Erasing Roma Stereotypes through Film

By Omeed Aminian

Sami Mustafa and I became acquainted in 2010, while I was volunteer teaching youth in his hometown, Plemetina, Kosovo.  During my stay there I met many amazing Roma activists as well as everyday folk, but Sami’s work stood out.  While I could help the locals learn English, Sami taught them something else: the power of cinema. In a country and a region where few opportunities are available, motivated community members are making a difference in challenging locations.

On October 19th the Rolling Film Festival commenced for its fourth time in Pristina, the economic and political capital of Kosovo.  Until the 23rd Sami, Artistic Director, and his crew will fill cinemas with Roma films. In the following interview, Sami answers my questions about this flourishing festival.

Omeed: When did the Rolling Film Festival begin and why did you and others start it?

Sami: The first festival happened in 2009 in Pristina, Kosovo. The reasoning behind it was to show people what others normally don’t see about Roma, and to talk to their neighbors. Others usually see what is in the cinema. The community in Pristina are quite closed. They don’t go out of their communities.  For example, a town with a large Roma population, my hometown of Plemetina, is only 10 or 15 minutes away, and outsiders don’t even know it exists.  We are trying to engage the youth, the politicians, and other activists or students with film and to start a conversation that didn’t exist.

To begin with, it was most difficult for me to find proper films, meaning not to show Kusturica movies. I tried to find movies that showed how Roma are like anyone else. In this way, people are with the film trying to reconnect themselves with the characters. So it’s not only watching a Roma film but also watching cinema in general and finding a connection with the characters. We want to bring this similarity of the complexity of life to the forefront. It’s not easy but it’s the way it is.

We are trying to avoid the extreme stereotypes.  However, sometimes the stereotypes are necessary for you to understand aspects of a culture and they’re not necessarily wrong.

Omeed: How many films are you showing in total this year?

Sami: There are 20 films screening.  This includes feature films, shorts and silent or experimental films. Then we have a workshop with young Roma where we produce seven other films. In total, 27 films will be screened or created. Most of those being screened are coming from the Balkans.

Omeed: Is the main theme Roma in general, or Roma in the Balkans?

Sami: Roma in general. In the past we’ve had some films from the United States. We also had some British films and films about the Manouche of France.  We are trying to show films from all over the world.

Omeed: What is the criteria for selecting a film?

What I like to do, beyond just showing the Roma and how they live, is to include both the anthropological films with character-driven ones so that we depict reality. Who are these people? By showing people that really touch you and who the audience member can connect with throughout the whole story. The film changes people’s minds no matter what kind of discussion you have at the end or no matter who is presented.

This is the power of the film and this is the reason we are organizing the festival. There are not so many films about the Roma that show them on these terms.

Omeed: What is the film festival doing at a person-to-person, cultural level?

Sami:  In previous years we held a school program. We brought a comedian to present what is called a stop and act theater, which is to stop the film in the middle and talk about a certain situation. It doesn’t have to be a drama but about stereotypes or about basic human rights.

It’s amazing that many students don’t know about prejudice at all.  For instance, one of the students was asked, “What is a stereotype, for you?”  And the answer was just unbelievable.  He said, “A stereotype is when you have two speakers and a radio.” And I was thinking “What the fuck, man?  No, they are not speakers.”  Also because the non-Roma Kosovars naturally grow up with these ideas: the Gypsies are dirt; the Roma are filthy; they don’t want to study; they are not very smart.

During the discussions they brought up these issues because for them it is normal to think in stereotypes. For me what is really, really great is that at the end of the session, they always say, “Okay. I’m sorry. I didn’t actually know that Roma actually have stereotypes, or that it’s actually bad to think like that.” So, I think that there’s something going on in terms of changing opinions in Kosovo.

Omeed: Who makes up of the audience?

Sami:  We are really trying to reach the youth of Kosovo.  Before the festival we stage some screening in bars around town and then at the universities – the art university, the sociology university. Hopefully this drives people to attend the festival. We mostly try to attract young Albanians in Kosovo.

Then of course it is open to anyone in the public.  It is also free of charge. There are also many audience members from the expat community. And then with whatever force we have, we try to bring the Roma from the villages, mostly because there is no transportation for villagers to come to Pristina or to go back home. So we organize busses and people are coming.

In this way we are really trying to balance the audience. It’s not just everybody else watching films about Roma, but Roma attending as well.

Omeed: Who else does the Rolling Film Festival affect or help?

It’s very hard to find these films, so festival organizers in other countries have asked me to help them with their programs. The Rolling Film Festival is happening not only in Kosovo but a little bit outside, too.

And then we engage Roma activists in Kosovo.  For them it’s a way to travel out of the village.  They are always excited for the festival.

Then in terms of change, the festival helps to employ people. We are trying to spend the money as much as possible in the community.

Omeed: Is there a site where interested readers might find information on Roma cinema?

Sami: Unfortunately, there is not because otherwise the organizers I mentioned wouldn’t come to ask me for help.  There are quite a few festivals about Roma. There is one almost every year in Skopje.   They’re doing it in a hotel.  And then there was a recurring festival in New York City, once in 2008 then twice in 2009.

After 4 festivals, I have seen some amazing films. They need to be accessible as well. And at the moment it’s either at the desk of the filmmaker or my desk.

I have to put all these films online and for that there is a little bit of money missing to pay the website fees. Hopefully next year we have the funds to do this.

Omeed: Could you suggest one good film about Kosovar Roma?

Have you seen “AFamily Divided” film? If you know a little bit about Kosovo and if the question of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian interests you, then you will love it.

There are some really great American films as well.  I found the mentality of some of the women in these films was the same as that of my grandmother.  That’s amazing.  You might check out “When the Road Bends: Gypsy Caravan.

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