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

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Transnational/migrant actors: A certain case of invisibility I

November 6, 2008 at 12:51 am

There is a scene in István Szabó’s Mephisto (1981), a film which tackles the case of actor Hendrik Hoefgen (based on famous German actor Gustaf Gründgens), where his friend, the actress Nicoletta von Niebuhr is shown pondering on the advantages and disadvantages of emigrating. She is clearly aware that her career would face decline once abroad, and articulates her concerns over her chances to master a foreign accent or over other types of marginalization she would be likely to face. It is a fateful conversation, which proves decisive not only for her but for the protagonist as well, who decides to stay in Nazi Germany (and returns there even when he has got the chance to emigrate easily). By staying in his native country he enjoys a high profile career indeed, but also becomes a Nazi collaborator. In any case, by committing to a national culture, even if to a problematic one, he avoids the danger of becoming invisible.

This was back in the 1930s, or more than seventy years ago. Things have changed, and the migrations of actors over the years have increased. Yet, scrutinizing the creative paths of those actors who go into emigration today and build transnational careers is most instructive, especially as one traditionally believes that for actors, faced with the challenge of mastering new languages and accents, emigration often spells the end to a career. Having looked closely in the cases of many actors who emigrated out of various Eastern European contexts over the past decade or so, I can clearly establish that it is only singular actors who are able to sustain meaningfully visible careers abroad, and it is a mixture of resilience and luck that proves decisive in the process. Many vanish, or even worse, make appearances in films that are of a much lower quality than the ones in which they have launched their careers, and, having moved over to the nearly invisible periphery, keep working but are never noticed.

Migrant actresses remain invisible even when cast in key roles. For example, international critics nearly unanimously destroyed Bruno Dumont’s Twenty-nine Palms (France/ Germany/ USA 2003), featuring Russian-Lithuanian-French Actress Katia (Yekaterina) Golubeva (pictured here in Claire Denis’ L’Intrus, 2004). Their criticisms of the film were directed elsewhere, yet most of them spoke of the actress as a completely unknown face dug out by Dumont from who knows where. In fact, Golubeva has been a more or less permanent presence in films by Sharunas Bartas since the late 1980s, so these same critics are likely to have not only watched her but also to have praised her for performances in a range of films at the festivals they frequent. In addition, she played significant parts in well-known French art house films such as Claire Denis’s J’ai pas sommeil/I Cannot Sleep (France/Switzerland 1994) and L’Intrus/The Intruder (France 2004) and the lead in Leos Carax’s Pola X (France/Switzerland/Germany/Japan 1999), all extensively covered by these same international critics. Yet, in her new reincarnation in the Californian desert, Katia Golubeva remained unrecognized and was treated as a newcomer (or, rather, not particularly welcomed outsider). Similar examples can be discovered in the case of many other migrant actresses (e.g. Croatian star Mira Furlan, Russian Chulpan Khamatova, Polish veteran Grazyna Szapolowska, the Lithuanian-Russian Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Serbian Branka Katić and Mirjana Joković), all stars of award-winning films by directors such as Kieslowski or Kusturica, yet unrecognized in the Western productions they have appeared in lately. One discovers that these actresses have managed to keep themselves employed by appearing in perfectly respectable Western European or American films even after changing countries. In reality, however, they remain known only in the context of their original national cinema; their transnational work remains invisible.

The situation with migrant male actors is similar. The most successful among the East Europeans are those who, while abroad, are happy to embrace the limitations of typecasting and play the roles of Eastern European villains or migrant patriarchs. This fully applies, for example, to former DEFA star Armin Mueller-Stahl and to Yugoslav Rade Serbedzija, who enjoy high-profile international careers today. Both actors maintain a remarkable transatlantic schedule by regularly taking on roles in Hollywood, in American art-house and indie films, as well as in films made in a range of European or other countries (New Zealand, Canada, Australia), and in their countries of origin. They both are well-known for roles that link them to their Eastern European heritage and tradition: Armin Mueller-Stahl recently played a London-based Russian Godfather in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (2007) while Serbedzija (pictured), who, to his credit, has persisted in retaining his difficult name unchanged even under the temptation to Westernize it by making it somewhat easier to spell or pronounce, has readily embraced the roles of an Eastern European mafioso, Russian gangster or underground trader, in a range of international productions since the mid 1990s.

© Dina Iordanova
6 November 2008