Tuesday, July 15, 2008

NY Gypsy FF: World Survey

The Roma and Sinti did not just wake up one morning and decide to be nomadic. Historically, they have often been given violent incentive to move along by the local powers that be. As a result, a Gypsy Diaspora stretches around the world. Various documentaries screening at the NY Gypsy FF survey the varying situations for Romani people around the world.

Perhaps the grimmest conditions were recorded in Kosovo by Katalin B├írsony’s Trapped. Despite being the third largest ethnic group, Roma were the only Kosovar population not represented during the so-called peace talks. A large segment of that community now lives in lead contaminated refugee camps.

Bob Entrop’s The White Whale, follows Lalla Weiss, an international representative of the Roma as she represents her people at conferences and on fact-finding missions. We also hear some good music when she attends a festival commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of Django Reinhardt’s death. Happily she finds the Czech Republic has made marked improvements in the living conditions and education of Czech Roma (though not so much in terms of employment). However, Sterile Dreams, Jehan Harney’s expose of sterilizations performed on Roma women without adequate consent on their part, dampens one’s optimism.

In Searching for the 4th Nail (trailer here) American Romani filmmaker George Eli turns his camera both outward and inward, asking not just what it means to be an American Gypsy, but Roma in general. The title refers to the legendary the fourth nail of the crucifixion, which as the story goes, was stolen by a Gypsy blacksmith. In gratitude, God granted his descendents the right to steal. Eli seems to see this Gypsy creation myth as a double-edged sword, simultaneously giving them a sense of mystical identity, but also facilitating low expectations of rootless lives lived in the margins of society.

Not everyone in Eli’s family was thrilled with the project. The post-screening consensus was that his sons Alex and Christopher stole the show. His wife however, is notably absent. It is his sons’ questions which initiates Eli’s search for answers, at one point leading father and sons to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. While Eli does not deny the existence of anti-Roma prejudice, he is also critical of some Roma preconceptions, particular the notion that education is only for the Gadjie (non-Roma). That lends a great deal of nuance to the film.

The Elis, father and sons, exhibit consistently likeable on-screen personalities. As a filmmaker, Eli keeps the Nail moving a healthy pace and deftly addresses some serious issues without getting overwhelmed by their weightiness. Screened in a sneak preview, Nail looks to be good to go for the festival circuit. It could well serve as an accessible introduction for many people to the issues addressed by a number of the films in the festival.