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June 27, 2022



Commentary: Romani actors play only primitive criminals in Czech tv serial

Prague, 8.11.2013 20:31, (ROMEA)
In the Czech Television serial
In the Czech Television serial "Sanitka 2", director Filip Renč is doing his best to depict the "traditional" motif of adultery and murderous revenge among Romani people. (PHOTO: Czech Television)

A few days ago, Lukáš Senft, a documentary filmmaker and student at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, published an open letter to screenwriter Ivan Hubač and director Filip Renč, the creators of the tv serial "Sanitka 2", which is known to everyone from the time of the previous regime. In his letter, the author criticizes primarily the eighth episode of the serial and its depiction of the Romani minority as a dangerous, foreign, and incomprehensible group. 

The media took up this critique and asked the producers for their opinion. Renč rejects the charges and stands by his product.   

I have watched the eighth episode, or rather the Romani scene in it, more than once to be sure of what I was seeing. In the episode, two young Romani men have robbed a visually impaired lady, and her husband tracks them to a building where Romani people live. 

In the courtyard of this building a two-meter high bonfire is blazing away and the residents are sitting around it singing what is perhaps the only Romani song the television viewers might recognize, "O postará Avella" ("Old Avella" - does anyone sing this anymore?). The scene culminates in the punishment of the Romani boys by the Romani vajda (or chief), who is depicted, of course, wearing a hat and a gold chain around his neck, and who beats them bloody with a water hose. 

Indirectly, we learn something about the criminal morality of Romani people during this scene. They are not supposed to rob the blind.

What will the average viewer take away from this scene? That even though all "gypsies steal", there are unwritten laws which will be punished by some vajda when broken?

Filip Renč argues that Romani crime is a fact, implicitly admitting his own prejudices about this ethnic group and completely ignoring the inadequate context in which he has set this scene. In reality, bonfires and vajdas in hats are a thing of the past, but as we can see, stereotypes persist.

I went on to watch the other parts of "Sanitka 2" featuring Romani people. The director has done his best to depict the "traditional" motif of adultery and murderous revenge among Romani people (we encountered an almost identical depiction, for example, in Drahomíra Vihanová's film "Zpráva o putování studentů Petra a Jakuba") - and here, too, the viewer cannot avoid learning about the criminal past of the Romani protagonist.

However, what I consider the most interesting product - made by a different creative team - comes from the original "Sanitka" series. In one of those episodes we found ourselves at a Romani wedding complete with caravans, naked children, live music on a hammered dulcimer, and a Romani man stabbed to death and hidden in a barn.

All of these scenes depicting Romani people have something in common. They are an attempt to peek into the "culture" and life of a supposedly inscrutable, secretive ethnic minority.

Setting aside the superficial depiction of the characters, which is predetermined by the format of a tv serial for undemanding viewers, all we have to work with is its single-take direction and straightforward, undeveloped plot. Unfortunately, too few people will ever find out that this would-be ethnographic insight is not based on real life and represents nothing more than the erroneous notions of the creators of the serial themselves. 

Once again, this forces Romani people to defend themselves and explain that ordinarily they do not whip naked children with garden hoses or slit the throats of unfaithful wives. The fact is that in these scenes, Romani people are naively depicted as mere criminal elements with no morality, or with only a distorted form of it.

If we are expecting some sort of logical counter-balance to this, where positive figures as well as negative ones perform, we will wait in vain. To be a Romani television viewer means having this kind of production fobbed of on you all the time, including in Slovakia. 

Any attempt to defend humanity against the power of television and its distorted notions is a losing battle. However, we must recall that these Romani scenes would not exist without Romani actors. 

Today professional actors in "brownface" are no longer necessary, as there are enough obliging, talented Romani people here in Bohemia to play these roles. Unfortunately, too few of them consider what they are doing or want to know more about the characters and stories they will help to create. 

It is as if, tempted by a vision of personal benefit, these actors undo the efforts of all the others doing their best to refute the most common stereotypes about Romani people. Ultimately we witness that our Romani actors are the ones who are giving these prejudices a specific face.

On the one hand we talk about the distorted social image of Romani people, while on the other hand it escapes our attention that we ourselves are creating this image. Whether as actors, filmmakers or viewers, we are also involved. 

Renata Berkyová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Česká televize, Média, Racism, Seriály


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