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Color Complex: Romany in Film

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We can laugh patronizingly at the projected ignorance and innocence of native peoples who confronted anthropologists trying to take their photographs, afraid their souls would be stolen.

But in substance, the native people were right, even prophetic. The images of diverse people have been stolen by those who own the technology and the means of marketing those images for profit.

Movies were not the first to use racial stereotypes for amusement and profit. The Romany people, for one, have been the fodder of this image appropriation, misrepresentation, and commercialization long before film.  Johann Strauss's most popular operetta after Die Fledermaus, The Gypsy Baron, fantasizes a landowner returned from exile who marries a gypsy girl who is revealed as the daughter of a Turkish pasha and the rightful owner of a treasure. Then there is perhaps the most famous Romany heroine in opera, Carmen.

This romanticizing of the Romany people depicts them as exotic, overtly sexual, clairvoyant, and, at the same time, illicit and immoral. It turns them into objects and ostracizes them even further outside the social mainstream. They can't belong because they are the way they are, which is unlike us.

Many of Emir Kusturica's films ( Underground, Time of the Gypsies, Black Cat, White Cat) deal with the Romany culture and tradition in a humanistic, but very romanticized and ultimately unrealistic way. It's all drinking and song and dance, but if you have to work, it is easier to steal. Romany characters in Kusturica's films are happy children, put on this earth to play, outside the “serious” business of life of which white Europeans are capable.

Other Eastern European filmmakers—Aleksandr Petrovic in his I Even Met Happy Gypsies, a number of Hungarian filmmakers including Imgre Gyongyossy and Barnay Kabay—have tried to capture Romany life in a more socio-ethnographic way. The number of films with Romany characters or themes is astonishing: over 2500 have been made.

It fell to a Romany filmmaker Tony Gatlif to try to establish the Romany story in a first voice. Gatlif was born in Algeria and lives and works in France. He arrived in France empty handed, became a street kid, and spent time in juvenile correction homes. All of Gatlif's early films were largely set in the world of outcasts, were contemporary social dramas, passionate and angry.

The best of these films is The Princes, made in 1983.  The setting is a France you won't find on picture postcards: a no man's land of abandoned factories and housing projects, where people live in squalor. The family at the center of the film consists of Nara, in his thirties, who has renounced his wife because she has been taking birth control pills in secret. Zorka is their nine-year-old daughter and an elderly mother. Much of the power of The Princes comes from Gatlif's razor sharp depiction of a crazy world of people living in the margins: strangers, unemployed men, hoodlums, survivors. When Nara and the family are evicted, they take to the open road. It is Nara's mother, a determined, stubborn, resilient woman who is set on trying to find a lawyer who will put things right. In this sense, the bleak film becomes an affirmation. It is, in the words of one critic, “an act of love, a passionate [in] defending and describing the gypsy people with forceful eloquence."

Gatlif's biggest international success came ten years later, with Latcho Drom. The title means “safe journey” and the film is a road movie; it follows Romany groups from Rajahstan, Egypt, Turkey, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, France and Spain. There is no dialogue or narration—only song.

The astonishing aspect of Latcho Drom, and the other Gatlif films which followed, like Vengo, Exiles, Gadjo Dilo, and Mondo, is the way he opens our eyes to the rich diversity of Romany culture—its history, tradition, soul. Gatlif finds that soul in the nomadic culture of the Romany people as their caravans move from east to west over the course of an entire year. He concentrates on the elements: rain, wind, music, dance, fire, food, and on the Romany culture which has family, celebration and love at its core.

This is Milos Stehlik for Chicago Public Radio's Worldview.

Worldview film contributor Milos Stehlik is the director of Facets Multimedia.

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