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

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Making the Most of European Opportunities–An Interview about NGO Startups

By Omeed Aminian In September, I met with Antonio Vilchez, a colleague in education and a young, enterprising Andalusian.  When he told me that he had created a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO), I became interested in chatting with him. A repeat Erasmus student in Eastern Europe, Antonio’s experiences abroad inspired him.  In the following interview, conducted in historic Granada, notably the most popular town in Europe for students on exchange,  he tells me about how he became involved in such an endeavor and how others might do the same. Omeed: Hi Antonio.  First I’d like to ask you: what kinds of projects are you planning? Antonio:  When I first launched my NGO, it was because nowadays there are many things to do thanks to European programs like Erasmus Plus.  It’s amazing. You just need an NGO, a non-formal organization to apply.  You can set it up as an individual and it’s quite easy to do!  You have to have the idea at the beginning and after that you just have to fill out the relevant documents and go to the proper government office. You can do the first steps in just one day and then you just have to wait to get the code or discount number.  The process lasts around one month here in Spain.  I don’t know about other countries and whether it’s faster elsewhere. Omeed: What’s the name of your NGO and what’s its mission? Antonio: It’s called “EUducate” because it can be in English and in Spanish.  It can be interpreted as “educate yourself” in Spanish but it’s also with “U” because of the European Union. Basically, I want to promote these projects, these European programs because now they mostly focus on students.  Nowadays, most students finish their studies and say, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where to find a job.”  So, my objective is to promote available projects and show that there are so many things to do.  To set up an NGO is so easy and the EU is really looking for participants, so they are going to help you out.  The problem is that not so many people know about the opportunities out there. Omeed:  How did you find EU funding for your NGO? Antonio: I’ve worked with some other NGOs and I know how it works.  You just have to prepare the project.  After you submit it and you get accepted, the European Union and a national agency are the ones that send your acceptance letter. The European Union is going to support you and they will give you what you need.  It depends on how long the project is. It depends on how many participants there are.  Normally for 25 participants and maybe 10 days, you can get around 10 or 12 thousand Euro.  And that includes the food, accommodations, etcetera.  It depends on the country and the respective rate. Omeed: What are some recommendations you might give to prospective NGO founders? Antonio: In the beginning for me, I thought that starting an NGO could be hard, but it wasn’t.  You have to have clear ideas of what you want to do.  This is the first step and the hardest.  Because there are many, many different kinds of NGOs.  They work for the environment.  They work for education, inclusion or immigration. After that you need to go to the local government offices, but it depends on your country. It might be the interior minister, like in my case.  They are going to give you the fiscal code.   And also before you arrive, you need to prepare your objectives and the statutes for your NGO.  All these documents are also available on the Internet – in my case on the website of the Junta de Andalusia. If you want to launch an NGO, you need to look at the website of your own government.  Then after that you write what you want to do and how you want to do it.  Then the rest is already done.  You just have to wait.  Then they will reply that everything is fine and you already have an official NGO! Omeed: So, what happens after that? Antonio: Then you start to work.  You have the NGO, so you can really start to work.  My idea is to start to work with projects in the European Union.  Actually, now I will collaborate with a project in Cyprus. I found out about this opportunity through the Internet.  On social networks such as Facebook there are many, many pages about NGOs.  For example, Youth in Action, Erasmus Plus and other associated programs. They might post, “Looking for partners.  Looking for participants from Italy, from Spain, from France” or, “Looking for participants from non-European countries.” So I found an advert that a Cypriot with Network for European Citizen Identity had just posted “Okay. I am looking for partners from Spain.”  And I wrote him “Okay. I will be your partner.”  And my role as a partner is just to send  participants from Spain. He will make a project in May and my role is just to send participants. Youth form your country are going to participate and collaborate.  They will perform a training course. This project will be about sports, education and tools to increase teamwork. In Spring of 2014, Antonio discovered the possibilities of the NGO scene in Europe by participating in a conference in the Caucasus, where he met many other like-minded Europeans looking for new experiences and knowledge. Omeed: What was the project that your were involved with in Georgia and what was your role? Antonio: Before I started my own NGO, I was in Georgia in a project called Traino.  There were participants from Latvia, Moldavia, Spain, Germany, Estonia and Armenia–both European and non-European citizens. The project was about outdoor education, non-formal education and also they spoke about Erasmus Plus.  Really you have to read about Erasmus Plus because you can do many, many things with this organization. Omeed:  So what inspired you?  Or what gave you the idea

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