On the treatment of Romani people + culture in Western Cinema
The portrayal of the Gypsy/Roma on screen in the West is emblematic of their elusiveness + indefinability. Stereotypes have perpetuated for over eighty years about who the Gypsies were and where they came from, but few could agree on said "stereotypes." Even today, filmmakers who attempt a more ethnographic narrative mapping reveal a discontinuity in the cultural penetrability of the Gypsy/Roma.
What they do tell us not only reflects the Gadje perception of Gypsy/Roma history and culture, but how the contradictory fragments (of this perception + translation) form a Rubik's cube of a particular history of the Gypsy/Roma --- one that like many others, has no true "beginning" and scatters out in a myriad of conflicting, impenetrable directions, encompassing communities and customs from India to Ireland/England to America.
It can be said that in all these films the Roma 'have the power.' If one looks from a certain critical angle, their marginal mysticism is never treated as blight or disease. Characters who profess this point of view in the films are never justified in their response. Instead it reveals a purity of ignorance --- a fear of the unknown that isn't burdened with the historical lineage that often complicates the discourse between the ruling majority and its minorities (as in the complicated film representations of Western European/Caucasian relations with the Black, Latino, Asian, and even Jewish communities).
In these films, whether heroes or villains, the Roma inevitably reign triumphant, and, even in compromising situations, never shed their identity. This is the most unique aspect of this particular diaspora of cinema, which, in the scope of global cinema, is relatively minor/marginal. Therefore, the multi-faceted depictions of the people have a greater character, a greater "truth" of humanity if you will, than other middleman minorities.
On the other hand, Gypsy depiction in the Western canon does carries an erotic exoticism, a stylized life force that, that is often frightening and/or grotesque. It has provided substantial 'metaphoric material' for over-ripe melodrama, yet even this fetishism does profess a certain liberty and freedom that is yearned and cherished by "settled" mainstream society. This is evidenced not only in the fictional Gypsies characters portrayed on screen, but performers of Gypsy background, include Rita Hayworth (originally Margarita Carmen Cansino), Freddie Prinze, and Bob Hoskins.
Films representing Romanies stretch far beyond the countries of Europe and North America, and include work from Egypt, Argentina, India, Iran, and other, and the Romanies have been appearing on the silver screen since the first days of cinema, but this paper focuses on the Western contemporary canon, which in itself offers a diverse and intriguingly befuddling map of the culture.
Accompanying this paper is a film montage that contrasts sound and images from a plethora of western sources with those of the sole filmmaker of Gypsy origin to have breached the "defined" international film consciousness, Tony Gatlif (born in Algeria) has. Gatlif's work is a complicated rebuttal of the ways narrative and the succeeding camera lens sees the Gypsy/Roma culture, and is explored in the concluding section of this essay.
Note: Unless otherwise indicated, all the quotes in truncated margins are by the films' creators.
Stereotype & Sexuality
Dina Iordanova offers this illuminating analysis in an issue of Framework, a cinema and media journal, dedicated to the Romanies and their cinematic representation:
"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 secret that are
out of reach, yet perpetually desirable for 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."
This perspective is no more prevalent than in the character of La Esmeralda in Victor Hugo's 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris (popularly known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame), which through the story of the gypsy Esmeralda, the deformed bell-ringer Quasimodo, and the fanatical priest Claude Frollo, converges in the extreme spires of Paris' famous cathedral mortal conflicts of religion and desire.
We all think we know this story, but subsequent adaptations have erased the vicious human capriciousness and cyclical tragedy at the core of Hugo's original gothic tragedy. There are no happy endings here. Esmeralda is hanged at the climax, and in a centuries later post-script, soldiers discover the skeleton of the hunchbacked bell-ringer in a mass grave, clutching another---likely the last thorn of obsession and possession that the 'dark passion' Esmeralda elicits.
What remains in the cinematic adaptations is the perpetual grotesquerie: the decay of flesh and spirit, the maddening tempestuousness of sexual longing, and the fervent psychological manipulation of religious fanaticisim. What is most often erased is the more troubling 'social commentary of the piece that centers around particular racial complications regarding Hugo's perspective of 'the other' (as detailed above by Iordanova)---- explicitly elucidated in the figure of Sister Gudule, a recluse who blames all gypsies for the kidnapping of her child sixteen years ago. That Hugo is fed by and perpetuates a long-standing stereotype is not as immediately surprising as the twisted metaphorical form this paranoid rupture induces. Quasimodo could be Gudule's "lost child," a phantasmal presence evoking the wandering, wronged spirits of Gypsy lore. In the novel's opening section he attempts to kidnap the luscious gypsy Esmeralda. When he is put on trial and flogged for the attempted kidnapping, Esmeralda has pity on him and brings a bowl of water to ease his suffering. Here, the noble Gypsy, sharing in suffering, is paraded about. We look at this double image and see the unmapped points of moral decay and sexual looseness wracking Western society, embodied in a gaudy dramatic costume of the Other.
This point is made even more pungent in the film adaptations, where on the teasing surface, Esmeralda may serve a less dangerously sexual purpose, more exotic window dressing, gussied up in bright, billowing colors and sashaying her hips in time to a tambourine shook beat --- but the imbedded in the image is roiling tempest of . The most recent translation, a 1997 television film that renders Frollo as a monk like sadomasochist who hasn't gone beyond the walls of Notre Dame in over a decade, Esmeralda is played with a childlike innocence, pet goat in tow, with a sensually physical 'looseness, ' by Salma Hayek, big busoms pinched tight under a dress that could very well have been a castaway from a fetish costume party.
To this very day we see this structure used as a basis for grand-guignol entertainment. Stephen King's Thinner, adapted for the screen by Tom Holland in 1996, places two avenging Gypsies side by side, a 150-year old King, who's face wrecked with cancer, and his granddaughter, a curvaceously lustful exotic. After the main character, an obese lawyer, finds himself caught in a quagmire of a Gypsy curse brought on by his acquittal in the vehicular manslaughter of the Gypsy man's daughter (and the woman's mother), the hysterical, cult-like fantasy of the Roma morphs into horror. The book and film treat the Gypsy as another langue-less bugaboo, akin to the gypsy werewolves of the classic Universal monster-movie franchise The Wolf-Man.
"EAST TO WEST AND ABROAD"
Cultural tradition and expansion
In Spain in the later part of the twentieth-century, Carlos Saura became one of his country's most prized filmmakers set about to disabuse the myth-like perceptions of 'the image' with a series of films reflecting on the political, social, and cultural history of the country, in particular a collaboration with choreographer and dancer Antonio Gades. This resulted in a series of cinematic adaptations of Gades' flamenco-infused adaptations of three unique theatrical forms --- drama, opera, and ballet. Their adaptation of Manuel de Falla's short gypsy ballet El Amor Brujo most directly acknowledged the Roma roots of the flamenco form, set in an itinerant gypsy village. In 1914, Falla's was commissioned by the renowned gypsy dancer Pastora Imperio to create a gitaneria (gypsy piece) scored for voice, actors, and chamber orchestra. After the failure of that initial endeavor, Falla transformed the work into a ballet for a full symphony orchestra, with three short songs for mezzo-soprano.
The film opens with not the opening but rather the closing of an (iron) curtain. The camera pulls back to reveal a soundstage where the closed 'secrets' of a society turned toward itself takes on a mystical aura. We see a gypsy wedding ritual from Grandola that spins into a modern electronic rumba, confusing time, place, and memory, and subtly elicits the intangible nature of the Gypsy culture, its rootless and complicated historicism. Using an unconventional format that acknowledges the presence of filmmaker and viewer, and offers wry commentary on this opera that recycles many of the narrative tropes of the Gypsy story:
"…passionate and self-destructive obsession; 'feast in time of plague'
attitude; astonishingly street-wise and strong-willed protagonists;
complex patriarchal power structure within extended families."
attitude; astonishingly street-wise and strong-willed protagonists;
complex patriarchal power structure within extended families."
The most well-known collaboration, Carmen, both acknowledges with fiery abandon and shears away the classical stereotypes of sexually-volatile Gypsy found in George Bizet's classic French opera. Carmen is a direct descendant of Esmerelda, except infused with a fiery man-slaying temper.
In Saura's unique adaptation, Gades plays a director/choreographer named 'Antonio' in rehearsals for a new Flamenco based version of Carmen, combining music from Bizet's opera with the original novel by Prosper Merimee. In his searches for a fresh new performer to embody the Carmen persona, he discovers in a dance class in Southern Spain the aptly named Carmen, an ambitious, sexy, feisty, and ill-experienced dancer who immediately obsesses Antonio. As the production progress, Antonio obsession with Carmen goes, and eerily begins to mirror the drama being performed in the rehearsal room.
This blurring of opera dramatics, art, process, and documentary follows the same pattern of the other Flamenco films Saura has made, stripping away the crude exoticism and revealing the rich struggle and potent physicality that breathes life to the dance form. Flamenco is a complicated form in which to enact, demanding not merely an understanding of its form and master of technique but deep-seeded embodiment of its spirit. It is a dance of persecution and triumph, descended from the hope, struggles, and pride of the Spanish Gypsys (Gitanos) against the wrath of religious and social inquisition in the 15th century, shortly after their migration West from Eastern Europe and (earlier) India.
"Passion is one of these elemental forces that act on life, like love, death, murder, jealousy---everything we find in the flamenco---beyond what the dance express. I wanted to create a synthesis of all that in the trilogy."
Gadjo / Marime
Iordanova continues his analysis of Gypsy narrative with the tropes of:
"mistrust to outsiders; coerced urbanization, 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."
The "handful" spoken of here might include a unique subset of albeit-tangential Gypsy films that feature the Irish gypsy clans of the Travelers (also called Tinkers), who are unique in their origins from the Roma that have their roots in India.
The English underworld comic-thriller Snatch revolves around a series of characters caught up in a number of illegal shams, but all of them are presented as incompetent boobs or ridiculously caricatured ethnic types --- there is the Russian arms dealer, the Jewish-American diamond cutter, black wannabe thug gansters, etc. etc. The most dignified and visually immaculate character is that of Mikey, a bare-knuckled Irish Traveller (derogatively referred to in the film as a Pikey) boxer played (often with torso bared), by American matinee idol Brad Pitt. Initially, Mikey and his extended family and their caravan camp is played for laughs, mostly revolving around the inteligibity of their speech. In her book Nan: The Life of an Irish Travelling Woman, Sharon Gmelch writes:
"…Travellers use a secret argot or cant known as Gammon.
It is used primarily to conceal meaning from outsiders, especially
during business transactions and in the presence of police. Most
Gammon utterances are terse and spoken so quickly that a
non-Traveller might conclude the words merely had been garbled."
But as the story progresses, Mikey and his caravan prove the most stealthy and ingenious in the elaborate one-up of business dealings and cons (which go hand in hand in the world of the film), eluding the domino effect of power and greed that brings everyone tumbling down. The offensive rat-a-tat of 'Pikey' that is used as a shorthand, sheds its casual bullying and becomes a mirror of the city thugs blindly presumptuous survival instincts. In this dog eat dog world, a crudely extreme blow-up of the real world we live in, the Gypsies elusive opportunism and communal sanctity upend the structure, one that tips on the brutal edict of every man for himself. This of course must be tied to a 'routine' that inevitably cannibalizes itself. The traveling set, taking progress and time one day after the other, offers a non-flashy recourse that the outside world covets even as it superficially despises.
The conflict of the travelers, both within the culture and from without is charted with in the dark, mystical journey of Into the West, an Irish film from 1992 that was promoted as a "family film," but reaches far and wide in its honest depiction of the Travellers. The narrative follows the two young sons of former King of the Travellers, Gabriel Byrne, who, after the death of his wife during the birth of his youngest son some years before, has settled his family down into Dublin's degradingly cramped Ballymun Council Flats. He is eager to erase his past and have the boys 'properly' educated, even as he himself falls hard into drink.
The film opens with the boys' Grandfather being followed by a mysterious white stallion from the sea to Dublin. The presence of this mystical creature, who the grandfather names Tír na nÓg (meaning "Land of Eternal Youth" in Irish Gaelic), fills the boys with dreams of becoming cowboys and returning to the land as Travellers. When the authorities take the horse away and sell it at auction to a show breeder, the boys steal the horse back and are carried by it out 'Into the West,' followed in tow by a police posse + a caravan of Travellers their father has enlisted in his own search. Instead of merely submerging (and subverting) its structural outline (as would most often be the case), this sweet, though complicated film breaks down with unflinching intent the "coerced urbanization, forced integration and imposed conversion away from semi-nomadic lifestyles," that Iordanova speaks of. It inevitably offers a particularly Gadje perception of the spiritual, moral crisis this unleashes in the Travellers, but nonetheless proffers a type of understanding not based in exoticism, but on universal, HUMAN crisis.
Something similar can be said to be happening In the American film Traveller, where Mark Wahlberg plays a young man who returns to rural North Carolina to bury his father, a man who abandoned his clan of travelers when he fell in love with a Gadje. At first rejected, he is plead for and taken under the wing of his cousin, the expert grifter Bokky (Bill Paxton), who apprentices him in his extended cons, even as he himself falls in love with an outsider, and dreams of a more "honest" life. Traveller can be called a country noir, extending out of a new, unique sub-cult of the depiction of Gypsy on screen. Here, their day-to-day existence and consummate presence is not an aspect of a larger picture, but the entire narrative itself. However, the film is first and foremost the work of craftsmen intent on storytelling rather than study. Thus, it uses (and often abuses) the travelers to focus on a transcendence of (Gypsy) 'fate' bred of a perceived in-direction. Like any outlaw western, this film looks with skepticism on community and tradition --- the Gypsies clan could stand in for any extended, rural community --- and sets up a curious double jeopardy of 'outlawness,' where, unfortunately, it is the 'law' of self-hate that gives way to a (personal) independence.
Loathing is the operative term of endearment in King of the Gypsies, an adaptation of Peter Maas supposed expose of the Gypsies in America, that was trolled out a laundry list of unverified facts that ended up portraying the gypsies as a fundamentally criminal people. Originally appearing in New York Magazine, this account of the Bimbo tribe told the story of an assimilationist gypsy boy who become the reluctant heir to the leadership of violently criminal "kingdom." In the book:
"The actions scenes include the kidnapping of a young gypsy girl who has been sold
into an intolerable marriage, a knife fight between the young leader and his loutish
father, and interminable charges and counter charges involving the gypsies with the
gadje (non-Gypsy) authorities. In a moment of rare insight, Maas concludes that all
this anarchic squabbling "this self-perpetuating, totally self-absorbing tension was
the glue that held the Rommany world together and apart from the rest of us."
It is obvious here that Maas was misled in many different directions by the Gypsies with whom he had supposedly established trust. For anyone with any insight into the Gypsy ethos, the iron curtain is revealed to the fact that Maas was being exploited just as much as he was exploiting the Gypsy. However, due to his critical cachet, Maas' 'control' of the information seduces an outsider perception already inclined to believe in the dangerous, criminal nature of nomadic clanmansip.
The 1978 film, featuring a who's who of Hollywood cataloging and play-acting the 'rituals' of the Gypsy in Maas' organized crime like fashion, offers, through its visual density, a lusher, more compassionate perspective. Taking a similar tact as the portrayal of the Italian-American community in the Godfather films, it gives universally urban resonance to the simultaneous interior/exterior conflicts, and winds up an epic coming of age --- albeit made exotic by the ritual of Gypsy.
Angelo, My Love (again by a gadje interlocuter, actor Robert Duvall), also features a veritable museum of the social rituals and religious customs of American Gypsies as detailed by Madeline Sway in Familiar Strangers: Gypsy Life in America, in particular their religious value system. The unsentimentally episodic film may be fictional, but like Gatlif's work (discussed below), it blurs the line between documentary and drama, myth and reality by having actual New York Gypsies play versions of themselves, including the title figure, a brash, street smart young boy named Angelo Evans. The film's ethnographic roundelay pivots around Angelo's relentless quest to regain possession of an ancestral family ring reserved for his future bride, that was stolen by sleazily disreputable fellow Gypsy Steve "Patalay" Tsigonoff.
We witness kris', weddings, pomonas, and the belief in spirits, but nothing feels so much like show or spectacle as it does in King of the Gypsies. The organic unpredictably, the film's defining essence, is transmitted entirely from the unabashed HONESTY of the real gypsies playing themselves and who have nothing to prove and nothing to gain from the process. Duvall is lucky enough to have been trusted to, in a sense, 'prey' upon this world, but despite the succubus like nature of the filmmaking apparatus, the Gypsies retained control, both of the shoot, and the final product, which, not surprisingly, in its (interior cultural) disposability, keeps them firmly in the position of 'power.' As the producer Gail Youngs said:
"…this isn't the kind of movie Gypsies would pay to see. They like big Hollywood action
films with a lot of sex and violence. They always wanted Bobby to introduce them to Al
Pacino, and my brother [John Savage], whom they considered a famous movie star."
"HANGING + FEELING":
GATLIFF & KUSTURICA - Migratory Patterns
In the Western critical sphere, the films of Emir Kusturica have come to represent a favored post-modern interpretation of the Romani people. Kusturica has only made two films that directly deal with the Romani, but his entire body of work and its absurd, pummeling force is often lumped together in a concept of 'Gypsy filmmaking,' crazy, sprawling, poetic, passionate, violent. Time of the Gypsies was filmed in a Gypsy community in Macedonia and is set in pre-Milosevic Yugoslavia, and is based on a newspaper article about the arrest of a group of Gypsy children who had illegally crossed the Yugoslav-Italian border. Political reality clashes with magical realism in dreams of increasing brevity, climaxing with a telekinetic act of revenge.
"If you're going to make a structure based on Gypsy life, you have to change
your form and explore with nonprofessionals the substance of that life."
Kusturica used a nonprofessional Gypsy cast for most of the principal parts, who speak almost entirely in the Romany language instead of in Serbo-Croatian. Reflecting the oral traditions of the Gypsies, many of whom were illiterate, the film is highly cacophonous, imbued with talk and music---indeed, with what Kusturica calls "an overproduction of speech and music."
This style was taken to ever more phantasmagoric heights with Kusturica 1999 film Black Cat, White Cat, where every character seems lifted from the art the Nazis would have deemed Degenerate Art. Using wide lenses and over-cranked action, guns, drugs, and ceremony are all one. But, like Time of the Gypsies, this is compassionate absurdism of the most life-beating order. Stretching towards all manner of non-narrative, roundabout tangents, speaks most directly to no beginning no end journey of the Gypsy --- Scattering, planting, and exploding identity in a myriad of directions.
Less well known, but directly counter-point to the cartoon landscape of Kusturica is the work of Tony Gatlif. He was born Michel Dahamni Gatlif in Algeria in 1948 to a Gypsy family with roots in Andalusia. In 1962, they family moved to Marseille, and later to Aix-en-Provence, where at age 14, Gatlif learned to read while interned in various reform schools. Wanting to be a painter, he hung around the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. Eventually he made his way there, first as an actor and then as a writer for theater and film.
"The poetry is there in life. I don't need to invent it."
Despite living and working in France, Gatlif returns time and again to his true origin – the Gypsy community – in a passionate quest of self-examination. His second feature film, La Terre au Ventre (1978), which references the Algeria War, and Les Princes (1982), are uncompromising descriptions of Gypsy life. His later works, including his biggest crossover successes, Latcho Drom (1993) and Gadjo Dilo (1997), are vivid songs of joy exulting the Romany culture with a focus on the vibrant traditional music that breathes life into the Romani people.
Gatlif's work is the odd intermingling of ethnographic musical study and operatic storytelling. This is most explicit in the films Latcho Drom and Vengo (2000). Drom is a travelogue of sorts that traces the Gypsies' winding, 1,000-year migration through song and dance from India through the bleak winters of Eastern Europe to the sun-laced vistas of Spain. the golden plains of Rajasthan to the quays of Istanbul, through bleak winters in Eastern Europe and on to the field of France and the sun-drenched hills of Spain.
"I wanted to make a film that the Roms [Gypsies] could be proud of, a film that
wouldn't make a sideshow of their misery. I wanted to write a song of praise to
this people I love…I felt that if people really got to know Gypsies, they would
lose their age-old prejudices: child kidnappers, chicken thieves…Who cares
about chickens anyway?"
The film's temporal structure evokes the seasonal, migratory pattern of the Romani, beginning in the summer and proceeding through the three seasons in successive order. There are no dates or narration as the film unfolds within three simultaneous time frames: the past thousand years, the span of a single year, and ninety-nine minutes---tthe length of the film itself. In the process it manages to convey a wealth of information about Gypsy history and current life without any didacticism. Apart from a few song lyrics and phrases of dialogue given minimal subtitles, it tends to do without words, relying mainly on images, music, and gestures---universal languages that, like Gypsy culture itself, traverse continents and centuries.
The film depicts with sensual beauty and hope, the Gypsy culture enduing despite harsh conditions and centuries of persecution. In a notable sequence, a woman who had survived Auschwitz, and has a tattooed numeral on her arm, sings a lament that she had composed while in the camp. This is striking for the fact that the extermination of Gypsies during the Holocaust has been a taboo subject in Roma society.
"It's because they never speak of the dead. If you say the name of a dead person,
it's blasphemy. It's as if you were calling them back to this world. When in fact
they're simply gone. Gypsies burn dead people's things. In the old days, if you
were a musician, they burned your instrument. They burned your trailer. They're
totally against memory. They don't like to talk about the past. They don't believe
in souvenirs or inheriting things after a person's death."
The Roma, Gatlif says, are hardly cinephiles, but in Slovakia, Albania, Romani, Poland, France, and Germany, cassettes of Latcho Drom are passed among families.
The characters in Vengo, a flamenco melodrama set in the whitewashed villages surrounding Seville (Gatlif returning to his familial roots, and picking up from the flamenco finale of Latcho Drom), are prone to excess and haunted by intimations of mortality. Caco (played by Antonio Casales), the head of a Gypsy clan in southern Spain, mourns his daughter's death and lavishes tenderness on Diego (Prestes Villasan Rodriguez), his physically handicapped nephew. Diego's father has fled to Morocco after killing a member of a rival clan. Shadowed by their threats of vengeance, Caco throws innumerable fiestas, where flamenco singers pour out their visceral laments and fiery praises.
"For a long time, I wanted to make a film about Andalusia, to seize the
soul of the region and its music. It's what they call duende – something
untouchable. And when you find it, it's stronger than grace."
Unlike in the films of Carlos Saura, flamenco in Vengo is not a staged performance but instead erupts organically in the characters' daily lives. Like Latcho Drom, it is historical celebration as much as trance-like dramatic possession, with each song evoking a different epoch in the music's development. In the film's opening, the ecstatic chants of a Sufi singer summon flamenco's multifaceted origins --- among both Gypsies as well as converted Muslims and Jews, all who sought refuge in remote Spanish villages during the centuries after the Inquisition.
"Flamenco was born from this mixture of the world's cultures.
It's the music of the ghettos, of defiance and sorrow."
Though Gatlif claims that Vengo (which can mean, "I come" or "I avenge" or "I'm here with purpose), unlike his other films, speaks about death, a taboo subject among the Roma, it is just as much about rebirth. It honors and elevates a marginalized culture in a contrary transference. It reveals hope and power that transcends the cinematic image.