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October 26, 2021



Jan Cina: I've appropriated the term "Gypsy" for myself, not to suit others

17.4.2017 7:38
Jan Cina (PHOTO:  Petr Zewlakk Vrabec)
Jan Cina (PHOTO: Petr Zewlakk Vrabec)

Even though JAN CINA (age 29) has recently never stopped appearing on either cinema screens, television or theater stages in the Czech Republic, he still made time to be interviewed by Romano voďi magazine. With his typically boyish, crisp diction, he told us how he zig-zags between alternative creations and commercial projects, what he believes about politically engaged art and how he perceives his own Romani identity.

Q: You began as a child moderator for the "Planeta Yo" program. What kind of children's entertainment did you grow up following? Were you the television type, or did you prefer to spend time outdoors?

A: What I recall from my childhod are the television programs "Magion" and "Vega", which were also set in outer space, and I really liked them. Otherwise, however, I spent roughly the same amount of time outdoors as I did watching television. Computers already existed then, but we didn't have one at home until I was about 11. I also spent a lot of time at my grandmother's, and she forced me to go outside. I think I had healthy dosages of it all.

Q: Did you like the Czech Television programming for children?

A: Until a certain age. Recently I was discussing with somebody that, for example, Dáda Patrasová's work has been re-run on television for several decades, so all children experience her as looking the same. I think "eternal" characters like that are very interesting somehow. Over time with "Planeta Yo" we found out that while the programs are designed for a certain age category, they were always regularly followed by younger children too. You always want to watch something that's meant for the older kids.

Q: I'd like to ask you about the episode of "Planeta Yo" that addresses the topic of refugees. There was a smaller scandal around that at the time, did you notice?

A: That didn't affect me, but it did affect my colleague Marie Doležalová, yes. The program is pre-recorded, and what's interesting is that it had been filmed prior to the summer when the topic of refugees appeared on the media landscape. Then suddenly the "boom" for that issue arrived, but the program was not broadcast until September, by which time the refugee crisis had become a considerably current event. Then, on this children's program, made by the public broadcaster, the topic appeared of some people who are living on a planet in the universe where they can't stay anymore, so we aid them and provide them shelter on Planet Yo. The episode was child-appropriate, logical, nice, and simple. The suddenty a big wave of racism arose in response to it. I remember that Marie was very badly off as a result. The material had been written for her by the screenwriter - she wasn't representing her personal views -  but she took it even worse because in her wildest dreams it never would have occurred to her that she would get hate mail from people because of children's program set on this fictional Planet Yo.

Q: I take it that you do believe children should also become familiar with this topic in an appropriate way? 

A: Certainly. The more, the better. Ideally, it should be without emotion and personal bias. Each of us should form his or her own opinion.

Q: I'm going to stick with scandals and ask you about another one. You played one of the roles in the film "Smradi" (Brats) which was based on the novel by Tereza Boučková. Have you read her books on the topic of adopting Romani children? What is your opinion of them?

A: I have not read those books - I believe my mother did at the time. I know that during filming Ms Boučková was addressing problems with her adopted sons, with whom we also met during the filming. By the time we were sitting together at the premiere the boys had already left, either during the filming or a little bit afterward. It was in phases, they would disappear and then come back. I don't know whether she told us or somebody else did, but allegedly it was because they were children who first grew up in a children's home, who had never known love, and who don't know how to handle it. They couldn't deal with the situation, it wasn't about their being Romani or not. It's probably no secret that Lukáš Rejsek, who played the middle son in the film, was in foster care himself. We were in contact with his family, we liked each other, and I ran into his sister again after many years of not seeing them, and she told me that the same thing has happened to them:  Lukáš is no longer with them, he left, it "didn't take".

Q: Boučková never made that kind of argument, though. She and her husband said their experience showed that nurture played only a minimal role in the children's development. "I came to the conclusion that when a person is set up differently to begin with, nurture is completely insignificant," she asserted in one interview. When you took the role in "Brats" you were still a child yourself, but hypothetically - would you now, as an adult, have a problem with taking a role in such a project if it were to somehow collide with your moral convictions?

A: As an adult I have not yet been aware of being faced with any such decision, so I don't know. I guess I would want to take time to think about it. It's actually quite a theoretical question. Apart from ethical dilemmas, however, one does sometimes reflect on whether to go into something in the first place that is, let's say, "commercial". It depends on one's age and what position one is currently in. I think that if at the beginning of one's career one decides just according to what one actually wants, that is a good and honorable thing, but one probably complicates one's starting position and might not ultimately get to do anything at all, or not even get the opportunity to try. I believe it's good to at least try something out so that one can then decide, precisely on the basis of one's own experience, what suits one and what doesn't.

Q: You mention hesitations in the context of commercial projects. Last year, besides the "art" television series "Pustina", you also appeared in a big entertainment show. Did you debate participating in that, or whether the form of it was within the limits of your own taste?

A: I did debate it, for a long time, because I got the offer to collaborate already during the first series of that competition show. I had to answer exactly the question you raise. I kept asking myself what I thought of the show. When the first series of the Czech version came out, of course, I was enticed by the fact that I envied the performers, that I wanted to try a lot of what they were doing myself.

Q: Were you eventually satisfied with the outcome?

A: Basically yes. The biggest benefit of the project, for me, flows from the fact that I have discovered a lot of things about myself - how I "function" compared to others, what I have to pay attention to, what comes easily and what I have to change. I took it as a question of personal growth.

Q: Will you give me an example of what you have observed?

A: You're quite correct to ask - I keep speaking in generalities here. Let me think a bit... I guess I began to think about things more systematically. I was back then, as they say, "the king of procrastination", but the stress of that tapped me out. I learned to arrange my work according to certain hours and to prescribe myself relaxation also.

Q: In the show we are discussing the director Jakub Kohák served on the jury at one point. There was a smaller incident during the first series in connection with what he intended to be humorous allusions to stereotypes about Romani people and stealing. What was your stance on that?

A: Yes! That was precisely one of those matters... Although I don't know to what degree we can address this through the media or to what degree it's an internal matter for the show's producers, I'll attempt to discuss it in a roundabout way. I insisted on that as a condition. I made it clear that I was bothered by those kinds of jokes. The producers were aware of that. I don't see into the details of how the programs are prepared, but it is certain that the final form is a question of editing, given that the program is pre-recorded. For such places it is, therefore, the decision of the director or editor whether a moment will remain in the broadcast. I decidedly perceived that as bad, it did not seem funny to me at all.

Q: Did you have an opportunity to discuss that with Kohák directly?

A: Basically not much. The dividing line betwen the jury and the performers was maintained rather strictly there. There are rules prescribed directly for that. We did not have much contact with the jury, therefore, and as a colleague the only juror I know is Iva Pazderková. The jury just comes for the filming and even have their own dressing room. In any event, it would certainly have been possible to discuss it with him, but I didn't pursue it, as they say, I didn't seek him out, it's true. It's a good reason to ask him about it sometime in the future, so thanks for the impulse.

Q: Do you speak Romanes? Do you understand it passively?

A: I don't and even my Dad speaks it very badly. Grandma and Grandpa used it in front of us grandkids as a secret language. They would tell each other in Romanes whatever they didn't want us to hear, but they spoke Czech with us. One cousin of mine was involved with Romani Studies, but I think she's not actively focused on that anymore.

Q: Have you yourself ever considered whether you might read up on it? Have you ever been tempted by more academic knowledge, or does Romani Studies as a topic just pass you by?

A: That's a topic for a longer conversation, but essentially our family is based on four siblings, three of whom married non-Romani women, so the ethnic ties in our family, therefore, are 50-50. They are mainly awakened in me whenever I'm together with other Romani people. Suddenly I say to myself:  Well, yeah! I'm exactly like that! Our entire family once made a trip to visit our grandparents' home town in Slovakia - unfortunately I couldn't go, which I really regretted. I would like to correct that, because our relatives live there - not directly in a settlement, it's more like a Romani village. Moreover, I grew up with the music of Ida Kelarová, and a plan has been growing in my mind for a long time to connect with her, to begin some kind of collaboration with her, or at least to meet her. Ideally, naturally, we would sing together.

Q: What does being Romani mean to you? How do you identify with it?

A: That's a good question and I will probably not manage to give you an absolutely satisfactory answer. It has to do with details. Strong moments - for example, when we were with our other Romani friends at the KHAMORO festival. Suddenly I became aware that we were dancing up a storm there, and at that moment, simply put, I "felt" it. Or I was in San Francisco during the summer, and we went to a flea market, and they were selling bracelets there, and I saw one inscribed with "Gypsy", and at that moment, I felt I just had to have it. That might seem like a pose - "Well, yeah, the guy bought himself a little Gypsy bracelet, so what?" - but for me it was an important item and getting it was in accordance with the rules I have created for myself, with my world. I have tagged myself with that term, but for myself, not to parade in front of others. Or when we were at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, where we were doing a project with a German theater school, and when we were introducing ourselves, I suddenly became aware that in that international environment I was automatically going so far as to mark myself to everybody else as "half-Gypsy", it was important for me to say it. I startled my own self when I did that - "Aha, so that's how it is for me?"

Q: You're saying "Gypsy". Recently I spoke with some young Romani college students about how they intuitively perceive the nuances between the terms "Gypsy" ("Cigán", "Cikán") and "Rom". How do you perceive the nuances?

A: Quite differently. I'd be interested to know whether in other languages there is also such a difference between these kinds of markers. I think that most of the non-Romani society here uses "Rom" to be polite and "Cigán", "Cikán" to be impolite. I use terms like "Romák" (Roma guy) or "Cigoš" (Gypsy guy) and I perceive them to be absolutely positive, like the international term "Gypsy". That seems precise somehow, and interesting for everybody involved.

Q: You don't "look Romani", as they say - which is a criterion according to which other people frequently determine who is and is not Romani. That means you could absolutely avoid this association...

A: With my new popularity, what is interesting for everbody is that on the one hand I have a boyfriend, and on the other hand I am half-Romani. It's interesting that they do not find my ethnicity as interesting as my sexuality, and that is "interesting" in and of itself.

Q: Do you think sexual orientation sparks greater interest in our society?

A: Yes, it appears to be a much more spectacular subject. I've already spoken openly about my orientation in some interviews, I've done my best to explain that neither that nor my ethnic origin are my "main topics". I don't feel that I am interesting because of either, these aspects of my personality seem absolutely normal to me. However, now that we're talking, I'm realizing that it might make sense to discuss these identities for those who are in similar situations. For that reason, also, I've basically begun to express myself more publicly on these topics. Maybe my experience can aid somebody else, or assist others in overcoming their prejudices.

Q: That leads me to a question that has long been raised in connectoin with art:  Is art politically engaged, must it be, or does it stand apart from any moral and/or political categories?

A: I see a problem with the category of "engaged art" itself. That's basically a rather general concept and there are many ways to be engaged, or to engage somebody else, or to allow yourself to become engaged. Ultimately, this is always a question that particular figures decide for themselves. There's a difference between how one thinks about things and what one does. It's difficult... I'll try to give an example from acting, simplistically. Meryl Streep, for example, in the film "Florence Foster Jenkins", plays a singer who is tone deaf, but who does good works despite that, and there too we find an example of being engaged. It could be called "Let's do crazy things and live fully" - a kind of artistic, general engagement or mission. So here we have the actress Meryl Streep at the Golden Globes, and speaking for herself, she gave an anti-Trump speech. Then the wave of criticism arose: "Well, yeah, those actors, there they go again with their bullshitting." Or the singer Lucie Bílá. Many people have the feeling that what she says is generally valid, but she's just a singer who has some convictions of her own. That does not mean, however, that we have to follow her convictions also. If I were to view this from my own position as an actor, then while I frequently do get room to express my own opinions, I also just spend some of my time as a "talking head" saying what has been written in a script.

Q: What If I were to reduce this, for example, to the question of the former "regime actors", the people who performed during the dictatorship and had no qualms about the morality of that?

A: I will probably not be able to answer that. Now everybody's talking about the television series "Bohéma" (La bohème), where the interesting characters are addressing a similar dilemma. I can distinguish these scenarios like this, I guess: One does some things as an author, representing oneself - for example, an actor in a production he has written and through which he wants to communicate something. Then there are moments like the one in which the one-time actor Štěpánek ended up - in that series he's depicted as a person who assessed the situation as being such that it would be better to bow to pressure so his family would not be harmed, for example. At the same time, however, he was able to damage many other people by doing that. I know I'm not answering your question, but basically I want to say that while it is difficult, I believe people do make conscious decisions, and not only can you communicate something through art, maybe you can even change it, or attempt to.

Q: Do you believe that if you were a "visibly discernable" Romani person, somebody with darker skin, that it would alter your situation?

A: I'm unable to say and I firmly hope that it would not.

Q: Do you follow any other Romani figures? You had a very successful uncle, Emil Cina, the Romani author... Have you read his work?

A: As I said, I follow Ida Kelarová, for example. Also the journalist and moderator Tomáš Bystrý, his career and his path. As far as my own family goes, specifically my uncle, Emil Cina, whenever I used to play Scrabbel, I loved using the name "CINA" as a permitted example of a famous personality. I was always proud that he was my uncle. I've not read his work, but he used to come to our family parties, and everything that is written down in those books is what he related to us in person, as a storyteller. Otherwise he basically didn't speak - just in stories. Whenever he arrived, we always had fun for several hours. The moment he came in, all of the children ran to him and listened attentively.

Q: A young person with your popularity has a unique opportunity to send your own "messages" to your generation. Do you have the ambition to do so from your current position, to lobby for something?

A: I do have that ambition, but at the same time I have the feeling that I must first formulate for myself what it should be. I am 28 years old and it seems to me that I'm still fumbling a bit. Already, though, I can sense what I want and what I don't want. I am thinking more and more about what I would actually like to be considered as doing. I'm in the phase of mapping myself, we'll see where I end up. These Romani matters, however, are certainly one of the things I would like to somehow be involved with - I just don't precisely know how yet.

This interview was originally written for the print edition of the monthly Romano voďi (March 2017). You can order the magazine (in Czech only) through the easy-to-use online form at

Adéla Gálová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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