New Internationalist

History’s Scapegoats

Issue 266

Tony Gatlif
History's
scapegoats
Roger Morier talks to Gypsy filmmaker Tony Gatlif about his search for his people’s identity.

‘When I started in cinema in the 1970s, I didn’t think I would make films about my past, or about my people. I only wanted to get close to beautiful women.’

Tony Gatlif slumps into the red vinyl bench of a busy Latin Quarter café. His weathered face and long, jet-black hair disappear behind a thin cloud of blue smoke from the Gauloises he is chain-smoking.

‘Then later, people would ask me “Who are you? Where do you come from?” And I didn’t know what to say.’

Those questions started Gatlif on a long journey of self-discovery – travels which led him to meet fellow-Gypsies from Germany and Spain to Romania and Algeria. Everywhere he found the same open arms, the same music and common life-style. He also became increasingly angry.    

‘If people really knew what Gypsies were like, they wouldn’t judge them with the prejudices that have been around for centuries – as child-snatchers and chicken thieves.’

It was then he decided to make a film focusing on Gypsy music – even if that music often sings of persecution. In the midst of their hardship, says Gatlif, it is their joie de vivre and their music which gives Gypsy people the strength to carry on.

‘You really have to want to live to resist centuries of persecution and hardship,’ notes Gatlif. ‘I wanted to make a film the Rom people could be proud of, not something to exhibit their misery. I wanted to produce a hymn to this people that I love.’

The result was Latcho Drom. Released in France in the fall of 1993, Gatlif’s film was hugely popular. The Paris daily Libération described it as a ‘sumptuous film’ which ‘marries and magnifies an emblematic cause’. It is certainly an unusual film in that it is neither documentary nor fiction. There is no dialogue, no narration and no sub-titles to explain what is going on.

Instead there is a musical odyssey which follows the route of the Gypsies from Rajasthan in northwestern India through Egypt, Turkey, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, France and finally, Spain. In each location song or dance, or both, are used to set a scene, tell a story, reveal a truth. And everywhere in the music is the memory of persecution.

From the bright blue and crimson skirts of a Gypsy girl whirling in the Rajasthan desert, to the flamenco wail of a Spanish woman, the plight of the Gypsies is presented in its gritty reality. But the film is not without optimism.

‘Gypsy people are optimistic,’ says Gatlif. ‘They have to be. How else would they survive? They have been persecuted for a thousand years. They have learned that, when something bad happens you deal with it, maybe you weep, but then you move on – you don’t stop.’ The Gypsy people only want to be left alone, he claims. They have long ago given up any illusion of settling down somewhere.

‘The Rom people aren’t looking for a country. They just want the right to live for a time in the areas they are passing through. The time to allow a woman to give birth to a child, to let horses or cattle rest, to wait out a winter. Everybody in this world has their place. The Gypsies want theirs, too.’

Recognition and respect are a luxury they’ve never had. Continually harassed, Gypsies have been history’s scapegoats. Hitler and Ceaucescu were part of a long line of those whose hate has propelled Gypsy wandering. A hate which today smacks of the Middle Ages.

Gatlif runs his hand through his hair and pauses for a moment, barely containing his rage: ‘Last year in Transylvania an entire village of Gypsies, 40 houses, was burned to the ground. Five people died and the rest took shelter in the forest, living there for a week, before other Gypsies took them away. This came after a dispute with a neighbouring village of non-Gypsies. They burned their houses and chased them into the forest.’

What did the Romanian authorities do? ‘Nothing – why should they? The Gypsies have no political power. To be seen to be helping them would be turned against any government. And not only in Romania, it’s the same everywhere in Eastern Europe. In Romania, in Turkey, in Hungary, there are no human rights for Gypsies. People can do what they want to them.’

The lot of the Gypsies is scarcely better elsewhere. Every few months in France, there is another incident involving Gypsy families being chased away by small-town authorities who are worried that the nomads will settle down and bring with them what one local politician called ‘all the misery of the world’.

Gatlif speaks passionately about his people whom he says are perpetually rejected by others. ‘Gypsies pass through an area and they are treated like vermin, like lice. I’ve heard about people burning the ground where Gypsies have camped.’

In the Rom language Latcho Drom means ‘have a safe journey’. Watching the film, listening to Tony Gatlif, you want to say ‘safe journey’ to all the musicians on the screen, all the Gypsies in the world.

Because at the end of it all, everyone knows that the Gypsies’ journey is one of exclusion, abandonment and solitude. Music attenuates this and gives the Gypsy people an identity; something which Tony Gatlif sees as essential: ‘After all, their identity is the only country the Rom people possess.’

Roger Morier is a freelance journalist living and working in Paris, France.

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