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