Stephanie Dennison, Lúcia Nagib and Lisa Shaw
Interior Dialogue in the Work of T. G. Alea
Sexuality and Space in Jorge Fons' El callejón de los milagros
Women of the Waterfront in River Plate Cinema: Jana Bokova's Harbour
Tamara L. Falicov
Los hijos de Menem: the New Independent Argentine Cinema, 1995-1999
Interview with Four Argentinian Filmmakers: Lucrecia Martel, Pablo Reyero, Daniel Burman and Pablo Trapero
The Brazilian Chanchada and Hollywood Paradigms (1930-1959)
A Carioca Belle de jour: A dama do lotação and Brazilian Sexuality
Black Orpheus in Color
Politics of Representation: Television in a São Paulo Favela
Decolonizing the Frame: Indigenous Video in the Andes
The point of departure for this issue was the ‘Latin-American Cinema: Theory and Praxis’ conference that took place at the University of Leeds, England, in June 1999, with the support of the University and the British Academy. This conference was significant as an indicator of the importance Latin-American cinema has been acquiring within Film Studies in the United Kingdom. Indeed, in her report on the conference forScreen, Andrea Noble (2000, 238) states that the fact ‘that Latin-American cinema is now able to sustain its own conference circuit... would seem to suggest that it is on the up and up in the UK.’
This phenomenon, noticeable in other parts of the world as well as in Britain, is certainly connected to the ‘cinematic revivals’ that took place almost simultaneously, from the mid 1990s onwards, in Latin-American countries, notably in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. These revivals occurred for different reasons in different places. These included the film school boom in Argentina (well explained in Tamara Falicov’s article), a new law creating fiscal incentives for films in Brazil, and the privatization of film financing in Mexico. In all three countries, however, the revival in film production had to do with socio-political changes that brought ‘democratic’ (and neoliberal) governments to power. It is common knowledge that neoliberalism has been harmful to Third World countries, deepening the chasm between rich and poor and crushing local cultures (an issue on which Freya Schiwy elaborates extensively in her article). Yet the economic reforms that took place in the 1990s in several Latin-American countries provided young filmmakers with the (often illusory and ephemeral) feeling of belonging to a global community, in which their films could be placed on equal terms, if not with mainstream American film, at least with European art cinema.
Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of new Latin-American film production is the absence of an inferiority complex towards American and European productions (in the past, often expressed by clumsy imitations of mainstream Hollywood cinema), and even of that sense of injustice that gave rise to the most celebrated theories of Latin-American film history: Glauber Rocha’s ‘Aesthetics of Hunger,’ García Espinosa’s ‘Imperfect Cinema,’ and Solanas’s and Getino’s ‘Third Cinema.’ In the 1960s, Latin-American filmmakers were in tune with one another, in their anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist stances, as they are now in their belief in the relevance of their own cultural characteristics to the international scene. Some of them even feel free to go to Hollywood, to make commercial movies there, only to return home and make films according to other, more independent and auteurist imperatives. This is the case, for example, with Guillermo del Toro, who recently declared that ‘if I want to make big, flashy movies, I’ll make them in Hollywood. If I want to do something more exotic and personal, then I’ll go home to Mexico’ (Brooks 2002, 4).
True enough, Latin-American films are far from having conquered the market and only a few of them, despite the increasing production figures, manage to break through the hegemony of Hollywood and be distributed internationally. But undeniably the Latin-American audio-visual presence is increasing in North America and in Europe, especially in Spain and France (often their co-producers), on TV, at film festivals and on commercial cinema screens.
This said, it is necessary to address the concept of a ‘Latin-American cinema’ itself. John King, in his groundbreaking history of cinema in Latin America, already struggled with the difficulty of classifying ‘such a wide-ranging and amorphous subject as Latin-American cinema’ (King 1990, 1). Indeed, any attempt at an all-encompassing overview is doomed to failure. ‘Latin-American cinema’ is itself an abstraction, for it stems from many diverse countries, with a total population of over 450 million and with widely different histories and cultures. This is why the conference in Leeds, despite its pioneering relevance, was unpretentious and necessarily gave prominence to certain regions and themes at the expense of others.
This issue gathers together selected papers from the Leeds conference, to which others have been added, that discuss the audio-visual production of a number of Latin-American countries. As at the conference, justice has been done to Brazilian cinema, which ‘tended to be a neglected area in terms of both conferences and publications’ (Noble 2000, 238), perhaps because it is the only Portuguese-speaking country in the Americas. Unavoidably, in this issue, the privileged countries are the ones which have, or had in the past, an influential film industry, such as Argentina and Brazil, to which a good number of the articles are devoted. Cuba and Mexico are featured for the same reason. The Andes – particularly Bolivia – are represented by an in-depth study of video production in the region. Unfortunately, because of lack of space in the face of the vastness of the subject, other countries with exciting audio-visual production and recent hit films, such as Chile and Peru, were left aside – and we hope that a second Framework issue on Latin-American film and media will soon fill this gap.
The approaches of the papers are varied, but a significant trait unifies all of them: the historical method, derived in its substance from cultural studies, through which context is appreciated as much as text and cinema is seen as a multidisciplinary medium closely connected with social change. Questions of sexuality and ethnicity are, in this sense, an obvious presence in several articles, even when they are not the main focus. As a result of this historical approach, the boundaries of national identities expand to encompass the modern nature of the moving image, which is always part of a global system of circulation and is in constant dialogue with other images across the world.
Michael Chanan’s article on Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, based on an interview with the Cuban film director, is exemplary in that sense. Chanan intertwines Alea’s cinematic career, film by film, with Cuban political history. At the same time, based on Derrida’s ideas about the politics of friendship, he shows how Alea, with all his auteurist and Cuban profile, was, in each phase, under the spell of foreign films and filmmakers. First, it was the Glauber Rocha of Deus e o diabo na terra do sol/Black God, White Devil (Brazil, 1964), then Antonioni and Resnais, and later even Hollywood’s ‘anarchic’ comedians, such as Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers and Jerry Lewis, who had already been assimilated in the past by traditional Cuban comedies. According to Chanan, Alea’s ‘turning away from neo-realism to acknowledge that Hollywood is also part of Cuban film culture’ is ‘an affirmation that such anarchism is also revolutionary.’
Chanan proceeds to describe how the fight against the isolation Cubans have been subjected to is a key feature of Alea’s oeuvre as a whole. ‘Isolation,’ says Alea to the author, ‘produces involution, and the isolation that we witness within a bourgeois family [in the film Los sobrevivientes/The Survivors, Cuba, 1979] can also be translated into the isolation suffered by the whole country, which is condemned to involution to the extent that it cannot find a way back into contact with the rest of the world.’
Andrea Noble’s study of Jorge Fons’ El callejón de los milagros/Midaq Alley (Mexico, 1994) provides another Latin-American example of the international circulation of signs and meanings. The film is an adaptation of Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz’s novel Bayn al-Qasrayn. Noble praises scriptwriter Vicente Leñero’s extraordinary skills at transporting a street of central Cairo, with all its peculiarities, to the heart of Mexico City. However, she argues that the film’s huge success is owed in equal measure to the fact that the subject of prostitution and homosexuality found resonance both in Mexican traditional cinematic melodrama and in current social reality. In her conclusion, which draws from Octavio Paz’s ideas on the dialectics of the ‘closed’ (the male body) and the ‘open’ (the female body), Noble echoes Alea’s rejection of isolation, stating that El callejón ‘is linked to the intense ideological crises that convulsed Mexico in the 1990s and turns precisely on the possibility of apertura[opening].’
Rob Rix’s analysis of Harbour (2000) is another accomplished example of a cross-cultural approach. The film, an adaptation of a Julio Cortázar short story, was made by Czech director Jana Bokova, in Argentina, with an Argentina/Spain/France co-production. Rix’s article evolves via a stroll through Argentine and Mexican film histories, connecting both through the prominent figure of the prostitute or the cabaretera tradition. Nevertheless, as the author insists, the film, a late 1990s’ Argentine co-production with Spain, cannot be analysed from the perspective of a national cinema industry of the 1930s or 1940s. For him, ‘the film and its characters live in the hybrid space of what could be termed an international art cinema.’ ‘As a hybrid product,’ he continues, ‘combining Czech, British, Spanish and Argentine nationals in its direction, cast and crew, Harbour itself reproduces Cortázar’s cosmopolitanism and its consequent problematic.’
Tamara Falicov’s wide-ranging overview of what she calls ‘The New Independent Argentine Cinema’ also points to the desire for integration on the part of young Argentine filmmakers. Although made with very low budgets, the new films are showing a surprising vocation for commercial success, both at home and abroad. One of the reasons for this, according to the author, is that they are developing a ‘realism that exposed a side of Argentina that most medium-budget, middle-class dramas had not.’ Complementing her study, Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles, known worldwide for his award-winning Central do Brasil/Central Station (Brazil, 1998), and certainly the most ‘international’ among contemporary Brazilian film directors, interviews four new Argentinian directors: Lucrecia Martel, Pablo Reyero, Daniel Burman and Pablo Trapero.
Salles is now on a similar mission to that which once stimulated Glauber Rocha’s pan-American dream. His current project, another of his road-movies, is a biography of Che Guevara, based on Guevara’s book Diarios de motocicleta: un viaje alrededor de Sur America (Motorcycle Diaries: A Trip around South America), and will be shot in Argentina, Peru and Chile. During the preparation work for his film, Salles interviewed the Argentinian directors in Buenos Aires. In their statements, independence is indeed their main concern, as echoed in Noble’s article. However, a new sense of belonging seems to be connecting them to their Latin-American colleagues, if not for political reasons as happened in the past, then out of common interests in being integrated into the international market. As Daniel Burman puts it, when asked about the international success of Mexican films such as Amores perros and Y tu mamá tambíén: ‘...their greatest value is that they blaze a trail for others to follow. They are reference points, ...that make it a lot easier for you when you want to propose a new project. For this reason, there is an element of solidarity inherent in cinema, a type of involuntary solidarity. Mundo grua [Crane World] (Pablo Trapero, Argentina, 1999) opened doors everywhere. Amores perros and Y tu mamá también showed the Anglophone world that films like these could make it beyond press reviews and film festivals.’
Lisa Shaw’s study of the chanchada, the Brazilian musical comedies of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, embraces the historical method to describe the international exchanges that took place in the most successful period of Brazilian popular cinema. Following a careful analysis of Brazilian film and political history, Shaw argues that Hollywood paradigms, including the stereotype of exoticism represented by Latin-American beauties in American musicals, were imitated in a parodic manner as a way of ‘questioning Brazil’s place in the world, particularly in relation to the USA,’ and that ‘the overturning of established hierarchies of authority and power on screen represented a more adequate use of the carnival metaphor as a means to contest the USA’s cultural and economic might.’
The motif of ‘opening’ (or, in the Brazilian case, abertura) returns in Stephanie Dennison’s analysis of Neville d’Almeida’s A dama do lotação/Lady on the Bus (Brazil, 1978). Here, the term refers more specifically to politics, to the period when Brazil was slowly coming out of the repressive years of military dictatorship. Sexuality was then flourishing in popular cinema, in a genre called the pornochanchada, with which d’Almeida’s film can be partly associated. The film’s particular interest in this context, according to Dennison, is its ambiguity towards traditional patriarchal sexual myths. Here, again, a cross-cultural approach – a comparison between A dama do lotação and Buñuel’s Belle de jour (France/Italy, 1966) – is the main framework for the analysis. The cold and ordered world inhabited by Catherine Deneuve’s character, Séverine, in the latter, could not contrast more sharply with the sexually charged, chaotic Rio de Janeiro that is home to Sônia Braga’s character, Solange, in d’Almeida’s film.
Lúcia Nagib’s study of Carlos Diegues’s Orfeu (Brazil, 1999) offers a panorama of how a given subject, in this case the black population of Rio’sfavelas (slums) and their music, has been viewed through different perspectives during the course of film history. Diegues’s film is in fact a reinterpretation of Vinícius de Moraes’s theater play that gave rise to Orfeu negro/Black Orpheus (Marcel Camus, France/Italy, 1958), ‘which made Brazil known worldwide as a black musical country.’ It is also a re-reading of a time when it was fashionable in the arts to compare Africans and their descendants with Greek myths in order to raise them to a higher, spiritual plane. In his film, Diegues combines mythology, the foreigner’s gaze at Brazil and elements of Brazilian film, theater and music history, in order to paint a realistic portrait of today’s favelas, still with their musical and cultural richness, but dominated by drug dealing and violence.
The two last articles provide complementary perspectives on Latin-American audio-visual production, and discuss television and video respectively. Esther Hamburger details her fieldwork in a São Paulo favela, where it became clear that television, and above all telenovelas(soap operas), are the main cultural references for the poor population of the country. The figures she quotes show how important television sets are (nearly 90 per cent of the population own one), in comparison, for instance, with washing machines, available to a minority of the favelainhabitants. She then elaborates on how TV functions as a provider of patterns of behavior.
Closing the issue, Freya Schiwy’s article is a detailed study of indigenous video production in the Andes. Basing her arguments on a rejection of neoliberalism and colonial legacies, she lucidly illustrates how indigenous videos in Bolivia, ‘achieve a decolonization of audio-visual technology by “indianizing” the medium’. On the part of the videomakers, it is again a question of belonging and of involvement in a national and international context.
The articles collected here, that cannot but be a small, fragmentary sample of Latin-American audio-visual production, try to answer precisely the difficult question of how this rich but peripheral art form manages to survive in such a merciless, globalized world.
- Stephanie Dennison, Lúcia Nagib and Lisa Shaw
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