Others about the Roma: Manifestation of Romani community through the film medium of the twentieth century
“The Sixties of the 20th century retrospectively appear to be the golden age of Croatian film and Yugoslav cinematography in which the Croatian film was integrated in the productive, aesthetic, receptionist and political framework until 1991″, quote from the Tomislav Šakić’s text in a monograph published on the occasion of the exhibition The Sixties in Croatia – Myth and Reality, open at the Museum of Arts and Crafts by September 30.
In order to answer the question – What preceded the “golden age of Croatian Film” and how did the films with Romani themes and motifs find their place in Yugoslav cinematography?, we should return many years back in 1896 when the first moving picture was shown in Zagreb (a year later after the first commercial movie screening in Paris). As the film soon became favourite entertainment of the city folks, all major Croatian cities very soon opened permanent cinemas. When talking about Croatian cinematography, one should mention Franjo Ledić, one of the first prominent Croatian filmmakers. Ledić returns to Zagreb in 1925 after having achieved great success in making a horror picture Angelo in Berlin, with the idea of building a “movie city” here, where films about the Roma and their lives would be filmed because he thought they represented our autochthonous exotic for which the world audience would be interested. He founded Ocean Film Company, bought real estate on Horvaćanska Street and made the first plans to build a movie complex. Due to the lack of money and the poor interest of potential investors and the audience for the oriental film, he never completed the filming of the Gypsy Blood: The Balkan Benefactor.
“According to Ledić’s words, the film was supposed to be a grand epic depicting adventures from the Gypsy world – hate, revenge, love triangle, festivities, music and other things”, says Daniel Rafaelić, Croatian film historian and Director of the Croatian Audiovisual Centre.
At that time, the Germans filmed Metropolis, Die Nibelungen and some other films, so Ledić engaged himself in a new venture. From the footage he made a short 8-minute film in 1927 titled The Gypsy Outlaw Brnja Ajvanar, which preserved the documentary nucleus about the Roma in Zagreb, presented to the audience by Professor Rafaelić at the Archaeological Museum during the Romani Culture Days. Still, the film had a disapproving reception of the audience, and local cinema owners in Zagreb looked down on Ledić as an intruder.
“The expressionist standardization of individual personages in the film successfully follows the characterization in the story told. For many years, this film was unavailable to the public, but thanks to Professor Dejan Kosanović, the world public saw it at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival. The screening generated quite an interest. Many were trying to make a film in Zagreb in those days, but no one was interested in the Roma, except Ledić who gave them the leading role”- said Professor Rafaelić about Ledić’s film and added, “It is worth stressing that Ledić maintained the documentary nucleus of people, who would, only fifteen years later, together with Jews, Serbs and political opponents, be taken to the concentration camps. By introducing racial laws, the Roma became a part of the society that Zagreb did not want and was ashamed of.”
Second half of the Century
In a monograph published on the occasion of the exhibition The Sixties in Croatia – Myth and Reality, in the chapter Sixties in the Movie – from the new film practice back to the audience, Tomislav Šakić continues to describe the situation in domestic cinematography and states that by the end of the 1950’s national film production was greatly affected by the symptoms already ravaging the world cinematography. There was a crisis at all levels: crisis of screening, narration crisis, crisis of production, generation crisis, and financial crisis. Towards the end of the decade, during which the typical study system was tried to apply, develop and standardize, the “crisis” referred to the accumulation of new film forces, new stylistic and narrative procedures, new technologies (colour, synchronous sound, light camera, and soon zoom). These forces eventually erupted in all cinematographies, headed by the French New Wave, from 1959 to 1960. Film of the “Tradition of Quality” and “Father Figures”, as well as every form of “studio”, industrial cinematography, were soon swept away with new models of film production and new (low-budget and independent) “film practices” dominated by small film crews, portable cameras, a sound that could be recorded outdoors, a director who would ultimately impose themselves as an “author”, often as a screenwriter, that is, the writer of their own movie. The film has from an “objective” representation of the world, from an instrument that clearly narrates movie stories and tells the world, become a form of seeing that world. From a dramatic form (again, because it was already in the Early Silent Film Era) film became a narrative and exhibition form, and the camera shooting, once “live pictures” of the outside world became “film writing” by displaying a special film world.
Post-war cinematography, guided by the flesh of the Second World War, rarely dealt with the Roma themes, but when it did, it won the awards and went down in the annals of the Yugoslav movie.
In 1967, Feather Gatherers, the film by the author Aleksandar Saša Petrović, represented Yugoslavia at the Cannes Film Festival and won the “Palme d’Or” – most prestigious award given at this festival. Last year, the film marked its fiftieth anniversary since the premiere performance and was re-screened at the Cannes Film Festival. The official film screening was announced by Olivera Katarina, whose film performance of the Romani song “Gelem, Gelem” has been remembered forever. In line with this film, other films were made as well, such as the only film directed by Ante Peterlić Accidental Life, shot in 1969, in which two young clerks are trying to get a bit of life’s excitement in order to break the monotony and greyness of the everyday routine in which they live. This film referred directly to the Feather Gatherers, concluding how socially influential Petrović’s film was. A few years later, in 1975, film director Emil Loteanu succeeded in linking stories and motifs with a completely unexpected element – Bollywood cinematography in one of the most famous Soviet films Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven. The film gained popularity during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and it especially became famous for its music that some filmmakers believe has surpassed the film itself.
The popularity of the Roma as “cool” individuals was promoted by the movie Who’s Singin’ Over There?, which was made by Slobodan Šijan in 1980. Though endlessly entertaining, the film warns of a proliferation of fascism where being different is not recommended so sometimes it seems that we still live in the same time. The film had a great reception of the audience and even today it is considered to be one of the classics of cinematography, concludes Rafaelić in his lecture. Miodrag Mićo Kostić and Nenad Kostić are responsible for one of the most fascinating scenes from this film, in which the motive of the bus is seen as a destiny. After that, in 1989, before the very break-up of the SFRY, at the Cannes Film Festival, Emir Kusturica represented Yugoslavia again with his movie Time of the Gypsies.
“After the release of this film, a debate began about its impact and the spread of even worse stereotypes about the Roma in the world. Roma and non-Roma no longer consider a movie by Emir Kusturica a fiction product. The film provokes theoretical and methodological fermentation and has become a factor of destabilization. The Roma refuse to be a “spectacular segment” of society and a breakthrough moment emerges. There is a desire to change the image of the Roma and its expression. The Roma no longer want to be seen through the binoculars that move them away from society. Everything related to them in visual media, pictures and the like is suddenly put under magnifying glass of many disciplines. It is not taken for granted anymore and there are sound voices insisting that the topic should be discussed within a theoretical critique and a visual process of the Roma in history opened. Visual critique managed what the practice of literature critique could not,” comments Ljatif Demir, Professor at the Department of Indology and Far East Studies of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in Zagreb
He further adds that the stereotype created by Kusturica can be added to it, and this is the “generated Gadjo mythology about the Roma”. Excessive emphasis on the “special gypsy world” has led to the emergence of discourses inspired by some mythological legends in which the “truth” about the Roma is presented.
The national question in post-war Yugoslavia was to be resolved in the immediate post-war period by the process of building a socialist society in which nationality was supposed to be secondary to belonging to the socialist community, writes Ante Batović in the aforementioned monograph published on the occasion of the exhibition The Sixties in Croatia – Myth and Reality.
The emergence of a large number of Roma organizations in the 1950s and 1960s and the strengthening of the international Roma movement and emancipation resulted in the First World Romani Congress held in London in 1971. Apart from the clear definition of the hymn, flag and official Romani language, representatives of the Roma from fourteen countries officially adopted the name Roma, which in Romani language means Man.
“Conducting surveys in Baranja, Međimurje and Podravina, I found that most Roma believe that their position in the former Yugoslavia was considerably more favourable than their present position in the independent Croatia. What the Roma appreciated in Yugoslavia was the fact that they could work and with their work provide life to their families, while today a large percentage of Romani generations are social cases. The largest number of the Roma in Croatia during the socialist period lived in Zagreb, Međimurje, Baranja and some parts of Slavonia. However, it is characteristic for the Roma that their number significantly oscillated in the census periods, which largely depended on their identification with their own ethnic origin, “adds Filip Škiljan, a Research Associate at the Institute for Migration and Ethnic Studies, for the Phralipen Magazine,.
What have films with the Romani topics brought to the world cinematography?
“Of course ethnological attraction, colours, dance, music, but this also exists in other cultures as well. The answer imposes itself on me – they brought emotion. Emotion was all the more important because the movies of that period until the second half of the 60’s were somehow relieved of emotion and based on technique, precision and quality of production and story while emotions were put in another plan. And then, these masterpieces are created, which we are talking about, and which put a clear, powerful emotional core in front of the audience and be what may be. These proved to be timeless artworks. When it comes to pure emotion in a quality film, such film always finds its way into the audience’s heart, breaking down a lot of barriers at the same time, “believes Rafaelić.
Aware of the influence of fashion expression in the film industry, as well as in general, we point to the World Yugoslav fashion magazine, which in the late 60’s of the last century recognized the so-called Gypsy style as the ultimate fashion. Thus, at the exhibition in the Museum of Arts and Crafts, you can see the poster that shows that edition of the World magazine with a clear reference to what this ultimate fashion encompasses and means.
“Dotted dresses or colourful floral dresses, flounce dresses, tight sleeves with a deep flounce at the bottom, gold coin necklaces of different length combined with different metal chains, matching big earrings and finally – chignon and smooth hair flamenco style.
Rings? Certainly, but one ring is not enough. Not even ring on every finger is enough! They have to be net rings chained in a delicate decorative work, beams coming out of the central rosette. This is the ultimate jewellery fashion, jewellery ‘a la gitana’. “
In addition, the key question that links genres of various public discourses is how the Roma are presented by the majority population, that is what kind of presentations about the Roma collective are being published, answers Professor Demir, who sees a decisive role in this presentation in public (academic) discourse that affects the consolidation of stereotypes and contemporary mythical presentations of the Roma, their testimonies have axiomatic qualities and there is an obvious absence of argument about these features, which have probably only been “copied” from various sources. Furthermore, according to Professor’s opinion, the “arguments” of myths and stereotypes relate to the social, political, ideological and contextual domain, while the content and the stereotypes of the Roma adapt to changes in social reality.
As Professor Demir concludes, scarce arguments and analyses carried out based on the “mythical” past of the Roma do not get the answer from the “opposite direction” i.e. the argumentation and analysis of the Roma about the majority population in a way that has already been described. In this case argumentation and analysis take place in one direction only, only towards the Roma. The lack of Romani academic potential is one of their biggest handicaps.