Andrea Pócsik

The Eastern Narrative and Filmic Representation in Relation to Roma


All nations have myths about their origin. The cultural memory of the Roma has preserved several such myths; some are myths of creation with Biblical elements, while others are tales of their own origin. While recounting these tales is beyond the scope of this paper, I will highlight two of the myths, both of which have appeared on screen and symbolically embody the central topic of this essay: the differences between the representation of Roma in the East and West. This analysis is conducted in conversation with Bohumira Smidakova’s essay about the Western narrative of Roma representation.

The Romany Mirror and Once We Were Birds

Both types of myths relate to the period of wandering, but in a very different manner. Tales from an Endless Road (Finland, 2002) is a six-part series of puppet animation by Katariina Lillqvist about the move away from India. The English title refers to the genre and the act of wandering, while the title in Romani, Mire bala kale hin (I Have Black Hair, Finland, 2002) refers to the myth of origin, which is also present in the Hungarian animated film, Doja, the Gypsy Fairy (Hungary, 2015).1

Cigánymesék: Doja a cigánytündér | fil_00060_m1_i1 Rights held by: Mária Horváth | Licensed by: Kecskemétfilm Ltd. | Licensed under: Rights of Use | Provided by: Kecskemétfilm Ltd. (Kecskemét/Hungary)

One episode that is worth mentioning here is the Romany Mirror, which describes Roma who, while journeying from India, were invited by the Persian king to entertain his Royal Court with their music. An important element of the beginning of this migration is the provision of music as a service, which is in fact an integral part of Roma history, outlining possible forms of assimilation and symbolically defining varieties of their culture. This is precisely what I consider a foundational myth of ‘Western’ representation.

Latcho Drom | fil_00227_m1_i1 Rights held by: Tony Gatlif | Licensed by: KG Productions | Licensed under: Rights of Use | Provided by: KG Productions (Montreuil/France)

The themes of music, wandering, assimilation and separation are characteristic of several films in the Archival selection (e.g. Tony Gatlif’s Latcho Drom (France, 1993), Pisla Helmstetter’s From the Source to the Sea (France, 1989) and another episode of the aforementioned Katariina Lillqvist puppet series, The Black Sarah (Finland, 2002)). The French pilgrimage site Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is an important place of worship which links the arrival of Roma in Europe to Biblical motifs. Roma, Sinti, Manush, Gitanos and Travellers from all parts of Europe, but mainly from Western and Southern Europe, visit the statue of Saint Sarah (the patron saint of Roma) in the local church, while celebrating their transnational unity with dance and music.

In forms of ‘Eastern’ representation, this wandering is depicted through stylised, poetic means, as for instance in Once We Were Birds (Russia, 1982) or The Never Existed Gypsyland (Hungary, 2010). The latter is a myth of origin in an animated film directed by Katalin Macskássy; the birds in the film symbolise Roma, who come down to eat until they overeat to the point that they can no longer fly. This story represents the sin of greed as a ‘fatal’ action, which, according to the film, ‘explains’ the social and economic situation of the Roma who gave up their freedom.

Images of a ‘Nation without History’

Bohumira Smidakova presents an important ‘Western’ narrative through the history of and changes to images of Roma from Spain, and analyses the figure of the Gitano as a building block of national discourse. My goal is to formulate an ‘Eastern’ narrative of this representation, mainly by using illustrative Hungarian case studies.

The relevant literature is only partially available; while some authors touch upon this subject, they rely almost exclusively on examples from the arts (i.e. literature and fine art). A key figure in this topic is Katie Trumpener, a German literary historian whose work analyses Roma representation and the relationship between conceptualisations of specific historical events (e.g. the persecution of Roma during Nazism) and the representation of Roma as a group outside history. The concept of ‘sub-human Otherness’ resembles that of the subaltern in postcolonial theories, evoking the position of discursive (and real) subordination.

Another important work to mention is Éva Kovács’ analysis of the Roma image in Hungarian art. Kovács argues:

‘Central European societies create their own “Blacks” of the “wild” groups and individuals, through remote and near colonies. In the panoptic regime of modernity in Central Europe, “Gypsies” will become the pendants of the African and Asian “primitives” in Western Europe.’2

Kovács 2009, 84

In the sections below I will introduce four consecutive periods of Roma representation and show that from the era of Enlightened Absolutism through to modernity the representation of Roma musicians and their music was closely related to nation-building and national independence in Central and Eastern Europe. At the turn of the century, and subsequently, their representation focused on the marginal (social) situation of the Roma.

‘Migratory Swallows’

The first period extends from the age of Enlightened Absolutism until the end of the nineteenth century. At this point it is still too early to talk about technical visual representation; the appearance of photographs and film is going to be critical for the development of the modern Roma image. What is important during this period is the evolving society of linguistically assimilated Roma musicians, as a result of violent state aspirations aiming at Roma assimilation, the spread of Romani music as a service, and their role in the Hungarian nation-building process. As a result, Roma are increasingly represented (e.g. in media illustrations or literature) with motifs related to music and wandering – images that become either stronger or somewhat altered over time.

Emese Révész, in her analysis of illustrations in Hungarian media between 1850 and 1870, writes:

‘All the attention that turned to [Roma] can only partially be explained by the tradition of romanticism, where wandering lifestyle embodied the freedom, as the foundation of individual self-determination, and at the same time symbolized the state of social marginalization. After the loss of national independence, wandering Gypsies were paralleled with Hungarians deprived of their rights in their own country, as well as freedom fighters forced to hide as fugitives, and stateless emigrants. “This nation is like migratory swallows, they have no home, no religion, no national dresses [...], a group persecuted everywhere, banished from everywhere and yet they are everywhere” – these were lines of compassion derived from Képes Világ [World in Pictures].’3

Révész 2015, 297–305

‘Born to be a poet... born to be a rogue’4

In the next period, from the end of the nineteenth century until the end of 1910s, in the era of visual-centred modernity it was the spread of the technical image and the popular press, along with societal changes, that brought about different patterns of representation. Péter Szuhay, in his historical study of photography, identified the following duality in the turn-of-the-century depiction of Roma in studio and ethnographic photographs:

‘The oldest images of Gypsies in the archives depict them like the wild men of Europe. The historical photographers of the 19th and 20th century, who preserved the Gypsy image in literature and fine arts from the second half of the 19th century, recognized two categories of Gypsies. One type of Gypsies is a conformist, obedient, complying with authority and general cultural norms, usually musicians; even if they are not too diligent, yet with their music they can amaze the audience and boost the reputation of the country. The opposite of these settled and jovial Gypsies are the wild and reckless, mysterious, unknowable, freedom-loving, but socially dangerous, wandering Gypsies. Photographers of this era were interested in the latter group. [...] Social scientists shot pictures of Gypsy groups outdoors, in their natural surroundings, while photographers preferred the studio environment to eternalize the exotic and wild side in their photographs.’5

Szuhay 2002, 98

Such attitudes were not Hungarian particularities: exhibiting and studying African and Asian ‘primitives’ as part of popular social science lectures, museum exhibitions, or even on postcards would define the portrayal of these groups for a long time to come.6

For example, in another study,7 with the help of a lost but reconstructed newsreel I analyse the Dános crime case, which was previously only known about through descriptions; at the time the case was sensationalised in popular media, mixed with fictional elements and typical genre characteristics (e.g. chicken thief). Wandering ‘Gypsies’ were the alleged suspects.8

My study involved a detailed analysis of the then dominant discourse of criminalised Otherness. I summarise the representative consequences of this case in the following manner:

‘The exotic primitives came to life on screen: they played their bad habits and reasons for being societal outcasts in entertaining and amusing scenes. This colorful fiction was complemented with the evidence of the suspects’ photo, which showed the suspects, the alleged murderers. In the films at the turn of the century, not only was fiction and reality mixed but also the Gypsy, identifiable with his/her phenotypical features (mainly dark skin), was constructed, whose recognition was made easier with the devices of film form and narration. The alleged or true negative characteristics of the criminalized wandering Gypsies now reached the stratified society much more effectively (targeting all senses of perception).’9

Pócsik 2017a, 121; Pócsik 2017b, 7

It is worth mentioning the traditions – literary and theatrical – of the filmic representation of African-Americans here. The main – and much quoted – characters from the nineteenth-century novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin10 later served as an inspiration for various products of popular culture.11

Symbolic exclusion was to some extent accompanied by ‘a rejection from the nation’: I highlighted this observation when drawing parallels between the aforementioned Dános case and the consequences of recent media habits. There are illustrative examples from all over Europe: while the targets in Western Europe are Roma from Eastern Europe who usually arrive as economic refugees, in Hungary and the surrounding region our own compatriots, who have been settled for centuries, fall victim to symbolic and physical exclusion.12

‘Wings of Art: Hungarian Intellectuals under Ideological and Political Pressure’

The heading above is quoted from the introduction to an exceptional cultural heritage of Romani musicians, which was preserved thanks to journalist Markó Miklós. The collection was first published in 1896, with a new edition appearing in 1927 under a title which translates as The Album of Gypsy Musicians – Portraits and Resumes of 48 Deceased Musicians and 65 Musicians Living in the Capital or the Countryside, with 13 Music Band Pictures and Portraits of 180 Assistant Musicians.

Soon the expanding nationalist ideology and political pressure exerted its power on the (filmic) representation of Roma. A later example that illustrates the consolidation of Romani musician stereotypes is a Hungarian melodrama from the 1940s called Pista Dankó (Hungary, 1941) by István Kalmár. While the subject of this film is not directly related to any politicised musicology debates, its distortions are, however, consistent with them. The fictional life-story of the famous composer in Pista Dankó portrays the victimhood of the male protagonist through intricate acts, played by the same actor (Pál Jávor) who depicted the cheerfully crying (sírva vigadó) gentry character in other genres.13

Julie Brown approaches this discourse from a postcolonial perspective, which was important beyond the field of musicology and influenced Béla Bartók’s folk music collection. The volume containing this study summarises the findings in the following way:

‘Brown traces the concept of “hybridity” through Bartók’s later essays, noting that, as his understanding of peasant and gypsy musics developed, and as he began to accept that peasant music was not without its own syncretisms, so his classification shifted to center on an opposition between the “bad hybridity” of gypsy music versus the “good hybridity” of peasant music. In this opposition, influenced by the Left mass culture critique, the gypsies were associated with the taint of urban and commercial music-making, while the peasantry were emblematic of a rural, natural state of musical grace. By the early 1930s, the threat of Americanization brought a reconfiguration in which Bartók came to value gypsy music as a specifically Hungarian urban popular music. In this same period, Brown argues, Bartók would have been aware of the rise of ultranationalist fascist parties in central Europe, and would have seen the parallels between his own original views of the gypsies and the extreme racist rhetoric and acts of oppression being enacted in Germany. In his late writings, Bartók developed a discourse of deracialized nationalism and portrayed gypsy music as a product of social oppression; while, Brown proposes, his Concerto for Orchestra (1942) enacted a kind of psychocultural reconciliation through its integration of gypsy and peasant musical elements.’14

Born und Hesmondhalgh 2000, 11

‘In the Spirit of Their Weepers...’15

In the post-war period, sociological approaches to forms of representation in film culture became dominant in Hungary (and most likely in other Central and Eastern European post-Socialist countries as well). In documentaries and feature films, depending on the ideological stance, different interpretations and analysis of ‘backwardness’ it became commonplace to portray disadvantaged social situations – something that has raised many problems besides being of value.

In some cases, the representation of Roma was associated with popular music culture (e.g. Goran Bregovic’s co-role and his orchestra’s cinematic brand in the films of Emir Kusturica), but it was mainly based on the position of victimhood. Negative stereotypes in the press, as well as cluttered clichés regarding education, housing and employment issues have further exacerbated the situation.

This manner of representation has obvious explanations and indisputable importance in the given social environment. The narrative of victimhood is also related to a Sándor Sára film (Gypsies, Hungary, 1962) which I analysed in an earlier study looking at its use of the Romani language. Another important film is Pál Schiffer’s Gyuri Cséplő (Hungary, 1978). In all the films from the region, however, the representation of culture – if present at all – is subordinated to social and economic issues. Of course, one should not ignore the force of political and ideological propaganda at the time as the background context of any claims which were made in films in order to stay within the limits of censorship.

It is questionable to what extent the narrative of victimhood weakened the efforts of Roma emancipation and the enforcement of their interests. This is a complex issue which can easily lead to speculation. One should also consider which options existed for achieving the legal protection of Roma with the help of film, yet without showing the serious consequences of exclusion. These issues are fundamental to film-making, especially forms of depicting misery on screen. It is therefore worth repeating the following questions once more, relying on critical theories (postcolonialism and feminism, along with their rich sources and useful terminology): How is the representation of a social situation constructed that prevents the conscious unlearning of the subordinate position? What kind of tools can contemporary filmmaking employ in order to undermine the paternalism entrenched in the attitudes towards people living in disadvantaged living conditions, and sometimes even their sense of solidarity?

Music can continue to play this role by creating an emotional and intellectual bridge, reaching out to people on the margins of society. There are several contemporary documentaries (some of them included in the RomArchive film collection) that contribute to the creation of an imaginary or real ‘emotional community’, characteristic of the folk culture of people living in rural areas.

In some cases, the music is also linked to the marketing strategy of the film: the Italian co-director of Gitanistan (Italy, 2014), musician and producer Claudio Giagnotti, not only introduces Solto’s Roma culture and family traditions, but also organises concerts with Roma folk motifs for film productions. Flamenco, Meeting with Spanish Gypsies (Sweden, 1962), black-and-white television documentary about cave-dwelling Roma which focused on the flamenco tradition, was shot in Spain by the Swedish filmmakers and photographers Dan Grenholm and Lennart Olson. In Flames of God (France, 2011), the poet Muzafer Bislim contributes a great deal to the preservation of Romanes not only with his writings and collections, but also with the lyrics he has written for young Roma musicians.

Pierluigi De Donno | Gitanistan - Lo Stato Immaginario dei Rom Salentini | Non Fiction | Italy | 2014 | fil_00194 Rights held by: Pierluigi De Donno — Claudio "Cavallo" Giagnotti | Licensed by: Pierluigi De Donno | Licensed under: Rights of Use | Provided by: Pierluigi De Donno – Private Archive
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 the documentary Gelem, Gelem (Germany, 1991), although the music plays a merely illustrative role, to set the mood, the title of the film, which is taken from the first line of the Roma anthem, can be considered to have a symbolic meaning in documenting an almost contemporary case of persecution and scattering. Music can also be an important tool for intercultural crossing, as for example in the film Remember (Ukraine, 2017), which concerns a Ukrainian woman passing on her memories to her granddaughter about her friendship with the only Roma survivor of the Porrajimos in the community. In this wartime story, a song in Romanes is of central and symbolic significance.

Sight Film Production | Pamyataty | fil_00358_m1_i1 Rights held by: Petro Rusanienko | Licensed by: Petro Rusanienko | Licensed under: Rights of Use | Provided by: Petro Rusanienko – Private Archive

In lieu of a conclusion, let me briefly sum up an episode from the puppet animation series, Songs of the Gallows (Finland, 2001–03) by Katariina Lillqvist in which memories play a similarly significant role. In my opinion, the Eastern and Western narratives fuse within this medieval legend based on historical sources. The Polish princess, Catherine Jagiellon, arrives in the court of the Finnish monarch, Juhana, to get married. In the empire, migratory Roma are severely punished for their lifestyle, not by forced assimilation, but by hanging.

Song of the Gallows | fil_00326_m1_i1 Rights held by: Pierluigi De Donno — Claudio "Cavallo" Giagnotti | Licensed by: Pierluigi De Donno | Licensed under: Rights of Use | Provided by: Pierluigi De Donno – Private Archive

The princess listens to the demands of the Roma musicians, and having heard the sound of their magical violins, she orders the destruction of the gallows. In this allegorical story, musical instruments and knowledge are tools that cause a certain transformation, while the act itself is based on solidarity and a kinship affinity which, in my point of view, is embodied in the brave rebellion of a woman (against male power) who is forced to leave her homeland.

The time of being ‘outside history’ has ended – at least this is what the transformative role and function of the archives demonstrates. Their use will simultaneously formulate and follow the approach of new generations.

Rights held by: Andrea Pócsik | Licensed by: Andrea Pócsik | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: RomArchive