28 September, 2023
Interview with the famous Romanian director on historical and contemporary attitudes towards Roma people in Romania and Bulgaria
Screenshot from the movie

Interview with the famous Romanian director on historical and contemporary attitudes towards Roma people in Romania and Bulgaria

Stanislav Petrov

In October 2021, the Goethe Institute in Sofia organized a Media Incubator, called “Antigypsyism in audiovisual media”. The week-long event will include film screenings of “Gypsy Queen” (2019, Romania, director: Hussein Tabac), the short “Letter of Forgiveness” (2020, Romania, director: Alina Sherban, and “Aferim!” (2013, Romania, director: Radu Jude). The films explore the social and historical problems of the Gypsy community in Romania.

The Bridge of Friendship blog republishes an article on the Bulgarian human rights website Marginalia, which is a transcription of the “Reaction Studio” program on Sofia’s student radio Reaction. The article is a conversation of the student Stanislav Petrov from the Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communications of Sofia University with the famous Romanian director Radu Jude, winner of the Silver Bear Award for “Aferim” at the Berlinale. 

The Friendship Bridge blog recalls that in 2016 it interviewed the Bulgarian co-producer of “Aferim”, Rositsa Valkanova, in the context of her visit together with Radu Jude to Ruse for a screening of their film at the festival Sofia Film Fest on the Road.

From what I have heard, I have noticed that people in general are not at all interested in the plight of the Roma or similar minorities. I dare even say that there is a kind of latent disregard for their welfare and there is a sense of otherness, of difference, when people talk about them. How did you decide to make films about these groups and make their voices heard?

I mean, there’s no simple answer here. Because I have made films dealing with contemporary or historical issues, and many of them deal with the Holocaust in Romania, committed by the Romanian authorities and army against most Jews, but also against the Roma. I made this film dealing with the slavery of the Roma population, while I myself am not Roma and not Jewish. Well, my name in German means exactly “Jew,” but that’s another matter. Of course, there is a conversation going on in my field lately that I think is important to have. About what stories we can tell. How we should make films about these things. Yeah, there’s always been this ethical consideration of, “Is it okay for someone who’s not Roma to make a film about Roma?” Can a non-Jew make a film about the Holocaust, and so on and so forth. And my answer is always, not only is it allowed, but I think it’s even more important! Because if we tell this story from the point of view of, let’s say the majority… 

Actually, I want to mention something. After seeing the film, a Roma man who has an NGO told me, ” Well, I think it’s very good that it was made by a Romanian, and it doesn’t look like a victimization of Roma against Romanians.”

Because the film was made by a Romanian, it cannot look like self-victimisation. Of course, I would like to hear many Roma voices. There are already Roma theatre directors and actors like Mihaela Dragan, who makes Roma feminist theatre, there is Alina Sherban, who also makes films about Roma slavery. But my perspective, which I said at the very beginning, is not the perspective of a Roma, but rather it is the perspective of a Romanian who is observing all this. Because the history of slavery is, of course, Roma history, but it is also Romanian history. Like the Holocaust, it is a German issue and a Romanian issue, but it is mostly about the Jews. That is why I think it is important to make films on this subject. And this is to finally answer your question, because this is related to the fact that we see these things in society, we notice them, we grew up with them, things like racism, like, like, slight anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial, and sometimes slavery.

My idea was to investigate, as a citizen and as a Romanian, where all these things come from. And then to make films about the origins of this thing and make some kind of connection between the present and these dark forgotten stories.

I really liked your film Aferim! But really!  I’m not just the stereotypical journalist who says this as an obligation , but because your film genuinely shocked me to the core! And I noticed that at the end it says that some of the events depicted are taken straight from historical archives. Did you do any research on the subject, which true story shocked you the most?

Well, yes, of course it did, the story itself is fictional, but it was structured from many stories I came across while researching the subject, collecting documents and talking to historians.

I had many historians as consultants, especially Constanţa Vintila-Giţulescu. She was the main historical consultant and also some Roma historians. This is a film based entirely on historical research and on linguistic and literary research. All the scenes that are presented are taken from documentary sources that are more or less reliable. Because, of course, no one can know exactly what happened 150 years ago or 200 years ago. So yes, it was a lot of research, a lot of reading eyewitness accounts, looking at a lot of paintings or drawings from that time.

That kind of thing is based on a lot of research that is not very systematic, I’m not a historian. I haven’t written a history book, but I have done research for 3 years or more.

Yes, and I want to ask you then, do you remember any story from your research that shocked you regarding the Roma? Like persecutions or pogroms against such minorities or normalized violence against them.

Everything was shocking! The situation itself. I don’t remember anything in particular. No! Just a lot of brutality and violence. And in fact, now some enemies of the film accuse me, “But you know, the Romanian peasants were not in a much better situation!”, which is partly true, but it was much better than…

Yes, it was much better than being slaves.

I mean, it’s true that peasants lived in a kind of semi-slavery because they had to work on land that belonged to some aristocrat.

Yes, serfs!

The situation is quite different. I think everything I read was impressive and shocking, as you say. And in general, all of the specific stories I encountered I’ve placed in the film in some way. But I think as you said at the beginning, one of the most shocking things was the slave-owning church itself.

Yeah, that was a shock to me too!

And as I said, there was a big scandal recently about the church not allowing those interested access to the church archives.

When I watched your film, what I realized is that all of these acts of brutality: the slave hunting, the church owning slaves, people most regularly being violent towards each other, people actually being extremely violent towards each other in general. I realized that these acts of brutality were committed by normal people. How do you think these ideas came to be that allowed them to commit such inhumane acts, and how have these ideas not only survived, but even thrived today that we know about them.

Oh, that has always been a complicated question! Because, of course, one can always say that things were different then. People had different values, different attitudes to life. So maybe we judge them too harshly because that’s just the way they lived. The same can be said about us today. We eat meat and maybe people will stop eating meat in 100 years. They will look at us like barbarians for that. But on the other hand, some have also advocated freeing the slaves and abolishing slavery. That means it was possible to think otherwise

Most of us just do what, we see around us. So if we were born during slavery, we probably wouldn’t be shocked by this. We would get used to it. It’s very hard to take a step outside of ourselves and the society we live in, or even just imagine some other world! And I think it will be harder, especially for people who maybe don’t have much education. Or maybe it’s just a matter of personal feelings and opinions. I don’t know. Maybe a historian could answer your question better.

I have read reports from various European organisations that police officers beat Roma most regularly in Bulgaria. That was really shocking to me. Do you think that ignorance plays a role in all this? Like not knowing what the history of Roma is and what is actually happening in their lives, and somehow we all collectively think that they have always been inferior to other people.

.”…Don’t play with them.” And those were the softer forms. Or you know, when we were in high school, even the teachers told us not to hang around the high school with the gypsies.  Actually, it wasn’t an expression of hatred, but more of a desire to stay away from them.

I believe in education, and in the power of mass media, of cinema. We need to learn how to understand each other. And to begin to understand that this population has always been kept on the margins of society. To understand how it has always been a population that has always been discriminated against, that has always been oppressed and even enslaved. And then we have to talk about how they lived during the Holocaust, of which they were also victims, and then during the communist times, where they were not treated much better. Then let’s also talk about neoliberal society, where people say, ‘Well, I don’t care if they were slaves or not! They should have been educated!” But then, you know, that opinion is always blind. And there’s actually a very good film by Mona Nicoara and Mikula Coca-Cosma that I recommend you see. This film talks about racism in schools. If there are Roma children in a school, they are always expelled in some way. And if one knows this, one would easily think why not…

I know of many similar cases in the employment sector, for example if a person has a Roma name they are much less likely to be hired.

I’ve seen it before, especially when I was shooting commercials. And when I have a meeting with the client to offer him a casting, because we make offers for 3,4,5,10 actors. So, the client can choose who the character they would like to play. And then I remember very vividly that there was a situation where people with darker skin, they weren’t necessarily ethnic Roma, participated in the casting. They were refused sometimes more directly and directly, sometimes, elegantly. For example, the brutal mercia of their refusal was: ‘I don’t want that raven (Romanian insulting slang for ‘Roma’) or that fucking gypsy in my ad’. The elegant version is, “We don’t think this actor is a good fit for our target audience.” This here a kind of structural racism.. the reason for the refusal doesn’t even have to be personal or hate-filled. These people, marketing directors or whatever they are, didn’t hate Roma, at least not all of them.And yet they just said, “Well, we better not complicate our work.”

As we said, most of these things like discrimination or violence are done by perfectly normal people, and the same applies even to those who committed the holocaust. We could be talking here about a kind of vicious circle in which the Roma exist, in which centuries and centuries of oppression and segregation have made them live in terrible conditions. And when they try not to live in these terrible conditions, they are rejected by society because they have a reputation for living in terrible conditions. Can you suggest some kind of solution, or at least the beginning of a solution, as to how we can stop this vicious circle?

I know that part of the solution lies in the individual: helping with whatever you can and not discriminating against people according to their ethnicity or colour. But, of course, the individual solution is very, very limited. I really believe that it is a matter of public policy and a matter of huge investment to integrate these people, and there is a huge need for education at all levels of society for all ages, especially for the young, of course. Perhaps racism will never be stopped, but at least we can reduce it. And I actually see that in my children. My oldest child is 16 and a half and beginning to understand. He was always against me like any teenager, even when we discussed these things. But little by little he’s starting to see things in the right light. If people are exposed to ideas like this repeatedly, maybe these ideas can change their reality..

So it will become the new norm!

So yeah, in a way I think the main thing to do is to make this a state policy.  I’ve been asked how we can attract an audience and get them interested in art and film and education. The answer is simple. If you want people to be interested in art, they need a good standard of living and of course a good education. So yes, if you do nothing, you can’t expect the results to come!

Read in Romanian language!

Read in Bulgarian language!

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