August 23, 2017

Roma Slavery: Forgotten by Europe and Ignored by The Oscars

Roma Slavery: Forgotten by Europe and Ignored by The Oscars

Written by George Eil,

Edited by Patrick Wiley

January 21, 2016

Recently prominent members of Hollywood’s African American community have boycotted the 88th Academy Awards to protest the lack of diversity in this years nominees. Actress Jada Pickett Smith who is leading the boycott released a video denouncing the way the Academy too often snubs people of color; the video already earned millions of views and has made international headlines.

The Romani People better known to film audiences, as Gypsies are no strangers to this sort of treatment by the entertainment industry. Since the first statues were given out by the Academy in 1929 the Rom have never once received recognition from the Academy. Ironically the Rom have been part of the awards and some of us even have won! The problem is no one knew they were actually Gypsies. Charlie Chaplin won an honorary Award in 1972 and yes he was a Romani. Yul Brynner won for his performance in the The King and I in 1957, in fact the first words of his acceptance speech were “I hope this is not a mistake” perhaps Mr. Brynner feared the voters might find out he was a real live Gypsy and take it back.

I myself am not surprised by this season’s many Oscar snubs. Being Rom I have become jaded to this type of thing. However as the creator of “The Romani Media Initiative”, an organization with the mission of promoting the inclusion of Romani projects and heroes in the mainstream media, I feel compelled to weigh in on this subject. The African American community’s backlash against the Academy’s bias inspired this filmmaker and activist to shed light on a wonderful film that had a lot of “Oscar buzz” this year but went overlooked by Academy voters.

The film is entitled Aferim!. Shot in Romania, Aferim! was the nation’s entry in the category of “Best Foreign Language Film”. In September the New York Times called the film “An Oscar Contender” the Hollywood Reporter said it was “Romania’s answer to 12 Years a Slave“. Aferim! has been sweeping up awards all over the film festival circuit including the Berlin International Film Festival’s Silver Bear for best director Radu Jude.

(Aferim! 2016)

Aferim! explores the controversial and even taboo subject of Romani slavery, which my people suffered under in Romania for over 500 years. This fact is rarely covered or even mentioned in European schools. The film attacks this subject in a very well framed story, structured as entertainment rather then a history lesson.

I was very excited for this film because my organization and I have been screaming all over the Western hemisphere that the world needs more films like Aferim! if there’s to be any hope of Romani inclusion in the modern world. Naturally I jumped at the chance to attend a screening at the Jacob Burns center in New York last Fall.

The film was beautifully shot in 35MM luminous monochrome, which gives it a dream-like feel, or perhaps nightmare is more appropriate, given the horrors inflicted on the Romani characters throughout. (Alberto Dinache) plays a teenage boy named Tintiric. He and his police constable father (Teodor Corban) are hired by a nobleman to capture a run away Romani slave. The two men travel the Romanian countryside in their search. On the journey they come across Romani encampments and many people who are willing to help them on their search for the “ungrateful Romani slave”.  Aferim! has many disturbing scenes, all rooted in historical facts. There is the heartbreaking sale of 9-year-old Romani child; his sinister new owner takes him away kicking and screaming. Of course the runaway Romani slave is caught and is subjected to a horrific and evil fate. Throughout this masterpiece the director manages to maintain an elegant balance between comedy and disturbing horrific tragedy.

The screening concluded with a Q&A with producer Ada Soloman. When the theater lights came up I was not surprised to see that I was the only Rom at the screening among an otherwise white audience. Despite Aferim!’s many tragic and controversial scenes depicting Romani slavery, the audience only seemed interested in one particular segment.

The scene, less then two minutes long featured the constable and his son encountering a man who shared with them his fiercely anti-sematic views. The man blames Jews for all the world’s problems and of course for killing Christ. Like the rest of the film the scene is both disturbing and comical. It is certainly worthy of note but I soon became uncomfortable with the way it came to dominate the discussion. Questions like: “Was there a lot of anti-Semitism in Romania in the 19th Century?” And “what steps are being taken to stop anti-Semitism in Romania today?” were common, yet no one seemed interested in the brutal history of Roma slavery or their ongoing oppression throughout Europe today.

Ada who is herself a women of the Jewish faith graciously answered all the questions on anti-Semitism as best as she could and then very cunningly led the conversation back to Romani slavery and film’s subject by pointing out the long standing relationship between Anti-Semitism and Anti-Gypsyism. The audience reluctantly listened and then quickly went back to more pressing concerns like “where were those Beautiful Forests in Romania?”. In that moment I think I caught a glimpse of the same disregard that the Academy seems to exhibit towards the films and performances of African Americans and other people of color.

I suppose it’s no surprise then that the Academy ignored Aferim! and it’s truly a shame. Winning “Best Foreign Language Film” has taken some filmmakers and actors to great success while also promoting social awareness. Italy’s Life is Beautiful won the coveted award in 1998 launching the career of director and star to Roberto Benigni. Javier Bardem also can thank the “Best Foreign Language” category for his successful career. In 2004 he starred in Spain’s The Sea Inside which ultimately led to his 2008 best supporting actor award for No Country for Old Men. Now he is part of Hollywood A list, a hero for his people and an activist for diversity in Hollywood. So a nomination and win for Aferim! might have helped the Romani people that still suffer under conditions not much better than those of the 19th century. So this activist and filmmaker stands behind miss Jada Pinkett Smith in boycotting the Oscars, and it’s a good thing because I think my invitation got lost in the mail.

#Oscars2016, #Jadapickettsmith, #Boycott, #OscarsSoWhite

George Eli is an American Romani filmmaker and activist. His 2009 film Searching for the 4th Nail, earned him the “Best Fimmaker Award” at the Connecticut Film Festival. He founded the Romani Media Initiative in 2014 and continues to fight for positive reprisentation of the Romani people in the media. 

Patrick Wiley is the lead writer and editor for the Romani Media Initiative and a professional researcher and fact checker. He holds a degree in Film and Video Production from Drexel University with a minor in screenwriting. Having worked with George Eli for over three years he has a detailed knowledge of the Romani culture and its plight in Europe.


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