Award winning filmmaker discusses the misleading portrayal of Roma in film and the next generation attempting to change it.
For as long as cinema has existed, there has been no shortage of films portraying Roma people as homeless, smugglers, fortune tellers, beggars or street musicians. But a new platform aims to show a more inclusive portrayal of the Roma community, with different stories and realities of ordinary lives that transcend these ‘exotic’ and ‘victimized’ Roma characterizations.
Together with a small staff of filmmakers and producers, award winning independent filmmaker Sami Mustafa recently launched FOCUS! Roma Youth Cinema Project with a selection of 100 films made by or about Roma. Based on the entrenched belief of cinema’s power to fight for human rights, the project aims to combat stereotypes and racism against Roma communities through increasing the number of quality film events and associated educational activities.
Mustafa, a Kosovar Roma who is currently based in France, has produced, directed or written scripts for more than 20 documentaries, docu-fictions and promotional films about his community, human rights and NGO projects in Kosovo, Serbia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and France. His films have won several prizes, and have been screened at prestigious film festivals — including Cannes in 2007 (“Road to Home”).
FOCUS! is the culmination of Mustafa’s work with the Rolling Film Festival, an initiative originally established by the NGOs Romawood, which he leads, and Balkan Sunflowers. As artistic director, he has played a key role in helping to make the festival one of Kosovo’s most acclaimed cultural events, while providing a dynamic venue for supporting the artistic expression of Roma youngsters and simultaneously bringing films on Roma and by Roma to the screen. While the festival is expected to roll out again in October, the recently launched project can be used as a reference for other international festivals and anybody who wants to learn more about Roma filmmakers or topics featuring Roma.
Besides the database of films made by and about Roma, the FOCUS! project also contains educational screening kits on various topics that educators and film professionals can freely download to help design an educational program around a screening, a five-day training curriculum for youth workers, and tips on how to organize film screenings and film festivals on Roma issues.
Sami Mustafa’s own work have been screened at renowned film festivals, including Cannes. Photo courtesy of Sami Mustafa.
K2.0 talked with Mustafa over Skype to discuss the idea behind his new project, how filmmakers can do more to accurately portray Roma realities and the power of film to fight deeply ingrained stereotypes.
K2.0: ‘Films made by and about Roma’ has been the focus of the Rolling Film Festival since 2009 —- now it is also at the heart of your new FOCUS! Roma Youth Cinema Project. How did this transition come about?
Sami Mustafa: The FOCUS! project starts with the idea of the Rolling Film Festival, basically. Because, really the hardest part about organizing such a festival has been actually getting access to these movies. Sometimes, before the editions [of the festival] people would spend a lot of time finding the movies, and that would last for months — actually getting to know these movies and writing to people, and writing to institutions and cultural centers to just actually learn more about the movies.
We had the first edition, the second, the third and so on, and films started to pile in. As you see, there are lots of films, lots of important topics to be [made] accessible to everybody, and we thought: ‘What are we going to do now?’
Lots of people have been approaching us to consult on Roma films for their kind of special programs that they have in their own festivals, for example. And most of the time this was something that I was doing in my free time — helping at other festivals — and this was taking a lot of time. In the end … we [the NGOs Romawood in Kosovo, Somany in France, and Phiren Amenca in Hungary] had the idea that we would create this resource center and that these films could be accessible to anybody. All this long work has been done to discover these films.
These movies are not just a collection, not just a database but tell stories and histories and sharing and understanding between all these themes, topics and discussions you can create. And some of them are really really beautiful films.
"We basically collected 100 movies from the 1920s onward; the problem is that until the 1970s very few films were made about Roma."
What kind of access to the films do visitors to the website have? Is it the main information about them, or can people also watch the movies?
At the moment we only have a list of the films, and then you have all the technical information about the films. Also you have the contact details to contact the filmmakers or the distribution company to have access to the filmmaker. There are many films that people have already put online or on YouTube. But at the moment, it is really a platform where you have more information on how to access these movies.
The website says that it includes 100 films. Is there any symbolism behind the number?
With 100 what we tried to do was to celebrate the 100 years of [Roma in] cinema. By this, we mean starting from [Charlie] Chaplin, as many people consider Chaplin to have come from Roma ancestors. We actually tried to make some kind of timeline of the films that were lined up from the point where he actually made his first film — one of his first recognized movies — called “the Vagabond.”
So, we basically collected 100 movies from the 1920s onward; the problem is that until the 1970s very few films were made about Roma. And lots of films have been produced after 2000, especially documentaries.
Why do you think there has been more interest from filmmakers in dealing with topics relating to Roma people since 2000? Or has it to do with the fact that there has been an increased number of filmmakers from a Roma background in recent years?
I imagine that this comes with the new and accessible filmmaking equipment and the increased number of independent filmmakers and activists with it. A few Roma filmmakers have emerged as well, but the number of films produced by Roma is not so high. About 300 (or even more) films have been produced since 2000 about the Roma community, and maybe about 7 to 10 internationally acclaimed movies by Roma, including those by Tony Gatlif.
Many film critics argue that Roma protagonists on screen are often hyperbolized, stereotyped and romanticized in their portrayals. How do you see this?
This was also one of the reasons that we started with the [Rolling Film] Festival. The best example is with [Emir] Kusturica movies. His work is brought to a mass audience, creating all these negative images about Roma, which have nothing to do with reality. And even though you sit down and watch his movies, you laugh your ass off, you love the movies, you love the characters, when you have a second thought about it … it is not the reality.
"Lots of filmmakers tend to show the worst parts — the clichés that everybody knows."
And this is the reason why we have never shown, for example, any Kusturica movies [at the festival] — I have showed “Time of the Gypsies,” but this was because of the film’s political connection and not because of his interpretation of Roma.
The collection of films that we show, films that are not romanticized, films that are not exoticized [is the main focus of the festival]. And of course there are lots of films, and different realities, with lots of poverty in them and with people who are not educated and who are in horrific situations; this is a reality that you cannot avoid in these kinds of movies. But with films like “Spartacus and Cassandra,” you get to know those people by watching them and you love them and you enjoy cinema — and that’s it. There is nothing about the Roma, there is nothing about the generalization, there is nothing about targeting people or putting people in a box.
Basically, this is what I also try to do with my movies. As a Roma filmmaker I made “Trapped by Law,” which tells the story of two brothers. But I don’t bring the question of Roma into it. We purely showed how they are surviving and how they go through life. And this is something that is unfortunately missing a lot; everybody wants to… lots of filmmakers tend to show the worst parts — the clichés that everybody knows. Showing something different, other than exoticism and romanticism [is needed].
In 2015, Mustafa released his documentary film “Trapped by Law,” which features the struggles of two brothers deported to Kosovo from Germany in 2010. Photo of Kafaet Prizreni from the filming of “Trapped by Law,” courtesy of Sami Mustafa.
Such exoticization and romanticization of the Roma community is however a distinctive feature in many movies. Do you think that this kind of portrayal has distracted attention away from the actual reality, and underestimates systematic discrimination?
Not only is there exoticization and romanticization but also a victimizing portrayal of the Roma community that serves to systematize discrimination. This is where self-representation is important. In some parts of Europe, Roma still live in caravans, in some others they are banned from living in caravans, in others countries ghettos and extreme poverty provoke the ‘inspiration’ of filmmakers/artists that go beyond the reality.
Many Yugoslav movies feature the lives of Roma people. And many would argue that in Yugoslavia Roma people had a higher visibility for the first time as a result of being featured in such movies. But, generally speaking, do you think that Yugoslav film was in any way fair in the representation of Roma people? Or did it influence deeply rooted prejudices even further?
Roma lifestyle and culture have inspired many filmmakers to produce movies about them. There are those who have portrayed the Roma reality, such as in “Skupljači Perja” (“I Even Met Happy Gypsies”) by Aleksandar Petrović, [but] in “Crna Mačka, Beli Mačor” (“Black Cat, White Cat”) by Emir Kusturica he takes the imaginary Gypsies that we ‘like’ to see on our screens to a whole new level — funny, magic and criminals, which derives from our systematic imagination of stereotypes and discrimination.
You suggested that it’s not necessarily only Roma filmmakers who should deal with topics concerning the Roma community. But do you think that there is a difference in approaching storylines for Roma and non-Roma filmmakers?
It’s hard to tell sometimes, as there are a great number of amazing movies about Roma made by non-Roma filmmakers, and unfortunately there are those directors who portray the Roma communities only as thieves and criminals. The sensibility of the topics is based on the already established knowledge [stereotypes] and they rely on their personal reference to this.
So, I think there are both. Sometimes it is hard to see the difference, and sometimes there is a huge difference. And because the film market is huge and very competitive, the 10 [or so widely acclaimed] Roma filmmakers in the world might not make a huge difference but they will pave the path for a newer and younger generation of filmmakers.
The films in the FOCUS! project are placed into thematic categories, such as assimilation, Roma holocaust, Roma women activism. How much do you feel these topics are discussed and presented in the media?
I don’t think there is much of it. I see it because I am involved with that. I am in a bubble of people who are always circulating the same information. So there is information on that. But there are many who don’t know about it, they do not know what it is to be a Roma activist, what it means to be one.
The very close group of people see what is going on and they understand what is going on. For example, if you are talking about the forced deportation of Roma from Germany to Kosovo [following an agreement signed between the two countries], we know in Kosovo that there are Roma coming back from Germany, and this is also obvious because we all of a sudden see new faces in the village.
But, for example, people in Germany know nothing about the deportation of Roma from Germany to Kosovo. And when I was making [“Trapped by Law”], for example, I realized that nobody knows about this issue. I could see that there are a few articles going on, people writing about it, people demonstrating against it, and this is again the circle that keeps me in the bubble about this issue.
Mustafa portrays the various realities for Roma people in his work, but highlights that this is one of the exceptions to the norm. Photo of Selami Prizreni from filming of “Trapped by Law,”courtesy of Sami Mustafa.
And we are not talking about [only the movie’s] two brothers who have been deported, but it is more than 10,000 people and they are still being deported today. I think it is not about people ignoring the issue, but the media doesn’t pay enough attention to actually deliver the message to the rest.
It is the same for [Roma victims of] the Holocaust, which has become a huge topic in the last few years, to actually recognize the Roma Holocaust during World War II. And this [struggle for recognition] has been going on for many years — a fight by a few people who wanted it to be recognized. And it just now that finally some countries have recognized the [Roma] Holocaust. But again, people do not know about these kinds of issues.
When governments fail to improve lives, despite producing multiple documents and policies, can cinema help to fill this gap of fighting injustice and exclusion?
I believe so, and the only thing I believe in is art and culture, including cinema in this case. It is the only way to understand different people, to understand the position of different communities, different minorities and people coming from all different countries.
Then of course you have the political question of how to improve people’s conditions, and then they always put stuff on paper, and there has been a lot of stuff on paper and there is still stuff on paper. Roma in Europe have been here since the Middle Ages and are one of the largest communities in Europe. And even today, what is happening in France, which is driving me completely nuts, and which is not the case in Kosovo, is that you know people are completely separated, that they are outside of society completely.
"With the cinema you have all those stories; it is a powerful tool to change people’s minds by looking at different stories, by looking at different people."
It has been going on for years and decades and it’s still the same and nothing has changed. What is changing is the time — people are getting old, and new people are growing up, and the efforts by the [French] government to improve the lives of Roma here is absolutely zero. In Kosovo it is a political question, a situation in Kosovo where lots of people do not work anyway, but I think it is very much different in France.
I do not believe in policies. I think they should implement whatever they say. With the cinema … you have all those stories; it is a powerful tool to change people’s minds by looking at different stories, by looking at different people; this is touching people’s lives and touching people’s hearts as well. Because it is not that you just watch a film about other people, but most of the time you reflect on the life of these people. This is where cinema is a very powerful tool for playing a role in society and better understanding other people, other communities.
Many filmmakers in the world in different interviews mention their hometown as a source of inspiration, with childhood memories having a great impact later on their work. What about you? What impact has Plemetina had on your work?
We are all built or grown with different influences on what makes us who we are today. Filmmakers and artists tend to tell or show these differences because it is a safe reference to what we believe, and we also believe that there is more than just living in small neighborhoods and ghettos.
Growing up in Plemetina made me who I am today. Living with Roma, Serb and Albanian community, each of us in our own corner, and it seemed to me that it was pretty much normal until the war happened. This is when the ghettos were created, preventing us from moving outside of the villages, and we all blame each other. Since then, with the movies I’ve made, with the festivals I’ve organized, I’ve tried to bring these people together, to remind us of who we used to be, to understand each other better.K
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. The interview was conducted in English.