Framework Vol. 44, No. 2 (Fall 2003)
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Framework Vol. 44, No. 2 (Fall 2003)
The Journal of Cinema and Media
Framework is an international, peer reviewed journal dedicated to theoretical and historical work on the diverse and current trends in media and film scholarship. The journal’s multicultural coverage, interdisciplinary focus, and the high caliber of its writers contributes to important interconnections between regional cinemas, practioners, academics, critics, and students. Framework is committed to publishing articles from interdisciplinary and global perspectives.
Table of contents:
Dina Iordanova, Guest Editor
Romanies and Cinematic Representation
The Celluloid Drom: Romani Images in Russian Cinema
The Stranger in a City Filled with Strangers: Moholy-Nagy’s Urban Gypsies
Quintessential Strangers: The Representation of Romanies and Jews in Some Holocaust Films
Between Distance and Proximity: Film Images and After-Images of the Genocide of the Romanies
Desire Ltd: Romanies, Women, and Other Smugglers in Carmen
Romani Images: A Film Director’s Diary
Skupljai perja / I Even Met Happy Gypsies
Ruovésny / Pink-tainted Dreams
Ko To Tamo Peva / Who Is Singing Over There?
Les Princes / The Princes
Angelo My Love
Diably, Diably / Devil, Devils
Un’anima Divisa In Due / A Soul Divided in Two
Tchernata Lyastovitsa / The Black Swallow
The Gypsies of Svinia
I took up editing this special issue on images of Romanies in international cinema, relying on my expertise in Eastern European and Balkan film, thinking that it was within this group that most Romani-themed films abound. It did not take long to realise, however, that the scope of this project was much bigger. In fact, it was huge. So, in the course of putting this issue together, I had the chance to learn (and continue learning) about an incredibly rich and versatile variety of films, which, in one way or another, feature Romanies. It transpired that films representing Romanies originated from a much wider territory than I originally had imagined, stretching far beyond the countries of Europe and North America and including cinematic works from Egypt, Argentina, India, Iran and many more.1 It soon became clear that Romanies have been appearing on the silver screen since the first days of cinema, in a range of films by well-known pioneers and as early as 1896.2
The original call for papers for this special issue of Framework invited authors to look into cinema’s role in creating (and maintaining) the exotic image of the Gypsy, into instances where film had counteracted the racism and media vilification that often dominate public perceptions of Romanies, and into exploring the extent to which the rich Romani heritage was acknowledged by cinema. I wanted to see how the discursive dynamics of Romany representation and self-representation was crossing the context of other discourses of minority representation (e.g. Chicano/a, Native Indian, African-American), how cinema had approached the themes of Romani history (if at all), and what the role of feature, documentary and ethnographic film played in analyzing the Romani predicament and in addressing its social roots, diaspora, migration, and social marginality.
So, were these concerns addressed in the articles that I received, and to what extent? When looking at the materials included in this issue, it seems to me that they have started unraveling some of these complex issues, especially in two areas. First, they begin to sketch the complex historiography of the uniquely transnational phenomenon of the Gypsy films. Second, they bring together two discourses: one on representation (from film and media studies) and one on Romani culture and history (from ethnology and area studies).
It is not by chance that I am using Framework’s pages for such discursive convergence: as a journal ‘committed to publishing articles from an interdisciplinary and global perspectives,’ Framework is uniquely positioned among the range of film and media journals. It not only has recognised the need ‘for the elaboration of a transnational critical-theoretical discourse,’ as associate editor Paul Willemen states, but, also, it was one of the first journals to encourage and endorse work in the transnational dimensions of minority representation.3
I have included contributions that range in approach, from close textual analysis (Tarr, Mazierska), through film historiography (Curtis, Chiline) and studies into cinema’s role in re-shaping the mainstream historical discourse (Tebutt, Loshitzky), to explorations relying on the post-colonial theoretical framework (Imre, Zanger). In addition, a number of reviews discuss both old and recent features and documentaries, from various countries and genres, representing Romanies. In commissioning these reviews, I followed the conviction that the study of Romani representation in international cinema could benefit greatly from the encouragement of some straightforward scholarship, one that would simply describe and critique the films and thus map out a phenomenon larger and more versatile than is usually believed.4 Wrapping up the work on this project, I believe that the issue succeeds in offering at least a rough sketch of the transnational territory of cinematic representation of Romanies.
1. Sketching the Romani Contribution
Rather than being given the chance to portray themselves, the Romany people have routinely been depicted by others. The persistent cinematic interest in ‘Gypsies’ has repeatedly raised questions of authenticity versus stylization, and of patronisation and exoticisation, in a context marked by overwhelming ignorance of the true nature of Romani culture and heritage. This has been further complicated by relentlessly adverse media coverage portraying the Romanies as irresponsibly minded people of idiosyncratic infatuations and non-existent work ethics, with widespread disregard to the conventions of law and morality.
The Romanies are not alone in this treatment by the mass media. But they are one of the few who have yet to effectively confront and defy such treatment. Given that the vilification and the misrepresentation of other marginalised groups has been continually challenged for some decades, Ian Hancock, in his book We are the Romani people, is right to note that ‘this did not begin to happen in the case of Romanies until very recently’ (2002, 66). The best way to fight stereotyping is by taking representation onto one’s own hands. This process is now beginning with the publication of many texts by Romani writers, and with popular texts on Romani culture, such as Ian Hancock’s. In this context, we need to acknowledge the importance of up-and-coming film-making by Romanies. While French-Algerian Tony Gatlif remains the only well-known cineaste of Romani origin, I have come across scattered but significant data on various other Romani filmmakers who chronicle the history and present-day ordeal of their people—such as Pisla Helmstetter (France), Dufunya Vishnevskiy (Russia), Jozsef Lojko Lakatos (Hungary), Melanie Spitta (Germany), or the members of the Roma Portraits Project (Bulgaria).
This situation is compounded by the little acknowledged or studied work of actors of Romani origin. While international stars (like Pola Negri, Marlene Dietrich, Alain Delon) are celebrated for their ‘Gypsy’ roles, the work of Romani actors is rarely recognised. And here I do not only mean people like Rita Hayworth, Charles Chaplin, or Bob Hoskins, whose Romani background is widely recognised today,5 but also those such as Spanish Rafael Albaicín (who played in over forty five films between 1948 and 1980) or American Freddie Prinze (1954 -1977), as well as those famous singers who also acted such as Rosario Flores (from Pedro Almodovar’s Hable con ella/ Talk to Her, Spain, 2002) or Vera Bíla and Iva Bittová (from Dusan Hanák’s Ruovésny/ Pink-Tainted Dreams, Czechoslovakia, 1976). Most of all, however, I mean the Romanies who played themselves in unforgettable film roles and then ‘vanished’ from the annals of cinema, like Gordana Jovanovi from Skupljai perja/ I Even Met Happy Gypsies (Aleksandar Petrovi, Yugoslavia, 1967,) or Angelo Evans from Angelo, My Love (Robert Duvall, U.S., 1983). While many may have heard of the controversy surrounding Leni Riefenstahl’s questionable use of Maxglan Gypsies in Tiefland/ Lowlands (Germany, 1940/1950), few realise that Romani actors today are not spared the appalling treatment Gypsies receive across Europe. Maria Bakò, the Hungarian who played Pabe in Un’ anima divisa in due/ A Soul Divided in Two (Silvio Soldini, Italy, 1993) was supposed to attend the film’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival but was refused an entry visa to Italy. Ovidiu Balan, the amazing Romanian Gypsy who played a memorable Romani boy in Clandestins/ Stowaways (Denis Chouinard and Nicolas Wadimoff , Switzerland/ Canada/ France/ Belgium, 1997) was granted a special permission to stay in France for the filming of Tony Gatlif’s Mondo (France, 1996) where he had the lead role, but was deported to Romania as soon as filming was over. Ljubica Adovi, the unforgettable and universally loved Baba from Emir Kusturica’s Dom za veanje/Time of the Gypsies (Yugoslavia, 1989) was reported to be asking for asylum in France in the summer of 2001. We may not be able to do much to change this treatment. What we can do, however, is to recognise their remarkable contribution to cinematic art.
2. Sketching ‘Genre’
While in many respects Romani representation is similar to other minorities, no other group has provided so much ‘metaphoric material’ for drama as the Romanies, and no other group has been so excessively exoticised. The typical ‘Gypsy’ film is a melodrama, with a plotline usually evolving along inter-racial romance (of which Carmen is the prototype). The story usually revolves around a pure and spontaneous liaison between a Romani girl and a man from the main (‘white’) ethnic group whose relationship quickly gains mainstream disapproval and comes under attack, sometimes leading to tragic consequences. Occasionally, it is an audacious Gypsy man who ‘steals’ the ‘white’ woman’s heart and mind; or the lovers are both Romanies, in which case they are often extremely vulnerable, usually because the woman has stuck to her Gypsy lover and refused to accept the advances of a powerful ‘white’ man interested in her.
Whatever the plot details, the typical ‘Gypsy’ narrative revolves around presumptions that are implied rather than spoken: Gypsy love can be nothing but all-consuming passion; Gypsies are in possession of love secrets that are out of reach, yet perpetually desirable for the dominant (‘white’) ethnicity. It is structured around a worn-out stereotype. But, as it is a stereotype that continues to sell, commercially-minded producers are still eager to continue putting out these sort of Academy Award-winning weepies featuring exciting, Gypsy, swarthy, heart-throbs (such as Johnny Depp?). They are portrayed as superior to their dull white rivals because they supposedly possess (and are prepared to share) the secrets of ‘real’ love. Clearly, these plots have more to do with the trouble that inhibited ‘white’ Western sexuality experiences in accommodating its own ‘dark’ passions than with the real Romani culture. One can easily make the case, then, that it does not make sense to pay much attention to these films. But then, if this (significantly large and still growing) body of work was excluded, wouldn’t it evade the very core of the issue: that the quintessential instances of Romani (ab)use as ‘metaphoric material’ by mainstream Western culture is denied? An extra dimension that needs to be addressed regarding the Romani image is the Romanies’ own contribution to this specific niche ‘market’ of cultural stereotypes.6
Filmmakers have routinely exploited the visual sumptuousness of Romani non-conventional lifestyles; they have intentionally enhanced the cinematic celebrations of freewheeling Roma with added excitement, often allowing for spectacularly beautiful magical-realist visuals accompanied by correspondingly Gypsy music and dance. Gypsy films have been recycling virtually the same narrative tropes for decades: passionate and self-destructive obsessions; ‘feast in time of plague’ attitude; astonishingly street-wise and strong-willed protagonists; complex patriarchal power structures within extended families; mistrust to outsiders; coerced urbanisation, forced integration and imposed conversion away from semi-nomadic lifestyles. Even though they all imply tensions with the mainstream, only a handful of ‘Gypsy’ films really explore the troubled relationship between the dominant ethnic group and the minority. It is important to acknowledge, however, that lately there is a tendency to make socially conscious feature dramas that are genuinely concerned with the Romani predicament. With varying degrees of success, some recent films have attempted to substitute traditional Gypsy plots’ excessive exoticism with rough realism. As long as cinema continues to deliver commercial entertainment, however, it is highly unlikely that this second, socially conscious trend will prevail. ‘Gypsy exotica’ and ‘Romani predicament’ type of films will most likely continue to coexist side by side.
Two other genres - documentary and ethnographic film - have put out a growing number of ‘Romani’-themed films. Documentaries are largely attempting to ‘correct the record’ by featuring poverty, discrimination, and racism in realistic, socially truthful depictions of Romani lives. In addition, documentary film-makers have tried to highlight various aspects of Romani history and recent migrations, as well as the relationship within this dynamically changing diaspora. But ethnographic film has been augmenting the scarce visuals of Romani routines and traditions, gradually giving away many of the ‘secrets’ of the life that Romanies have habitually shied away from revealing.8
More often than not, however, documentaries have been unable to abandon a certain patronising attitude to their vulnerable Romani subjects. As a result, even the ‘best intentions’ documentaries lose out to those films that continue building on the exoticized romanticized image of the Gypsy. So we need to face the harsh realization that for now it is highly unlikely that the image of the captivating singing and dancing Gypsy temptress would be replaced in popular imagination by the image of a muddy and hungry Romani child. Thus, while ethnographic and documentary film will bring some corrections to the Romani image, they have no chance of winning the battle of genres. The use of the Gypsies as ‘metaphoric material’ will go on for as long as it sells. At least today there is a chance to make it known that ‘Screen Gypsies’ and real Romanies have very little to do with each other.
3. Sketching History
In Radu Mihaileanu’s Train de vie/ Train of Life (France/ Belgium/ Netherlands/ Israel, 1998), set during World War Two, a group of Romanian Jews dress up as Germans and try to ‘deport’ themselves to Palestine in a train which they have secretly built for this purpose. On the way, however, the train is apprehended by Nazis. But it soon turns out that these ‘Nazis’ are as fake as the Jewish ‘Germans’ on the train: they are actually a group of Romanies in disguise who have conspired to confiscate a train (and use it to ‘deport’ themselves to India). In the film, Jews and Gypsies recognize each other and embrace as brothers, ending up around a bonfire where they drink and dance to a frolic mixture of Kletzmer and Gypsy music. If one looks behind their cheerful embrace, however, it appears that the roles of the two groups in this episode are suggestive of the unspoken yet prevailing view of Romani history: both Jews and Gypsies are trying to escape a grim fate. But while the industrious Jews have built the train, all the Gypsies can do is try to steal it. In this interpretation, Train de vie once again reiterates the tacit view that Romani history can be nothing but a parasitic existence on someone else’s back.7 Then, there is another assumed view of Romani history: as a parallel one, as a secondary dimension of the main historical narrative, best seen again in the context of Holocaust research. It is reassuring that we can quote from at least one film that radically undercuts this view: a Dutch documentary about the investigation of journalist Aad Wagenaar.9 It centers on the best-known Dutch Holocaust images: a photograph of a startled young girl who looks out of a train as she is about to leave for a concentration camp. The picture is taken just before the door slams and cuts her off from the rest of the world. For many years this picture had been known in mainstream Dutch historical records as one of a Jewish girl being taken to Auschwitz. That is, until Wagenaar’s investigation revealed that the photograph is, in fact, showing Settela, a Sinti10 victim of the Nazis at the moment of her deportation to Bergen Belsen.
Exploring the impact of the revelations around Settela’s identity, Thomas Elsaesser (1999) has remarked that, figuratively speaking, it was a case where ‘one train may be hiding another,’ because, ‘one Holocaust, as we have come to learn at our cost, hides others, one image’s symbolic force may obscure another reality. To reclaim the truth of the suffering of the European Gypsies is not to make it ‘compete’ with that of the European Jews [...]’. How true.
Yet we ultimately face a situation where Romani history is persistently being told in relation to someone else’s: it is either about taking over someone else’s train or about trains hiding one another. Why can’t we all be on the same train of history? Europe’s Jews and Gypsies perished side by side in the 1940s. Can’t this be shown without necessarily competing for victimhood, as seen in one of the earliest post-war camp films,Ostatni etap/Last Stage (Poland, 1948), by survivor Wanda Jakubowska? Isn’t it about time to start acknowledging that each and every person’s suffering and dignity should be recognized as equally important? Half a million Romanies are estimated to have been destroyed in the ‘great devouring,’ the Porrajmos, but no trials and no compensation tribunals have dealt with this aspect of history. Documentaries from the 1980s, by Katrin Seybold and Melanie Spitta in Germany, Joszef Lojko Lakatos in Hungary and Lordan Zafranovi in Yugoslavia (Croatia), have used survivor interviews and archival footage in order to reconstruct the story which has never been deemed ‘worthy’ of inclusion in the official annals of history. More camp experiences are recounted in the documentary, Ceija Stojka (Katrin Berger, Austria, 1999), named for and about a well known Austrian intellectual and a camp survivor. Many other recent films try to put together a cinematic account of Romani history, one that often comes down to chronicling slavery and destruction. For the time being, the work of investigative film-makers seems to be running parallel with (and occasionally even ahead of) the work of historians.
4. Sketching Knowledge
The knowledge of cinematic representation of Romanies is still limited, considering that films featuring Gypsies are so many. Still, today we know more of these films than ever before. This may be partially due to the Internet, with publications such as the web-journal Patrin, as well as the Roma culture initiative, the Roma advocacy centre, the Romani union, and many more. It may also be due to the specialised series put out by the University of Hertfordshire Press, even though they are yet to publish research into cinematic representations.
Then, there are the Romani-themed film series. Even though they remain scattered, the past few years have seen a significant growth in various cinematic events dedicated to the image of Romanies in film: examples include special events at the festivals in Montreal (1997) and Amiens (1997), Roma-themed series at the Barbican in London, in Vienna, and at the Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival (all in 2000), a programme at the city museum Munich (2001), or the First Roma Film Festival Golden Wheel in Skopje, Macedonia (2002).
Most of the writing on Gypsies and cinema has been done in the contexts of studying other representational configurations, as seen for example in Paul Julian Smith’s text on the metaphoric use of Gypsies in the context of Spanish cinema or in my own work on Balkan and East Central European film. Romani-themed films are referred to fleetingly in histories of Scandinavian, Indian, or other national traditions. I hope to have begun changing this by drawing together these various contexts in this issue of Framework.
A number of further contributions beyond those that I was able to include here were proposed or contemplated but, for various reasons, did not materialise. I hope, however, that the texts that were not included will soon appear elsewhere. Most of all, I hope to see the publication of Heiner Ross’s massive filmographic database on Romanies in cinema. I would also like to see people who have written important texts on various other aspects of Gypsy representation (such as Ian Hancock, Alaina Lemon, Mathijis van de Port, Katie Trumpener, Diane Tong, as well as the ethnologists specializing in Romani studies) to turn to cinematic material more often. I hope to see the publication of texts highlighting the cinematic treatment of Romanies in the 1930s and the parallels in Romani, Kurdish and African representations. (These topics were not ready for publication in this issue). I would like to have been able to include interviews with feature directors like Dufunya Vishnevskiy, Emil Loteanu and Stole Popov or with documentarians like Mira Erdevicki or Eldora Traykova. And, of course, more reviews of films would have given a fuller and more comprehensive idea of the body of work that is worth continuing to explore. Only then can the rough sketch turn into something that would resemble a picture. -DIna Lordanova