Monday, 10 March 2014

Papusza - a history lesson?

 I was really looking forward to seeing this film as I'd had good reports from colleagues and because it's about Gypsies and their history.  I ran the Travellers' Times project at The Rural Media Company for 12 years and got very close to the rich mix of Gypsy culture, politics and battles with the UK's planning system, designed to prevent Travellers from traveling in the UK.   So the prospect of an authentic recreation of a vanished nomadic way of life, with a cast made up mainly of Roma non-actors, speaking in the Romani language - a recreation of Gypsy history to put the record straight - was much anticipated by me.

Romani people have not travelled since 2nd World War in Poland, like most East European nations.  The Nazi genocide and forced settlement by post war Communist regimes put a stop to their traditional way of life, and this has not been commemorated or reflected in Poland's national heritage.  So the Austrian filmmaking husband and wife team were forced to build the wagons from scratch, to recreate every detail of the Romani way of life from black and white photographs.  In fact they have done everything to try and stay true to the history and to Romani poet, Papusza's story,  one which co-director, Joanna Kos Krauze, first learned about at school and had been wanting to film ever since.   And they have made a  strikingly beautiful and intriguing film, certainly worth seeing. 

But ultimately, for me, it is unsatisfying.  The filmmakers'  personal integrity - their wish to honour Gypsy history, to accurately retell its myths -  is both the making and the breaking of the film.  The shimmering monochrome wide shots of Gypsy wagons and camps fires cannot make up for the lack of emotional detail and personal experience of the Gypsy characters.   Papusza's own feelings are hidden away and we never get beyond the surface of the usual Gypsy mythology.  And thus the film reinforces and perpetuates that mythology - the wandering, the music, the despair, the harsh edicts of the elders.  The film keeps us in the position of  outsiders to Gypsy life, gazing in at a mysterious and alien community.   We don't understand what it means for Gypsies themselves and we need to hear their voices, to expose the myth that Gypsies are still forbidden from communicating with us, from writing their own history, from making their own films.  The reason they don't is rather a matter of lack of access to education, resources and opportunity than of ancient cultural edict.  Meanwhile prejudice and discrimination in Europe today continue to grow.   

Watch the interview with co-director, Joanna Kos-Krauze about the development of her film Papusza

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