Identity is an ambiguous thing: Some are born without an obvious place in the world and so wander the Earth in search of an identity they might call their own. Others are born with a very clear identity that is imposed upon them at birth and while these people may know precisely where they are, their location frequently turns out to be under someone else’s boot. The dull ache of ambiguity throbs not only in the identities we receive from society at large, but also from the identities we choose to impose upon ourselves. This is a film about identity and how assuming an identity may very well wind up harming those who have that identity forced upon them.
The last couple of weeks have highlighted the plight of an identity located firmly under the historical boot. When future historians look back upon this era, they will say without hesitation that Europe mistreated the Roma. Even today, these people are either seen through the lens of crude ethnic stereotypes or they are not seen at all. As the social justice activist Zeljko Jovanovic put it in a recent piece for the Guardian :
No country in Europe has accurate statistics for Roma citizens in their official census or other state records. Many Roma do not have birth certificates either; Roma families often forgo registering the birth of a child with local authorities as the cost of obtaining a birth certificate can be prohibitive. Because of this official invisibility, Roma are denied legal protection, public healthcare and the opportunity to enrol their children in school, get a job and register to vote. It also means Roma are at increased risk of human trafficking and miscarriages of justice. If you do not officially exist, it is easy to disappear and be disappeared.
This idea that the Roma are partially invisible to the state is an interesting one. Social Justice often treats visibility as an absolute good, an ability to partake in all the benefits of culture without being judged unfairly on your gender, your sexuality or your race. Under this account, to be invisible means to be excluded from cultural spaces and so be denied all the advantages associated with being a full and recognised citizen of the polis. However, this assumes that you wanted to be a member of that particular polis to begin with… A good example of a situation where visibility might be a bad thing is Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds where the character of Shosanna is only able to operate her cinema in relative peace because she remains invisible. By attempting to gain more recognition for her work, a Nazi cinephile not only invites more official scrutiny of her cinema’s output but also a good deal of curiosity about her hidden Jewish origins.
The idea that political invisibility might actually be a good and desirable thing is central to the work of the anarchist thinker James C. Scott. Scott argues that while citizenship can bring many benefits, it also brings expectations and limitations. The shape of these expectations is most evident in the social institutions that form part of the educational process as what is school if not a means of breaking children on the wheel and encouraging them to acquire the sorts of skills and personality traits that the polis requires? Scott’s book The Art of Not Being Governed (2009) looks at the Zomia region of Upland Southeast Asia and argues that the various groups living in this lawless region possess cultural traits consistent with long-term patterns of state evasion. Despite being offered the benefits of greater protection and greater standards of living associated with citizenship, the tribes and peoples of Upland South East Asia avoided the associated costs of taxation, corvee labour, military service and complete cultural annihilation.
A recent article by Dan Bilefsky in the New York Times asked whether the Roma are poor or primitive. This choice of words is hardly accidental as people living in the ‘civilised’ regions of Southeast Asia often describe those living outside of state control as ‘primitive’:
In the valley imagination, all these characteristics are earlier stages in an earlier process of social evolution, at the apex of which the elites perch. Hill people (i.e. people living outside the grasp of the state) are an earlier stage: they are “pre-“ just about everything: pre-padi cultivation, pre-towns, prereligion, preliterate, pre-valley subject. (…) However, the characteristics for which hill peoples are stigmatized are precisely the those characteristics that a state-evading people would encourage and perfect in order to avoid surrendering autonomy. The valley imagination has its history wrong. Hill people are not pre-anything. In fact, they are better understood as post-irrigated rice, postsedentary, postsubject, and perhaps even postliterate. They represent, in the longue duree, a reactive and purposeful statelessness of peoples who have adapted to a world of states while remaining outside their firm grasp.
The idea that the Roma’s partial invisibility to the state might be an adaptive cultural trait intended to help their culture survive in the cracks of European civilisation is even borne out by Jovanovic himself:
Some Roma do not officially register their identity due to fear of discrimination. Only six decades ago hatemongers and political leaders sent more than half a million Roma to their deaths for the “collective crime” of simply being Roma; this memory lives on among Roma. Their suspicion of registration is not unfounded. In a recent case in Sweden it was revealed that the police kept a secret and illegal list of more than 4,000 Roma, including many children.
A case might be made for presenting today’s Roma as a European manifestation of the same cultural forces at work in Upland South East Asia: Surrounded by a body politic with a proven track record when it comes to moments of genocidal madness, the culture of the Roma is such that it provides them some freedom and protection from a racist and oppressive state. This vision of the gypsy way of life is central to the work of Tony Gatlif, one of the world’s few ethnic Roma filmmakers. Released on DVD earlier this year, TranSylvania is an attempt to locate the heart of what it means to be a gypsy by following one woman’s journey out of the European bourgeois valleys and into the Transylvanian hills.
Zingarina (Asia Argento) is a rebellious Italian woman who travels to Transylvania in search of her lost Romani lover. Decked out in black clothes and adorned with silver rings and mystical symbols, Zingarina is a picture of affected European alienation. After visiting a series of picturesque villages and parties, Zingarina finally finds her love only to be cruelly rejected. Shocked and hurt, Zingarina falls into a dark depression that leaves her wandering the streets in the company of a Romani orphan until a Turkish peddler named Tchangalo (Birol Unel) steps in and attempts to look after her.
While the narrative may rest upon the growing friendship between Zingarina and Tchangalo, the film is quite evasive on the details of their relationship. Instead of exploring the different social and political worlds inhabited by his characters, Gatlif focuses his attention on the extraordinary beauty of Transylvania, the gorgeous music of the area, and the evocative sense that while Zingarina and Tchangalo may have nations and cultures of their own, their true nationality is a restless freedom born of alienation and suspicion. In fact, many of the locals take to referring to Zingarina as a ‘gypsy’ while Tchangalo’s battered Mercedes station wagon and itinerant lifestyle alludes to the Travellers that can be seen all over Europe.
As with his earlier films Mondo and Gadjo Dilo, Gatlif presents us with a vision of Roma culture that is as sympathetic as it is compelling. Drawing as much from political theory as he does from 19th Century romanticism, Gatlif presents the Roma as free-spirited anarchists whose values and identities reflect centuries spent living in the cracks of European civilisation. Furthermore, by emphasising the psychological and behavioural aspects of the gypsy lifestyle and Romany experience, Gatlif suggests that even non-Romas (such as Zingarina and Tchangalo) might be able to ‘become’ Romany through a sort of spiritual transcendence born of falling through the cracks in European society. Already romanticised, this re-invention of the Roma as existential saints is further bolstered by Celine Bozon’s ice-cold cinematography, some striking locations and a hauntingly effective score that present us with a Transylvania where human warmth serves to keep out the freezing fog. Also very impressive are the central performances by the ever-wonderful Asia Argento and the muscular-yet sensitive Unel. Indeed, TranSylvania is undoubtedly a beautiful and compelling film but it also makes for slightly uncomfortable viewing.
The first problem is that while Gatlif’s vision of what it means to be a Romany may be attractive, it bears little or no resemblance to how the Roma actually talk about themselves. Indeed, when Jovanovic wrote about the partial invisiblity of the Romany people, I doubt very much that he’d put his hand up and admit that it was down to the fact that his people are a collection of iconoclasts, misfits and quasi-mystical rogues. The disconnect between how this film portrays the Roma and how the Roma talk about themselves is particularly jarring in an otherwise wonderful sequence where Asia Argento rides a bicycle whilst singing a revolutionary anthem. Nobody is given a choice about whether or not to be born a Roma and so comparing people born into a particular culture with people who fall into a particular culture by accident or design is far from ideal.
The second problem is that, while Gatlif is an ethnic Roma, the culture he was born into is that of a French Algerian. In fact, Gatlif even explored this cultural identity in a film called Exiles. Given that Gatlif was evidently not born into the culture described in this film, it makes sense to take his depiction of said culture with a pinch of salt. However, though Gatlif may not be in a position to give us an ‘authentic’ account of what it means to be a Roma, his account does have value when placed in its correct context, namely that of an aspirational document. Gatlif knows that, because of the accident of his birth, he can never ‘go home’ and experience what it would be like to grow up inside the Romany culture and so films like TranSylvania are fantasies in which a wanderer might return home at the end of a spiritual journey. This also explains why Gatlif’s vision of the gypsy life is so heavily romanticised: Who would dream of acquiring an identity if said identity only served to locate them under the boot of European civilisation?
Much of what makes me uncomfortable about TranSylvania is down to the lack of Romany voices in the history of cinema. Roma have been stock characters in horror movies since the black and white era and while Gatlif’s depictions are undoubtedly more sympathetic than those of the racist past, I do feel that it is dangerous to put political slogans into the mouths of the voiceless, particularly when those mouths belong to some of the most historically misrepresented and mistreated people on Earth.