Will Czech documentary about Romani activist unite, or divide?
Ivo Bystřičan's documentary film "Opre Roma" sparked passionate discussion here in the Czech Republic before it was even aired. There is no doubt that Romani activist Ivana Čonková, the film's central focus, is a prominent figure who has recently drawn a great deal of attention.
As is usually the case, some people believe she is less an activist than an exhibitionist, while others believe she is one of only a few people who are able to draw attention to "Romani topics" and problems. This means some viewers a priori believed the film, which Czech Television broadcast yesterday, would be biased, lionizing and misleading, while others looked forward to it as unique opportunity to move the public discussion about Romani people forward here.
An accidental antigypsyist, or a proponent of justice?
Romani commentator Margita Rácová, on the other hand, stood up for Čonková, writing the following in Deník Referendum: "She is a courageous, energetic person with a sense of justice." Čonková has recently participated with the Konexe association at a demonstration in Terezín, the aim of which was to draw attention to the fact that the Romani Holocaust is still, in this country, a topic that is ignored, as the continued existence of the pig farm at Lety by Písek proves.
Critics found fault with her on that occasion as well, saying that she sang out of tune and behaved in an unprofessional manner overall. They frequently asked the same questions over and over: Was the action well-prepared? Why were so few people there? Why were there almost no Roma there? Who are Čonková and Konexe speaking for? Do they actually represent Roma opinion? Whose, and to what extent? Haven't they just co-opted the Romani issue?
Others preferred to analyze whether the action achieved its aims, namely, that the topic got media coverage. They also pointed out that there were no other actions going on - nothing better, nothing more professional.
To the surprise of the critics and sceptics, the documentary broadcast yesterday was open and unbiased. It did not lionize Čonková and left room for viewers to assume their own attitudes about and form their own opinions of her.
The film also inspired the many reflections I have described above. These centered around the question: Is Ivana Čonková the "right" Romani activist?
We don't want inspiration, we want to live
In the film, Čonková genuinely appears to be a brave, determined and extremely energetic human being. Sometimes, of course, she also seems quite forlorn, possibly even confused, as well as disoriented and helpless.
At some points she lectures on the outlines of a long-term vision of "Romani integration", while at other points it is as if she doesn't know whom she is speaking with or what she wants. During the protests against the neo-Nazi marches that we see her in, she is surrounded by a very small group of people.
The footage might make her seem brave, but it also seems tragicomic. What does that really mean?
Were these events in which she was involved "bad"? Were they badly organized in an exhibitionistic way, or were they one of a kind, doing their best to inspire others?
We see Čonková attending a meeting of a Romani political party where she says we need a national strategy to address Romani problems, that we need a system, that we need a manual for how to do these things. It sounds naive, and it obviously is very far from any kind of clear program.
On the other hand, do our leading politicians ever say anything about this that is significantly clearer, more concrete, or more useful? Most of them do not.
During a conversation with Romani people living in a ghetto, we see Čonková doing her best to cheer them up by insisting to them that they should be happy - even in their poverty - because they have something that others don't. They answer her as follows: "We don't need someone to inspire us. We need to live. We want our children to live differently than we do!"
Does this mean Čonková is doing everything wrong and does not understand Romani people? Or does it mean she just didn't understand them in that particular case?
We also see her during the Roma Pride march, speaking enthusiastically about the fact that she has managed to arrange for a horse and carriage to cross the Charles Bridge, something we haven't seen here ever before: A horse and carriage on Charles Bridge! Is this the exhibitionism she is accused of, this exploitation of details, of matters that are inconsequential - or is a horse and carriage on Charles Bridge as part of Roma Pride actually something amusing, entertaining, a sight that someone might at least pay attention to?
Mention is also made of the fact that Čonková is filming a video for the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion. The critics say this is proof of her unpredictability and unreliability - she is collaborating with the Agency even while she is among its harshest critics - but her admirers will certainly take this seeming contradiction as further proof of her incorruptibility.
Who is a "good" activist?
The admirers and critics of Čonková have now been given an opportunity, through this documentary, to consider whether it might be better to reflect on "Romani activism" from a broader perspective than that of mere affection or antipathy for a specific person or certain methods of performing this work. The essential problem is that even the very few people who take this work on "Romani topics" seriously have successfully cultivated an environment of antipathy and aversion among themselves, an inability to collaborate and reach consensus.
There is an inability to clarify concepts and to propose common projects and strategies, to take common action. In such an environment, Čonková can become a divisive figure around whom insurmountable barriers are erected.
That's what is tragicomic here. A handful of activists are wasting energy arguing among themselves about who among them is the "right" one.
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