‘A high relevance from the perspective of Romani literature and language, transforming oral tradition.’
Mihai Catalin Cazacu
Flames of God is a portrait of Muzafer Bislim, a Roma poet and musician whose home serves as a private institution for the recorded culture of the Macedonian Romani community. As a minority community, and above all one with a decisively oral culture, such recordings have not been preserved and protected within official institutions. The documentary was directed by Meshakai Wolf and released in 2011. Flames of God is structured in chapters addressing aspects of Muzafer’s artistic and linguistic activity in detail, depicting his devout life, his art in connection with God, and the man himself as a loveable character. He evokes his career, first as a famous performer of Turkish songs in what was then Yugoslavia, and later as a composer of original songs in the Romani language. The viewer becomes a witness to how, as an old man, he writes lyrics and songs for younger Romani musicians, how he works on his Romani–Serbian/Croatian/Macedonian dictionary and travels to a poetry festival in France (the 10th Biennale Internationale de Poétes en Val-de-Marne). Muzafer’s home in Shutka, Macedonia, is an archive for his dictionary and his songs, which are collected in many handwritten notebooks and on cassette tapes, waiting to be published and performed. This has transformed his home into a private institution for the recorded culture of the Macedonian Romani community, which, as an overwhelmingly oral culture, has not been preserved and protected by official institutions.
The film is rich in scholarly (i.e. linguistic and social) data; for example, the history of the Romani people, the official state of the Romani language in Macedonia and the process of it becoming standardised. Furthermore, it demonstrates the current situation of the Romani people and their situation in a post-war Balkan state, and their migration to France due to their critical economic conditions.
One of the most dramatic moments in the film comes when Muzafer and his old friends are in France, talking about the social problems of contemporary Macedonia and, more specifically, its Romani citizens. A further critical moment is presented in the translation seminar, where Muzafer’s poetry is at the centre of a discussion between experts like Pierre Chopinaud, a translator, and Marcell Courthiade, a Roma philologist. Muzafer tells the story of his efforts to have his dictionary published in Macedonia, or at the very least accepted – something which he is ultimately denied because of his unofficial status as a linguist.
The most interesting and serious theme of the film is that here we have someone who is as talented as a poet as he is eager to preserve and fight for a slowly forgotten oral linguistic tradition as a scholar – yet he works not only on the boundary dividing art and science, but also on the margins of both society and culture. We then see him involved once more in his daily activities after returning from the huge public success of the poetry festival in France, where his works were highly praised and acclaimed in translation seminars, reading sessions and music studios. The authentic and affirmative storyline of the documentary reaches its peak with his trip there.
Meshakai’s film technique suits his subject matter well; having spent a lot of time with Muzafer, the director follows him in an intimate manner and lets him narrate his own story in Romani as he himself sees and experiences it. The film’s high quality can be measured both conceptually and visually. Classical documentary-style shots of Muzafer’s everyday life alternate with the refined textualities of handwriting images or talking-head scenes of Muzafer sitting in front of a black background. This stage-like display symbolically elevates him out of his everyday milieu. Flames of God was awarded the prize for best film at the Rolling Film Festival in Kosovo and was selected as the closing night film for the 2011 Margaret Mead Film Festival at the Museum of Natural History in New York.