Thursday, July 10, 2008

NY Gypsy FF: Musicians for Life

Call it the underdog festival. Now in its second year, the New York Gypsy Film Festival might be the only festival in the City not sponsored by Stella Artois, but that’s OK by them. They say they want to keep things real.

Screening down at the Mehanata Bulgarian Bar on the lower eastside, the NY Gypsy FF has a very relaxed vibe, but the films are serious fare indeed. Programming entirely documentaries, this year’s special focus falls on the Sinti/Roma Holocaust experience. As the organizers point out, the organized mass murder of Europe’s Sinti and Roma has consistently been denied, minimized, ignored, and forgotten. To start rectifying this, they are screening films like Alexandra Isles’ Porraimos (review to come) which shine a light on these horrific events.

In a lighter vein, music has traditionally been a rare aspect of Sinti/Roma life celebrated by an often hostile outside world, so naturally there are several music-related documentaries also screening. Of course, few musicians of any background could match the reputation of Gypsy jazz legend Django Reinhardt, and his spirit clearly still has an influence on the artists featured in Bob Entrop’s Musicians for Life.

Entrop was accepted and befriended by the Roma and Sinti, simultaneously filming footage for what would become five documentaries. In Musician, he follows several artists playing Reinhart-inspired Hot Club style jazz, as well as even more traditional forms of Gypsy music. Along the way, he dispels many Gypsy stereotypes. The musicians we see are professionals, able to sustain a respectable working middle-class lifestyle. They simply choose do so living in their caravan community. Although some do not read music, many do, including Roger Moreno, who not only reads, but composes extended classical pieces using the latest computer software.

While Musicians is largely an upbeat musical documentary, the Holocaust is addressed through Moreno’s composition, a requiem for those murdered at Auschwitz. Moreno confides that after a fast start, his writing was thrown off track by the emotional impact of a visit to the Polish concentration camp, intended to serve as inspiration.

Clearly, Entrop’s subjects trusted him enough to frankly discuss some delicate topics. They were also relaxed enough to casually jam together while he filmed, providing some of the film’s best musical sequences on the spur of the moment. At one point, a musician explains there is no Sinti word for freedom because historically the Sinti have only known freedom. Although he was addressing a different issue, it does help explain why jazz and traditional Gypsy music proved so compatible when wed together.

Musicians is a thoughtful, entertaining documentary. The next Entrop documentary to screen at this year’s NY Gypsy FF will be No Place of Their Own tomorrow night. The festival runs through Tuesday, so consider visiting one night after work.