Sami Mustafa: Roma directors don't have to make films just about Roma people
Sami Mustafa is a 26-year-old film director from a Roma mahala near the village of Plemetina in Kosovo. His first encounter with film-making was through a program run by the Balkan Sunflowers recreation center there in 2003. One year later he started collaborating with two film production companies, Koperativa and Quawava. He has directed several films about the postwar situation of the Kosovo Rom. His documentary film "Road to Home" was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007 as the only film representing cinematography from Kosovo. Mustafa founded the Roma film production company Romawood and since 2009 has been running the Rolling Film Festival of Roma film together with Balkan Sunflowers in Prishtina as its artistic director. He lives in Prishtina with his French girlfriend, the film-maker Charlotte Bohl. Romea.cz interviewed him in Prishtina.
How did a boy like you get out of the Roma mahala and start making films?
I basically started in the spring of 2003, when a guy from Australia came to Plemetina. He worked for Sky News in Sydney as a cameraman. He came to Kosovo to collaborate with nonprofits and lead a workshop for youth in Plemetina that lasted three or four months.
It was a workshop on film-making?
Making documentaries. He was basically a journalist, so that was reflected in what he taught us, but he was brilliant. The workshop was one of our after-school activities, and really just one of many, because I also attended Scouts. Under his direction we made the film "Welcome to Plemetina", which was very positively accepted at film festivals in Europe, as well as in Kosovo and the USA. The film was the collective work of 13 children.
How old were you when you participated in the workshop?
Now I'm 26, I'll be 27 in August - Good Lord! Well, it doesn't matter. I must have been 17 or 18.
You are one of only a few teenagers from Plemetina who continued with film. Was that first film your launching pad?
I took it all very seriously. Basically everything I do I take seriously. Even when I was just going to Scouts I was completely absorbed by it. Then the people who led that project designed another one that was similar, related to work with video. They asked me and a friend of mine to participate, and one year later my second film was made. A year later I learned of another film workshop that operated on the system "work and learn". It was basically paid work during which you learned new things. It was a year-long program. It was also my last year of high school. Then I had to decide what to focus on and what to throw overboard. In the end, I got rid of Scouts. I also gave up medicine, which I was studying at the time.
You wanted to be a doctor?
No, no, I just studied at the medical high school. There was no other option, the school is one of only two in Plemetina. The other is the economics high school, which couldn't be considered because of my math.
So you have no film education?
Precisely. There is no film school in my life. After that year of paid internship, when I made money, I bought a camera and a computer with my savings and started filming. I made various films. One of them is basically my most recently completed works, "Never Back Home". I started filming it in 2004.
What is the central theme of your work?
I focus the most on Roma people. I do my best, through my films, to demonstrate the fact that the current life of Roma people in Kosovo is significantly politically influenced. In addition, I do my best to capture some disappearing elements of Roma culture, even though I don't actively participate in their preservation. I think it's important to record them at a minimum on video cassette so the next generation of Roma people and other nations can understand some things later and think about them.
You chose this central theme because you are Roma?
Absolutely, definitely precisely because I am Roma. In the beginning I knew nothing about the Roma in general and I didn't know where to find such information. I didn't understand why they say we are from India. Naturally we did not have the internet, where I might be able to answer these questions. I therefore decided to start with what was right in front of my nose, the Roma in Kosovo. To try to find out who the hell I am, why I am here, why they call us Gypsies, to get to the bottom of why there is so much hatred against us - it's hidden, but you can feel it from people - and so much violence. The films I started making were both for Roma and for...
For the gadje? [Translator's Note: non-Roma, can be pejorative]
Hmm, I don't like that word. That is one of the things I have to resolve for myself. What does the word gadjo really mean? Roma people call one another Roma, which means "people". To call you a gadjo means you aren't a person.
Do you think Roma perceive you differently than they would a non-Roma filmmaker when you make your documentaries?
I personally believe both approaches need to be combined. It is good to understand something, but also not to be too emotionally engaged in it just because I am Roma myself. That's why the opinion of the non-Roma person, that non-person (laughs) is good, and it's good to make compromises. I do my best to be neutral, insofar as that is possible, and to look at Roma people's problems through different eyes. I am doing my best to capture how we all see these people. It is very difficult to understand them, you have to insert yourself into these situations, which is terribly painful and can also affect the entire outcome.
Do you feel that entry into a Roma community is simpler for you than it would be for your French girlfriend Charlotte? That you gain people's trust faster than she would?
I think it's all the same. It really depends on the people you're filming. I work for the most part in such a way that after I come somewhere I take out the camera immediately and start filming, but the response to that is different every time. People who want to speak start coming to the camera on their own and speaking to it. Then you have the people who start yelling at you to get out of there. At that level it doesn't matter whether I am Roma or not. On the contrary, I think what I am good at is that when I see people with great potential to tell their story engagingly, I am able to convince them to do it because I am Roma, and that's just because I know how to behave in that situation. When I think about it now, it's basically a very selfish approach. You compel them to speak because you need it.
What are you hoping to achieve with your films?
That's connected to the festival I do. I wanted to make films so people could learn what's going on here. In addition to the problems, I want people become familiar with Roma culture, with the Roma way of life. I also wanted to show that films made by Roma people exist. So I basically created the festival. Its main aim was to collect films about Roma people or created by Roma people themselves, films that don't make Roma people either culprits or victims. The selection should be based mainly on the stories of individual people.
How does the festival operate?
The festival started in 2009. Anyone can apply. We are doing our best to collect as many films as possible to see what kinds of films are being made about Roma people. Then we select the films according to themes we have predetermined. About 50 films were submitted the first year. The condition was that they had to be based on a personal story. One criterion was that they not be stereotypical, either in the negative or the positive sense. We are emphasizing films that introduce something new. We are not choosing films that say the same old dusty thing over and over. The stories of individuals are good because they don't generalize and they show one concrete case on which a certain situation has left its mark.
Can only Roma film-makers submit?
No, it's a film festival with films about Roma and films by Roma.
So Roma people who made a film about globalization could enter?
Exactly. I myself have not made films only about Roma people, I am interested in other themes as well. That is why it seems important to me to show that Roma film-makers don't necessarily have to do Roma themes.
How does the festival itself run? Where do you hold the screenings?
We do our best to make it a good cultural event in Prishtina, which is primarily where the Rolling Film Festival takes place. We choose a cinema or theater that is accessible to all. We don't want to choose a venue from one of the two sides - to screen only in hippie places, or only in the snob places. We want everyone to have a pleasant experience, and that's why we choose the middle road most often. In addition to the festival itself, we also have a side program, called "Rolling On the Road". That screens films directly in the Roma mahalas.
How might the screening of documentary films for ordinary Roma people be essential?
When we consulted each other on what the festival's side events should be, we came to the conclusion that both are equally important - screenings in cinemas, and screenings in the field. A good example is the film "American Gypsy". That film is about a Roma family and describes the daily life of Roma people in America. The story of that family is similar to many Roma families around the world. They share a similar culture, opinions, tradition, way of life. When I saw it I was absolutely astounded, because Roma people in Kosovo live that same way, their perception of things is the same, they keep the same traditions. A film like that is naturally important for people who are not Roma, but it is just as important for Roma themselves. They can basically realize how important the life they live is.
What kind of people visit the festival in Kosovo?
We want to reach out to absolutely everyone. For example, we invite colleges and high schools. We have a special program for high schools where a comedian does some stand-up-comedy. He tells jokes to the audience while some of the films are running. The films are stopped at certain points so there can be interaction with young viewers about the message. We believe this might compel them to reflect on some differences. Through the jokes we also try to remind them of important things they may not have noticed during a normal screening. That program runs in the regions in addition to Prishtina.
Why do you think it is important to screen films about Roma to the broader public in Kosovo?
I believe it is important to show all films, but there is one more reason the Roma films are important. A few years ago, the situation of the Roma here was very different than it is today - I am thinking of before the war, when 90 % of Roma people had full-time jobs. Today only 0.3 % do. The majority population's relationship to the Roma has changed. It is influenced by many prejudices, by the fear of other ethnicities that escalates during war. This isn't just about the prejudices that exist about Roma, but the belief that Roma people helped in the fighting against the ethnic Albanians, which is not completely true. Because there is a debate after each film screening, I believe these films influence the opinions of those who see them.
Where do you see your life heading? What is important for you?
These problems with ethnicity have always been here and will remain here. However, I believe these small actions fighting against stereotypes, which are being done by many other people besides us, are important because they have the power to change some people's views. Certainly, they will not change the approach of the entire society, but whether its 1 000, 500, or at least three people, it can prompt them to start doing something themselves. What do I personally want out of life? In the end I am just a guy who makes films and enjoys it. Sometimes I make a bad one, sometimes a good one. Basically I am just doing my best and will continue to do my best to help these various nations reach a compromise.
What are the prospects for life in Kosovo?
Sometimes it's crazy. When I remember the education I received here, I have to say it was good for nothing. There was one teacher at the medical high school who had been there since Tito and was not even qualified to do his job. For God's sake, these are the people who are supposed to give us the benefit of their experience? We might have someone's lives in our hands someday! Those four years were just a catastrophe. I just wanted to graduate, primarily for my parents. When I think about it now, I am probably one of only a few young Roma doing something here. Mainly in the last three or four years I have devoted my life to the festival and to films. That's what I want to do. That's why for me personally, life in Kosovo offers good prospects. However, even though I love Kosovo very much, I hate it at the same time. When I have children I do not want them to live life as I lived it, in the same conditions. There are prospects here for me as an individual, but not for the people to whom I am responsible.
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