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September 29, 2022

 

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The Roma in Czech film

Prague, 25.3.2014 4:29, (Romano Voďi)
The poster for the film
The poster for the film "Marian" ((Aleš Najbrt).

In the first double issue this year of the monthly Romano voďi we have prepared a three-part series for you on the topic of foreigners and minorities in film and television. In these three articles about various countries - the Czech Republic, Germany, and the USA - the authors discuss film and television productions and touch on the depiction of Romani people in literature as well.

Part One:  The Roma in Czech film

The world of film is based on heroes and villains. Thanks to its unreal impact on millions of fans, it continues to "produce" ever-newer bulletproof men and long-legged superwomen, as well as intelligent works of art that have changed perceptions about women in their thirties, about the lives of gay people, and about the millions of national minorities that live everywhere around the world.

While the world has already come to recognize heroes who are African-American, Latin American, and those from impoverished India, for the time being there are no Romani heroes among them. We are still waiting for the Romani  "Slumdog Millionaire" or "Winnetou". 

The Romani hero-to-come probably won't be traditionally dressed - or maybe will take birth as cartoon character, who knows? How long it will take is hard to say.

While in Germany television producers managed to quickly respond to the societal "problem" of coexistence between Germans and the Turkish minority with  their "Cobra" series, which portrays the working environment of the German highway patrol including a "positive" Turkish character (Simir), in the Czech Republic we still don't know how to do this. There are some efforts underway here, some of which have even been successful, but unfortunately there have been more blunders than bull's-eyes.

Be that as it may, the Czech Republic can take pride in some very good efforts, although they have all been for the silver screen. A film like "Marián" from director Petr Václav is a genuinely deep (almost sociological) survey of the lives of children of Romani origin growing up in orphanages.

Getting back to the unreal power of film to give birth to new symbols and destroy old ones, to replace execration and repulsion with compassion and enchantment: When it comes to developing Romani characters, or how to involve Romani people in general in film or television, we really don't know much about how to do that here. We are grateful for every attempt that is not as horrible as the new episodes of the Czech Television serial that once had only a cult following, "Ambulance" (Sanitka).  

In the Czech film and TV productions reviewed below we recall both the good and the bad experiments we have seen. What we are mainly hoping to see is the birth of a Bill Cosby in the Czech context!

"Indián a sestřička" (The Indian and the Nurse)

This is an interesting effort overall, by a director who is himself partially of Polish origin, to produce a film about two young people seeking their identities and about society's deprecatory, simplifying view of them. Director and producer Wlodarczyk must be praised for his good and honest attempt at consultation with Romani people themselves during the making of the film.   

The film tells us the story of Franta, who loves nature, is an "Indian" in his soul, and spends his free time wandering around the Šumava forest with his friends. Suddenly, a Romani woman named Marie enters his life, who works (going against type) as a nurse. 

Their relationship, however, is problematic from the start and is not accepted by either side. Will love manage to overcome the contempt, prejudice, and mainly the unwillingness of the inhabitants of what was previously a peaceful small town to tolerate the nonconformity of the young heroes? 

The film does not endeavor to objectively evaluate relations between the Czech majority and Romani minority. Rather, it tells a civilly-elaborated, gripping, unique story about love between an unbalanced guy and a self-assured woman. (Dan Wlodarczyk, 2006)    

"Marian"

I personally consider this to be the best film yet made on this topic. Petr Václav's honest approach and preparations, his effort to understand the environment he was portraying, his cinematic talent and his great ambition to probe beneath the surface and offer a genuinely deep film all paid off.

This is all enhanced by the brilliant cinematography and editing, which tell the story of Marian, who has been given what is most necessary by society:  Basic hygienic habits, a bed, food, and a roof over his head. He receives this all in an orphanage, or better said in orphanages, because starting as a toddler the course of his life takes him through many different ones.

The film chillingly captures what the absence of affection, love, and understanding can do to someone. During his entire life, Marian only ever meets two people who care about him, and he loses them both.  

The protagonist stumbles through his life surrounded by a hostile, indifferent world. He desperately tries to defend himself, but in his quest keeps falling lower and lower, until life itself does not mean anything to him.

The film was made at a time when the pogroms and incidents racial unrest targeting Romani people were beginning to grow in numbers. This is basically the first time that the topic of racial discrimination has taken such form in Czech film. (Petr Václav, 1996, Czech Republic / France).

"Oběti: Jiný člověk" (Victims:  Someone Else)

Every year Czech Television produces another episode in its ongoing cycle called OBĚTI ("VICTIMS"), with dramaturgy by Bedřich Ludvík. The project is subtitled "people affected by crime". 

Previous episodes have been entitled Přepadení (Muggings), Znásilnění (Rape), Svědek (Eyewitness), etc. In 2003 (and again this year) the central story of one these episodes has been about a "mixed" family - a Czech-Roma marriage. 

The producers have done their best, through the stories of these families, to reach out to the majority population so that for at least a moment they might feel what a member of a minority feels. The stories shows how divisions based on ethnicity and race force people into situations that are insoluble.

The 2003 episode is an interesting experiment which on the one hand brilliantly breaks down several stereotypes during the first half of the film, offering an interesting plot twist when the son of the main hero, who is Romani, joins a group of neo-Nazis in defiance of his identity and of how his ethnic origins are perceived by those around him, a decision that ultimately costs him his life. The ending of the episode, of course, strangely nullifies the conviction that one actually can do something about one's ancestry and roots, so by the end of the film we see a man who has a degree in economics and owns a carpet business become, under the weight of his fate, a broken person, and even though he has always avoided living in a Romani environment, suddenly there is wailing Romani music being played at his son's funeral as he kneels by his coffin - in other words, the first half is good, the second half is much weaker. (Petr Slavík, 2003)

"El Paso"

The film El Paso leads the viewer into a melting pot of emotions, passion, and spontaneity. Director Zdeněk Tyc returns a second time to the world of Romani people (after his successful "Smradi" - Brats) which usually prompts embarrassment and fear in us even though we know nothing about it.   

El Paso is inspired by the true story of a Romani widow who is the mother of nine children. In the film, the Horváth family has seven.

The story begins at the moment of tragic, unexpected death of the father. Věra is suddenly on her own against the authorities, determined to keep her large family together at any price, but desperately unprepared to do so.    

The social services department files a request with the court to have her children taken away from her and place in institutional care. From one day to the next they are moved to the outskirts of town into a one-room social apartment, and the case of Věra versus the town asks us to reflect on whether being Romani is just an automatic "guilty" verdict. (Zdeněk Tyc, 2008)

"Nahota na prodej" (Nudity for Sale)

This is a depiction of Czech post-1989 crime - abductions of women, forced prostitution, racketeering, and so-called hardcore pornography. It is an attempt to show the ethnic conflict between Czechs and Roma both in the ranks of the intellectuals (the ethnic intolerance and prejudice of a journalist) and among the ranks of the "scum" (right-wing Nazi extremist skinheads).  

Several Romani activists of the day starred in the roles of prostitution gang bosses in this film. The topic prompted such aversion to Romani people that many cinema audiences were often quite vocal about it during screenings. (Vít Olmer, 1993)

"Radikální řez" (A Radical Cut)

I have also intentionally chosen some older (i.e., Czechoslovak and Soviet) films that I feel deserve to be included here. Dušan Klein chose to shoot his film "Radikální řez" as a colorful set piece of a criminal story set in a gypsy neighborhood in a district town. 

The murdered son of a local architect has been found there, a man who had advocated tearing down the devastated, unsuitable buildings in the area. The investigating detective meets a fetching Romani girl and through her wends his way into the mystique of this closed community, who at the first glance are both easily comprehended and misunderstood by the majority society.

The director shows Romani customs on the one hand, including a Romani wedding, etc. On the other hand, he introduces the new role model of a Romani police officer and finally refutes the presumption of guilt, namely, that the murder was perpetrated by one of the Roma. (Dušan Klein, 1983)

"Právom lásky"

In my opinion this a much more interesting film, telling a story from the Second World War. It opens with the Fascists  hunting down partisans in the mountains of Slovakia.

One such partisan is taken in by a beautiful Romani woman who risks her own life and that of her family to do so. The girl insists that the partisan is her brother, which the German soldiers understandably do not believe.

To save his life, she does whatever the Germans ask. When the war is over, the two young people marry. 

An interesting plot twist happens midway through the film when problems between the couple accumulate and he is unfaithful to her. Is this her reward for what she did for him?

The heroine feels betrayed and, in a fit of rage, she blinds her husband, for which she is then put on trial. When, during their testimony, the circumstances of their first meeting are recalled along with her enormous sacrifice in order to save his life, the man asks the court to free his wife, whom he still loves, as only now does he understand how much she loved him and still does.

While this is film was made during the depths of the totalitarian era, the Romani woman is depicted here as an unassailable heroine. She is self-assured, willing to risk her life, works as a nurse, and there is no doubt as to her bravery and moral qualities. (Marcel Dekanovský, 1984)

"Cikáni jdou do nebe" ("Gypsies Go to Heaven")

Naturally, we all think of the cult Soviet musical film "Gypsies Go to Heaven" from 1975, the movie through which Moldovan director Emil Loteanu drew a fascinating portrait of the Romani minority as free, magical, and mysterious (i.e., stereotypes made to order, albeit positive ones) - and mainly showed their gorgeous music, which is probably why we all love this film. I mention it here because, even though it is a foreign film, it served as the model for many Czech theater adaptations and productions (Emil Lotenau, 1975, USSR)

"And The Violins Stopped Playing"

I can never forget this film - even though it's not Czech, both the commercial and the public broadcasting stations here have aired it. It is the first such feature film to capture the suffering of Romani people during the Second World War and the Romani Holocaust. 

Almost three hours long, this drama about the fight for survival captures the distressing pilgrimage of a Romani violinist, Dymitro, and his family from wartime Warsaw in 1942 to his clan's camp in the Ukrainian lowlands, the flight of the Romani community into Hungary and their deportation to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. The scenes, based on the actual fates of individual people, will not leave you unmoved and resemble those of the Jewish Holocaust. (Alexander Ramati, 1988, Poland/USA)

Jarmila Balážová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Film, RV 1-2/2014



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