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.