Jasmine Dellal - "It's very difficult to be defensive when you're laughing"
Gypsy Caravan was a tour which brought together talented Roma musicians from all over the world. It sold out theatres all over America and was captured on film by Jasmine Dellal, who then followed its stars back to their homelands to learn about their everyday lives. With the resulting film opening in the UK this week, Dellal took time out to talk about it with Eye For Film's Jennie Kermode.
Jennie Kermode: I've seen Gypsy Caravan and I was very impressed by the insight it gave into the lives of these performers. How did you come to be interested in this subject? Did it follow on from your earlier film, American Gypsy: A Stranger In Everybody's Land?
Jasmine Dellal: Yes; I made that film and afterwards I thought I was going to be all done with the gypsy subject, but when I met some of these musicians when they were on a tour prior to the one in the film I though that they were fantastic - not only the music but the atmosphere between them was really great. I thought it would be almost criminal not to make the film and not to share that with people.
I had my interest in Gypsies from the previous film and I wanted to invite people to see that world in a more open minded way. My experience is that the Gypsies or Roma are a hidden people but unlike, say, the hunter in the remote Amazon or the herder in west Tibet, the Roma are in fact everywhere. They're not hidden because they're ensconced in an isolated location, they're hidden by the mythology and prejudice of outsiders. Part of the reason there's been so much misconception about Gypsies is intrinsic to the Romany culture itself. They don't try and promote their culture, they feel a bit trapped by people getting too close and feel it's safer to remain invisible - at least, that was the view in the past. I think today people are acting quite differently.
JK: One of the things which is remarkable about the film is that it takes such a positive approach and we don't actually see many instances of prejudice. Did you encounter prejudice whilst you were making it?
JD: There were instances - there is a little bit of it in the film. There were some instances of prejudice that were to do with the Roma themselves like the instance in the log book [where a hotel clerk has noted that he finds the Gypsies terrifying] and things like what I saw in Romania when we were stopping to get lunch one day and the guy working in the restaurant was saying how they needed to employ someone but they wouldn't employ Gypsies. Certainly that feeling of prejudice was around a lot. And then, during the tour, there were other instances of prejudice like when we got on the plane one day in Miami and a couple decided to get off because they didn't feel safe travelling on a plane with all these, you know, dark, funny looking people.
JK: Do you hope that the film will help to educate people about this kind of thing?
JD: My greatest hope is that people who see this film for any other reason will be more broad minded about what the word 'Gypsy' means than most people are and won't make basically ignorant assumptions.
JK: Do you think that the music in the film offers a good means of crossing over and helping people to get closer to Gypsy culture?
JD: I tend to think that music and laughter are two of the things that open us up the most. It's very difficult to be defensive when you're laughing or when you're really enjoying music. As a film-maker I hope to put out something that will make audience members feel open and then when there's that chink in their armour of world view maybe some different knowledge can seep in.
JK: Perhaps the music also helps to present these people in a context familiar to us here in the West, before we see what their lives are like at home.
JD: Yes - part of the reason why I structured the film the way that I did was so that we would meet the musicians as people all in the same context and perhaps in one that we in the West are familiar with, and there wouldn't be a distinction between them. It's only afterwards that we go to their homes and at that point I hope we already know them to some degree so that we're not just judging them as being exotic but we're seeing them more as people.
JK: How did your experience of working in their different homelands vary?
JD: It was definitely very different to work in the different countries, but that wasn't so much to do with who the people were or what we were filming with them, it was just the conditions. The first place that I shot outside the US was in Rajasthan in the desert in India and there was actually no electricity. There certainly wasn't any lighting, so when I wanted to be able to film at night I had to take a bus for an hour one day and buy oil lamps and give them as a gift to the people!
So that was very different, for example, from shooting with Antonio in Spain who has electricity without a problem but who is an incredibly private person. That was quite a challenge. Shooting in Romania, both with Fanfare Ciocarlia and Taraf de Haïdouks we had electricity and the families were very open. They both live in small villages where there isn't a hotel so we were staying with them, which for me as a film-maker was great because we were in the rhythm of their lives and people stopped performing for the cameras very quickly.
JK: Did you feel that you built up a good relationship with these people over time, helping you to create such an impression of intimacy in the film?
JD: Yes. I think there were a couple of things that helped with building that relationship. One was that I had already made a film about Roma. Some of them had seen it or had spoken to other people they knew and trusted who had seen it and knew that it was something other Roma were comfortable with. That was, perhaps, one visa on my passport. Another was that I speak a little bit of Romany.
I know some of the culture and customs and I look like I could be Romany which probably makes people feel a bit more comfortable with me. Also, right at the beginning I was working with a Romany film-maker. At the time he was recording the sound for us, so that made a difference too - people knew that there was somebody Romany on the film making team. And of course we all spent six weeks on a bus together! When you live on a bus for six weeks together and all have to wake up at five in the morning to catch a plane and go to bed at three in the morning after the concert, normal societal barriers come down because you're just too exhausted to keep them up.
JK: Probably the most personal moment in the film is the death of Nicolae. His family obviously trusted you a great deal to let you so close at that time.
JD: That was a very poignant moment indeed. What happened was that not very long after we had been staying with Taraf de Haïdouks - we actually lived with Nicolae's family, in his house - he died, and I found out in a text message. I called the family to give them my condolences. The grand-daughter picked up the phone and she said that I would be welcome to attend the funeral. Unfortunately, however, I couldn't get there from New York in time for the actual funeral, but the Belgian cameraman who had been shooting with us earlier when we were living with the family was able to go and he shot on his own. I think he got beautiful footage.
JK: One of the criticisms sometimes levelled at Romany culture in the West has to do with its treatment of women. You've made films about strong women before and there are certainly strong women in this film, but there's just one scene in which some of the women complain about their lot in life. How did you feel about this?
JD: In fact, several people asked me to take that clip out! They were all men, all the people who said "that's not so interesting..." I kept it in because I think that's a huge issue between Roma, not just in this country but actually around the world. It's very clear that it's a very traditional power system where the women are incredibly strong and incredibly powerful as long as it's within the construct of the traditional family structure.
When women want to do something slightly different, I mean, if they wanted to make a film, it would be a much bigger challenge than it is for me to make a film. Whatever they want to do that's outside the culture, I think, is really, really challenging. I hope that's something that's going to develop a lot in the future. A lot of Romany women everywhere are trying to make men more aware of their rights and presence and importance in the culture.
JK: Now that you've finished this film, what are your plans with Little Dust Productions? Are you planning to make more documentaries?
JD: I very much hope to make more documentaries. A the moment, however, I feel like I just need to rest for a while! Making Gypsy Caravan took a lot out of me. I'm spending a lot of time at the moment working on the outreach for the film and making sure that it not only plays in cinemas but also gets used by Romany groups and in other ways that can help to educate people about Roma. In the future there are a couple of films that I'm thinking of making in India, but I don't know exactly when or how those will happen yet.
JK: On a final note, I think that a lot of people who've seen the film will want to know if the Gypsy Caravan performers have any plans to tour together again in the future.
JD: I hope so. It depends somewhat on the success of the film and in the 'States it depends on whether it's programmed on television. There's a possibility that ICM, which is a big artists' agency, will put together another Gypsy Caravan, and of course I would love it if that happened. In the meantime, though, Fanfare Ciocarlia have put out an album, and on that album they bring together Romany artists including Esma [Redzepova, Macedonia's 'Queen of the Gypsies']. About eight other artists play with Fanfare and some of them played with them live at the Barbican festival. I think it's a great album and a really good continuation on the theme of the Gypsy Caravan.