New Book Announcement: Moving People, Moving Images

March 12, 2010 at 4:50 am

Co-written with my colleagues William Brown and Leshu Torchin, Moving People, Moving Images: Cinema and Trafficking in the New Europe is the first title in our new series on Cinema and Transnational Discourse (St Andrews Film Studies, 2010). The next title planned for the series will look into the wide range of cinematic representations of international terrorism in cinema.

We hope to find a wide exposure for this volume, far beyond the narrow film studies field (it is no accident that this was also the best-selling title of all the books we introduced at the recent multiple book launch event at the BFI Filmstore on Southbank in London). It is a volume on the representation of human trafficking in international cinema, and even though it is a ‘film studies’ work, we believe it is really of interest to much wider circles as these are matters of immediate concern to social workers, migration specialists and activists. The book discusses a range of films, both feature and documentary, reflecting the situation with human trafficking in a great variety of countries — from Turkey to Sweden, from Sri Lanka to Greece, from Serbia to Italy, from North Africa to Spain, and so on.

ISBN (13): 978-1-9066-7803-6 (paperback)
180pp.
Price £17.99 (UK), $29.00 (US)
Available for purchase by clicking through to St. Andrews Film Studies bookshop

The volume is divided in three parts, which include respectively general essays; close analysis of fifteen important international films on trafficking; commentary on the political aspects of the usage of these films in the context of activism.

Here is a more detailed Table of Contents

PART ONE. Landscapes
William Brown – Negotiating the Invisible
Leshu Torchin – Foreign Exchange
Dina Iordanova – Making Traffic Visible, Adjusting the Narrative

PART TWO: Close-Ups

In-depth analyses of The Bus (Turkey/Sweden, Tunc Okan), The Guardian Angel (Yugoslavia, Goran Paskaljevic), When Mother Comes Home for Christmas(Greece/India/Germany, Nilita Vachani), Wesh wesh, qu’est-ce qui se passe? (France, rabah Ameur-Zaimeche), Poniente (Spain, Chus Gutierrez), Spare Parts (Slovenia, Damjan Kozole), Promised Land (Israel/France, Amos Gitai), Ghosts (UK, Nick Broomfield), It’s a Free World… (UK, Ken Loach), Import/Export (Austria, Ulrich Seidl), Love on Delivery and Ticket to Paradise (Denmark), The Silence of Lorna (Belgium, Dardenne Brothers) and Taken (France, Pierre Morel).

Part THREE: Traffic Jam
Film, Activism, and Human Trafficking

Excerpts of reviews:

Moving People, Moving Images tackles human trafficking, one of the most serious consequences of the massive movement of people enabled by post-Wall processes of economic and cultural globalization in Europe. While immigration, migration, exile, and the illegal movement of people have been the subject of much work in film and media studies recently, few volumes would take such a bold stand in favour of the possibility of filmic activism. One of the attractions of this book is precisely that it refuses to tread lightly and tentatively across the well-established divide between cinematic representations and socio-political issues. It makes a provocative argument for the political effect of films and proposes that human trafficking should not be the rightful, let alone the exclusive, domain of governments, NGOs, activist organizations and the social sciences.
— Aniko Imre, University of Southern California

Moving People, Moving Images is a groundbreaking and much-needed study of the intersections between film and human trafficking. Through a sophisticated and versatile approach, and against the backdrop of theories of economic globalisation, transnationalism, post-colonialism, identity and modernity, it offers a theorisation of human trafficking that engages with a range of published work on social and critical theory as well as on film studies…. This volume is both a complete and valuable teaching tool, and a precious resource for future research, and sets the agenda for more work in this all-important area.
— Laura Rascaroli, University College Cork, Ireland

Available for purchase by clicking through to St. Andrews Film Studies bookshop

Book Is Good But Film Is Better: Tromso International Film Festival, Norway

January 26, 2010 at 3:59 am

‘Book Is Good But Film Is Better’: this is what a bookmark that I picked up at the festival, featuring the raindeer-horns logo of the festival, reads. I agree.

Located on a fjord more than 200 miles north of the Polar Circle (the Nowegian classic Ni Liv was shot in the area) and thus perhaps the northernmost festival in the world, the International Film Festival in Tromso (Norway) celebrates its twentieth anniversary with this edition, which this year is called Frozen Land-Moving Images. Started in 1991 by a local cinema exhibitor, Focus cinema’s Hans Henrik Berg (who died two years ago), the festival has grown to become one of the largest most important events in Scandinavia. Originally taking place in the cinema that Berg was running, it now uses multiple venues around town: the six-screen multiplex, the old cinema (a 1915 building), as well as various other adapted locations; it is amazing that all these were fully available to the festival organisers for the duration of the festival and that all were really high quality venues with excellent seating, accessibility and visibility. The former cinema building is no longer used for screenings but it has been remodeled into a light-filled library which is one of the architectural landmarks of the town, displaying the traditional clean lines of Scandinavian design. The new FocusKino multiplex is just down the street. During my stay in Tromso I could not help thinking of St. Johns, Newfoundland, on a daily basis — so closely do these two towns resemble each other that they should be twinned, in my opinion. The weather was not particularly cold for the duration of our stay (it would have been colder in Newfoundland), but still it was nice to be able to order food in the local eateries by dispensing of food vouchers that were reading ‘Frozen Land/Hot Food’.

The festival takes place in mid-January and is thus one of the earliest events on the global festival circuit. This is the period when the sun has not really shown up here for a few months; it is not really dark all the time and there is a period of daylight over several hours. Simply the sun never comes above the horizon during this period; it was scheduled to be welcomed on 21 January but the morning was foggy and the promised ceremony never took place as nothing of the sky was to be seen, so thick was the fog (the husky ride did not take place, either, as the snow on all the tracks was melting this January). Tromso is also known as the best place in the world to observe the Northern Lights, but we did not get the chance to see them, either. Still, our caring host Randi took us on a wonderful cable car ride to a nearby mountain, from where we could look over the area and the island.

The most interesting screening programme is the one that takes place daily in open air. The photo I display above is showing one of the screenings, but it is from a past year. Things look even nicer now, with the screen being entirely cushioned in snow, like a giant snowy sculpture, and with other snow sculptures and an igloo standing next to it. It is not very warm to watch a film here, true, but it is perhaps one of the most interesting open-air events that I have come across*. This year the main attraction is the screening of Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, with a special musical score by Swedish composer Matti Bye. On Thursday morning, 21 January, just at 9 am (still before dawn), I passed by to see a group of little citizens of Tromso, 6-7 year olds, preparing to view a film in open air. Some of them were being seated by their teachers on bean bags in front of the screen, on the icy ground, while others were orderly seated at the three-tier seating area that had been cut out of ice at the back of this improvised open air theatre.

The festival awards a range of trophies; I most liked the description of The Norwegian Peace Film Award which ‘is awarded a film spotlighting direct, structural or cultural violence’, as the festival organisers believe that ‘films that focus on oppression and abuses of power can make a difference’ (this time around it has gone to the Georgian The Other Bank, which has won a host of international awards since I wrote of it in March 2009). The festival sells over 50,000 tickets, a particularly noteworthy fact, given the population of Tromso itself is about 65,000 in total — and indeed, local people are to be seen at all screenings, even at those taking place at 9 am. Another noteworthy detail is that the six-screen multiplex in town is entirely dedicated to festival screenings during the week of the event, a rare instance where commercial interests and obligations are suspended in order to make way to public service type cultural activity (ultimately possible because the city has got a big say in the way the cinema is run). We were invited here by director, the beautiful Martha Otte (pictured), a transplanted American who has lived here for more than thirty years and who has run the festival since 2005. My own involvement was in a panel discussion on film festivals which was never publicly listed for some reason, and at which I participated along Jonathan Rosenbaum, Christoph Mercier from Fox Searchlight (who told us how Hollywood strategically utilises festivals by rolling out new titles through a careful selection of a circuit of festivals where these films are entered in order to enhance their subsequent box office performance in Europe), and Variety’s Jay Weissberg. It was also an opportunity to meet the transnationally-operating programmer Neil Young who blogs on festivals and films out of Sunderland at Jigsaw Lounge (that is, when he is not busy with his equestrian day job).

Too many films to mention here, so I will skip writing about this. From among the screenings I attended, I feel I ought to mention one though: It took place at the oldest functioning film theatre in Northern Europe (built in 1915), this showcased two recent documentaries (the second one not yet finished) by locally-based Knut Eric Jensen (best-known internationally for his cult documentary Cool and Crazy**). There was also a discussion with the director, of which I could not understand much as it was in Norwegian — the cinema was full and before entering the theatre, the line stretched all across the pedestrian street in front of the building. I can barely recall another event where I would have seen such unanimous and excited expression of approval and admiration to a filmmaker like the support I witnessed during this screening; I do not know how he does it, or perhaps such sincere expressions of unreserved admiration may be a feature of the Nordic character. In any case, the ovation the director received was quite something and was clearly meant to express support for the person, not so much for the specific films that were being shown.

* Kay Armatage has written a piece on the theme of open air screenings at festivals, published in the special issue of Film International on festivals, 2008.
** See Bjorn Sorenssen’s excellent analysis of this film in the 24 Frames: Scandinavian Cinema book.

© Dina Iordanova
26 January 2010

Berlin, December 2009: Highlights 1

December 11, 2009 at 5:42 am

This December I spent five days in Berlin: three for my own enjoyment and two to attend a conference. I thought I would do two separate posts to record the impressions of the travel: one about the leisure experience and one about the working context. I flew in on Ryanair, the first time I am using this company, as I have been avoiding because of the horror stories that British media regularly run about it. As it is the only one that flies directly from Edinburgh to Berlin, I had no choice, really. And then, the experience was not as bad as I had expected, I have had much more unpleasant time on flights of EasyJet in the past, a company that I am determined to avoid at any cost. Arriving at Schoenefeld I looked around for signs of the promised new airport for Berlin (which, hopefully, will help the city overcome its isolation) but could not discover them. Who knows, there may be things that are happening but are still invisible and it is possible that in 2011, as promised, we will see a big change. For now, however, things were the same as I knew them from the period I spent here in 2007; the next morning I was woken up by the noise from airplanes flying into the good old Tegel — my friend’s house in prestigious Ossie locale Pankow-Heinersdorf happens to fall just below the flightpath, so no avoidance of airplane noise is possible. It is noisier than living in the vicinity of the RAF airbase at Leuchars in Scotland …

The leisure experiences in Berlin were many and nice. The first day we visited a friend in the town of Zeuthen, which is located in the region of Brandenburg and thus does not count as Berlin. Nice large houses, trees, quiet atmosphere, and an S-Bahn to take you into the city. All in all a very nice place to live, with beautiful promenades on the waterfront. An imposing mansion painted in pink and ornate with statues, located on the waterfront where we went for a walk, turned out to house the Training Center for the company founded by Peter Dussman, the businessman who started in home cleaning services and care homes for the elderly but now owns Berlin’s premier cultural locale, Dussman das KulturKaufhaus on Friedrichstrasse. In the past, the mansion, reportedly, had belonged to the widow of a rich Jewish merchant who survived WWII and who sold the property to the Soviet forces, receiving several suitcases full of money, to just days after the sale see the value of the funds received dwindle and vanish.

The next highlight was the visit to the special exhibition Koscher & Co. at the Jewish Museum, which also housed its annual Chanukka Markt where we were able to treat ourselves to potato pancakes (latkes) with smoked salmon and sour cream. The exhibition is truly impressive and much larger than any of us expected. More than ten rooms feature information on the origins of various beliefs about what is appropriate to eat and what not. The material is not restricted to Jewish beliefs but is much wider and includes extensive information on Muslim, Hindu and other worldviews. I was pleased to see, for example, that there was some coverage on the practices of the Jain, a Hindu sect that I know from my period in Leicester (where their only UK temple is located), whose beliefs on what of the vegetables are appropriate to eat are among the most restrictive I have ever come across. One of the video screens in an adjacent hall featured clips of Aamir Khan’s vehicle The Ballad of Mangal Pandey, a recent anti-colonial Indian historical blockbuster that covers the 19th century mutiny which starts among Muslim mercenaries, triggered by British disregard related to Muslim and Hindu beliefs related to food.

In the evening, it was a visit to trendy Monsieur Vuong, a new Vietnamese eatery at Alte Schonhauser Strasse, the heart of cool Berlin. Indeed, the place, which features a large poster of this sexually inviting boy on the wall (an image replicated on servers’ aprons as well), was full of cool people of the kind that one usually encounters in this part of Berlin, mostly international students and local intellectuals, wearing elaborate black concoctions and spiky black hair with punk ornaments in it. This is the same street, by the way, where I had spent an exciting evening of potato cookery at the nearby Kochstudio Berlin Mitte (at Nr. 36 here), another cool Berlin location where they teach you how to make creme brule of potatoes and a starter of fried potato skins. The menu at Monsieur Vuong consists of only about 5 dishes, all very fresh Vietnamese fare which is adapted to the local taste but still remains authentic in feel. It is most of all about atmosphere, not so much about eating. I orderd a traditional chicken Pho which was acceptable, especially due to the freshness of the coriander in the pot. The spring rolls, coming with the thick peanut sauce, were also nice (and they still had them, even though ‘der Sommer ist vobei’/’the summer is over’ – an excuse used by a waiter in another Vietnamese place in Berlin a few years ago, when I tried to order spring rolls).

There is nothing like a German Christmas market! The one pictured here is the WeihnachtsZauber at Gendarmenplatz in the very heart of the city, one out of about 20 such marketplaces staged around town. In comparison with others (I also passed by the one at Alexanderplatz), this one is upscale and features really artistic fare: original jewellery, felt hats (I got one!), kashmere, ceramics. There are all sorts of nice little things to eat (racklette, grapes in chocolate), and one walks around with a glass of warm Gluhwein in hand while children’s groups perform carols on the stage near the Christmas tree. Nearby is Unter den Linden where all the trees are dressed in chains of lights and look truly fabulous.

This is a photo of one of the nicest concert halls that I have ever been to, the one of the philharmony at Gendarmenmarkt. I do not know what this building was before, and it seems it had been on the Western side, so I do not really know it. In any case, this concert hall was restored in recent years; this was my second visit to it. It is a really beautiful rectangular white space, and, as I was a guest of one of the musicians, my place was at the balcony just below the organ, overlooking the performers from the back: it was great, being able to observe the workings of the orchestra from this unusual angle, that gave me full insights into the movements and the actions of the percussionists and of the members of the blow instruments section. As the programme was mostly modern music (Frank Martin, Bruckner), all these instruments had a prominent role in the performance. Most enjoyable!

The only thing I had planned but did not managed to do this time around, was to eat a currywurst at Konnopke’s, in Prenzlauer Berg. A real Berlin institution, a Wurstchen at Konnopke’s was quoted as the last dinner of choice by Angelika Taschen, the eponymous publishing empire empress, a slender great-looking German woman. The taxi driver who took me down to the conference at Humbold University agreed that, by missing the chance to do my rites at Konnopke’s, I had failed to fulfill an important function that is a must for ‘Leute’ who claim to appreciate Berlin. He must have had about 500,000 pieces of wurst here already, he said. Eh, well, next time!

Thank you, all: Elena, Sabine, Muttu, Heidi, Markolf, and Rudy!

© Dina Iordanova
11 December 2009

Ceský sen/ Czech Dream (Czech Republic, 2004, dir. Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda)

December 2, 2008 at 11:50 pm

What does the European future hold for people in the ‘new’ Europe? Two film students from Prague’s FAMU, Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda, raise this question in their diploma project, the documentary film Czech Dream (2004). A clever renunciation of the overblown media hype over Europe in the run up to EU’s accession, the film chronicles an outrageous hoax that the filmmakers pulled on their fellow-citizens. As the film unravels, Klusák and Remunda put in motion a massive advertising campaign for a non-existent hyper-market which they call Czech Dream and for which they erect a fake façade in the middle of an empty field outside the capital. On the appointed day, thousands of enthusiastic Prague consumers flock to the place, in anticipation of finding great promotional bargains. Their eagerness, however, soon turns into bitter consternation.

The scenes of outrage at the end of Czech Dream come accompanied with the filmmakers’ commentary, which compares their despicable prank to the way in which East Europeans sheepishly bought into unsubstantiated propaganda and flocked toward joining the European Union. Czechs and other ‘new’ Europeans knew well that they were not the most esteemed partners Europe wanted; they also suspected that Europe would not be as generous as it seemed. Yet, they hushed whatever hesitations they had and rushed into the accession. But what if the pledge of prosperity turned out an empty promise? Czech Dream is a documentary with a point.

© Dina Iordanova
3 December 2008

Buy at Amazon

Breaking and Entering (2006, UK/USA, dir. Anthony Minghella)

November 3, 2008 at 12:47 am

Even though this film does not seem to deal directly with migration, it reveals the hierarchy of belonging in post-Cold War Europe. Written and directed by Anthony Minghella, Breaking and Entering (UK/USA 2006) offers a revealing panorama of the symbolic hierarchical standing of different social groups in London. Its prosperous protagonist Will, an architect, is the owner of a beautiful home with a SW postcode; his partner is an attractive Swedish blonde whose daughter, Bea, suffers from autism. A gang of migrants from former Yugoslavia repeatedly breaks into Will’s studio at Kings Cross. Determined to prevent further break-ins, Will takes on night shifts to watch the studio; here he meets and befriends Oana, a streetwise prostitute from Romania. Will also meets the mother of one of the teenage robbers, the Bosnian migrant Amira, who ekes out a living by repairing clothes in her flat in the nearby housing project. Will falls in love with Amira and has several sexual encounters that leave him truly infatuated.Soon, however, he becomes paranoid and begins to suspect that Amira might have entered the relationship in order to protect her felonious offspring; he imagines she may try to blackmail him. Even though he is ready to forget the burglaries, he ‘sobers up’ and takes some radical steps to put an end to the relationship with Amira. While making the generous gesture to forgive the aberrant son at the cost of his own public embarrassment, Will regains the respect of his beautiful Swedish partner. The passion for the Bosnian woman fades away, only occasionally haunting him as a bad dream.

The plot configuration is representative of what has been aptly described as ‘nesting Orientalism’ (Bakic-Hayden). On the surface, Breaking and Entering focuses on the midlife crisis of a white upper middle-class Briton, while below the surface it reveals a hierarchical reality of a Western metropolis where ‘clean’, ‘elevated’ (‘white’) Europeans (an Englishman, a Swedish woman) are forced to co-exist and interact with ‘untidy’ (‘dark’) migrants (a Romanian prostitute, a Bosnian delinquent and his jobbing mother), but soon regain control and distance themselves from these low-grade contacts. A variety of details in the film efficiently restate Europe’s hierarchies: The British protagonist is an educated professional, an architect, who is responsible for a regeneration project in central London’s Kings Cross where the film’s migrant characters live. The Eastern European characters, by contrast, may have had professional lives at some point, but now inhabit the murky spaces of the metropolis and earn a living in menial jobs or moonlight as petty criminals. The daughter of the blond Swede is autistic, but has exceptional talents; she is treated by considerate psychologists. By comparison, the son of the Bosnian brunette is on skid row and in the ‘care’ of tough-talking policemen and overworked social workers. The Swedish woman has difficulties coping with her child’s disability; hence she needs all of Will’s love (and financial support), which she demands and accepts with an air of noble superiority. The Bosnian woman has difficulties coping with her son’s law-breaking, and the revelation of her relationship with Will is tainted with the references to a lowly blackmail-driven affair that should preferably not be mentioned in public.

All that Breaking and Entering purports to do is to show the private predicament of a middle-aged man in need of love. In charting his dilemmas, however, the film reveals a background panorama of racial and class disparities and dependencies, which provide insights into understanding the dynamism of postcolonial Europe and ultimately bring up issues of identity and ideology that are also raised in other of European films – from Lukas Moodyson’s Lilja 4-Ever (Sweden/Denmark 2002) to Ken Loach’s It’s A Free World ((UK/Italy/Germany/Spain/Poland 2007) – that look at further aspects of the post-1989 migrations and make powerful statements on the postcolonial condition as it plays out in Europe today.

© Dina Iordanova
3 November 2008

Multiethnic urban margin in European and international cinema

October 1, 2008 at 9:52 pm

The dynamic forces of global economy brought new diversity to the urban margins of Europe. It is a process that has been analyzed by anthropologists (Hannerz 1996) and sociologists (Sassen 1998), and has been represented in films since the mid-1990s, cinematic texts that show the interactions of marginalized ethnic personages and members of the disenfranchised classes at the periphery of the global metropolis. The best-known film that explores thus type of interactions is Mathieu Kassovitz’s suburban classic tale of mixed-race delinquency La Haine/Hate (France, 1995) ‘a text that underlines both the mobility of culture (Black, Jew, and Moroccan) yet is placed within a terrifyingly violent, segregated and ‘immobile’ location’ (Dasgupta, 2002), thus underscoring what Morley has termed ‘incarceration in the banlieues’ (2000: 159). A powerful continuation of this type of film is the multiple award-winning L’Esquive (2003) of Abdellatif Kechiche (pictured), released in English with the decisively off-putting title Games of Love and Chance.

Many more films, however, belong to the category of the ‘multicultural urban margin,’ created by the dynamic forces of global economy, with settings ranging from New York to Perth in Australia to Vancouver in Canada. I have argued, in a forthcoming piece, that the critical mass of these films is sufficient to allow us talk of a new European film genre.*

Films of this kind have often been set in the multicultural neighborhoods of large American cities, like New York. Tony Gerber’s Side Streets (1998), for example, is one of these multicultural urban periphery texts, set on the background of Manhattan’s skyline but taking place in an ethnic enclave not monopolised by one particular group but rather housing a mixture of immigrants, all featured here speaking their respective languages, eating their respective foodstuffs, and observing their respective traditions. The protagonists include the Puerto Ricans Ramon and Marisol cooking mondongo (tripe stew), a young Romanian woman, and an ageing Bollywood actor and his extended Indian family. Another good example of the ‘genre’ is Goran Paskaljevic’s Tudja Amerika/Someone Else’s America (France/UK/Germany/Greece 1995). Also set in the multiethnic enclaves of New York, the films tells a story of a Montenegrin immigrant who marries a Chinese-American girl in a wedding celebration during which they all dance flamenco under the accompaniment of a Basque friend.

Things look pretty much the same in films set in the French capital. In Fureur/Rage (France, Karim Dridi, 2003), a love and passion story set in the Parisian Chinatown, a Spaniard falls in love with a Chinese girl. Another recent Paris-set production (One Dollar Curry, Vijay Singh, 2004) focused on a Sikh protagonist interacting with a street-wise Jamaican and with Russian prostitutes. ‘I wanted to show a part of the city that has never been shown before,’ the director said in an interview. ‘It may have the Eiffel Tower in the background but the touristy face of Paris is far away from the daily life of the protagonists who are more engulfed in the political context of Jean Marie Le Pen’ (to Gentleman, 2003: 12).

Within European cinema this urban marginal diversity is reflected into a specific range of films featuring diverse groups of young first generation immigrants (see Spagnioletti 2000). These films are often set in cities still struggling to come to terms with their newly found multiculturalism, like Vienna (as in Barbara Albert’s Austrian Nordrand/ Northern Skirts, 1999) or Altona in Germany (as in Fatih Akin’s German Kurz und schmerzlos/Short Sharp Shock, 1998). Erik Poppe’s Norwegian production Schpaa (1998) featured the interactions between marginalized immigrants from Yugoslavia and Pakistan in the drug dealing underground of Oslo; the Copenhagen settings of Nicolas Winding Refn Danish films Pusher (1996) and Pusher 2 (2004) are equally multicultural. Dino Tsintsadse’s German-made Lost Killers (2000) shows the provincial city of Mannheim as home of a diverse group of illegal immigrants all involved in the black underground economies: Croat Branko is a drug dealer, Georgian Merab is a hitman, Haitian Carlos wants to reach Australia by getting involved in organ trafficking, and the Vietnamese Lan walks the streets. Constantine Giannaris’ Apo tin akri tis polis/From the Edge of the City (Greece, 1998) revealed the multicultural ghetto side of Athens. Similar representations of urban life abound in French cinema: Marseille, for example, is depicted as a typical multiculturally marginal metropolis not only in the films of Robert Guedigian but also in a number of ‘beur’ films such as Bye-Bye (Karim Dridi, 1995, France/Switzerland/Belgium), Loin/Far Away (2001, André Téchiné), and in Père/Father (Algeria, Naguel M. Belouad, 2004).

Urban centres located elsewhere are not very different, either. In the Wellington-set Broken English (New Zealand, Gregor Nicholas 1996) a young Croatian immigrant falls in love with a native Maori man while secretly marrying an illegal Chinese man to help him immigrate, a set-up seen in a range of other films from Australia or New Zealand. It expands as far as Japan: The protagonist of Miike Takashi’s Tokyo-set Hyôryuu-gai/ City of Lost Souls (Japan, 2000) is a diasporic Japanese-Brazilian who has returned to Japan from his native Rio de Janeiro. His current girlfriend is a Chinese immigrant while his former one is Portuguese. The action evolves in neighbourhoods dominated by mixed ethnicities: A Russian human trafficker keeps an office in an area populated by an international crowd of fair-haired prostitutes working the streets in Tokyo. Besides Japanese and Cantonese, Mandarin and English, a substantial portion of the dialogue is delivered in Portuguese and Russian.

Many of the protagonists in the films of the multicultural urban margin are new migrants flocking in from various distant parts of the former Soviet Empire; they cross paths and forge alliances with other migrants whose itineraries to Europe have originated somewhere in the Third World. Having found themselves together in the global city, these dispossessed newcomers encounter older migrants who have been there for decades and who know their ways, yet are still equally marginal and dispossessed. Most of the exchanges do not gravitate toward a cathartic breakthrough, but evolve as a monotonous sideline. But the very encounter help the protagonists of either group to come to terms with their own social exclusion. Rather than ending up in bitter disillusionment, these newly forged alliances allow them to interrelate and bond in comforting and mutually empowering ways.


References
:

Dasgupta, Sudeep, University of Amsterdam, Personal correspondence, March 2002.
Gentleman, Amelia, ‘Bollywood on the Seine.’ The Guardian, November 7, 2003, Friday Review, p. 12/13.
Hannerz, Ulf. Transnational Connections: Culture, People, Places, London: Routledge, 1996.
Morley, David, Home Territories: Media, Mobility and Identity, London and New York: Routledge, 2000.
Sassen, Saskia. Globalization and its Discontents: Essays on the New Mobility of People and Money, 1998.
Spagnoletti, Giovanni (ed.) Il cinema Europeo del metissage. Peasro: XXXVI Mostra Internazionale del Nuovo Cinema, 2000.

* See Iordanova, Dina. ‘Migration and Cinematic Process in Post-Cold War Europe,’ in Berghahn, Daniela and Claudia Sternberg (eds.) Migrant Cinema in Europe, London: Wallflower Press, 2009.

© Dina Iordanova
2 October 2008

Romani migration and cinematic representation

July 1, 2008 at 12:14 am

The enlargement of the European Union, which since recently includes Roma-rich countries like Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania, led to the official recognition of the Roma as Europe’s most sizable ethnic minority. Immigration officials, both in the East and in the West, anxiously monitor for signs of the increased Roma traffic that tabloid-style media loudly predicted. The prevalent European rhetoric may be of abolition of borders, yet the Roma, whose culture is supposedly recognized as inherently migratory and itinerant, face up to double standards and multiple other barriers.

Gypsy images are a precious asset in the metaphoric assortment of European exoticisms. However, the actual movements of ethnic Roma across Fortress Europe (which they no longer need to infiltrate from outside) causes panic among the guardians of the realm who treat them, wherever they can, as people who clearly do not belong. It is a two-fold reaction, depending in which direction the alleged movement takes place: seen from the West Roma arrivals are regarded as a dreaded invasion which is quietly but methodically rebuffed; seen from the East, Roma departures are quietly welcomed as a relief but also feared because, one dreads, resentment towards the Roma may spread by association and affect the whole population of their countries of origin.

The BBC documentary What Magdalena Said (Michael Stewart, 1994) shows a Roma family who have left for Slovakia at the time of Czechoslovakia’s split. Having decided to return to their Czech home some months later, they are no longer wanted and face homelessness and statelessness. The clerks in the local council preposterously apply selective regulations and are prepared to go at great lengths if they could only get rid of these unwanted fellow-citizens. The Czech female bureaucrats would happily make these helpless women wander back and forth in search of abode and would gladly send them on the road to nowhere, not because the Roma women want to be drifters but because contemporary immigrant policies enable immigration officials to turn them into nomads. In Gelem, Gelem (1992 Rhizomfilm) there is an ominous scene where Dutch guards on the border with Belgium undertake it to physically remove a group of Roma women and children from a room where they are sheltered temporarily while seeking admission. It all comes down to a rude physical elimination of unwanted bodies that are piled together in this room.

Not that this way of dealing with the Roma as annoying parasites is anything new. Looking back into Holocaust history, Katrin Seybold and Melanie Spitta’s now classical documentary Das falsche Wort (The False Word, 1987) calmly narrates the story of this enduring bigotry. The film not only chronicles the systematic racially-motivated rounding up and demise of the Roma and Sinti German populations. Its most important achievement is in the dispassionate chronicling of the continuous discrimination and systematic selective unfairness applied to Roma Holocaust survivors after the war throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s. At a time when other groups are given proper acknowledgment and compensation for the persecution afflicted on them, the suffering of Roma survivors is systematically diminished, their damages claims are turned down, and many are left to perish in poverty in post-WWII democratic Germany.

Present-day Roma destitution in some parts of Central Eastern and South Eastern Europe is an unsightly picture, as recorded in films by directors like Želimir Žilnik or Goran Radovanović; the commonly shared reaction of politicians is to shut it out of view. The mayor of the Czech town Ústi nad Labem even wanted to hide all the Roma behind the wall that the city was planning to build to separate the town from the ghetto. Britain also had its way to keep the Roma out of sight behind the invisible wall of British immigrations ‘pre-screenings’ of passengers landing on flights to London carried out at the airport in Prague in the early 2000s. As if accidentally, mostly Roma were singled out and barred from flying to the UK. Germany engaged in a different practice, organising a deportation campaign of Roma refugees from former Yugoslavia back into Serbia, thus effectively not only shutting them out of sight but also engaging in active racial segregation by sending them to territories outside the European Union. Documented in Žilnik’s Kenedi Returns Home (Serbia, 2003) some of these deportees are shown on the morning of their arrival in wintry Belgrade (pictured). After a decade-long sojourn in Germany they have been pulled out of bed in the small hours of the morning, loaded onto a plane and sent ‘back home.’ The immigration squad has broken into their flats with no warning, on a false pretence of emergency, no chance of appeal or contest the extradition. Even Roma that have settled successfully are forcefully turned into homeless outcasts; a German immigration official admits that his is a ‘shitty work.’

All over Europe filmmakers keep churning out scripts featuring stories of exuberant Roma. All over Europe unwanted Roma populations are on the move; some are struggling to get themselves to a better life while others are being deported in the context of illicitly executed law enforcement campaigns. One welcomes the images while barring the actual people. The striking failure to reconcile actual and metaphoric Gypsies persists.

©Dina Iordanova
1 July 2008

Roma as ‘metaphoric material’

June 30, 2008 at 12:25 am

Historically, no other ethnic group has supplied so much ‘metaphoric material’ for the arts. The persistent interest in ‘Gypsies’ has repeatedly raised questions of stylization, patronisation and exoticisation, in a context marked by overwhelming lack of knowledge of the true nature of Roma’s culture and heritage.

Whatever the plot details, the typical ‘Gypsy’ narrative revolves around presumptions about what ‘true’ Gypsies are like. They live an exciting lifestyle, infatuated by all-consuming passions and inhabiting a microcosm populated by freewheeling sensual women and men who make love in open-air, thus turning even the most miserable environment into a setting full of high-spirited splendor. Filmmakers and producers have routinely engaged in mercantile exploitation of the visual sumptuousness of colorful Roma; the cinematic celebrations of zealous Roma is regularly laced with added excitement, showing strikingly-looking protagonists who may be short in pragmatic acumen but are rich in heartfelt passion and in possession of mesmerizing love secrets, often allowing for spectacularly beautiful (even if ethnographically inaccurate) magical-realist visuals accompanied by exuberant Gypsy music and dance. Gypsy films have been recycling – or, shall we say, plagiarizing from each other – the same narrative tropes of self-destructive love fixations and reckless confrontations with the law. They have featured protagonists who are astoundingly shrewd yet impractical and intractable, usually unable to break free from the complex patriarchal nets of a community which sticks together mostly due to the commonly shared mistrust to all ‘gadje’ outsiders.

It must be quite obliging for Roma to live in a world where compliance with all these cultural stereotypes is expected of them (an issue developed and discussed with great insight by anthropologist Alaina Lemon in her book Between Two Fires: Gypsy Performance and Romani Memory from Pushkin to Post-Socialism). The situation becomes even knottier when one takes into consideration the obstinately adverse media coverage portraying the Roma as reckless and lazy dunces who run amok at the slightest provocation.

In the 1990s, an apparently new category of Roma film came about, dealing with the complex social situation of Roma in the periphery of today’s Europe and expressing concern with the thriving institutional bigotry, human rights abuses and resurgent racism. Take, for example, the socially critical Czech films Marian (Pétr Vaclav, 1996) and Smradi (Brats, Zdenek Tyc, 2002), Bulgarian Chernata lyastovitsa (Black Swallow, Georgi Dyulgerov, 1997) or Turkish Agir Roman (Cholera Street, Mustafa Altioklar, 1997), all telling stories of Roma adolescents whose lives evolve around petty crime triggering an excessive punishment, and tracks down an unavoidable and socially-conditioned pathway from juvenile delinquency to prison. Here the romantic allure of Gypsy charms, passions, and fortune telling has been increasingly demystified; the esoteric fascination with Gypsies has given way to an increasing anxiety over extreme pauperization and racism.

Yet these films, once again, represent a new modification of the ‘Gypsy genre’ – one in which the exoticism comes in the disguise of hard-hitting realism. By all accounts, Dallas Pashamende, The Black Swallow, Marian and the likes appear to be politically correct works of socially concerned individuals, whose directors, like Emir Kusturica in the late 1980s, give up on a comfortable existence to ‘immerse’ themselves in the miserable lives of Roma for several weeks. Robert Adrian Pejo, the director of Dallas, even told journalists that he ‘cannot help admiring how little Roma need in order to be happy.’

While claiming to be driven by the universal concern about weak people and poverty, the films of the ‘rough realism as exotica’ genre remain more preoccupied with taking advantage of the framework of Gypsy passions and surreal imagery, with an added dimension of calculated filth and precocious oversexualsation. The ‘Gypsy-ness’ these films present is no less manipulative and improbable, and they move within familiar old clichés when exploring the interaction between Roma and ‘gadjes.’

While recent ethnographic and documentary film may be bringing some corrections to the Roma image (even if often plagued by a patronizing attitude), and may be putting on the agenda issues such as social exclusion, poverty, and discrimination, the use of the Gypsies as ‘metaphoric material’ in ‘politically correct’ features is likely to go on for as long as it sells.

© Dina Iordanova
30 June 2008

Dallas Pashamende/ Dallas Among Us (2005)

June 29, 2008 at 12:03 am

In September 2003, an international crew employed by the Austrian-German-Hungarian co-production, Dallas Pashamende (Dallas Among Us, dir. Robert Adrian Pejo, 2005) crossed into Romania where, on the territory the Brasov municipality, they built a film set representing an artificial rubbish damp. This is where the shooting of the film, about a group of poor but free-spirited Gypsies living on a heap of waste in Romania, would take place. All necessary permissions were in place, the crew had rented a disused mine and erected the garbage dump on it.

The accounts on what happened two-three weeks into the shoot differ. According to an earlier version, the district attorney and representatives of the environmental and health authorities visited the set, blamed the crew of abusing their trust, and asked the production to wrap up and leave the country. According to other reports (which were used heavily in the promotion of the film later on), a special unit of eighty heavily armed men stormed the set and kept it under guard until early October, which forced the production to wrap up and leave the country; no explanation why. A later account, found in the British film magazine Sight and Sound, dramatized the story even further: in this version Romania’s prime minister had sent the army who ‘arrived with truckloads and helicopters’ to shoot down the project. In any case, the production had to leave Romania; the shoot was finished later on in Hungary.

It had all come about in response to media reports. The intervention became a political problem, even Romania’s then Prime Minster, Adrian Nastase, got involved. The image of the country was suffering, he said on television, because the film’s subject matter ‘reflected badly’ on Romania. Why else would a film crew pile imitation trash if not in order to show Romania as a country full of garbage.

It is a situation that invites some reflection. On the one hand, the Romanian authorities probably overreacted and handled the situation in a heavy-handed manner (which supplied good promotional opportunities at the time the film was released). On the other hand, however, I believe there are some more serious issues at stake here. The production had created a fake representational setting that one imagined could be taken as ‘authentic’ while simultaneously suspending the need to experience this kind of authenticity first hand. Normally, when film productions are taken to shoot on a set in another country, the locations that are picked up are supposed to stand in for something else (around that same time, for example, Romania stood in for North Carolina in the shoot of Anthony Minghella’s US civil war drama Cold Mountain). But not in this case: an artificially built rubbish dump was meant to stand in for the true Romania. Not that there was a shortage of real Roma here who make a living from scavenging rubbish dumps. But for the director of Dallas Pashamende, who had flown in from New York, and for his Austrian-German-Hungarian crew, shooting ‘on location’ was probably not a desirable option. Having chosen the Roma topic for the film, they would further their careers through mimicking a bona fide rough setting and use the social concern as a backdrop for yet another narrative of all-consuming Gypsy passion.

Dallas Pashamende purports to be dealing with the complex social situation of Roma in the periphery of today’s Europe by showing the thriving institutional bigotry, human rights abuses and resurgent racism. Yet the film is not much more than a new modification of the ‘Gypsy genre’ – one in which the exoticism comes in the disguise of hard-hitting realism. The filmmaker seems to be driven by social concern but in fact his take on the matter results just in a variation on the theme of ‘admiring the mad Gypsy passion’. The film’s protagonist, Radu, an emancipated Rom who works as a teacher in Romania’s capital, returns to his childhood home on the rubbish dump to arrange for the funeral of his father. The ‘home’ is a hut located amidst a bizarre slum, a favella sardonically designated as ‘Dallas,’ which is constructed on the outer edge of a colossal garbage tip. The inhabitants who cannot even dream of running water or electricity spend their days rummaging through the waste for whatever usable junk they would come across.

Witnessing the devastation and the extreme poverty that plague these people (who nonetheless try to maintain a dignified existence) Radu, the urbanized ‘expatriate,’ overcomes his initial reluctance and is overcome by a reawakened sense of belonging and solidarity with his marginalised fellow-Roma. Even his blond wife who comes from Bucharest cannot win him back, he witnesses the injustice and the double standard applied by the authorities and decides to stay and defend the Gypsy community, exactly as his father did, even at the cost of perishing. He resumes the relationship with his childhood sweetheart, and decides to stay. But it all ends up in a tragedy when, predictably, Gypsy passions come running high.

For more on the issues of Roma exoticization in cinema, see my chapter in Valentina Glajar and Dominica Radulescu’s brand-new edited collection “Gypsies” in European Literature and Culture.

©Dina Iordanova
29 June 2008

Louisiana Modern Art Museum, Humlebæk near Copenhagen, Denmark

May 29, 2008 at 12:29 am

Completely independently from each other, several friends told me it was a must to visit the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art when I come to Copenhagen. Now that I have done it, I understand why their recommendation was so emphatic. The visit to the Louisiana was such a pleasurable experience that I see myself soon making the same insistent recommendation to others.

What really does it for the Louisiana is the perfect combination between nature and human creativity. The low unobtrusive buildings that house the collection, the park setting with large trees, beautifully landscaped spaces and sculptures scattered over freshly mowed lawns, on the background of gorgeous sea view over the sound to Sweden: it all flows together seamlessly to create a sublimely gratifying experience. The place was developed over a number of years by architects Jørgen Bo and Vilhelm Wohlert working together with several landscape designers to achieve an ambiance where nature, architecture and art come together in ideal confluence. The greatest delight of the place comes probably from the easy passage between indoors and outdoors, between moving in the protected space of wooden floors and walls and getting open air exposure: automatic sliding doors quietly slide apart to let visitors come in from the park or, vice-versa, leave the gallery space to return to the sculptures in the garden.

This year’s main curatorial event is dedicated to the work of Cezanne and Giacometti, an exposition that makes extensive and persuasive comparisons between the work of the two artists (including a series of study sketches by Giacometti who copies some of Cezanne’s compositions). More than fifty of Giacometti’s sculptures are on display here, probably the largest number of his works I have ever seen in one place. This was my first encounter with disturbing works like Woman with Her Throat Cut, Spoon Woman, or The Invisible Object. His famous Walking Man is property of the Louisiana anyhow, usually displayed in the room overlooking the pond, on the background of willow trees outside the large window, a perfect setting for the sculpture.

The Louisiana opened to the public 50 years ago, and even though the museum’s bookstore features several beautiful albums with pictures from the collection and the gardens, these publications do not seem to be widely available. In a way, the Louisiana remains a well kept secret. And it probably does not need more visitors than it already receives; the balance may be spoiled otherwise. To get to the museum one needs to either drive there, or take the suburban train from Copenhagen for a 45-min ride. We did it on the train, without prior planning, and it was not as complicated as it sounded. Once we got off the train at Humlebæk, a quiet village, it was a short well post-marked walk to the premises of the beautiful park.

© Dina Iordanova
29 May 2008