The presence of Romani women on screen is as old as cinema itself, with moving images of this minority projected as soon as 1897 in the case of »A camp of Zingari Gypsies« (UK, 1897), or somewhat later the two versions of »Carmen«, in 1915 (USA) by Cecil B. DeMille and in 1918 (Germany) by Ernest Lubitsch, featuring Pola Negri.
The presence of Romani women on screen is as old as cinema itself.
In these early films, the Roma character was an element of mystery or the object of desire and lust. Either hypersexualized or embodying black magic, the figure of Romani women on screen reflected how the majority perceived this community, specifically the women. In other words, the representation of Roma women put forward the white male fantasy projected onto racialized, exotic bodies.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in her seminal essay »Can the Subaltern Speak?« (1988) addresses the problematic position of the Other, a woman of color in this case, and the struggle to construct her discourse without the mediation of a white-centered ideology. Spivak wonders whether Postcolonial Studies, as an academic position of enunciation, instead of dismantling, rather reaffirms the colonial practices. Moreover, she shows concern for Subaltern Studies: Spivak acknowledges its raison-de-être, yet she argues that the privileged position from which the knowledge is articulated prevents the possibility of granting the subaltern a voice:
»In seeking to learn to speak to (rather than listen to or speak for) the historically muted subject of the subaltern woman, the postcolonial intellectual systematically unlearns female privilege. This systematic unlearning involves learning to critique postcolonial discourse with the best tools it can provide and not simply substituting the lost figure of the colonized. Thus, to question the unquestioned muting of the subaltern studies is not, as Jonathan Culler suggests, to ›produce difference by differing‹ or to ›appeal ... to a sexual identity defined as essential, and privileged experiences with that identity‹.« (Spivak 1988, 91)
Therefore, despite the existence of intellectuals from former colonies, as Spivak herself, she states the impossibility for a subaltern to speak, instead they are spoken for: »Representation has not withered away. The female intellectual as intellectual has a circumscribed task which she must not disown with a flourish« (Spivak 1988, 104).
However, female filmmakers from different minority groups proved that the subaltern, although with great difficulties at times, indeed can have a voice and speak for themselves. Despite the cinematic apparatus channeling the white male vision, along with his fantasies and interests, nevertheless, women managed to appropriate and reshape the filmic language to articulate their own experience.
In the following pages I will examine several films by Romani women directors who through cinematic devices form a different, female- and Roma- centered subjectivity, redefining the Romani identity, and exploring the female Roma experience. The questions that guide my analysis are the following: How do the directors position themselves towards their subjects? Who do they address? How do they navigate between the static binary opposition of tradition vs. modernity? What genre do they choose to best express themselves? To answer these queries, I will first provide background on the feminist perspectives that inform my approach.
In 1975 Laura Mulvey published »Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema«, a decisive text for feminist spectatorship, where she unveiled how traditional cinema reinforces the socially established sexual differences, and how it operates as a phallocentric tool to fix women as an object of male sexual desire. Mulvey, through the prism of psychoanalysis, studies how »the magic of Hollywood style (and of all the cinemas which fell within its sphere of influence) arose [...] from its skilled and satisfying manipulation of visual pleasure. Unchallenged, mainstream film coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order.« (Mulvey 1976, 59)
The cinematic apparatus creates ways of looking, and the gaze that the audience identifies with is the male gaze. Mulvey’s study triggered further analysis not only of traditional film, but also called attention to how alternative gazes are created, and how female subjectivity can be constructed.
However, in order to grasp the complexities of these films by Romani women directors, it is necessary to go beyond Mulvey’s proposal and acknowledge that the female subjectivity is not one, but there are multiple positions of female subjectivity, where racial and socio-economic factors play an important role. Assuming all women have the same world experience simplifies and reduces female reality into a monolithic outcome.
Bell hooks adds to Mulvey’s analysis: »Feminist theory rooted in an ahistorical psychoanalytic framework that privileges sexual difference actively suppresses recognition of race reenacting and mirroring the erasure of black womanhood that occurs in film« (1992, 123). Indeed, Black and Third World Feminists provide a discursive framework that facilitates the study of Romani women both behind and in front of the camera.
Pertinently, Hamid Nacify explains:
Despite the importance of acknowledging the heterogeneity of female Romani filmmakers, being perceived as a racialized voice is a common characteristic of their work. Other characteristics are displacement—Roma being depicted on screen as enduring forced geographical relocation (in opposition to the romanticized wandering often associated with this community)—and the symbolic erasure of their presence in the public sphere.
»Immigrants, refugees, exiles, nomads, and the homeless also move in and out of these discourses as metaphors, tropes, and symbols but rarely as historically recognized producers of critical discourses themselves« (1993, 2).
Romani women filmmakers with their work reclaim their bodies and voices, rejecting their passive role as exotic illusions, and articulating their own positions.
Self-definition of Romani women
The process of identity construction has been a central concern for female filmmakers, especially for racialized and/or displaced minority groups. Stuart Hall’s reflection on the complex process of identity-building illustrates the fragile position of Romani women:
»Identity is formed at the unstable point where the unspeakable stories of subjectivity meet the narratives of history, of a culture. And since he/she is positioned in relation to cultural narratives which have been profoundly expropriated, the colonized subject is always somewhere else: doubly marginalized, displaced, always other than where he/she is, or is able to speak from.« (1996, 115)
The question remains: What does it mean to be a Romani woman? This is a central question Katalin Bársony (Hungary) poses in her work as a director, producer and head of the Romedia Foundation. The Foundation is an independent organization run by Roma, whose purpose is to inform the wide public on the realities of the Roma community and their experience, establishing the need to fight stereotypes. In this spirit, Bársony directed and produced »Mundi Romani« (2007-2011), a film series portraying Roma from around the globe.
Similarly, Galya Stoyanova (Bulgaria) explores Roma womanhood in her debut film »Pages of my Book« (Hungary, 2013). This film, as the synopsis points out, not only criticizes the non-Roma majority society, but also explores Stoyanova’s own position regarding the Romani stereotype. Stoyanova’s self-representation, being the subject of her own film, involves a traditional Romani dress and a camera—two elements that are striking at first, as they don’t seem to belong together in the same frame. Yet this unusual combination (tradition and technology) is only the starting point for the staging of the director.
With the camera in hand, Stoyanova walks the streets of Budapest documenting the reactions of passers-by. She is being stared at, but in return she also looks back.1 The camera, as an extension of her, becomes a tool, a weapon with which Stoyanova fights back the majority. The director’s voice as the voiceover tells the audience:
»I thought that dressing like traditional Roma would be challenging for the people around me, but on the contrary, it was challenging for me«.
The short film is a sociological study to some extent, an experiment where Stoyanova challenges not only the majority society, but above all, herself, by being treated as the Other. The film is in fact »pages of her book«, as the title reminds us, a story that she writes, and where she defines her own identity. The possessive adjective »my« in the title is important, as it clearly states whose voice we hear.
»I was born in Italy, my identity document is Italian, but my passport is Bosnian, yet my identity is a different one, I am Romani«.
With this claim, Halilovic initiates a journey of self-discovery. The film can be considered a coming-of-age story where the director reflects on the balance between her dreams and the expectations her family has for her.
Halilovic’s own voice is decisive in this documentary: she not only states her will to her family as she refuses to marry the man chosen for her, but she also claims her place in the cinematic circle. The mention of Woody Allen goes beyond her genuine admiration of the avowed filmmaker. I believe this symbolic gesture bears a deeper meaning, as she inscribes herself within a larger cinematic tradition, thus securing her position as a director.
Discovering identity, in this case discovering Roma identity, is the point of departure in the documentary »Alica« (Czech Republic, 2015). In the film Vera Lackova (Slovakia) converses with Alice Sigmund Heráková, whose mixed ethnicity (Czech and Roma) puts her in a privileged position to analyze the complex relation between Roma and the majority society in Czechia, as noted in the synopsis. Lackova, who also appears in the documentary, creates an intimate atmosphere for interactions: for example, scenes at Alica’s home, sharing her experiences over a coffee or when cooking a meal—these scenes resonate well with a female audience, for whom certain spaces, such as the kitchen, became not only opportunities to strengthen sisterhood, but also a site of resistance through everyday practices.2
Tradition and modernity as complementary
Women of color are frequently defined by a set of binary oppositions; however, films by Romani filmmakers break through this dichotomy in many aspects. Trinh T. Minh-ha, filmmaker and theorist warns:
»The precarious line we walk on is one that allows us to challenge the West as the authoritative subject of feminist knowledge, while also resisting the terms of binarist discourse that would concede feminism to the West all over again« (1992, 153).
This observation aptly points out the tradition vs. modernity dichotomy, where the former is seen as being synonymous with either underdevelopment or purity and the latter with advancement or soullessness, depending on the perspective. Yet, the construction of subjectivity in these films offers a continuum between these apparent polarities. For instance, Stoyanova in »Pages of My Book« (Hungary, 2013) points out her insecurity about her traditional appearance, and comments on her fear to encounter the looks of the majority. This attitude changes when an elderly Romani woman praises her for her beauty. Her strength to complete the project and shed her fears comes symbolically from an older, more traditional generation, who shows her support.
The connection between generations is a recurrent aspect in the cinematographic work by Romani women. The passing of knowledge from elders to the next generation entails the creation of an oral archive critical for the existence of the Roma community. The women—who are mothers and educators—are responsible for this transmission.
»Tales from the Endless Road« (Finland, 2002) is one of the puppet film series by Katariina Lillqvist (Finland), in which the Finish Romani director explores the act of storytelling. As noted in the synopsis, the tales are framed as a grandmother’s storytelling time with her granddaughter; the grandmother introduces the audience to the stories with the opening line »Once upon a time«, recounting the genealogy of the Roma community. With this work Lillqvist contributes to the oral archive of Roma.
The director, as a modern storyteller, becomes the guardian of knowledge, and passes it on, as does the grandmother, to the spectator. The film, similarly to a palimpsest, rewrites and adds to the previous narration. Naficy notes that cinema is like a document of memory:
»[They] are using the film’s frame as a writing tablet on which appear multiple text in original languages and in translation in the form of titles, subtitles, intertitles, or blocks of text« (Naficy 2001, 25).
Films not to forget
Louise (Pisla) Helmstetter (France) also examines the importance of intergenerational knowledge, but she takes a different approach to remember the past and the customs of her community. »From the Source to the Sea« (France, 1989) [fil_00189], is a film about the traditional pilgrimage Romani people take to Saintes-Mairies de la Mer to venerate Saint Sarah, nostalgically looking back to the times when Roma wandered freely and were close to Mother Nature.
The documentary is like a poem: the lyrical form is conveyed not only through the voice of the narrator, but also through various scenes, such as the Helmsetters enjoying nature, diegesis with birds singing in the background, or long shots of symbolic Roma items, such as the wheel. All these details allow for the construction of a subjective voice that establishes an intimate connection with the viewer.
However, the illusion is shattered by the editorial work. General shots with a travelling camera are juxtaposed with shots by a hand held camera in a manner where the audience is not allowed to forget about the artifice of the cinematic apparatus. Traces of home video-making prevent this documentary from having a »smooth«, suture-like development. I argue that the author aims to break with the ethnographic, »objective« documentary style, revealing the artifice and fictional character of this subgenre.
If we consider documentaries as a cinematic form of oral tradition, highly meaningful for the Romani community, then for example testimonies from WWII must be understood as homage to those forgotten by history. This is the central theme of the collaborative work between Katrin Seybold and Melanie Spitta in »Das falsche Wort: Wiedergutmachung an Zigeunern (Sinti) in Deutschland?« (Germany, 1987). The documentary regarding the Pharrajimos goes beyond condemning the atrocities of deportations to concentration camps and denouncing the majority society for forgetting about the Roma victims, but also reports on the poor system of reparations by the German government.
»Das falsche Wort« underlines the sufferings of the German Sinti and Roma, and criticizes the German society for their lack of effort in honoring the memory of the Romani victims of the Porrajimos. Simultaneously, the film proposes to recover historical memory through collecting testimonies of survivors and relatives of the victims. The slow pace of the film, with very little editing, especially during the interviews, allows the spectator to participate, together with the directors, in the act of listening and thus honoring the memory of the murdered. In this manner, the documentary becomes a form of activism, an act of advocacy for the recuperation of the lost voices in this historical narrative.
Documentary as a form of activism
Devoting a documentary to a cause is a recurrent drive for female Romani directors, and it is also common for many filmmakers who are members of silenced minorities. A documentary is a natural site of resistance where women can cultivate their response to systemic marginalization. Thomas Vaugh, coining the term »committed documentary«, defines this practice as the following:
»By commitment I mean firstly a specific ideological undertaking, a declaration of solidarity with the goal of radical socio-political transformation. Secondly, I mean a specific socio-political positioning: activism, or intervention in the process of change itself.« (1984, xiv)
Such is the approach Leonor (Portugal) takes in her lyric and yet violent film, »Batrachian Ballad« (Portugal, 2016). The director questions the Portuguese tradition of placing ceramic frogs at the entrances of houses or businesses in order to ward off Roma. Not only does Teles bring the viewers’ attention to this fable, but she also takes action, and while shooting the film, she rebelliously smashes the animal sculptures.
As put forward in the synopsis, the director justifies her actions: »It was necessary to break the frogs. If I hadn’t broken them, if I had done nothing to stop that, I wouldn’t be truly addressing the issue, I would be merely concealing it«. The act might be seen as symbolic, yet it is immediately transformative of its own reality.
Filmmaking is necessary for Romani women in order to claim their power in society. Katalin Bársony, in conferences and interviews, often highlights the importance of technology, namely cinema and television, to empower Romani people and combat anti-Gypsyism. Documentaries as a genre fit the politics of advocacy best: it provides a structure in which the director can communicate with the viewer, creating an intimate and unmediated relationship.
The position of the filmmaker is a difficult one. As Galya Stoyanova, someone who is aware of the responsibilities that come with this representation, underlines in an interview with Romedia:
»People today have this huge expectation on your shoulders being a filmmaker; they think you should know so much [...]. Specially documentaries, they are one of the hardest [...]. I think the title of being a filmmaker is very heavy.«
Romani women, in front and behind the camera, or in both positions simultaneously, as is the case with Stoyanova, Lackova, or Halilovic, all are keenly aware of the challenges of cinematographic work, yet have embarked on the journey of regaining their voice in order to speak up. Romani female directors have broken the silence that has been imposed on them as subalterns, and have begun gaining ground in the struggle for power that is implicit in the act of representation.