Monday, February 8, 2010
ARTICLE BY PETER CALDER
Tony Gatlif explores the persecution of the Romani people in his latest movie, Korkoro.
Algerian-born French film-maker Tony Gatlif has focused on the lives of the Romani (gypsy) people from whom he is in part descended. In films like the swirling, enchanting Latcho Drom (1993), Gadjo Dilo (1997) and more recently Vengo and Swing, he has created a showcase of Romani music and culture in films whose ethnographic richness compensates for occasionally flimsy narrative structure.
But there's nothing flimsy about his new film, Korkoro - it's the Romani word for Freedom - which tells a story of persecution in Nazi-occupied France.
Not since 1983's The Princes, about the official hassling of fringe-dwelling gypsies in the Paris suburbs, has Gatlif made a film so drenched in sadness and rage. The screening of Korkoro which will open the annual French Film Festival on Wednesday is being billed by festival organisers as an "avant-premiere" (advance premiere), since the film doesn't open in France until February 24.
The film was inspired by a true story: the mayor and the schoolteacher in a small village in the occupied zone come to the help of a band of gypsies when the identity controls imposed by the Vichy regime impinge on the their nomadic lifestyle. Their intervention ushers in a brief interlude of cross-cultural understanding before an inevitable and tragic clash between gypsy non-conformity and Nazi authority.
The part of the mayor, Theodore, is taken by Marc Lavoine, a giant in the world of French pop music. He says that the fate of the gypsies in World War II is one of France's dirty secrets.
"There are not many films made about the gypsies because they are the forgotten people," he says in a deep growl that belies his handsome tenor singing voice. "Nothing was ever written in the paper. There was just no trace. It's a hole in the memory."
The French people have been lax about admitting the atrocities in their history, he says: "Even after the war in Algeria we didn't do the job. Sometimes we feel guilty but that is not the solution - to feel guilt about things we didn't do. But we need to face up to it: it is part of our history because it's what our people did."
The experience of being in the film plainly agreed with Lavoine, who sings the praises of the Romani.
"They remind me of the freedom we have only as children," he says. "Gypsies are disturbing people to mainstream society because they don't live in lines. They show us the world in a different way. We live in a small box. We are not comfortable with gay people, autistic people, people with personality disorders, people in wheelchairs - we are not able to live together and this film shows there is some hope."
His choice of words is apt. Along with gypsies, homosexuals and the mentally and physically disabled were among many groups earmarked for extermination by the Nazis and gypsies felt the wrath of persecution well before the war began.
Gatlif did enormous amounts of research before writing the film, talking to eyewitnesses, including the schoolteacher, Mademoiselle Lundi, who is in her 90s, and cobbling together a story out of her history and many fragments of eyewitness testimony.
"We have a lot of documentary evidence of people who took a lot of risks to help and shelter Jews during the war," says Lavoine, "but in the case of the gypsies the stories are all orally transmitted and evidence is more difficult to find."
Posted by Morgan at 5:44 PM