by Gergana Doncheva

In comparison with the two previous films made by Radu Jude - The Happiest Girl in the World (2009) and Everybody in Our Family (2012) - which focused on contemporary problems, the latest one Aferim! goes in an unexpected direction: historical drama. This cinematic project is a rather ambitious enterprise in the context of the well-established Romanian tradition of producing historical features, that was broken after the turbulent changes in 1989. In one sense, Aferim! is a very important work because it attempts to reconceptualize the national history beyond the ideological clichés typical of the socialist epoch. Structured as a black-and-white road movie, a genre widely favourised in the Cinema of the Balkans, Aferim! recounts the story about the gendarme Constantin and his son who are looking for an escaped Gypsy in Wallachia. It is a rarely known fact that in the territories of modern day Romania, during the nineteenth century members of the Roma minority had the status of slaves. The plot is based on authentic documents and Radu Jude skillfully managed to draw attention to his film making subtle reference to the slavery in North America. In addition, the director puts in the center of his narrative a representative of a specific ethnic group. Irrespective of the fabulous camerawork and precisely elaborated ethnographic details related with the different nationalities and minorities that are depicted on the screen (Hungarians, Turks, Russians, Jews, Gypsies); at a discursive level, the filmmaker chose to present Roma people through the model of victimization. In a comparative aspect within the Balkan region, the figure of the Gypsy is extremely preferable in cinematic texts and as a result, Roma characters become an easily distinguishable metonymy for the movies shot in the peninsula. This reduction is quite symptomatic of and naturally linked to the continuing intensive proliferation of films in the latest three decades - both feature and documentary – devoted to Roma personages and their lifestyle. Undoubtedly, the prominent Bosnian director Emir Kusturica was internationally perceived as the most influential promoter of the ‘Gypsy’ genre, whose tremendous artistic impact has marked the emergence of a great number of gifted followers. Moreover, the frequent movie representations of the ethnic Other, predominantly Roma, provoked some scholars, for example Goran Gočić and Marian Ţuţui, to launch a new term - ethno cinema - in the field of Balkan Film Studies. Generally speaking, there are two main conceptual approaches in building up Gypsy personages: 1) exotism and 2) victimization. The first pattern includes emblematic motion pictures such as Times of Gypsies/Dom za vešanje (1989) and White Cat, Black Cat/Bela mačka, crni mačor (1998), but also Guča: the Distant Trompet/Guča! (2006), whose vitality, music scores and emotional appeal made them much more famous abroad than the rest – concentrated only on the mentioned minority’s isolation and poverty. Furthermore, there was an essential prerequisite explaining the enormous international success acquired by the ‘exotic’ movies: the spectators’ preliminary expectations constructed under the influence of Western European literature and cinema classics in which Roma personages were greatly romanticised and treated like a total embodiment of freedom, passion and nomadic lifestyle. Consequently, the Gypsy favourable iconography inherited from other arts (fiction, opera and painting) was consciously recycled and developed further in some original and commercial film productions.
As far as the second model of representing is concerned, its main achievements were related with the names of the well-known filmmakers like Aleksandar (Saša) Petrović – I Even Met Happy Gypsies/Skupljači perja (1967), Goran Paskaljević - Guardian Angel/Anđeo Čuvar (1987); When Day Breaks/Kad svane dan (2012); Slobodan Šijan - Who Sings Over There?/Ko to tamo peva? (1980) and Stole Popov - Gypsy Magic/Ciganska magija (1997). Their approach to the problems of the characters depicted was critically orientated and put in the public eye the burning issues about inequality, violence, despair and lack of any normal social perspective in the period of the common Yugoslav state and after its dissolution. In the world built by these authors there is no room for miracles, dreams, happy love or brightly fantastic images; even music, with rare exceptions (Who Sings Over There?), is deeply melancholic. Simultaneously, it is quite interesting that a notorious story covered by the local media in the eighties about the disgusting fate of Roma children in Italy inspired Goran Paskaljević and Emir Kusturica to present their impressive artistic interpretations on this topic - Guardian Angel and respectively, The Times of Gypsies - narrated from different standpoints and constructed through opposite stylistic means.
Aferim! fits into the latter trend, albeit the Roma personages - Garfin and the rest of the members of this minority - are strongly objectified and deprived of any individuality. This depictive manner is in a sharp contrast with the demonstrated authentic self-irony in terms of the Romanian community, and the strong sense of humour in the deconstructing of the deeply entrenched national stereotypes about people living in the Balkans and in other parts of Europe. Obviously inspired by the huge travelogue of literature on the region, the movie is a fresh provocation against the confirmed stiff model of representing the Balkans constructed thanks to Western European travelers. In spite of some elements quoted which probably stem from the director’s marketing strategy, undoubtedly, Aferim! is worth being watched.