracted vision of myself. Identity is forged from confrontation.
With Gadjo Dilo, Gatlif has decided that a good way to re-present sympathetically the Roma to his non-Romani audience with shape, depth, and finitude is by focusing on a central protagonist whose position is external to the Roma. His strategy is to have us identify easily with a familiar, stable character so that we are guided without difficulty or resistance into the enigmatic Romani village. Stephane's access to the Roma is our access, and so he plays a crucial role in shaping our perceptions and attitudes.
His presence ensures that we not only inhabit a spectating position apart from the Roma (essential to the success of the narrative), but that we have the opportunity to acknowledge ourselves in the act of gazing; in effect, we enter the scene of representation as active participants in the character of Stephane. This is easily done, since until the end of the film, Stephane is hardly different from any other young Western "adventure tourist". The sole variation is that rather than photograph his "exotics", he puts them on DAT tape.
Just how closely our perceptions are bound up with Stephane's becomes clear during the pogrom, the film's weakest sequence. Its failure is primarily due to the fact that it is the only time we as viewers are left without Stephane there to see and act on our behalf - he is in the woods making love with Sabina. We are no longer in the subjective world where Stephane's needs prevail. The camera becomes conspicuously omniscient; and as the pogrom is already the film's likely narrative destiny, this gives the attack a staged formal feeling, to some extent reducing the scene to its aesthetic effects - geese hurling themselves into the air, a fast cam pursuing the Romani villagers as they flee through the woods.
Stephane's moment of self-realisation, when he truly acknowledges his spectator position, comes after the pogrom. He and Sabina have driven to a Romanian mansion where Izidor and his band are playing. We see Stephane standing just behind the Romani musicians, looking at the celebrating Romanian family, while in the foreground Sabina is whispering news of Ardjani's death into Izidor's ear. The frame turns to show one of the Romani village girls dancing on the dining room table, then returns and closes in on Stephane's face. In his expression is both contempt and disgust. For the first time, he imagines, focuses on, and confirms in himself his friend Izidor's experience, and by extension the experience of all Roma. The persecution the Roma suffer, which has until now been little more than a presence in the film, becomes emotionally tangible to Stephane. He hates the Romanians who are sitting at the table as if they were the very individuals who had set fire to the village, a village of which he now feels a part.
In the next scene, we learn Stephane will assume the responsibility his moment of insight entails. He ritually destroys the tapes that have taken months to compile and buries them. He acknowledges that, however sincere his appreciation for Romani music, he is actually no better than the Romanians (who at least pay for the music with cash) - just another transitional outsider avoiding real engagement, turning his back on Romani persecution, and participating in a selfish process of cultural commodification.
And yet we want Stephane to succeed in his musical quest, not thinking that in recording and cataloguing the villagers, he is both avoiding dialogue and reinforcing their value solely as music peddlers. As all of us in urban-industrial, bureaucratic societies have now been converted into consumers and collectors - tourists! - our instinct is to support such work. Thus our shock and sadness, and desire to yell, "No! Don't!" when he is destroying the tapes; but also our teary admiration for his courage. How many of us could do the same? Gatlif recognizes he is implicated: "Stephane is purer than me or any musicologist. He lives with the Gypsies. He becomes a Gypsy. He comes to understand this music so well that he doesn't need to commercialise it. He exorcises the guilt of all the world's musicologists, and all the documentary film makers, and all the journalists in the world."
What is this guilt? It is the guilt which grows out of that pretense of engagement, that condescension of superficial sympathies, that manipulation of friendships, and that exercise of power underlying supposedly honest, open, equal exchanges with the "other": the powerless people who generously receive these wealthy outsiders with their high-tech recording equipment. Stephane's destructive act is the supreme assertion of his respect for the Roma and of their value, and an accusation and a rejection of himself. As viewers, we are also jolted into recognition. In our alliance with Stephane, having implicitly approved of his actions and emotions throughout his story, we become aware of our complicity - his guilt is also ours.
In a lesser film, Stephane would have left for Paris with his tapes "enriched" and we as viewers would likely leave the cinema resigned to the "way things are". In choosing to go beyond self-fulfilling sympathy and accept Sabina into his life, Stephane faces the difficult task of restitching his new hybrid self together, drawing from the unfamiliar Romani culture, and forming the hopeful link between divided communities. Gatlif shows Stephane to be not just a passive recipient of history but a participating subject. We do not know if Stephane will stay in the Romani village or take Sabina away with him, but either way, such matters exist outside the boundaries of the film; their yet-to-be-told story is Gatlif's gesture towards the multicultural global utopia many of us envision but know not how to reach.
Hurtful stereotypes made harmless
So repeatedly reduced to one-dimensional cut-outs in literature and cinema, the Roma have seen their culture and cultural products trivialized, and their efforts at identity-building flustered. More often than not, they are represented in one of two ways. First, as people who systematically steal, lie, and cheat, and who fit descriptions including adjectives like "dirty", "disorganized", "uneducated", "rash", "lazy" and so on. Second, as proud, passionate musicians, free spirits liberated of vanity and unflagging in courage.
In recent years, a third conception of the Roma has gained latitude, further complicating the issue of representation: the Roma as scapegoats or victims of racist attacks, police brutality, or systematic institutionalisation by non-Roma. As national and international NGOs fighting for Roma rights continue to make strides, images of Roma living helplessly in squalor on the fringes of society become increasingly pervasive. The ERRC itself describes the Roma as "the least integrated and the most persecuted people in Europe."
Given the central role the Roma play in Stephane's journey, no one could claim that they function the way so many stock screen-Gypsies have in the past. Sabina and Izidor do more than simply automate certain parts of the story so we can concentrate on the unpredictabilities of the main character. Instead, it is Stephane who is easily recognisable, and the Roma who are not: they surprise, evolve, interact, and influence events in the course of Stephane's stay. Moreover, the presumption from the outset is not that the Roma should be like Stephane, but that he should be like the Roma.
On the face of it though, the film's Roma resemble, in one way or another, the two commonly held stereotypes of "Gypsies". What is potentially even more worrying is that the film also introduces negative traits not normally part of the average Westerner's storehouse of Gypsy stereotypes. Izidor provides our first impression. We soon learn that he is quite willing to deceive to get what he wants or achieve an effect: he feeds Stephane's hopes of meeting Nora Luca; he makes generous use of superlatives if he senses his listener needs convincing. We note, in turn, that his good-nature can turn to anger. When Sabina refuses to translate for him, he physically wrestles her to the ground before launching into a flurry of degrading insults.
Izidor's emotiveness is shared by the other villagers: men settle disputes by shouting each other down; Sabina cries almost immediately upon hearing another woman sing a sentimental song. There are also signs of alcohol dependency (vodka bottles and drunkenness appear throughout), of theft (Izidor makes off with his neighbour's shoes so that he can present Stephane properly in town), of superstition (a woman cries out a warning that the strange Stephane might have left an evil spirit in Izidor's house), of illiteracy (people gather to hear Ardjani's letter read out by the village "reader"), of avarice (villagers kiss a mafia boss's gaudy ring-laden fingers when he comes to visit), and of obsessive pride (Ardjani's bitterness leads him to destruction). The community appears rigidly patriarchal (sexist if you like), with men and women in strictly designated social and sexual roles. The women giggle and call Stephane a "faggot" for cleaning Izidor's house. Later, as Izidor is leaving for a wedding performance, one of the dancer's father appears, flourishing "medical proof" of her virginity and saying he will kill Izidor if she does not return chaste. Meanwhile, Sabina, cast off by her Belgian husband, is subject to perpetual advances and insults, repeatedly called a whore. After a night in Bucharest drinking and dancing, Izidor asks Stephane to stop the car, calls Sabina over then forces himself onto her, reasoning that he only wants "one little fuck". When Stephane steps in, Sabina tells him to stay out of it and Izidor accuses him of lack of respect.
Izidor's impulsive behaviour feeds into stereotype number two, which Gatlif does nothing to depreciate. In his opinion, the Roma have retained a precious wildness, an ability to act wholly and without restraint upon their whims. The Roma and their music, he says, "remind us what we've lost. The civilized world has tamed life too much... We remember what it is to live. When we drink we drink, when we make love we make love, when we say 'ass' we say 'ass'." In Gadjo Dilo, the Roma do all of these things with great vigour. They laugh and rejoice for even the humblest of events - the hijacking of an electric wire to illumine a light bulb or a game of dice (we see much gambling).
Gatlif is not wrong in maintaining that the Roma possess qualities we would do well to emulate. But he treads dangerously when conceiving of Roma as "untamed". Bigoted Romanians would certainly not object to the employment of such an adjective. "Untamed" quickly becomes "uncivilized" or "savage" and the dark side of stereotype two reveals itself. The numerous North American and French film critics I have read describe the film's Roma with repeated use of words like "raw", "colourful", "spiritual", "passionate", and ironically, "liberated". Positive words at first glance, and yet easily turned. However much these attributes may warrant esteem, they continue to rank lower than "rationality" and "culture", qualities that have traditionally distinguished humans from brutes.
However malleable they may be, popularized stereotypes cannot be side-stepped; they always have some relationship, however tenuous, to a real, identifiable group. Gadjo Dilo manages to redeem old stereotypes, or to put it differently, to rob them of their destructive force. It usurps them and undermines the attitudes which uphold them. Throughout, it makes us ready for the more questionable aspects of the Romani community. It surreptitiously censures our negative pre-conceptions by creating conditions in which the seemingly stereotypical traits depicted no longer nourish or reinforce our prejudices. Quite the contrary, re-situated in the film through the eyes of Stephane, the Romani idiosyncrasies call into question our prejudices ("Yes, the Roma use vulgar language, what of it?").
Another reason stereotypes are refashioned is that Gatlif exploits the third standardized image of the Roma in such a way that it informs the first two stereotypes. Aside from evident poverty in the village, there are several indicators of exclusion and violence against the Roma quite early on in the film. One of Izidor's first statements, just after we have seen his son's bloodied face, is that there is no justice for the Romani people. We also infer a great deal from the sense of pride and status Izidor derives from his relationship with Stephane. He is compelled to parade his grubby French friend, his object of glamour and power, through the Romanian village and into the Romanian beer hall. There he launches into a flamboyant monologue, claiming Stephane has come from Paris to learn Romani because he loves the Roma; he goes on to describe how loved and welcomed the Roma are by the French people. Stephane is seen darting nervous glances, but the Romanians merely laugh off Izidor's boasting fantasies. The dynamic of the interaction is telling. Izidor the "fabulist", as Isabel Fonseca has used the term to talk of the Roma, betrays a deep-seated need to prove his social value. Usually silenced, he is tolerated by the beer drinking Romanians only because of his special guest, and the disparity between his fantasies and the reality of his social situation.
Evidence of ethnically motivated discrimination does not automatically justify any Romani behaviour, but it encourages our understanding. Rather than wince or tsk-tsk at the sound of the coarse Romani conversation with all its novel vulgarities, we are more likely to accept it in the light of sympathy. The Roma, we might say, have always broken with conformity, both by choice and by force. Since speech patterns and syntax are so permeated by the establishment, and express so much of the manipulation of the individual, one way they have, over time, counteracted this process of assimilation and retained difference, has been the development of a vulgar banter. So as viewers, we are given - more intuitively than consciously - to compassionate awareness. The playful Romani dialogue is soon emptied of its surface vulgarity - it rings true, becoming another practicable way of communicating. Furthermore, by including "negative" aspects of Romani life we are disarmed before we have a chance to use these things against the Roma.
Granted, Gatlif uses techniques, or shall I say "tricks", that we associate with documentaries: the straight, long take, editing kept to a relative minimum, static background activity - men hammering at scrap metal bowls - and a certain grainy texture harking back to old ethnographic footage. Some critics even refer to the film as a "pseudo-documentary". Gatlif himself defends his film by appealing to authenticity, careful to point out that, aside from Stephane and Sabina, all the other roles are filled by Roma playing themselves. Almost every scene was filmed on location in the same Romani village. The film was even shot chronologically so that Romain Duris's (Stephane) integration into the Romani community would be as natural as possible. "I needed truth," Gatlif declares, "exposing it all without a filter."
As much as these measures may have lent positively to the film, they hardly qualify as a solid defence against mis-representation. The whole discussion of representation in terms of "true" and "false" will always be fundamentally flawed as it attaches itself to the old belief that in the hands of an honest cameraman, the transparent mechanical eye can reproduce the world "as it is" - even the most ambitious documentary filmmakers of decades past will concede that no one can occupy an Olympian vantage point, certainly not looking through the square window of a camera.
Gatlif would do better to make it clear that, unlike a documentary, Gadjo Dilo does not attempt to make history, to show what has been, but rather what always is. In other words, it is a fiction. Before it is answerable to cultural authenticity, it must answer to the familiar formal criteria we use to evaluate imaginative products of art: stylistic intricacy, psychological subtlety, epistemological complexity, narrative coherence, and so on. Unless it rates well artistically, Gadjo Dilo has no potential use whatsoever to the Roma.
The right sensation
In demanding from Gadjo Dilo either a coherent political message or else some kind of cultural authenticity, one commits the category of mistake which muddles discussions of the film and even cinematic representation in general. Gatlif's failure can, in fact, be measured by the extent to which Gadjo Dilo smells of didacticism and moral purpose. Were he to be engaged in political activism, he would have been better off writing an essay where the logic of his argument could be better expressed. And if he had wanted us to accept the authority of an ascertained reality for educational purposes, he should have made a straight documentary.
Naturally there is perpetual movement between the fiction of a film's images and the reality of its fictions. The "real" and the "artificial" are never independent of each other. This was evident during the shooting of the pogrom. Gatlif did the scene in a reconstituted village, and even there, according to Gatlif, the sixty or so Roma watching the Romanian actors started yelling insults.
In the end though, a film is an assumed world, just beyond the limits of belief and action, neither reflecting nor shirking real life, and yet wholly absorbing it. Good cinematic fiction does not engage in proselytizing or aim at clinically disinterested depiction. As such, there is nothing in it to refute. This is what Sir Philip Sydney meant when he said of the poet: "he nothing affirms and therefore never lieth." Even the crudest of cinema-goers knows this. He can suspend disbelief through the most blatant exaggerations and distortions. The "truth" of a film comes in a different form, and is arrived at by way of the "back door" - at the level of the senses. In other words, Gadjo Dilo's moral force lies in its power to produce what Wallace Stevens has called, speaking of poetry, the "right sensation".
After an evening writing this article, I went to a party and met Gabriella, a Romanian school-teacher from Bucharest. I was introduced by our host in French as someone writing about Romania. "Oui," I said, "sur les Roma." Gabriella did not understand. "Les gitans." Her face darkened. I thought maybe she was fed up with having to talk about the problems of the Roma every time her country was mentioned. I started to explain that I was only writing about a film, but she interrupted.
"There are very few Gypsies in Romania. We have blue eyes you know, white skin," she said, pointing to her face. "We are Europeans." I understood at once that her sole concern was that I not perceive Romania as a country of Roma. She lamented the sight of Roma begging in Paris. "People refer to them as Romanians!" she cried. I told her what I knew of Romania's demography and she looked reassured. I suggested as a final note, however, that the Romani population was at least two million, and given Romani fear of identification and the unreliability of government sources, probably higher. We debated this a few minutes. She insisted on no more than 400,000: "That includes both gitans and tsigans," she said. "You do know a gitan from a tsigan, don't you?"
As she explained the difference, I remembered receiving a similar lecture from a landlord years earlier in Newark, New Jersey - he wanted to be sure I could tell a "black" from a "nigger". The gitans, said Gabriella, could actually work in "normal" jobs, but the tsigans were beyond hope. "They do nothing but steal and beg. And if you don't give them money, they spit at you. Once I said "no" and one of them jumped up and pulled my hair." I felt she had told the story before. I offered the requisite look of astonishment.
"I'm sorry," she said suddenly, "but this is a very sensitive topic." I intimated I was "on her side", and we began a cautious but involved discussion.
"Understand," she said, "They don't want to integrate and they refuse to come to school." Weren't Gypsy children often put in separate classes, or else cut off from schooling altogether? "No, they are always welcome," she said. Anyway, she had taught Gypsies and they were "impossible".
What about the reports of mob attacks on villages? That had only happened on a few occasions, she explained, and always as a result of Gypsies attacking Romanians.
If a Romanian is attacked by a Gypsy, is it not an affair for the police and the courts? The police were too afraid, so there is no choice. She shrugged: "They get what they deserve."
We soon descended into stubborn monologues. She punctuated my statistics, reports, and arguments with her own. Finally she said triumphantly, "You have to live in Romania to know." It was her last recourse: you cannot know. The silence allowed us a moment to refill our wine glasses.
"Have you seen a film called Gadjo Dilo?" I asked.
"Yes," she said, unable to resist a smile. For a time, mention of Gadjo Dilo brought new energy to our conversation. Gabriella considered it an accurate depiction of the Roma, and had even felt tearful about Ardjani's death. "I liked the film," she said pointedly, "It was really true, they live like that, they speak like that." I pressed her on this, but she retreated to what quickily became her refrain: "It's only a film." But Gabriella was aware of her contradiction. As we talked further, of Izidor and Ardjani, and of the pogrom, she seemed increasingly self-conscious, a little unwilling, as if she might come across as foolish. Our host then interrupted with a plate of cakes, and both of us were a little relieved.
Fictional narratives like Gadjo Dilo give a human face to statistics and reports, and allow us to cry for those to whom we would not normally extend any sympathy in real life. Gabriella was indignant at the suggestion she shared something in common with the Gypsies. At base, our long discussion consisted of two simple but opposing assertions: "The Roma are fully human" versus "The Roma are not fully human." Neither a ten volume account of abuses against the Roma, nor a well-fashioned argument spelling out her duties to the Roma could convince her otherwise.
Gadjo Dilo, on the other hand, resisted her easy categorizations because the emotion she had felt for its characters could not be swept aside. It had not changed her attitudes, and yet there was an unsettling: she had had the "right sensation" - that feeling which is the basis of charity and tolerance. A line from the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of England's nineteenth-century political "activists" is appropriate here: "Until the mind can love, and admire, and trust, and hope, and endure, reasoned principles of moral conduct are seeds cast upon the highway of life which the unconscious passenger tramples into dust, although they would bear the harvest of his happiness." For gadje, whether apathetic or hostile towards the plight of the Roma, reports on the Roma are cast seeds trampled underfoot. The role of fictional stories is to play out what is lacking in practice, and thereby exercise the imagination, that primary moral tool which is our access to the "other". That way, when the broader changes do come, they will not be met with quite so much resistence. The "other" is not just some lovable outsider or hopelessly condemned being "over there" on the fringes, but another center "here" with us.
* * *
Gregory Kwiek responds
(Gregory Kwiek claims that he is not a writer. He was born in 1968 to a Polish Keldelari father and a Russian Lovari mother. He has lived in many countries. Though he has had little in the ways of what is considered a formal education by gadje, he has gained much from the experiences of learning from the romani people in the various parts of the world in which he has lived. He hopes to one day see the combination of Romani history and internal Romani education being taught to Romani children in a full and comprehensive way.)
My first introduction to Gadjo Dilo was on the Romnet, a Romani theme mailing list on the Internet created by the linguist Dr Ian Hancock. The title of the film spoke to me and presented the notion that finally a Rom was about to make a film that would help gadje realise how we perceive them. I have seen too many films about Roma about which non-Romani friends said that if they didn't know any Roma personally, they would assume us all fools, savages, etc., based on how those films portrayed us.
Several weeks later I received a phone call to come to a screening of Gadjo Dilo and that I should spread word of it around the Romani communities in New York City. I was pleased by this phone call, to say the least. I felt great pride at that moment, for being able to go out into the community and yell at the top of my lungs with pride that a Rom had made a film about his people. I contacted George Kaslov, a Romani activist in New York City, inviting him to view the film with me, and I invited a number of other people as well. I remember discussing the film with George before it started. There was so much pride and hope in us, we felt that the gadje were going to be in for a treat. We expected the film to present something very different from what gadje usually presume of Roma, but it turned out that it was our assumptions that were flawed. We were fifteen minutes into the film when I concluded that the main actress was not a Romani woman. I turned to George and to another fellow Rom who was with us and said so. Some of the other members of the audience knew we were Roma, and I noticed that our reactions were being followed along with the film. One young woman, three or four seats away leaned over to me and asked what it was that made us assume that this actress was not Romani. I was unable to explain it to her during the film. As the film continued, George and I became very uncomfortable. I changed seats, and even left the theatre during one scene. Again, the non-Romani audience watched our reactions with curiosity. By the end of the film, I became bitter. As we exited the theatre, discussion began among both the Roma who had watched the film and the non-Roma. I overheard one gadjo commenting to another that he now had an understanding of Romani culture. I remember thinking that after all that we do to combat stereotypes, this film has with one stroke reinforced them.
Outside the theatre we were approached by a number of non-Roma who had observed us during the course of the film. One of these non-Roma was the young lady who had asked me during the film why I thought the actress was not Romani and she asked me this once again. I responded by explaining that her behavior was completely un-Romani, that the foul language she used just was not an accurate representation of how she would speak. The young woman still did not understand, and I explained it as follows:
Foul language comes in many forms. It is quite improper to use the same type of foul language around a stranger that you would with a friend, or the kind that is used between a husband and a wife, as opposed to with clergy, or with an older relative such as a grandparent. I found the foul language used in this film to be humorous, and I think that that was Gatlif's intention, but Sabina's language was extremely out of place. Almost everybody used a lot of foul language in the film, but not in the same manner as that of Sabina.
Here I am quoting the conversation as best I can remember it. I went on to explain to this non-Romani woman why it was clear to all of the Roma in the theatre that the main character could simply not be a Romani woman. Her language made her seem as out of place as a clown would be in the senate. One would not assume someone dressed as a clown at a hearing was a senator. She was not a bad actress, but it looked like a gadji playing a Romni, in the same way that if a circus clown played a senator without taking off the clown suit, no one could possibly recognise him as a senator.
At this point someone else approached me, and stated that since Gatlif is a Rom himself, and the focus of the film was Roma, then this film must be an accurate portrayal of Romani culture. This person then began asking us if such language was ever used in our household. This sheds light on why some of us feel our criticism is ignored. Some gadje appear to think that we Roma are not happy on the grounds - they think - that Gatlif is revealing unpleasant aspects of our culture, and that this is the real cause of our criticism. This causes the generalisations to stick even harder.
In actuality, the film could have portrayed, for example, Greek peasants. In such a case, the foul humor could still have been incorporated, but I would think that people would not have associated that aspect of the film with Greek culture. If Gatlif's intentions were to portray the stereotypes in a colourful fashion - in the way, for example, that Spike Lee portrays his own ethnic group - judging by interpretations of some of those gadje who have viewed the film, I have to say that his success has been limited. It is unfortunate, but too many of the gadje that exited the theatre that night conversed in a manner that acknowledged that they were unable to differentiate between representations of Romani culture on the one hand, and an extreme concentration of stereotypes to produce a particular effect on the other. Some may quarrel that the way a film can be interpreted by an audience should not be the responsibility of filmmakers. But I believe that filmmakers are responsible.
I criticise the film Gadjo Dilo in the belief that it has played on what is easily accepted by the gadje. The film did not tackle what is difficult and that, for me, would have been to present an understanding of Romani culture, rather than another misleading representation for the already misled.
We the Romani people have survived great hostility by keeping a safe distance from the society that surrounded us. Our culture adapted to the environment that surrounded us, and nearly all of the information available about us was misinformation. There have been no statues, schools or accurate books about Roma, nor any visible signs throughout most of our history that could have helped gadje relate to the real Roma.
The dangers in a film like Gadjo Dilo are therefore extreme, because first impressions are what shape people's perceptions most, and thereafter we resist anything opposing those first impressions. If people are trained to believe that Roma are some sort of a secretive society, and that they are not to be trusted, then it will be hard for anyone ever to see things otherwise and everything they learn about Roma after that will be used to reinforce the ideas they already have. It is very hard to explain to the general public that what the film depicted was not a true representation of Romani culture, but one person's perceptions of that culture.
The Romani identity (not the stereotypes) needs to be absorbed into the societies that surround us, then we can all be at greater ease in doing things like making light of our own culture and not be so vigilant about stereotypes and representations of Roma. Here I am thinking, for example, of the type of Jewish humor which makes light of Jewish stereotypes in front of non-Jews. I would like to think that at some point, Romani culture will be able to engage in that kind of self-exposure with ease. However, under present conditions, we are in the position of having to fight false representations of Romani culture wherever we see them.
But first the war within ourselves must be won. I understand that some West European Romani people welcomed the film, and even added racial slurs against their Romani brothers in Europe's former communist nations that they themselves feel are intolerable when used by gadje in the nations in which they live to describe them. This pointing fingers at each other does nothing more than rent temporary respect from the gadje, and only divides us and makes us weaker. We have two battles to fight, one against gadjo perceptions of us as a people, the second against those that sell us out as a people to gain what they can for themselves alone.
Years ago, Greek men passed on their wisdom orally. Today the same occurs at Romani gatherings. This type of education may be considered by many non-Roma as informal or improper means of education. But they do not understand the complexities involved in our laws, and that it takes stages to learn them as with the non-Romani educational system. How often has the non-Rom made this observation? In essence what I am saying here is that Romani blood does not provide a Rom with the certification to present Romani culture, in fact it takes a lot of acquired Romani education to both present and preserve it.
László Jakab Orsós responds
(László Jakab Orsós studied Hungarian Literary History and Aesthetics at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. He is founding editor of the Nappali Ház literary and artistic quarterly and he currently teaches theatre and writing at the Budapest College of Theatre and Film Studies.)
You shouldn't start producing a film if nothing in the world comes into your head, if you are not mad about putting the world together all over again, or passionate about the identical thrill of tearing apart and building up again, or if, as a consequence of this, you have no secrets, if you quite simply didn't get to the bottom of anything.But nor should you make a film if you are full of emotions and so riveted by feeling these emotions that you have no time to think about them.
Gypsy film specialist Tony Gatlif makes his films in a very particular state of mind: he loves Roma, he respects them, he is in wonder of them, he knows everything about them; however, he completely forgets that Roma are also people. For him, a Gypsy is above all a Gypsy: wild, like the mountain streams, passionate like the flaming sunset, scented like flower-filled mountain meadows - something like that. He's made three Gypsy films so far: Latcho Drom and The Princes, and now Gadjo Dilo, but in his admirable mission he has not succeeded in surpassing his love-struck fervour.
In this film, he sets a French boy, a fresh-faced, sympathetic vagabond, off on a journey, in search of Nora Luca, a Romanian Romani singer who has perturbed his physical and mental state. So the boy goes ambling along, until he runs into a genial, full-blooded, refined Rom, who, after a stormy drinking scene, leads him to the tribe, where, even if he doesn't find Nora Luca, he finds an abundant life, raw happiness, sparkling looks, suffering, evil and love. Gadjo Dilo: the Crazy Man living in every white man who knows nothing about the smell of smoke, about the quivering hips of Gypsy girls, about howling suffering and biblical poverty. Certainly, Tony Gatlif is working with a shabby topic. But this is not why his film is not good. In truth, the worst about it is merely the romantic, painfully primitive theatrical assembly of at times dallying, at times unarguably beautiful and joyful scenes. There is no organising principle beyond theatrical ideas. It is not the plot which makes a film, but the attitude which becomes apparent through the story and the situations. Film, like any other work of art, says more than the sum of its scenes. Gatlif's film, on the contrary, is the monotonous repetition of what he shows us in the first scene.
It's surprising that Gatlif, who presumably feels bonds of atavistic attraction, compassion and absorbed love for Roma, should handle his characters and his theme like the most idiotic socio-tourist. He takes an intellectual excursion into a world where he cannot be surprised, because he does not want to be surprised. The socio-tourist knows everything in advance, and is delighted only by the trimmings. He documents the exterior, but doesn't even notice what is happening behind the facade, especially not if it is something which contradicts the surface. His eyes moisten if he sees a Gypsy hovel, and he begins to shake with happiness if he hears particularly vulgar profanities from a Rom. Gatlif is not actually cruel to Roma; he simply doesn't make it possible for them to be finally liberated from the ghetto where kind-hearted good spirits - among them Mr Gatlif himself - have locked them up. According to these people, Gypsies can only live like Gypsies. Like this they are authentic and creditable. However, fortunately, the world is not so simple. There are depraved Roma, serious ill-doers, ugly Romani girls; there are those who hate their surroundings and suffer from them; and of course there is the opposite of all this as well. Sadly, Gatlif doesn't dare think about complicated matters. It is as if he is afraid that complexity will damage the brilliance of his theme. Currently, Roma have only one role to play in the arts of the world: the rebellious wanderer of the highways. Everyone loses: the Roma have to suffer this damaging simplification, the "whites" on the other hand are shut off from a complex and contradictory world.
This is a serious problem, even if these Romani wax works were put together with the greatest possible care, and even if the most credible Roma pose in them. But what is missing from Gatlif's films is any real understanding. There is a lack of laborious work which would require paying attention to the magic of events and the unending enigma lurking behind them. Real philanthropy and curiosity is needed for this kind of work, not emotion. Otherwise the result will be like a pretty picture book: a useless thing to regale our eyes.
Claude Cahn responds
(Claude Cahn is publications director of the ERRC.)
Tony Gatlif's Romani community is about the most exotic one he can get his hands on, and he has to go very far afield to find it. He sends his young French hero to southern Romania and he suitably finds there wild and exotic Gypsies in colourful garb and with gold in their teeth. This is all well and good, especially for moving the story along and keeping us interested. The problem lies in the fact that it is central to our understanding of the film that Stephane meets not a particular group of Roma in their local - in this case southern Romanian - context. Rather, these Roma - who really are very alien to Westerners - are meant to stand for all Roma and for Roma as such.
Through Stephane's eyes, we experience exotic events and places and these are presented as Romani. During the wedding for example, Stephane gazes with wonder as the father of the bride wields an axe, shouting at the men of the groom's party that under no circumstances will he part with his daughter. They present him with a case of drink, a bottle is opened, and the father is appeased; the wedding can continue. All of this is part of the landscape of otherness, strangeness and exoticism Gadjo Dilo provides to show how far Stephane is from safe Paris.
What Gadjo Dilo does not (and, within the framework of its own fictional world, cannot) present, is that the scene with the axe is also a feature of Romanian weddings. In Romania, there is nothing particularly Romani about the defence of the bride and her ultimate purchase by the groom's party. To be sure, the particularities of the Romani performance of this custom are particularly Romani. Roma enact this scene differently than ethnic Hungarians or ethnic Romanians in Romania. But all three groups engage in the custom, and Romani difference lies precisely in the Romani adaptation of a common act.
We don't learn this in Gadjo Dilo, and the film relies on the fact that all of the cultural strangeness in the film will be understood as Romani. The film drives Roma to their most exotic extreme and leaves the audience with the impression, "my, they really are very different from us". The task of Stephane and Sabina at the end of the film - bridging this cultural gap - is understood to be Herculean. The news that Stephane's father has died in the desert in Syria "among a tribe of nomads" comes as no surprise whatsoever and we are pointed in the direction of understanding that Stephane and his father belong to a class of crazy unbridled romantics in the world, people who go out to meet wild Gypsies and nomadic Syrians. Dying among them is presumed to be their preferred fate, a form of poetic justice.
What we are cheated of is the immense diversity of Romani culture, the plurality of Romani personalities. Gadjo Dilo establishes a reified, unitary Romani culture far enough from our own that we cannot see the trick of the filmmaker. The trick is two-fold: first, in choosing which one of the many Romani cultures to present as the authentic one, it reaches for one of the Romani cultures least like our (Western) own. Next, the film presents this particular Romani culture as Romani culture per se, imposing uniformity on an immensely diverse culture. There is nothing terribly unusual in this treatment of culture; such a leveling takes place to some extent in all successful novelistic presentations of culture. If we are to distinguish between fiction and the social world however, it is crucial that we know what aspects of culture have been sacrificed in rendering the fiction.
The effect of Gadjo Dilo is to impose a grandiose and exotic Romaniness on all Roma, one they can't possibly live up to. This is destructive precisely because it does not prepare Hungarians to meet Hungarian Roma and Gypsies, Germans to meet German Sinti and Roma, English people to encounter English Travellers and Gypsies, Irish and ScottishTravellers and Welsh Roma, Gypsies and Travellers, etc. Quite the opposite - after Gadjo Dilo, these are bound to seem quite mundane, not at all like the "real, authentic" Gypsies of the film. Gadjo Dilo does not prepare us for the otherness in our own culture, the otherness not alien but familiar. In short, the Roma of Gadjo Dilo look like every Rom one might expect to meet, and few of the Roma that one actually will.
Sanida Skender: A childhood memory
(Sanida Skender is a journalist working for the Romani programme of the Macedonian state television)
I was sitting and watching a film at a friend's place in my hometown of Skopje, Macedonia, and there was a scene with Roma. As soon as she saw the Roma, my friend's mother started scaring her daughter that if she did not behave, "Gypsies like these would come and take her away." Even though she knew I was Romani, the woman continued listing negative stereotypes. Ever since then, each movie I see with Romani characters reminds me of my childhood and makes me revolt.
At first Roma mostly appeared in a scene or two in non-Romani movies in Yugoslavia. The mid-seventies were the start of a growing interest in movies about Roma. The directors were either non-Roma with knowledge of Romani lifestyle, or directors of Romani origin. Films with Roma-related topics became commercial, as a "new and undiscovered" culture and an unusual lifestyle was featured. As a result, the movies produced were very much alike. The audience, eager to see a film about Roma, knew already which particular characteristics of Roma would be shown, the only variations in theme being in the choice whether the main topic of the film would be music, love or existence. Apart from various messages sent by directors, the audience could always be sure that, if nothing else, they would see Roma in a humorous light. And this is how it was perpetuated that this is "what Roma are like", and that "they are not likely to change at all." This concerns both the non-Romani directors of such films, who evidently did have empathy for Roma as a starting point, and the directors with partial Romani origin, who wanted to give more light to the lives of Roma but only as they saw it from their own specific angle. In my opinion such movies are artificial and even the best directors still have not made a good film about the Roma. Films like Emir Kusturica's Black Cat, White Cat receive positive reviews, since film critics know very little about true lives of Roma. They evaluate such films without attempting to see the essence of the film and never think, for example, about the fact that the Romani actors involved were always amateurs taken literally from the street, despite the fact that there are Romani professionals in this field.
With very few exceptions, non-Roma still see Roma in a poor light. If they see you as an individual not really different from them, they are surprised. But in the back of their mind, you are nothing but a Gypsy after all. Perhaps this may sound like my own prejudice against non-Roma, but at least I am aware that this has been imposed upon me, and it is a reaction with which I defend myself. I constantly have to prove to others that things are not necessarily as they seem at first. Film and television, as visual media, could be very strong means for bringing the reality of Roma into the limelight. Yet I cannot recall a single movie reaching further than the clichés - showing, for instance, the Romani intelligentsia, Romani integrity, or the role of Roma in the development of civil society.