From Film-Making to Policy-Making: Roma in the former Yugoslavia12 min read
The relationship between majority populations of Central and Eastern European nation-states and the Romani minority is a popular artistic topic. However, fictional renditions of Romani lives often share very little with the actual experiences of Roma people. The hit films I Even Met Happy Gypsies and Time of the Gypsies are not an exception: the male characters are having fun, the female characters are beautiful and suffering, and the Romani community is portrayed as guilty for its marginal position.
In order to approach them as critical viewers, we need to look back and examine images of Roma in European culture — for example, canonical works such as the very first Croatian novel The Goldsmith’s Treasure (August Šenoa, 1871), which hints at the clandestine Romani origin of a villain who threatens the female protagonist’s purity, and Serbian realist classic Bad Blood (Borislav Stanković, 1910), that contrasts the jovial lives of the Roma community with the heroine’s domestic boredom.
Cinematic representations are just as numerous. However, unlike the aforementioned books that depict Roma as plot devices to drive forward the narratives of white characters, two international hits, I Even Met Happy Gypsies (Aleksandar Petrović, 1967) and Time of the Gypsies (Emir Kusturica, 1988), portray somewhat isolated Serbian Romani communities and the various romantic and family relations within them.
Socialism in the making
Images of Roma have long been a staple in the Balkan cultures. Yet it is primarily non-Roma authors who are responsible for portraying them in films and literature. As a result, recognizable Gypsy myths and clichés, such as perceptions of Roma as criminal, lascivious or carefree and unbound by social conventions became widespread. While some early Yugoslav films challenged these notions by depicting social equality in the newly formed state and later films belonging to the so-called ‘Black Wave’ even attacked them, in general, assumptions about Roma remained mostly unchanged throughout the period.
Audiences did, however, begin flocking to theaters to see films that grappled with state-formation and modernity. These movies featured new types of protagonists including brave female partisans, a reunited couple kissing in front of a newly opened dam, and handsome fashion students in trendy Belgrade. I Even Met Happy Gypsies and Time of the Gypsies were equally popular with film critics who praised them for realistically representing Romani lives as well as with a broader audience drawn in by the dazzling performances of major stars and excellently produced soundtracks.
Reviewing these two movies is important because although they are frequently mentioned in Yugoslav film history and still lauded as classics, outside the field of Romani Studies, they have rarely faced critical examinations. I think that one of the reasons behind the films’ popularity is the fact that they encourage viewers to identify with images of Roma. The audience can watch them rest from being good comrades and ‘transgress in their own fantasy the imposed cultural boundaries’ or recognize similarities between representations of ‘Roma as fun-loving and underappreciated people’ and their own experiences in the West.
Produced during two of the more lenient periods of state socialism and, consequently, able to tackle issues of racial inequality, these films share much in terms of structure and character representation. While focused on forbidden affairs, the films have multiple narrative lines depicting characters who strive for upward mobility as well as their frequent clashes with state officials. Both feature copious amounts of singing and dancing. Yugoslav diva Olivera Katarina confirmed her star-status by performing Romani anthem ‘Gelem Gelem’ in I Even Met Happy Gypsies. The highlight of Time of the Gypsies’ soundtrack, authored by rock star turned producer Goran Bregović, is the hit song ‘Ederlezi’.
However, along with being critically acclaimed box-office successes that contributed to the visibility of Yugoslav Romani culture, both films largely seem to confirm viewers’ pre-existing biases about Roma people. Stereotypical images of ‘screen gypsies’ throughout the films, present Roma as fundamentally self-destructive saboteurs of the community’s attempts to rise above the grey economy. This is exacerbated by stylistic choices of the directors, which make these images seem so authentic that, in places, they could even be mistaken for documentaries.
Both I Even Met Happy Gypsies and Time of the Gypsies are set in Serbian province Vojvodina and display a variety of illicit behaviors which clearly make the Romani characters involved them seem like improper socialist subjects. Nevertheless, they still experience what Eduard Said labels ‘bizarre sense of jouissance’ or joy while drinking, gambling, and copulating.
I Even Met Happy Gypsies explores the rivalry between two feather gatherers, Beli Bora and Mirta, who compete for the local beauty Tisa. While both Bora and Mirta already have wives who are portrayed as stay-at-home mothers to numerous children, Bora manages to persuade a corrupt local priest to allow him to marry Tisa. Meanwhile, a second story-line follows Tisa who, after briefly living with Bora, leaves for Belgrade with the help of bar singer Lenče. However, once they arrive in the Yugoslav capital, Tisa is disappointed to discover that they are only able to survive as beggars or struggling scrap metal sellers.
Time of the Gypsies follows Perhan, a young man with telekinetic abilities, who attempts to both marry the woman of his dreams, Azra, and help his desperately impoverished family. When he asks for her hand in marriage, Perhan is rejected with the explanation that Azra, whose beauty and fair skin make her highly desirable within the depicted Romani community, will instead marry a much richer man. Broken-hearted, Perhan departs for Italy in an attempt to make his fortune, but gets involved in criminal activities that ultimately lead to his downfall.
Both films contain several similar plot features, including the sense of a ‘quest’, which has been a notable feature in Balkan cinema since its rise to prominence in the 1950s. I Even Met Happy Gypsies has several interconnected pursuits: Bora’s entrepreneurial endeavors and Tisa’s search for independence are the most prominent ones. Similarly, Time of the Gypsies depicts Perhan’s attempts to achieve upward mobility. Tragic love triangles between leading characters also connect the two films. For example, upon returning from Italy, Perhan finds Azra already pregnant and he doubts the paternity of the child. However, after Azra dies in childbirth, Perhan realizes that the child is, in fact, his and, regrets mistreating his late wife.
Character representation, along with unpolished acting, muddy settings, and significant roles given to music are just some of the many similarities of these two hit movies. Both portray the Romani way of life as exotic and pre-modern, making it easy to draw comparisons with representations in European culture and literary classics like The Hunchback of Notre-Dame or Orlando. The familiar characters played by beloved Yugoslav film stars were thus easily embraced by the audience. As in Hugo’s novel, the films represent Roma as graceful and naturally gifted performers.
However, they are also shown as prone to breaking laws and customs due to their passionate temperament and free spirit, which makes them unable to enter regular professions. Their lives, spent ignoring the constraints of modern society, are, in this way, romanticized. Yet, at the same time, these two films introduced Romani characters in an innovative manner, which appears very similar to representations in Italian neorealism. Neorealism was, much like Yugoslav socialism, considered as ‘the third way’, providing an alternative to both Soviet and Hollywood aesthetics.
It is important to recognize the sheer pervasiveness of pastoral, unchanging images of Roma in European art and culture. When they appear on the big screen, film scholar Anikó Imre uses the term ‘screen gypsies’ to describe stereotypical and simplified Romani characters. While these stereotypes are already present in the literature, the films further confirm the split between screen gypsies and actual Roma.
While screen gypsies sing and dance without a care in the world, I Even Met Happy Gypsies and Time of the Gypsies tend to disregard external circumstances such as the hate crimes and permanent sub-proletarian position that shaped the lives of Yugoslav Roma. Instead, both films opt to interpret screen gypsies as unaffected by racial inequalities and unmotivated to challenge them. While such representations are problematic, the films do attempt to negotiate the boundaries between ethnic groups, although they still offer limited critical insights into the reality of Roma as second class citizens under Yugoslav socialism.
While other newly introduced heroes of Yugoslav cinematography are depicted as bravely entering modernity, the Roma are excluded from the narratives about progress. The difference between advancing Yugoslav culture and static Romani lives is therefore established through contrasts. Characters, ‘connected to the pastoral [and] a lack of progress’, can glimpse into but not participate in (socialist) modernity. In I Even Met Happy Gypsies, a TV set signals modernity and upward social mobility as the film suggests that watching a music video featuring Beatles-like band was the real reason why Tisa departed for Belgrade. Similarly, in Time of the Gypsies Perhan and Azra are sitting in a makeshift cinema and their coy flirtation is intermingled with romantic excerpts from Hollywood classics.
Both movies directly reference unstable Roma identities as well as negotiate the boundary between whiteness and racial difference. The truck drivers who pick up Tisa, who is hitchhiking to get back to her village because of lack of well-paid work opportunities in Belgrade, assume that she is Serbian rather than easily recognizing her distinct Romani identity, which seems to challenge ‘racial hierarchies based on articulation of visual difference’. In Time of the Gypsies Perhan is rejected by Azra’s family for being poor and fathered by an unknown Yugoslav army officer. He is of ‘unknown religion, neither Rom nor gadžo [white person]’.
Challenging the notion of separate and recognizable racial identities is a progressive and often overlooked element of these Yugoslav hits. When it comes to female characters, this is not the case. It isn’t surprising to encounter femme fatales in Yugoslav Romani films – Lenče, Tisa, and Azra all qualify to fill the trope. However, they are also exposed to physical and sexual violence from their peers and non-Romani characters. Their femininity is contrasted with white womanhood: we see Tisa longingly gazing at photographs of contestants for the title of Miss Yugoslavia, and one of the settlements in Time of the Gypsies is located underneath a billboard displaying an image of a model. Perhan’s disabled sister is also falsely promised ‘legs like Marilyn Monroe’. Those scenes indicate that whiteness is an implicit measure of female desirability as well as a precondition for financial success.
Images of women seem to carry the full weight of the movies’ critical potential despite yielding to the repetition of some stereotypes: not only do they display the failures of socialism as a project that set out to emancipate women (Tisa’s options in Belgrade are either cleaning the streets or becoming a prostitute) and alleviate the suffering of minority ethnic groups, but they also don’t allow audiences to easily identify with screen gypsies.
While the audience can enjoy male characters’ tendencies to evade obligations, the story lines of female characters require a different viewing strategy as they offer insights into the gender and race-based oppressions underpinning the seemingly egalitarian socialist culture. Within European culture, female Romani characters are mostly tragic heroines. In I Even Met Happy Gypsies and Time of the Gypsies their unhappy ends can make some of the viewers aware of their own privileges.
Still, some problematic representational practices need to be addressed: namely, sexuality and sexualization. Mladenova argues that female characters in I Even Met Happy Gypsies are ‘proverbially licentious female Gyps[ies]’ who are unrealistically eager to engage in sexual affairs. To an extent, this interpretation holds, but I think that their traits and relations are somewhat ambivalent: Tisa’s brief time in Belgrade isn’t motivated by ‘insatiable bodily needs’ and the movie makes clear that very few professions are available to Romani women.
Lenče, an enticing performer and the only woman shown as living independently, is much admired by local men, but her sexual cravings are never explicitly elaborated. In Time of the Gypsies, one of the side characters is forced into prostitution by Perhan’s boss Ahmed and, instead of focusing on her experience, we see Perhan watching, but refusing to participate (or intervene). Ironically, I Even Met Happy Gypsies, a movie made before some of the major breakthroughs of second-wave Yugoslav feminism and Romani feminism, leaves much more space for female agency and perspective than Time of the Gypsies in which women are shown while either nude, suffering, or both at the same time.
While it is tempting to write off novels and films as harmless fiction, for contemporary citizens of ex-Yugoslav states most of the ideas about the very isolated and impoverished Romani population are taken from such sources. Officials and policy-makers are rarely an exception and unfavorable and/or stereotypical representations contribute to the marginalized position of the oppressed marginalized position of the oppressed and greatly influences policy-making.
A recent example, where an all white cast was hired by the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb for the widely praised play Gypsy, Yet So Handsome, shows that while Yugoslavia no longer exists, the split between ‘screen (or stage) gypsies’ and actual Roma is still present. While the Romani community doesn’t get to participate in the mainstream culture, few amateurs were hired to appear in an informative video featured on the government’s official website that relies on contrasting ‘bad Roma’ and ‘good Roma’. The difference between the celebration of Romani culture in the play and the crude dismissal of Roma who wear traditional clothing or perform in public in the video is striking. It seems that Romani culture is only acceptable if appropriated and exploited by the majority population.
I am reluctant to think that the tradition established in European literature and continued by Yugoslav films such as I Even Met Happy Gypsies and Time of the Gypsies could challenge stereotypes and public attitudes. The films mostly benefited non-Roma directors, professional actors, and composers, thus failing to fully challenge existing racial hierarchies. That only some aspects of Roma life get to be on screen is vividly demonstrated by Lenče’s performance of ‘Gelem, Gelem’ in Kusturica’s film: she sings about traveling and encountering happy and beautiful Roma, but later verses about Romani resistance and uprising are conveniently left out. Romani art made by and benefiting those who belong to the community offers an alternative to both representational practices. Sadly, it often gets much less attention than I Even Met Happy Gypsies and Time of the Gypsies.