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

French film actors on the stage: Sami Frey

June 28, 2008 at 12:03 am

Many of the well-known French film actors seem to regularly appear on stage as well. Spending time in Paris gave me opportunity to go and see such cinematic legends like Jeanne Moreau (in a reading of Quartett by Heiner Muller at Theatre de la Madeleine) and Isabelle Hupert (in Le Dieu du Carnage by Yasmina Reza at Theatre Antoine) live on stage. Moreau is now 80, and Hupert – 55, and they both look amazing, fully defiant of advancing age. Amazing.

For me, though, the biggest attraction was watching Sami Frey read on stage, along Moreau. The man is 71 years old now, but, like his ageless partner, seemed no older than fifty. His good looks now come with a certain degree of subdued reticence, as if he wants to suppress references to his artistic persona of eccentric Latin Lover (whom he has played many times over the years).

The earliest I remember Frey is in the lovely threesome dance in the bar sequence in Godard’s Bande à part/Band of Outsiders(1964), alongside Anna Karina and Claude Brasseur. Apparently, he started his career back in 1956; one of his early appearances has been in Agnes Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7/Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962). His main claim to fame from the period, however, is the highly publicized affair with Brigitte Bardot. Later in life Frey was partner of actress Delphine Seyrig.

Even if a small role, his outrageous appearance as El Macho in Dusan Makavejev’s subversive Sweet Movie is a key cinematic moment for me. True to his brandmark approach to using extreme stereotypes, for this film Makavejev turns Frey into the perfect embodiment of the Latin Lover from the popular imagination: he dresses him in a black-and-gold matador’s costume topped by a large cape under which El Macho can shelter women during lovemaking, and he makes him wear thick mascara and eye shadows in glittering gold. Then he plants him up on the second floor of the Eiffel Tower and has him sing a high pitched Spanish song of fate and history, surrounded by an adoring crowd of female fans. Miss Monde (Carole Laure) who is passing by, is so powerfully attracted to El Macho that she literally jumps on the man. Their love embrace turns out so awesomely crushing that eventually the copulating pair have to be taken to hospital to be medically separated from each other. Unforgettable.

Frey’s most important performance achievement, however, remains the remarkable portrayal of a mentally unstable aging Artaud in Gérard Mordillat’s rive gauche investigation of an artist sinking into madness, En compagnie d’Antonin Artaud/My Life and Times with Artaud(1993).

In North America Frey appeared in Bob Rafelson’s noir thriller Black Widow(1987) where he plays a businessman involved with both Debra Winger and Theresa Russell.

© Dina Iordanova
28 June 2008

Om Shanti Om (India, 2007) Farah Khan

June 27, 2008 at 12:04 am

I finally got hold of this box-office-record-setting hit, which is being distributed by Eros International in a fancy fancy two-DVD box set, and was seriously disappointed with it. For several reasons, which I will outline here briefly.

1. Om Shanti Om, with its contrived plot and cartoon-like characters, has become a smashing box-office hit, topping the list of highest-grossing Indian films. But it is clealy a film that is exclusively targeting an audience of Indians and NRIs in the diaspora. Western critics’ reaction to it is lukewarm at best, and it barely would succeed in bringing on board new fans of non-Indian origins. I was thinking we could speak of a trend where Bollywood films are becoming more palatable to mainstream audiences in the West and where they would soon be embraced by fans who, like me, are open to diversity in cinema but are not necessarily Indian. This film, however, is not closing the gap and, even if admired by Indian fans, does not seem to have the cross over potential of other recent titles such as Fanaa or Krrish. Its success also confirms the sad truth that it is, most of all, a lavish and relentless promotion campaign, and not so much artistic achievement that account for commercial success and global popularity in Bollywood.

2. When I teach about Bollywood, I cannot help making extensive parallels with Hollywood’s system from the studio period: the similarities in the production and distribution/exhibition approaches and the reliance on star power are just too many to ignore. In Om Shanti Om Bollywood comes even closer to Hollywood in that it features and exposes (but also glorifies) cut-throat tactics, competition, intrigue, and lavish excess. The film showcases conspicuous beauty and wealth, presents a celebrity line up that has got no other purpose but push up the film’s commercial appeal, and stages a parody of the Filmfare award ceremony with star cameos that are meant to thrill the fan base. But even if the pronounced intention of the film is to condemn the amorality that appears to be endemic to the world of commercial filmmaking, in effect it celebrates it all.

3. The storyline is poorly constructed. It evolves around reincarnation and retribution, involving an episode where, in the second part of the film, villainy is exposed through a Hamlet-like staged reconstruction of a hideous cover-up. But there is nothing like an in depth psychological build up, and as it is the case in traditional Indian cinema, all main characters remain unchangeable: whoever is bad stays bad from beginning through to the end, and whoever is good, invariably remains so. Om, the ‘junior artiste’ protagonist of the first part, is a naive wide-eyed devotee of the beautiful and utterly implausible star Shanti; Om, the protagonist of the second part, enjoys an overindulgent stardom which makes him a truly unconvincing bearer of high moral ground.

4. I found the film’s post-modern aesthetics, promoted by former choreographer (and now writer and director) Farah Khan, truly over the top. I tended to think of Shah Rukh Khan in much better terms before this film, but here he is nothing more than a poster pin-up boy showing off a body sculplted in the gym on every possible occasion (No wonder, the DVD comes with a glossy poster featuring his amazing six pack). The ‘symphony’ of colors in costumes and settings often turns into cacophony. Besides the memorable tunes of two of the dance-and-song sequences (Dard-E-Disco, Om Shanti Om), the music did not agree with me; I found the singing in extended singing sequence in the musical narrative of the second part, the scene meant to expose the evil deeds of the villain, most off-putting.

One of the few things I liked in Om Shanti Om were the final credits, where, in a truly democratic move, the director Farah Khan has all members of the crew — both from above and below the line, down to light technicians and spot boys — parade on the screen in a cheerful dance rhythm.

© Dina Iordanova
27 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

Christophe: Les Marionettes (1965)

June 24, 2008 at 12:51 am

I came across French singer Christophe (b. 1945) for a first time when watching The Singer (2006). He makes a brief cameo appearance in the film as himself: an enigmatic and introverted aging popular star who still attracts a faithful cult following of thousands to his stage concerts. We only get a glimpse of him concentrating in front of a mirror before the concert. But even this glimpse was sufficient to get me interested to check out the singer, an offspring of an Italian-French family who has seen many ups and downs over the years and has cultivated an image that is not less interesting than much better-known Johnny Hallyday (b. 1943). Indeed, his fascinating biography talks of downturns and comebacks, reconstructing an age in French popular culture that is simultaneously disappearing and nostalgically attractive.

As it turns out, many clips of Christophe’s songs can be found on YouTube, which show his changing appearance (and stage persona) over the years.

Here I am posting clips featuring three performances of one of his best-known songs, Les Marionettes (1965), which have taken place over a period of thirty-five years.

The first one is an interesting video made long before the MTV age, in the 1960s, and showing the singer as a young boy, reminiscent to David Hemmings as seen in Antonioni’s Blowup (1966), who looks pretty much as if he has just left school and still plays with paper and string, making puppets.

The second one is from the 1980s, about 20 years later, a comeback after many turbulent events in the singer’s life. The voice is still the same, but Christophe has matured in look; he already has what is to become his trademark mustache. See on the background the references to Harley Davidson-type motorcycles and related paraphernalia from the American SouthWest, of the sort that he is known to have been fascinated with. This is a man who comes across somebody who is spending his winters near Grand Canyon or in New Mexico and who only puts on a suit for brief spells back to Europe. Also listen to the end to hear the American twists in this performance.

The last one is from a tamed performance of the song in 2002, weary and laid back. This is the cultish look that the singer had in the film with Depardieu.

The Wikipedia article on Christophe claims he was mostly influenced by American music. Maybe. To me, however, Les Marionettes sounds much more like the famous Belgian Adamo’s Tombe la neige and and Herve Vilard’s Capri c’est fini, both songs huge hits from the same 1965. I vaguely remember this music from my early years, I must have heard them for a first time around the time I was six or seven (they have either been on the radio or we probably had them on records at home, an example of distribution of Western culture behind the iron curtain).

The pop idol of my Bulgarian childhood, singer Emil Dimitrov, who I understand had achieved some popularity in France around the same time and who was also singing songs of marionettes and traveling artists (e.g. Arlekino), sounded very much the same. Arlekino, a link to which I embed here, was particularly important also because it later on became a break-through song for Russia’s mega-star Alla Pugachova and is still performed by younger Russian singers.

© Dina Iordanova
24 June 2008

Quand j’étais chanteur / The Singer (France, 2006) with Gérard Depardieu and Cécile De France

June 23, 2008 at 12:51 am

The revival of the 1970s and the popularity of shows that bring back the music of ABBA is clearly a trend that still has got some steam. After seriously tarnishing his reputation with in the English speaking world with a series of appearances in all sorts of Hollywood rubbish, Gérard Depardieu, another man who was young in the 1970s, makes a nostalgic comeback in The Singer.

If analyzed critically, the film would not withstand much scrutiny. But it is one that belongs to the guilty pleasures kind, and this is all that matters, really. It has the full potential to become a cult classic among the sizable group of those whose cultural consumption got a boost by ABBA’s revival.

Depardieu’s rugged charm is juxtaposed to the attractive French newcomer beauty, Cécile De France, who mostly poses than plays a female protagonist that is preposterously underdeveloped and unconvincing. But who cares. The film is really enjoyable to watch, part because of the erotic dynamics between the lumpy Depardieu and the stylish sex appeal of De France, and part because of the numerous ‘oldies’ that are performed and sang in the film, at various dance halls, discos and restaurants in the Clermont-Ferrand area.

In a bonus interview on the DVD, director (and writer) Xavier Giannoli explains that he has always been attracted to the music of the 1970s. As a child of French-Italians, Giannoli had the chance to have French-Italian singer Christophe (who makes a cameo appearance in the film) as neighbor. This gave Giannoli quite a bit of exposure to the closed world of popular music. Indeed, in the film Depardieu (as singer Alain Moreau) is seen rehearsing his repertoire of ‘oldies’ on the background of a neon sign of Christophe’s name (alluding to the Christophe’s well-known passion for the American popular culture of neon-lit diners and Cadillacs).

The film was part of the Cannes competiton in 2006 and got lots of critical acclaim, mostly for Depardieu’s comeback performance, and lots of media coverage, mostly for the unmatched Parisian chic of the actress who was one of the best-dressed women at the festival. Here is the French trailer, featuring some of the 70-ies oldies that constitute a lot of the film’s charm.

The Singer has not been released in the US, not even on DVD. lists it as only available in French. However, there is an English-subtitled version published in the UK and available from the British amazon site at

© Dina Iordanova
23 June 2008

Film Festivals and the Festival Calendar: Women’s film festivals, Creteil

June 22, 2008 at 12:08 am

In a recent conversation, Toronto’s Kay Armatage, who is researching women’s film festivals around the world, made an important remark: She had noticed that all these festivals, burgeoning throughout the 1980s, had not come to create a network between themselves, and thus no ‘calendar’ for such women’s events taking place at various locations in North America or around the world had ever came into existence. In addition, they had never become part of the general ‘festival circuit’ and were thus outside the cycle of global film circulation, remaining alternative by default. (In terms of network theory, one could call it a structural hole.)

More importantly, Kay remarked, even the best established and most visible ones of these festivals (such as the one in Creteil near Paris, which has now been in existence for 30 years) did not seem to had given much consideration on the matter of their positioning in relation to the so-called ‘festival circuit’. When the festival would be taking place was determined usually by domestic considerations of convenience and coordination. Adjusting or correlating the festival’s dates to the dates of other festivals for which filmmakers or programmers may be traveling as well, does not seem to have been a factor in deciding on the event’s scheduling in March.

Evidently, it comes down to the way the festival itself sees its mission and defines its identity. While Creteil has acquired the key veteran position among women’s festivals, it has not been interested in spinning out nor in beginning to function as a hub of a network. Neither does it conceptualize itself as part of any other bigger festival network. Some simple correlating to the already existing mainstream festival circuit could lead to significant growth and increase its profile by bringing in more traffic from the film world.

But it is not always about traffic and profile.

© Dina Iordanova
22 June 2008

Short Selling Getting Center Stage

June 21, 2008 at 12:13 am

The practice of short selling and spreading rumors in order to boost better returns and the effects caused by invisible short sellers is in the media more and more often in recent months. It has become almost a fixture on the pages of Financial Times, for example.

Back in March 2008 it was the banking sector. It was front page news in financial publications and even made it through to mainstream news on the BBC. The banking sector was badly hit by a sharp decline in share price, followed by fluctuations that seemed to have gotten out of control (and which were explained with the moves of short sellers). The sell off was attributed to a panic created artificially by short sellers who reportedly spread rumors about an impending crisis at certain banks, which made the share price plunge down. The short sellers (and, alongside, all those watching the markets closely) then picked up shares in the companies they had ruined on the cheap (there was frantic buying into the same banks just a few days afterwards, just about the time that the short sellers would have committed to buy). It was reported that the practice was to be investigated by the FSA (which is still on the case, as more and more instances of massive short selling moves keep coming about).

More recently, in June 2008, similar fluctuations occurred with the housebuilding companies in Britain. A 13 June 2008 article entitled Wild Fluctuations at Housebuilders in the FT opens with the observation:

Speculators, short-sellers and market rumours were held responsible for wild swings in housebuilders’ share prices on Thursday, with Barratt Developments gaining ground for only the second time in four weeks.

The swings were so hectic, that dealing into shares (which moved 50 points up and down within a single day) was even suspended for a short while, so that the computing systems could cope with the amount of trades going through. The article is illustrated with an extraordinarily choppy chart of the intra-day movements in Barratt’s (BDEV) price on June 12th, showing such drastically swinging movements that the chart could be used as a teaching tool for day traders.

“This isn’t a case of fund managers suddenly liking the stock,” according to Will Duff Gordon of Data Explorers, which monitors short-selling interests. “The moves come from short-sellers taking profits while they can.”

The ‘short sellers’ are invisible. Even though the people who attribute the problems of various banking or building companies stock to the behind-the-scenes activities of short sellers, do not name names — rather, the say, it is known who the ‘culprits’ are. The interesting issue is that lately the short selling theme is taking the shape of a morality discourse, and there will be more to come as the tendency seems to be toward making it morally unacceptable. Morality, however, does not have a straightforward place in the rational world of finance, so they want measures that would regulate and probably even outlaw it.

Short selling is usually the domain of those in the know. Ordinary novices like myself still stick to the idea that in order to sell something, you would need to have bought it first. Not so, apparently, as when you ‘short’ you do not need to owe what you sell, and you do not even need to put up the money for this virual transaction until a later point in time when you need to ‘buy’ what you have ‘shorted’. A very different concept from the one of prudent buying low and selling high. It is more about boldness and daring speculation, as we learn from the interesting chatty City Slickers: Make a Million from the Declining Market by Anil Bhoyrul. This cheaply published paperback is not a book that will make you a significantly better investor, it is not analytical enough. But it is an interesting glimpse into the reality of short-sellers, into the daily life of the City, and into the behavior of day traders. And these are things that are worth knowing more about, especially as for people like myself, in the absence of the ‘mastermind circle’ recommended by Andrew Carnegie and Napoleon Hill, investing is a lonely pursuit. Mr. Market, in Benjamin Graham’s terms, may be the temperamental guy whose mood swings we never come to fully understand or predict. Not so, however, when one reads Bhoyrul’s book: helps to get to know at least one of Mr. Market’s aspects — the logic of the ‘moods’ related to short-selling frenzy.

© Dina Iordanova
21 June 2008