PHOTO Romani documentary filmmaker Katalin Bársony, far right with microphone, and other panelists in Berlin this February.
Who are we, how many of us are there, and how can we help one another? Those were the basic questions intensively covered by the world's most famous Romani filmmakers during two days of discussion in February. The filmmakers were invited to the Hungarian Cultural Institute in Berlin (Collegium Hungaricum Berlin) to attend the Cinema Total 5 festival.
What does the Collegium Hungaricum have in common with world-renowned Romani filmmakers? At first glance it seems a bit of an odd combination. The connection would evidently never have been made without the Hungarian director and screenwriter Katalin Gödrös. As she herself has said, one year ago she asked herself the question: What is the difference between films about Romani people produced by non-Romani people and the films created by Romani people themselves?
She received support for this topic one year later, partially thanks to serendipity - the Cinema Total 5 festival was being held at the same time as the biggest film festival in Berlin, the Berlinale. Hungarian director Bence Fliegauf was presenting his film "Csak a szél" (Just the Wind) there, which was inspired by a series of eight murders that took place within a single Romani family. The director of Collegium Hungaricum remembered Katalin Gödrös's idea and asked her to organize a meeting of Romani filmmakers during this year's Cinema Total 5 festival.
The director's request fell on fertile ground and the "secret plan", contrived at a meeting two weeks prior to the start of the festival, ended up significantly exceeding the framework of just a single panel discussion.
On Tuesday, 14 February 2012, the most significant Romani filmmakers from all over Europe met for the first time publicly. Seated next to one another on the podium were Katalin Bársony, the Romani activist, director and executive director of the nonprofit Romedia Foundation in Hungary; Sami Mustafa, a director from Kosovo who also leads the Romani film organization Romawood and is the artistic director of the Romani "Rolling Film Festival" in Prishtina; Lidija Mirković, an activist and director originally from Serbia, now living in Germany, who founded the Haymatfilm initiative; and Damian James Le Bas, an actor, author, filmmaker and journalist from Great Britain who is the Editor-in-Chief of the quarterly "Travellers' Times".
That is how the four participants in the panel discussion were introduced - but one chair remained empty at the center of the podium.
Everyone was expecting that evening's guest of honor, the French actor, composer, director and screenwriter Tony Gatlif. Anticipation was rising. First, viewers were given the opportunity to sample his most recent film creation, "Indignados".
On the wall behind the podium, clips from Athens, Paris and Madrid show hundreds and thousands of angry young people calling for greater freedom and justice for all. The footage cuts to a young woman in wet clothing, probably from Africa, running out of the sea after having made it to the coast of Greece. We then see hundreds of people's heads and hands gesturing to the sky.
The screen is filled with slogans such as "No one is illegal" and "The people united will never be divided". Then we cut to the young immigrant standing on the corner of a square full of demonstrators. A small slowly forms on her lips. The viewers' faces reflect how thrilled they are. Tony Gatlif enters to thunderous applause. The discussion, entitled "Seeking Roma Film Makers!", can now begin.
Tony Gatlif speaks jovially, sometimes cracking jokes, but the honor and respect felt for this recognized filmmaker is palpable.
During the hour-long discussion, abstract topics are raised, such as that of a homeland and the desire to belong, as well as purely pragmatic questions, such as how to present a film about Romani people to viewers while preventing the repetition and further dissemination of a wide range of prevalent prejudices.
However, the greatest surprise comes just before Gatlif must leave the discussion and appear at the Berlinale. Katalin Gödrös steps before the podium and asks the key question: "Mr Gatlif, we intend to establish an International Romani Film Commission. Do you support that?" No one moves but the interpreter seated next to the French film celebrity, whispering into his ear.
"Naturally! I'll sign anything you do and write!" is Gatlif's response. The other filmmakers exhale and look at one another encouragingly. Even though the audience has learned of this commission for the first time, they spontaneously applaud. Gatlif leaves. The first part of the evening has come to a successful conclusion.
During the second part of the discussion, talk turns to the options for financing Romani films. Two opinions clash on the podium: Some are persuaded that it is not possible for Romani films to break into the world of mainstream film and the film industry, while others claim such a breakthrough is possible with the right amount of effort.
Katalin Bársony, for example, sees enormous possibilities in the Arabian and Asian markets, where she says Romani topics are currently being examined.
Her most recent film, entitled "Uprooted", was selected along with six others out of 50 000 entries to run at the Al-Jazeera International Documentary Film Festival in Doha, Qatar. Bársony sees this both as an enormous appreciation of her work and as an effort to politically exploit her film to draw attention to human rights violations in Europe.
She says the states of the Middle East are making it clear that European countries should first get their own houses in order before criticizing others. Her words are confirmed by Lidija Mirković: "Al-Jazeera is producing the best films about Romani people in the world at this moment".
The question of financing film productions became key during the discussion of the future Romani film commission. All of the Romani filmmakers met immediately the next morning, literally locking themselves into the modern conference room of the Collegium Hungaricum. They did not leave the room until they had agreed on the basic wording of the declaration that establishes the future International Romani Film Commission.
However, just before 7, when the declaration was to be ceremonially presented to the festival audience, a rather boisterous and dramatic clash took place. Until the last minute, the question had escaped everyone's attention as to whether their longtime coworker Damian James Le Bas, who had participated in many preparatory meetings and who had also assisted in drafting the declaration, should also sign it, as he was the only member of the group who was not technically considered Romani.
A basic conflict then erupted between those who advocated the opinion that everyone interested in the commission should be included and those who did their best to maintain the commission as the purely Romani representatives of Romani filmmakers.
Just before the ceremonial announcement of the declaration, the conflict went so far that it threatened to undo all previous efforts. There was the risk that the entire project might collapse. The entire group, in spite of themselves and with visible exhaustion on all of their faces, sat down at the same table once again and entered into another long discussion. In the end, the original version of the declaration, signed by Le Bas, was adopted. The filmmakers decided for the more open version of the commission. The declaration itself says that within the commission, decision-making rights will be ensured for Romani people because its various sections will be predominantly staffed by Romani members.
Despite this somewhat turbulent ending to a day of work and more than an hour of final discussion, all of the filmmakers were very optimistic and satisfied with the declaration that evening. Their expectations have produced not only expansive hopes, but also a great number of tasks for the International Romani Film Commission to complete.
Damian James Le Bas primarily criticized the current state of affairs, wherein Romani people do not have their own representatives in the film industry and are represented by the voices of others, by non-Romani film directors and screenwriters. Besides changes to this state of affairs, he said he expected the future commission to help Romani film artists finance their works. He said many Romani people do not know how to connect with financial institutions or how to even start, because financial support mostly goes to people who already have good contacts with producers. He also said he had made his most recent short film, "Rokkerenna", for only EUR 36 - and EUR 30 of that was for gas. Le Bas said that for him and for short works, low-budget productions are fine, but not everyone can work that way and large, significant projects cannot be produced that way.
Katalin Bársony spoke of very similar aims. She said she hoped that one day Romani people would be speaking for themselves through film. Lidija Marković's great wish is for the commission to assist talented, well-educated Romani people to stop being ashamed of their Romani origins and publicly identify themselves as Romani.
She claimed that when she started to focus on Romani topics 20 years ago, there were not as many Romani professionals around as there are today and that now is the time for them to stop concealing their identity, because their potential can only really be made use of if they embrace their identity.
Sami Mustafa said he sees the Romani film commission primarily as a way to assist beginning young filmmakers, a platform for transferring experience and knowledge to them. He is also optimistic: "Five years ago, there was only Tony Gatlif. Today there are five of us making documentary films. Who knows how many Romani people in future will find the courage to overcome all of the everyday obstacles and set off into the dangerous enterprise of filmmaking?"
There is nothing for it but to wish a great deal of courage not only to budding filmmakers, but also to everyone who has taken up the task of creating the International Romani Film Commission. This task will certainly require a great deal of effort and energy.
The aim of the International Romani Film Commission is to make it possible for a larger number of Romani filmmakers to realize their projects and to create greater recognition for such professional filmmakers in the various states in which they live and worldwide. The tasks of the International Romani Film Commission will include the following:
Selecting professional Romani film creators for support and creating ties between them; guaranteeing a fully independent process for the Commission's decision-making processes by making sure it is financed from three separate sources; providing advice, backing, encouragement and support for Romani filmmakers in all aspects of audiovisual and film production; lobbying mainstream filmmaker platforms to include Romani filmmakers on them; lobbying for better recognition of Romani figures on national and international film commissions and film fora for the purposes of increasing their chances of receiving mainstream financial support; creation of an International Romani Filmmakers Association.