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Thursday, 29 March 2012 07:45

Nomadic reverie - Romanies in cinema

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Who are today's nomads? Tourists, artists, gypsies, students, seasonal workers, or immigrants? The many conflicts that still arise in today's Europe between states and nomads like the Romanies should incline us to take a look at what nomadism really is, how the European community perceives it, and what our national borders and policies do to it.

Tony Gatlif, an Algerian-born French director of Romani ethnicity dedicated his artistic life to portraying Europe's biggest and oldest nomadic community. The Romani people (otherwise called gypsies, tsigans, gitan, halab, bohemians) are said to have left India in the direction of Europe around two thousand years ago. In "Latcho Drom" ("Safe Journey," 1993) Gatlif begins a journey retracing the paths of those nomads who later became Romanies. Wandering through the lands of India, Egypt, Turkey, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, France and Spain, the silent camera participates in the journey and the musical traditions of today's nomads.

Devoid of any dialogue or articulated comments, the film's strong images nevertheless carry an explicit political message. The story starts in the deserts of Rajastan in northern India, where certain communities still live a traditional nomadic life in the wilderness. One cannot help but see these images as an artistic celebration of the idea of nomadic freedom. These young, graceful and beautiful nomads travelling through a timeless space, practising mystic rituals, are presented as the semi-mythological prototypes of the Romanies. Gradually moving towards Europe, the images lose their abstract and idealistic sense. On their way to Europe, the travellers encounter hunger, accommodation problems and prejudice. The film shows the nomads' journey out of India as a road towards poverty, eternal exile and struggle with western urbanisation. The film ends in Spain where a Romani community is just being evicted. As the scene takes place, the famous flamenco artist La Caita sings: "Why does you wicked mouth spit on me? / Sometimes I find myself envying the respect you give to your dog."

The Romani people have been present in Europe for centuries but their identity and place in European society is still far from being defined. Throughout time the they have been regularly subjected to brutal assimilation policies and discrimination. The twentieth century has without doubts been the hardest period for this wandering nation. In the thirties, several countries developed policies aimed at separating gypsy children from their parents and placed them in re-education centres or even psychiatric hospitals in order to get rid of the "degenerate element." Later on, the WWII genocide killed an estimated one million Romanies. Into the seventies, Czechoslovakia, Sweden and Switzerland practised forced sterilisation in order to limit the growth of the Romani society. In the Czech Republic there were reports about forced sterilisation until 2001.

The "Romani issue" became visible once again in 2007 when Romania - home to one of the biggest Romani communities - entered the European Union. Since then, acts of violence have been multiplying, with a culmination in the massive repatriation of Romani immigrants from France in 2010. But you have to wonder whether nomads can really be "immigrants," if they do not have a state of their own.

Europe is promoting a mobile community. Borders are open. Education, business and art rely on international relations. The ethos of the educational virtue of travelling is still alive. So what makes one traveller better or worse than another? There's no question about it - it's nomadism itself. The nomadic lifestyle is contradictory to the notion of state, which is linked to a fixed territory. The western understanding of state has accustomed us to building our sense of identity and recognition of other’s identities on belonging to a stable space or network. People who cannot be identified with a specifically located community are automatically situated outside law and discipline, hence provoke mistrust and feelings of threat - the source of all negative stereotypes against Romani people.

Can we learn anything new from this ongoing conflict? If we can accept that we learn most by taking an outsider's look at our own culture, the Romanies' presence in Europe can be seen as an important and constant questioning of fundamental European notions of identity and state. Through its distilled and aesthetic images, Latcho Drom's nomadic reverie brings us back to the essence of these questions.

Last modified on Thursday, 29 March 2012 13:44
Monika Proba

Monika Proba studied culture anthropology in Warsaw and Paris. She is currently living in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. In Café Cinema she will be tracking images of Europe in classical and modern cinema.

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