The title Camelamos naquerar means ‘we want to speak’ in the Caló dialect, which is spoken by Spanish, Catalan, Occitan and Portuguese ‘Gitanos’. The documentary mixes various approaches to documentary filmmaking: it is structured with panning shots of a Caló settlement, revealing the poor living conditions; voice-over narration describes and analyses the situation; the investigative efforts are juxtaposed with shots portraying a theatre performance that is filled with emotions, Flamenco dance motifs and singing. The verb ‘speak’ in the title refers to the language of dance. The protagonists in other scenes are ‘mute’; rather than speaking, they are filmed either during their everyday activities or posing for the camera.
The Hungarian documentary Gypsies (Hungary, 1962) by Sándor Sára was also shot as the result of political change. It was preceded by significant sociological research initiated by the ‘Hungarian Gypsy Cultural Association’ (Magyarországi Cigányok Kulturális Szövetsége), which was founded in 1957 under the leadership of Mária László, a Romani woman and a social democrat, in the wake of political upheavals after the 1956 revolution. One of the association’s goals was to cultivate the cultural life of Roma as a minority, but since it was also active against institutional oppression it was liquidated by the new ‘soft’ dictatorial government.
The film Gypsies captures this exceptional historical moment and discusses several topics that were taboo. One such taboo was the mother tongue itself: in the establishing sequence we can see a settlement in the forest being slowly panned by the camera; in the background we hear a mourning song (hallgató) sung in the Romani language with references to the traumas of World War II. In another sequence during a funeral ritual we witness an old Roma tradition of storytelling: the legends of origin (‘Once we were birds’) followed by prayers also in Romani. Even though Roma were not acknowledged as a national minority at the time, these scenes clearly show the rich cultural traditions of Roma. Indeed, culture has united the group, despite the political and economic oppression that Roma have endured.
The Slovakian documentary Amaro Drom (Czech Republic, 1984) is similar in many instances to Gypsies. The film uses parallel editing to show a theatre play in Romani, thus highlighting the community’s rich cultural traditions, juxtaposed with interviews with Slovakian Roma who live in deplorable conditions. The synopsis points out how formal devices (e.g. facial close-ups) ‘underline the silence that has been imposed on the Roma community’.
The Romani language is also used in the Hungarian fictional documentary Cséplő Gyuri (Hungary, 1978). The film sought to reveal the striking results of sociological research into the poverty and exclusion of Roma which had been conducted by a group of oppositional scientists (István Kemény and other sociologists). Since this group of researchers focused on sociological factors, they did not devote much attention to the culture of Roma communities.
The film is set at the intersection of fiction and documentary; the director, Pál Schiffer, and his co-author, István Kemény, wrote the movie script after having jointly examined and discussed the life of the protagonist, György Cséplő, and his community, using the results of their painstaking preparatory research. Thus, ‘fate and role’ became the central organising principle.
In particular, there is one scene which Gelencsér calls a ‘pure document’, highlighting the crucial importance of language: two characters – one of them the main protagonist, Gyuri – stand at a train station. Both have arrived in Budapest from the countryside and speak different dialects of Romani. The scene is a powerful reminder that the Romani language is a cultural bond for the minority, giving them strength in an alien environment. At one point, a young girl steps up to them and asks a question, also in Romani. They are surprised and overjoyed. She doesn’t even notice the presence of the cameraman, who is hiding behind a tree.
This spontaneous interaction is juxtaposed with another scene about a Roma cultural event in a factory club, organised by the future key figures of the Roma emancipation movement in the late 1970s and the 1980s (János Bársony, Ágnes Daróczi, József Choli-Daróczi, László Galyas, József Lojkó Lakatos, Menyhért Lakatos and Tamás Péli). Gyuri joins the young intellectuals at a table as they discuss cultural emancipation in the context of the poverty and oppression of the Roma. Gyuri, however, feels uncomfortable in this situation, as if he couldn’t speak the same language, although we know from the director’s personal notes that he had been just as active in his village. For example, he had tried to access state resources in order to organise cultural events for his community, but in many cases he failed because of his low social status.
In general, segregated Roma settlements had an adverse relationship with the state majority institutions. Although the state was theoretically obliged to provide equal opportunities for Roma, in practice the Roma were still objects of a paternalistic state, excluded from many basic social and cultural spheres. Diglossia and language deficit (Bernstein 1975) caused serious problems in education: young schoolchildren from segregated settlements used mainly Romani or Boyash; in schools a poor understanding of the teacher’s instructions was seen as mental underdevelopment, and thus children were placed in special-needs classes and schools, leading to significantly fewer future opportunities (Havas, Kemény and Liskó 2002).
Absence of Language: Disuse or Misuse?
To use ‘visible’ Roma for the purpose of editing shots without interviewing them is a common practice in media representation. To be silenced can mean not just the oppressive media practice, but also being deprived of the use of a mother tongue. Analysing the RomArchive film collection, it is striking that most films avoid the use of Romani; this absence of language does not necessarily refer to its actual disuse, but is rather the filmmaker’s subjective decision, resulting in the misuse of the powerful medium of film.
There are many important films that depict Roma communities in poor social conditions and (geographically or socially) segregated environments; these include the cult films of ex-Yugoslavia (e.g. I Even Met Happy Gypsies (Yugoslavia, 1967) or the early Kusturica movies), other important movies with a sociological approach (e.g. Koportos (Hungary, 1979) and the great romantic musical melodramas (e.g. Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven (Soviet Union, 1976), as well as more recent fictional representations of crucial social issues (e.g. Just the Wind (Hungary, 2012) and An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker (Bosnia and Herzegovina, 2013). In these films the disuse of Romani is connected to the poor living conditions and leads us back to an old debate among academics about whether the lack of proper work, education and housing also entails a lack of (cultural) traditions.