Berlin, December 2009: Highlights 2

December 15, 2009 at 1:39 am

The conference for which I had been invited was organized by the Institute for Cultural Studies and took place at Humbold University’s Graduate School at Luisenstrasse in Berlin (pictured), a building next door to the ugly massive of the Charite hospital.

Yet another event dedicated to ‘memory work’ and predominantly focused on the Third Reich period with little references to later developments or other strands of thinking, Whichever Stone You Lift offered quality scholarship of the ‘deja vu’ variety. The event concluded a month-long extremely interesting programme of screenings at the cinema of Hackesche Hofe which featured films that I would very much like to see in wider distribution, from the post-war last Polish Yiddish-language production, Unzere Kinder/Our Children (1948), to Katryn Seybold and Melanie Spitta’s seminal documentary on the persecution of Romanies, Das falsche Wort/The False Word (1987).

The film programme can be viewed here while the programme of the symposium is available at the site of RitesInstitute in Vienna, the owners of which were involved in moderating the panel I took part in. It was a conference like most other events I have attended in Germany, a European model to which I developed an allergy some time ago: speakers have about an hour at their disposal and present lengthy (and often monotonously delivered) papers that run for 40-50 at a time; there is little eye contact with the audience, and very few visual stimuli to keep the attention. This is then followed by a question period which normally runs over the time slot as the moderators believe it is impolite to pressure the speakers for shortness. Having grown used to the 20 min maximum paper format that is the norm in the Anglo-Saxon world (and with the ubiquitous paper note reminders ‘5 min’, ‘2 min’ or ‘stop now’ that the moderators show to the speakers as they go), I really could not help it but feel challenged by the length of presentations. A paper on black actors in the third Reich was presented by Viennese (and now London, Ontario) researcher Tobias Nagl. It was well illustrated and argued (even if it also run for unbearably long time in my view), and was thus the highlight of the event for me.

The discussion of our panel, dedicated to matters of representing Romani persecution in the context of popular culture, evolved around the need of a specific and more considerate history framework that should be applied to understanding Roma history, one that differs from the historical milestones linked to other groups. Once again, Roma issues resurfaced for consideration as related to other aspects of historical memory, the Jewish Holocaust in his case. Yet while the history of Roma and Jews overlap in the context of this particular historical experience, there are many aspects of memory and remembrance related to Romanies that cannot be exhausted only by such cross-referencing, which inevitably limits the multidimensionality of Romani memory. To me, this was one of the important messages that emerged from the debate.

It was great to be in the company of two extremely beautiful women for this panel. One was Katrin Seybold (pictured above), the veteran documentary filmmaker, who has worked with Sinteza Melanie Spitta over the years and has made a number of films that feature the plight of Roma and Sinti in Germany, was one of the guests.

The other one, Timea Junghaus (left), a Romni from Hungary, who works with the rich but still largely unknown material created by Romani artists across Europe. She spoke of her highly original curating work and of the various contexts that dominate curatorial practices and that, for a variety of reasons, routinely shut the work of Romani artists away from the public eye.

Timea is telling me that in her view the best film about the Romani experience is the puppet animation by Finnish director Katariina Lillqvist, a pupil of Jiri Trnka’s, which I am looking forward to seeing (here is a still from one of her animations).

The panel was moderated by Viennese filmmaker and curator Friedemann Derschmidt, who, alongside his partner, is involved mainly in curating film programmes linked to cultural exchanges with Israel and in maintaining an interesting web-site, in part entitled Israelstine.

© Dina Iordanova
15 December 2009

Romani actors and Invisibility: Welcome Images, Unwanted Bodies

December 7, 2008 at 11:02 am

Having seen many films featuring Romani themes and actors over the years, I cannot help observing that there are rarely actors of Romani origin that sustain more than an episodic career in cinema. In most cases, the pattern is one of appearing in a film, making a great impact, and then either coming back for one or two more installments of doing some more of the same like in the earlier film, or vanishing completely. For instance, Gordana Jovanovic, the beautiful young Romni from Aleksandar Petrovic’s classic I Even Met Happy Gypsies (1967) only appeared in his next film, It Rains in My Village, and ten years later, in a small role in Goran Paskaljevic’s human trafficking film Guardian Angel (1987). The Gypsy musicians of Slobodan Sijan’s classical Yugoslav saga Who Is Singing Out There? (1980), the brothers Miodrag and Nenad Kostic, have appeared in a handful of other Yugoslav films, always playing the same role of Gypsy musicians, a role which they also happen to play in real life as well. The unforgettable motherly Ljubica Adzovic from Kusturica’s Time of the Gypsies (1989, pictured) and Black Cat, White Cat (1999), had no roles in cinema in the decade between the two films, before falling out of sight (reportedly, she was determined to only be in this particular director’s films, so much she liked him). There was a brief report somewhere that she was claiming asylum in France around 2002. Then, according to a note on the imdb, she has died in 2006.

Could it be that this is the way these Romani actors are, in line with the widely spread belief of the freewheeling Gypsy soul that cannot bear the straitjacket of commitment and permanence? Or, could it be that there are other factors at play here? I simply do not know what may have affected casting decisions in the Yugoslav films that I just referenced. However, in more recent cases, I have stumbled upon evidence that the approach to transnational casting of Romani actors often comes along with ‘strings attached’ : true to the transnational nature of their community, Roma are allowed to appear in films shot in different countries, but such appearances cannot possibly serve as the basis of immigration claims on their part. In order to secure this rule, strict measures are put in place. On the one hand, one embraces the Gypsy screen presence while, on the other, one acts to keep the actual Roma out of sight. The resulting paradoxical (and ultimately hypocritical) situation is that Roma actors are hailed as images on the screen, but only as long as they do not attempt to show up in flesh and blood.

In one case from the mid 1990s, the French authorities gave permission to Ovidiu Balan, a Romanian Roma boy (born around 1980 in my estimation), to stay in France for the duration of the shooting of Tony Gatlif’s Mondo, a sensitive drama of adolescent bonding where he played the main role. He was promptly deported to Romania as soon as shooting wrapped up. Balan has since appeared in two more films — the Canadian-Swiss tale of human trafficking Clandestins (1997) and Gatlif’s own Gadjo Dilo (1997), where he played a prematurely grown up community leader. Clearly extremely gifted, Balan has had no film appearances for more than a decade now, and, like in most other cases of actors of Romani origin, his most productive years have clearly not been taken up by film roles.

In another instance, Maria Baco, the Hungarian Roma actress who played the lead in Silvio Soldini’s Un’anima divisa in due (1993) was refused an entry visa to Italy and and effectively barred from attending the screening of the film at the Venice International Film Festival’s competition (where her partner won the award for best actor). This remains her only role up to date, and there is no information on her date of birth or place of residence and occupation today. Meanwhile, leading roles of Romani women in Hungarian cinema have been assigned to actresses of the main ethnicity, like Dorka Gryllus, who look the part.

© Dina Iordanova
7 December 2008

As usually is the case, only a few of these films are available to purchase. Here is what one can buy from Amazon.

Special issue of Third Text: “Picturing ‘Gypsies’: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Roma Representation” now available

September 29, 2008 at 10:40 pm

In the aftermath of the British Academy-sponsored workshop on Romani representation which took place in St. Andrews in March 2007, Paloma Gay y Blasco and Dina Iordanova edited a special issue of Third Text entitled “Picturing ‘Gypsies’: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Roma Representation”, Volume 22, Number 3, May 2008.

Our colleague Leshu Torchin was among the contributors, who comprised of scholars from across the UK, Europe, and the US. The issue approaches the topic in a truly interdisciplinary matter and looks at representations from across museums, exhibitions, photography, drawing, music and cinema, as can be seen in the table of contents:

Paloma Gay y Blasco (St. Andrews) “Picturing ‘Gypsies’: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Roma Representation”

Dina Iordanova (St. Andrews)”Mimicry and Plagiarism: Reconciling Actual and Metaphoric Gypsies”

Eve Rosenhaft (Liverpool) “Exchanging Glances: Ambivalence in Twentieth-Century Photographs of German Sinti”

Aniko Imre (USC) “Roma Music and Transnational Homelessness”
Caterina Pasqualino (Paris) “The Gypsies, Poor but Happy: A Cinematic Myth”

Iulia Hasdeu (Brussels) “Imagining the Gypsy Woman: Representations of Roma in Romanian Museum”

Peter Vermeersch (Leuven)”Exhibiting Multiculturalism: Politicised
Representations of the Roma in Poland”

Huub van Baar (Amsterdam) “The Way Out of Amnesia?: Europeanisation and the Recognition of the Roma’s Past and Present”

Leshu Torchin
(St. Andrews) “Influencing Representation: Equal Access and Roma Social Inclusion”

Jean-Luc Poueyto (Toulouse) “Out of the Frame: Presence, Representation and Non-Presentability in a Community of Manushes in the South of France”

Daniel Baker (London) The Function of an Exhibition

David Altheer
(London) “The Madonna of the Romanies”

Adina Bradeanu (Westminster) Review essay on two Romanian documentaries on the Roma (‘The Curse of the Hedgehog’ and ‘The Land is Waiting’)

Access to the electronic version of the journal can be purchased at IngentaConnect or at InformaWorld. For subscriptions to Third Text click here.

Time of the Gypsies: Punk Rock Opera, Emir Kusturica, 2007

August 24, 2008 at 12:42 am

On arrival in Paris in March earlier this year, I almost immediately came across large posters in the metro, advertising the extended run of Kusturica’s rock opera version of his acclaimed 1989 film Time of the Gypsies. There were only a few days left to go see the spectacle, but when I inquired I realized that I was not really prepared to spend the 75 Euro for the ticket; I did not think it would be worth it. As I did not go to see the live show, I cannot really judge if I was right in my decision to skip it. Eventually, however, I bought the DVD recording of the same show and have now watched it. It is available from FNAC and Amazon in France, in a French subtitled version. There is no evidence that this punk opera has played elsewhere, but this may change.

The forty-five strong team behind the opera is as follows: The music, much of which relies on recycling traditional Romani folk songs (including the famous Ederlezi), is credited to Dejan Sparavalo, Nenad Jankovic (a.k.a. Dr. Nele Karajlic), and Stribor Kusturica (the director’s son who has been authoring the music for most of his father’s recent films). The libretto is by Dr. Karajlic, and the score is performed by The No Smoking Orchestra and by The Garbage Serbian Philharmonics. On the DVD the performance is listed as using the Romani language (‘Tsigane’) but in fact there was singing in a variety of languages, including English and Serbian. Closely following the plot of the film, the show was disappointing in the degree to which it was being pedestrian: the score was more than mundane at moments, the singing mediocre for the most part, the acting overdone, the mise-en-scene crowded, the colours too bright; the cast was exuding forced excitement that lacked in endearment.

I personally believe it is a pity to see the wonderful Time of the Gypsies and its magic realist imagery of recycled into such brash inferiority. But then, it is the director’s right to exploit his material in ways that he sees fit. And the material is all here: Flocks of ducks cross the scene, cardboard boxes move around, flying brides and ascending protagonists abound. All of Kusturica’s trademark iconography is mobilized for the enjoyment of his dedicated French fans who enthuse at the appearance of each one of these familiar images. In case this is not enough, there are also dwarfs and soap bubbles. Occasional scenes from the film (e.g. the magnificent river vista from Perhan’s first dream) are used on the background, projected on the stage with the image of the actor currently playing Perhan, superimposed on it (with his sweet looks, this one is miles removed from the bespectacled charm of the late Davor Dujmovic, who played in the original film).

In the context of viewing the DVD, I could not help thinking yet once again that the continuous close collaboration with Dr. Nele Karajlic is Kusturica’s biggest liability of recent years. The history of the friendship between the two can be traced back to Sarajevo over nearly three decades, and is rooted in the contex of the ‘surrealist’ punk group of which the director was part back in his native town (see Top Lista Nadrealista, 1984). Dr. Karajlic, a rock musician, resurfaced as a pillar of Kusturica’s creative entourage after the director’s much publicized split with acclaimed composer Goran Bregovic (who has since pursued a successful international career with his Orchestra for Weddings and Funerals). Dr. Karajlic, who authored the music for Black Cat,White Cat (1998), is the driving force behind the No Smoking Orchestra and behind many of the noisy and portentious commercial ventures to the marketing of which Kusturica has lent his name over the past several years (concert tours, CD releases, etc.). In the punk opera Dr. Karajlic appears in the role of Ahmed, the Godfather, which he squanders with unconvincing stage presence, obtuse acting, and ghastly singing in heavily accented English — all these skills applied intentionally in an evidently sound effort to sicken and put off.

The accompanying ‘Making of…’ documentary shows Kusturica and Dr. Karajlic bickering over the idea of an ‘opera’, with Kusturica defending it and Dr. Karajlic, a dedicated punk rocker, disputing it. They end up at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem where each one of them leaves a little note with a wish. Kusturica wins and the opera materializes. The rest of the documentary shows various stages of the preparations and the rehearsals. It also includes a shot featuring a long line of people who are queuing in front of the Bastille Opera, allegedly to get themselves tickets to the event. Well, it is a known fact that the French evidently still like Kusturica, even though some comments made by my French acquaintances suggested that his latest feature, Promise Me, has prompted some cooling down even among his most hard-core fans.

© Dina Iordanova
24 August 2008

The film Time of the Gypsies (1989), a largely unavailable masterpiece, has finally been released on a DVD in France (unfortinately, it only has got French subtitles). You can buy it through the link below. See also my book, Emir Kusturica (London: Britsh Film Institute, 2002).

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

Šaban Bajramović (1936-2008)

June 26, 2008 at 12:07 am

Šaban Bajramović, one of the greatest musicians of our time, has died in poverty in the Serbian city of Niš. International and British newspapers (The Independent, The Times), have picked up on the news with about two weeks delay, and there are now obituaries in various languages that talk of his importance, like the one in Global Voices, which is also translated in Spanish. Some, as one can be expected, highlight more the extremely picturesque (and exotic) aspects of his life, thus somewhat failing to make the point of the importance of his music. So let me reiterate here: this man is one of the most important natural musical talents I have ever come across, I can never tire of listening to songs such as Djelem, djelem or Maki, maki.

In addition, Šaban Bajramović is the prototype of such memorable film characters like the whte-suited ‘godfather’ Ahmed from Emir Kusturica’s Time of the Gypsies (played there by cult figure Bora Todorović), and some of the most extremely exoticized Gypsy characters in Black Cat White Cat. It is widely believed that Šaban remains the uncredited lifeline supplying the stories, the images and the sounds on which the phenomenal success of Kusturica and Bregović’s Gypsy-themed work has been built.

In cinema he appeared in the role of the Roma boy’s father in Goran Paskaljevc’s Guardian Angel (1987), a film which is believed to have had triggered the making of Kusturica’s Time of the Gypsies, and a smaller role in Macedonian Stole Popov’s Gypsy Magic (1997). These roles are listed on the imdb. But the fact that Šaban Bajramović is not credited as a musician here is a serious omission.

There are now numerous In Memoriam clips for Šaban to be found on YouTube. I thought that this one was really impressive.

Here is Maki, maki. Like it is often the case, there appears to be no live recording of Šaban performing it, and the image we see is from the CD on which the song is being distributed. The only name visible is the one of Goran Bregović, who made Šaban’s music internationally known (but who was also often accused of appropriating it without giving proper credit to the musician).

And here is Šaban himself singing one of his well-known songs, Maruska, which he has been performing in different variations on some of Bregovic’s CD’s. The person who posted the clip has only provided a line of text: Farewell to the King! carries three CD’s with authentic Šaban Bajramović songs, all with titles relying on exotic allusions, such as Gypsy King & Drunkard, Gypsy Legend, and Gypsy King of Serbia.

© Dina Iordanova
26 June 2008

‘Gitano’ plagiarism?

June 25, 2008 at 12:33 am

Spain, a few years ago. Well-known Spanish writer Juan Madrid made a plagiarism complaint against Spain’s highest-paid novelist, Arturo Pérez-Reverte.

According to Madrid, Pérez-Reverte’s screenplay for Gitano (Gypsy, Spain, 2000, dir. Manuel Palacios), starring French model Laetitia Casta, had been lifted from a script for a project he had planned with an Argentinean partner but never materialized, a film that was to be called Gitana: Corazones de púrpura (Gypsy Woman: Hearts of Purple). The resemblance between the two scripts, the claimant insisted, was simply too close, suggesting that one was based, at least in part, on the other. Both films were tales of crime and passion set in the murky Gitano underworld; in each story the protagonist would be involved in vendettas after his release from jail, he would then clash with resentful police, and would have his troubles finally resolved through the idiosyncratic yet just Roma patriarch-ruled kriss tribunal. In addition, the protagonist would recover from the betrayal of a treacherous lover by falling in love with a fervent flamenco dancer, suitably called Lola in either case.

The plagiarism complaint was soon dismissed. ‘The only common feature which makes the two scripts comparable’ a statement read, ‘is their interest in the Gypsy world,’ the court concluded. The excessive similarities were explained away as having been of ‘genre’ nature.

The plagiarism showdown is yet another episode illustrating the tenacity of those basic elements that have survived obstinately over the years as key tropes of the ‘Gypsy’ film. Both writers had, once again, applied the stereotypes of the ‘Gypsy genre’ – passionate love, hot blood, trouble with the law, and so on. Both scripts were telling stories of poor, passionate and freedom-loving Gypsies who end up in self-destruction. In the context of this overarching narrative, most of the traditional romanticised ‘Gypsy’ representations reproduce one another anyhow.

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.

The ‘Gitano’ plagiarism story suggests that nothing much has changed in recent representational patterns related to the Roma; they still move within the age-old stereotypes from the pre-romantic era and remain as exploitative as all those older literary and cinematic texts analyzed so well in the work of Katie Trumpener (‘The Time of the Gypsies: A ‘People without History’ in the Narratives of the West.’ In: Identities, ed. Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (eds.), University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1995, pp 338-380).

© Dina Iordanova
25 June 2008