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Interview with director of documentary film about Romani girls

Prague, 6.3.2015 21:55, (ROMEA)
A still from the documentary film
A still from the documentary film "Jenica & Perla". (PHOTO: printscreen)

Perla is a Romani girl growing up in a slum in the east of Slovakia. Jenica is a Romani girl growing up in an impoverished suburb of Paris.

Jenica has better luck and is more motivated to pursue her dream of escaping a dead-end life in her excluded Romani community. Perla, on the other hand, will most likely remain in such a setting.

Which of them is happier? "That's the question of my film. I would be glad if viewers were to ask that for themselves," says director Rozálie Kohoutová, who made the documentary film "Jenica & Perla" about the two girls.

The film is about the contrast between the life journeys of two Romani peers - Jenica, whose family emigrated from Romania to Western Europe, and Perla, who comes from a Slovak settlement where, despite a certain pressure from the outside world, she decides to hold on to the security of her extended family. News server Romea.cz interviewed Kohoutová about the film:

Q:  Was the final product here your intention from the beginning, or did you focus on this topic once you began shooting?

A:  In the beginning it seemed that both girls wanted "to prove something", to put it simply. That was one of the reasons why I chose them:  Within the framework of the "Kesaj čhave" singing ensemble, both girls excelled. As it turned out, in Perla's case a development occurred that I did not anticipate. I had based my motivation for filming with her on her desires for and dreams of some sort of change. The closer she drew to puberty, her original plans to study went a bit by the wayside. In Jenica's case, on the other hand, I was very pleasantly surprised by the development of the situation. Originally this was more about a parallel than a contrast, which is reflected more in the social environment - the East versus the West, if you will. On the one hand there is a big multicultural city, on the other a Romani village where only "gadje" and Roma meet.      

Q:  Along with the way that Jenica ascends a notional social ladder, she also adopts a model for judging those around her (with respect to her parents' lifestyle, and also with respect to the African minority on the streets). Was that a theme for you during your filming?

A:  I never confronted Jenica - I don't usually allow myself to engage in confrontation with the subjects of any of my films. That result seemed to me to be a natural consequence of the influence of the environment in which Jenica found herself. Her identity was falling apart in a certain way - and we always construct our identity by defining ourselves in contrast to someone else. I definitely do not believe that Romani people, even though they are frequently the victims of racism themselves, are somehow incapable of showing signs of racism. They, too are capable of rejecting entities unknown to them. In the case of Jenica, this kind of self-definition is necessary - she is searching for her identity in a rather laborious fashion. We see this in her stories about how she identified herself as a Spaniard during her time in France, and then at other times she wanted to convert to Islam, etc. I intentionally left her remark about "dirty blacks" in the film, but I did not feel the need to confront her about it.  

Q:  I wasn't primarily asking about confrontation within the film - I was more interested in whether that was a topic for the two of you in private, whether Jenica herself is aware she is generalizing?

A:  I am of the opinion that France is, overall, a multicultural, tolerant society (and it may remain one even after the events around the Charlie Hebdo magazine), and 

that religious creed and skin color do not play an essential role as far as the social ladder goes. Jenica herself must perceive that such aspects don't matter. At her academic high school she underwent a phase in which it seemed strange to her that she was the only Romani girl in her class, and she claimed to those around her that she was from northern Africa, which is not exactly a privilege in French society. Now that she is more sure of herself, working at a hair salon, etc., she is no longer afraid to say she is a Romani girl. On the contrary, in her own way, she is proud of it.    

Q:  Jenica seems like a typical young woman in the process of emancipation. She is thinking in particular about her career, doing her best to have her life fully under her control, resisting the traditional demands of her family that she marry, etc. She grew up in very poor circumstances. Which moment, do you believe, was decisive for her in that respect?

A:  Jenica's family was in a dead-end situation in Romania, they had no chance of finding work. The family decided to emigrate. First they survived illegally in shacks and squats in the suburbs and made their living by begging. When the French Police caught them, they were thrown out onto the street. The fact that Jenica is the youngest daughter of the family has played an important role. Her parents, whose income is partially based on their traditional selling of their daughters as brides, did not force Jenica to marry because they already have a couple of daughters whom they have married off. Unlike her very traditional sisters, Jenica moved to France at the rather early age of eight. That means she has attended French schools. Those are rather significant moments in the process of her emancipation. However, the most important for her was the fact that she is one of only a few from her community who has stayed in school and completed it. She herself says she was motivated in particular by the other French people whom she met every day and wanted to be like. She is a remarkably intelligent woman, she learns easily, she has high social intelligence. Moreover, she had good luck. She met good people who supported her during essential moments in her life. In my opinion, it's the combination of all these circumstances.    

Q:  What do you make of the role played by the "Kesaj čhave" ensemble in the lives of both girls? Is it a catalyst, an opportunity for them to somehow apply themselves, show what they are made of, a tool for building awareness of their own self-worth?

A:  In Jenica's case I don't think that was the role played by the ensemble, but for Perla there is no doubt that the ensemble played a very significant role in the fate of her entire family. Her older brother Duško, thanks to the ensemble, significantly improved his standard of living, traveling to France and finding a job. When the children were younger, their parents traveled with them on their trips, so participating in the ensemble also had a financial impact on her family's life.

Q:  To what degree can Perla's low willingness to further educate herself be considered a consequence of her comprehensive segregation - her life in a settlement on the outskirts of town, her attending separate "Romani classes" in school? Do you believe that because, from the beginning of her time in France, Jenica was part of a broader multiethnic society that might have motivated her to decide to move toward asserting her individuality?

A:  The answer to that is basically included in your question. I believe that Jenica saw examples of people around her who succeeded in accomplishing something through their own efforts. Perla sees only examples of the bureaucrats who own green villas with swimming pools, which are completely abstract concepts to her - she cannot see the source of their wealth. Then, of course, she also sees cases of some of her relatives who, for example, completed cooking school but then never got hired. That is a clearly demotivating signal for children:  Even though these people did the best they could, in the end they have nothing to show for it.  

Q:  In the film we hear the opinion expressed that if a person is Romani, even "diplomas" will not save them from failing to be hired, from social exclusion. Is there any point to it, is it of value in and of itself, to attempt to force one's way into an a priori hostile society? Even in France, after all, Romani and other immigrants are not exactly welcomed with open arms.

A:  Eastern Slovakia is generally problematic. On the one hand there is deeply engrained racism there, which goes hand in hand with the deteriorating social situation of all the region's inhabitants irrespective of skin color. People are fleeing from there because they cannot find work. After the fall of communism, the Romani population there grew enormously and there simply are no jobs, or what work does exist borders on outright exploitation - 15-hour shifts in a factory for minimum wage. For every one such job, however, there are already three job-seekers even under those conditions. I think it was Docent Hübschmannová who said that while people get on in each region as best they can, the Romani people are always worse off. That is precisely the case of eastern Slovakia. As for France, it is interesting to point out that left-wing intellectuals living in the 5th arrondissement of Paris in apartments with lots of bookshelves have nothing against immigrant Roma from Eastern Europe. The big tensions occur in the suburbs, where the situation is considerably worse. Tensions frequently erupt inter-ethnically, between various groups of immigrant offspring.    

Q:  A slum in Slovakia and a suburb of Paris. Can these places be compared?

A:  Paris is a big concept - the Île-de-France alone has more inhabitants than all of Slovakia. I must take into consideration the fact that, for example, many Romani people do live in the cities of Bratislava or Košice, and many of them decidedly are not socially excluded cases, they don't face any basic animosity. However, it is really hard to compare these places, because the Île-de-France region, where Jenica lives, is enormous, and compared to eastern Slovakia, it offers many more options. If we were to compare these places geo-politically, we would have to compare that particular region to all of Slovakia. I am convinced that if Perla had the same good luck and motivation as Jenica, she definitely would not stay in Kežmarok. I don't know of any case of someone who would graduate from their studies and then return to a settlement. What would such a person do there? There genuinely is no work to be found.

Many times I asked myself, and both girls, which of them will actually end up happier. Is material well-being actually such a coveted value? Perla is aware of her extended family, that she is a member of that group, and as a consequence she may experience less of an internal dilemma. Is she happier because of that, or not? That's the question of my film, and I would be glad if viewers would ask that question of themselves as well.        

This article has been published in collaboration with the One World film festival in Prague.

Adéla Gálová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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documentary film, Jenica a Perla, Romové, Rozálie Kohoutová, vyloučená lokalita



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