Andrea Pócsik

Appearance: Understanding Romani characters on screen and the use of Romani (Caló, Boyash, Angloromani) in various filmic representations

Sano!’ – The Diversity of Roma through Language Use1


Although the importance of native fluency in ‘Gypsy Romanes’2 (or its variants) is still disputed, the use of language in feature films and documentaries is an excellent indicator of the social and cultural context of the country.

In academia, sociolinguists study how one learns, uses or loses his/her mother tongue, while outside academic circles few are concerned about these processes, especially about diglossia. Diglossia differs from bilingualism, although both are based on the usage of two (or even more) languages; while bilingual people use languages in the same situations, diglossia means using one language (in this case Romani or Boyash) only in colloquial family and everyday conversations rather than those of a formal or literary nature.

The usage of Romani languages differs greatly all over Europe. In countries like Great Britain, for example, language change3 is dominant, and yet there are many efforts to preserve what is known as Angloromani, as spoken by the English (and Welsh) ‘Gypsy communities’ (Harriet, English, Wild and Borman 2013).

The University of Manchester has been pioneering sociolinguistic research into Romani languages. Their virtual library, produced in the framework of the RomIdent Project, ‘examines the role that language plays in forging a new, institutionalised concept of identity and a new identity manifestation among the trans-national Romani population of Europe’ (RomIdent Project, n.d.). The virtual library documents several case studies, especially concerning the role of the Internet in identity-building processes through the use of Romani languages, the transnationalism of Romani communities, and the role of new policies in education on the use of Romani (ibid.).

In Hungary, the usage of Romani languages has changed considerably over the last century. Apart from the data collected in official censuses, which are usually biased (see for example Surdu 2016), three large sets of statistics are available: data collected in 1893, 1971 and 1993–94.4

There is widespread discussion among Romani intellectuals about whether language is a fundamental element of collective identity.

Anna Orsós, a Hungarian sociolinguist, researched options for preserving the Boyash language, focusing on the patterns of language usage, language education and language teacher training of Boyash communities. Although this case study reveals important connections between social and political environments on the one hand, and collective (minority) identity on the other, it cannot be generalised because most Hungarian Roma have lost their language as a consequence of linguistic assimilation.

Despite the large number of linguistically assimilated Roma, minority laws and policies often promote the development and education of Romani.5

Social History: Language as an Expression of the Desire to Be Recognised and Emancipated

The symbolic usage of minority languages is indicative of political and social changes in society. The Spanish film Camelamos naquerar (Spain, 1976), produced by Miguel Alcobendas, the poet Mario Maya, and José Heredia Maya was shot a year after General Francisco Franco’s death (see synopsis). The following quote from Mario Maya’s son, Pepe Heredia, who is a sociologist and documentary director, refers to the theatre play that was adapted in the documentary: ‘Camelamos naquerar was a play turned into a political tool at the service of a community and its claim for dignity.’

Miguel Alcobendas | Camelamos Naquerar | Fiction | Spain | 1976 | fil_00149 Rights held by: Miguel Alconbendas — José Heredia Maya — Mario Maya | Licensed by: Edificio EGEDA | Licensed under: Rights of Use | Provided by: Edificio EGEDA (Madrid/Spain)

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.6

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.7 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.8 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.

Benedek Fliegauf | Just the Wind | Fiction | Hungary | 2012 | fil_00068 Rights held by: Benedek Fliegauf | Licensed by: The Match Factory | Licensed under: Rights of Use | Provided by: Bendek Fliegauf – Private Archive
Danis Tanović | An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker | Fiction | Bosnia and Herzegovina | 2013 | fil_00329 Rights held by: Danis Tanović | Licensed by: The Match Factory | Licensed under: Rights of Use | Provided by: Danis Tanović – Private Archive

Romani traditions tend to be either romanticised and exoticised in films, as in the Soviet film Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven, or alternatively they are completely neglected. The synopsis to the latter film aptly states:

‘As far as the production of Gypsies... is concerned, the casting also mirrored the social hierarchy, according to which non-Romani actors play the main roles, and in the crowd and the chorus there are performers with Roma origin, like actors and singers of Teatr Romen in Moscow.’

The film became part of popular culture and entertains the audience while reinforcing the traditional topoi of Roma culture (rootlessness, thirst for freedom and nature, wild emotions, and suchlike).

In the other films discussed above, the lack of Romani language can be connected to other forms of deprivation. An example of the metaphoric use of the lack of Romani is Árpád Bogdán’s film Happy New Life about a young Roma man who tries to start his adult life after leaving a state foster home. His longing for family and community is tied to language, but as the synopsis states, ‘the missing childhood memories, coupled with the absence of the Romani mother tongue – which could empower him with self-confidence and the strength of the community – cannot be replaced by fantasies and illusions’.

Árpád Bogdán | Boldog új élet | Fiction | Hungary | 2007 | fil_00002 Rights held by: Árpád Bodán | Licensed by: Laokoon Film Arts | Licensed under: Rights of Use | Provided by: Laokoon Film Arts (Budapest/Hungary)

Romanticised Language Use

In his essay on the filmic representation of Roma, Dominique Chansel (n.d.) points out the romanticisation of ‘Gipsy Romanes’, which highlights the supposed Roma ‘gift for repartee’. Chansel quotes a reviewer of Emir Kusturica who stated: ‘With Gypsies there’s no difficulty as they can talk about anything in that harmonious way, typical of their language’.9 Such statements, in my view, can be related not only to a lack of knowledge in general, but also due to slang which borrows heavily from Romani. Moreover, slang is often associated with segregated urban environments, slums and high crime rates.

Another striking example of Romani slang is the Hungarian animation feature The District! (Hungary, 2004). In the synopsis we read:

‘The “heroes” of the film speak in a very particular slang, adopting words and expressions from the Romani languages, and they use a lot of references to Budapest urban folklore as well. Apart from the language, the aim of inviting popular Romani rap singers, amongst others, to perform the film’s soundtrack is an effective strategy to “introduce the cool Romani identity”. As another author, Mária Bogdán, puts it, the ‘Roma hip-hop context’ creates the image of a ‘New Roma’.10

Thus language and music are interwoven, resulting in a more fluid form of cultural identity that is transnational and relates more in cultural terms to other parts of the world (e.g. the United States) than to Hungary. This transnational unity, however, has been muted in the context of the nationalist political environment of the post-Socialist region. ‘The universal lyrics of the marginalised’ can be heard only in its environment but not from a distance, as Bogdán writes (ibid.).

Similarly, hip-hop lyrics in Romani play an important role in Sami Mustafa’s film Trapped by Law (Kosovo, 2015), which is about two young men who have been unexpectedly forced to move from Germany and repatriated to Kosovo. The observational documentary follows their struggle, and at one point has to intervene in order to save the two young men from depression and total breakdown. As the synopsis describes,

‘Sami Mustafa and his wife, Charlotte Bohl, organise a film festival in Pristina, the Rolling Film Festival, so that they can accommodate and employ [Roma], giving them the opportunity to use their creativity and talent. Both men used to play hip-hop in Germany in clubs, so they write songs about their situation and then hold workshops for Roma children all around the country. However, this temporary activity does not help.’

Sami Mustafa | Trapped by Law | Non Fiction | Kosovo | 2015 | fil_00351 Rights held by: Sami Mustafa | Licensed by: Sami Mustafa | Licensed under: Rights of Use | Provided by: Samit Mustafa – Private Archive

In another documentary, entitled Uprooted (Hungary, 2011), Romani spoken as the common language plays an important role in expressing the identity struggle. According to the synopsis,

‘The interviews and voiceover narration reveal the background of this nightmarish situation as the children talk directly to the viewer about their lives and dreams. They speak overtly, showing trust in the filmmakers, who get close to the topic through the bridge of their common mother tongue (albeit spoken in different dialects).’

As the examples above demonstrate, language undoubtedly plays a crucial role for minorities. Several other films prove this point as well, such as the Swedish TV mini-series The First Gypsy in the Moon (Sweden, Norway, Finland, 2002) or the new German production And-ek Ghes (Germany, 2016).

Katalin Bársony | Uprooted | Non Fiction | Hungary | 2011 | fil_00110 Rights held by: Katalin Bársony | Licensed by: Romedia Foundation | Licensed under: Rights of Use | Provided by: Romedia Foundation (Budapest/Hungary)

From the Source to the Sea

This sub-heading is borrowed from the title of Pisla Helmstetter’s lyric documentary, (From the Source to the Sea, France, 1989) which aptly expresses how Romani cultural identity is tightly linked to language. As the synopsis suggests,

‘The film is called a poem, and the genre itself undeniably carries strong poetic devices both in its visuals and mode of narration. Based on the philosophical voiceover narration of the author, it consists of scenes that show the world in which they live, re-enacted scenes that animate childhood moments, and Helmstetter’s memories of early adulthood. What is striking about the mixed genre of the film is that the roles are played by family members, in other words non-professionals. Moreover, the editing also lacks strict rules and conceptions, the images are linked loosely in an experimental way that follows the ideas of an artist, and yet the film bears traces of home video making.’

This style of movie editing could also be paralleled with everyday speech, illustrating how one looks for words and uses paralinguistic devices. Because of the family environment and mission of the film, it offers a closer look at Romani culture where Romani is used more than the French language. The adoration of nature – one of the classic Roma stereotypes – reflected in the title unifies the long-lasting misbeliefs with individual characteristics and underlines the importance of tradition in identity-building.

Most films in which language fulfils a similar role could be essential for highlighting the complexity of Romani culture, even if the mother tongue seems to have lost its importance in our present-day globalised media environment. The best example is the oeuvre of the young poet and filmmaker Damian Le Bas, who in an interview stressed the importance of language; the synopsis states

Sootenna (UK, 2014), meaning “they sleep” in the secret tongue of the north, is a short film by Damian Le Bas. As a poet and writer, Le Bas says his mother tongue is a strange dialect of the Romani language that is spoken by very few people nowadays, primarily those who are originally Irish travellers (calling themselves “Gypsies”) living across Great Britain.’

Joanna Kos-Krauze | Papusza | Fiction | Poland | 2013 | fil_00078 Rights held by: Joanna Kos-Krauze — Krzysztof Krauze | Licensed by: New Europe Film Sales | Licensed under: Rights of Use | Provided by: New Europe Film Sales (Warsaw/Poland)

Two films in the RomArchive selection are similar in terms of their approach to language. Both are about Romani poets: Papusza (Poland, 2013) is a feature film, while Flames of God (France, 2011) is a documentary.

In Papusza, marginality and oppression are represented through the life of a female poet, Bronisława Wajs, who is of Romani-Polish origin. Papusza’s life story is turned into a romantic struggle for recognition, both as a woman and a Roma artist. Flames of God is a portrait of Muzafer Bislim, a Romani-Macedonian poet and musician, who struggles against change and the disappearance of language. Not only his significant oeuvre is important in the Romani emancipation movement, but also the way he built it up, as we see from the synopsis:

‘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 this is 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.’

Thus, to return to the quote in the sub-heading above, the metaphoric ‘source’ refers to traditions consisting of linguistic roots, and the ‘sea’ for Muzafer – and all Roma regardless of the dialect they speak – is emancipation and equality, which means equal rights for everyone.

Meshakai Wolf | Flames of God | Non Fiction | France | 2011 | fil_00187 Rights held by: Meshakai Wolf | Licensed by: Meshakai Wolf | Licensed under: Rights of Use | Provided by: Meshakai Wolf – Private Archive


In conclusion, there is still a significant gap in our understanding of minority use in film, and more research should be done on the topic. Our partial and incomplete knowledge about the usage of Romani languages not only prevents us from gaining a deeper understanding of a rich and diverse Romani culture, but also limits the effectiveness of these films.

A novel by Menyhért Lakatos, which was mentioned above in the main title of this essay, was recently published and introduced to a wider international audience.11 Although it is translated into English from Hungarian, it gives the reader an original understanding and a close-up view of the lifeworld of Romani people and their relationship to the majority in the socialist era. Visual narrative functions totally differently in film and this media difference explains why language usage can play an important role in producing embodied knowledge, which stresses the importance of personal experience despite giving us fewer typical, generalised facts.