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Journal of Mediterranean Studies, 1997 ISSN: 1016-3476 Vol. 7, No. 1: 52-57.
Copyright © 1997 Mediterranean Institute, University of Malta in collaboration with the Mediterranean Studies Group, University of Durham. Offprint orders from Malta University Services Ltd. University Campus. Msida MSD 06. Malta.



Ian Hancock

The Romani Archives and Documentation Center
University of Texas at Austin

Time of the Gypsies is one of the very few screenplays with a Romani theme which utilizes Romani actors and the Romani language. In this respect it joins company only with Tony Gatlif’s Les Princes and Robert Duvall’s Angelo My Love. Despite this, it—predictably—relies heavily on stereotypes of mysticism and thievery, though their interpretation by the non-Romani audience differs from that of the Romanies who have seen the film.

In December 1985, Reuters released details of the arrest of a gang of Yugoslav kidnappers who, since 1980, had been stealing children from defenceless Romani families and selling them to Americans and Italians who were otherwise unable to adopt. The parents of the 100 kidnapped children, all Romanies, were too frightened to report these crimes. This was the subject of a report by Hans P. Rullmann which appeared in 1986 in That’s Yugoslavia No. 5, and which was entitled ‘Child slave trade in Yugoslavia: Gypsies (Romas) oppression.’ The story also caught the attention of Emir Kusturica, a Yugoslav film producer known to Western audiences for his award-winning When Father Was Away on Business, which was released in the United States in 1985.

Kusturica, working with script writer Gordan Mihic, turned this human tragedy into a cinematographic fantasy, which he presented at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival as Time of the Gypsies, and which received a five-minute standing ovation.

The film itself is long, lasting two hours and twenty-two minutes, and is almost entirely in the Romani language, with English subtitles. It has been well received by almost everyone who has seen it; the Romani population of Cannes reportedly celebrated its release throughout the night until dawn; American Romanies who saw it struggled with the dialect, and were thankful that they lived in the USA. Given that its inspiration was the abduction of Gypsy children, and that the Romani experience it portrays is depressing, one is forced to question why it was so cheerfully received.

The story centers on Perhan, the son of a parentless household he shares with his demented uncle Merdzan, his grandmother Hatidza, and his disabled sister Danira. It opens onto a cold, wet, muddy day and a bride, still in her wedding gown, abandoned and angry because her new husband has passed out, drunk, in a hand-cart. Like a member of a Greek chorus, a forlorn character stands apart in this opening scene, and paints a word picture of Romani life. He is unnamed, and presented as a shaven-headed inmate from the Nazi camps where over a million Romanies were murdered during the Holocaust. Appearing periodically as a background character throughout the film, he speaks disjointedly of cruel medical experiments, and stresses that despite these things, he is still here. This seems to be a theme in the film; the pain and endurance of Romani existence. Another theme, which becomes apparent as the story progresses, is that survival rests upon adherence to core Romani values or Rromanipe; as Perhan moves further and further away from them, so do his misfortunes multiply. This is an allusion to the kintala or balance which must be maintained in Romani culture, and the prikaza or retribution the guardian spirits (the mule) mete out to those who upset it.

Perhan is a thinker and a dreamer; he has telekinesic skills, and can charm birds. He cares deeply for his sister Danira, and has vowed to pay her hospital bills in any way he can. He is in love with a young girl called Azra, who also lives in the village (which is not named in the film, but which is in fact Shutka, near Skopje). Although he wants to marry Azra, her mother is scornfully opposed to the union because, she says, Perhan has no money. She also comments on the fairness of her daughter’s complexion, implying that Perhan is too dark for her, but at the same time deriding him for being the half-Romani bastard of a gadz.6 (non-Romani) soldier. Azra’s mother has bought into the non-Romani value system, which places material wealth and physical appearance over moral or spiritual value; nevertheless Perhan is so smitten with Azra that her mother’s words wound him deeply, and he attempts suicide. That he does this on Svuntogjorgi (The Feast of Saint George) is significant even to Muslim families such as Perhan’s, because this slava (saint’s day festival) is a time of family togetherness, and of ritual bathing in the river. Together with the singing that accompanies the flames of a thousand candles illuminating the dark water, this eerily beautiful scene is one of the most moving in the entire film. Perhan is in charge of operating the kiln in which chalk is burnt to produce the lime with which the houses are customarily whitened at this time of the year—and Azra’s house is one of the whitest, despite the pollution of her mother’s values. Luckily, Perhan’s attempt to kill himself is foiled in time by a villager, who finds him hanging by the neck from a rope and cuts him down.

Although given a second chance at life, Perhan doesn’t recover from his vow to become wealthy. He is obsessed with notions of becoming rich enough to pay for an operation on Danira’s leg, and to win Azra’s hand, especially when his uncle Merdzan boasted that he intends to seduce her, so when the crime lord Ahmed arrives, Perhan is easy prey.

Ahmed, originally from the village, had gone away to become rich through various criminal means, including selling children to Italians and forcing them to beg and steal for him. Perhan persuades Ahmed to hire him, and thereby begins his descent into criminality and his journey away from Rromanipe. Ahmed’s superficial glamour, and his casual donations of cash to the villagers, make him appear as a hero, but as he wins their admiration and trust, he is at the same time undermining their spiritual and cultural integrity. Perhan especially was vulnerable to Ahmed’s promises of easy wealth. He tells Perhan that if he and Danira go with him, he will be able to make the money so desperately needed for her operation. Soon after the three of them leave, Perhan begins to see that something is wrong because Ahmed is collecting young people, even babies, along the route. In a vision, Danira sees the muli’or spirit of their dead mother dressed in a wedding gown; her white dress, like the whitewash on the houses, symbolizes purity; but like the abandoned bride at the beginning of the film, and the materialistic, hostile mother in Azra’s whitewashed house, and even like Ahmed’s behaviour towards the villagers, the message is that what may appear to be good can in fact hide an evil which lurks behind it. But the appearance of her mother’s muli, and the remembered words of her grandmother Hatidza that ‘0 rat s’e tajna, o rat s’e zor’ (blood [i.e., family ties] is the secret, blood is the power), seems to comfort Danira in her nervousness. Her trepidation is justified nevertheless, because Ahmed leaves her alone at a hospital, and he and Perhan continue on into Italy without her.

Perhan is at first shocked to witness the human misery confronting him in Milan, but with time, he becomes inured and accepts it, becoming just as heartless a gangster as Ahmed in his overriding desire to acquire wealth. As his spirit hardens, so the environment which surrounds him becomes bleaker and more gloomy.

Eventually he returns home, but even before going to see his own family, he makes straight for Azra’s house to demonstrate to her mother his new wealth and status. Here, he finds that Azra is pregnant with what he at first assumes to be another man’s child. In his anguish, he seeks refuge in a tavern and tries to lose himself in drink. Instead, he finds himself confronting the decisions he has made in his life; he knows then that if he had not gone away and become dragged down into the criminal world of the gadze, things would have been very different. Still, he decides that he will not reject Azra, providing she gets rid of her child by selling it into a life of mendicity. She agrees, and together they set off for Italy, gathering up children along the way just as Ahmed had done, though this time to be put to work for him.

Back in Milan, Azra goes off by herself to have her baby, but doesn’t return. Then Perhan finally goes to look for her, he discovers the baby alive but Azra dead, having died giving birth. His misfortunes are compounded by a violent storm which washes away his cache of gold. Now without the woman he loves, and with his savings all gone, Perhan believes himself to have sunk as low as possible, but finds ‘in the lowest deep a deeper still,’ when he learns that Ahmed, whom he’d looked upon as his mentor, had deceived him. Instead of taking care of Danira’s operation, he had forced her into begging for him, capitalizing on her deformed leg as a money making source of pity.

Perhan leaves at once for Rome, where Danira is. She receives him without recrimination. and in fact they seem closer than ever before; the ties of blood overcome everything else. Perhan puts Danira and his new baby (also named Perhan) on a train back to Yugoslavia. promising to join them in due course. Meanwhile, consumed with the desire for revenge, he goes to Ahmed’s wedding and murders him using his telekinetic skills: he makes a fork fly across the table and fix itself in Ahmed’s heart. It is at this point that Ahmed realizes how overriding are the bonds of blood and family loyalty. In an ending which surprised the non-Romani audience but not the Romanies who saw the film, Perhan too died in this scene, when Ahmed’s bride then killed him in retaliation.

The penultimate scene is of Perhan’s funeral. His corpse is lying in an open coffin with gold coins on its eyelids, while his son, now looking like a miniature version of his gangster father, is reaching in to steal them. In the very last scene, little Perhan is running off with the coins, chased by Merdzan who saw him do it. Reaching the crossroads, Merdzan is faced with ‘a choice: in one direction lies the road down which little Perhan is fleeing, while the other leads away from him, to the church. This is the one Merdzan chooses. It has taken the examples of his nephew Perhan, and now Perhan’s son, to make him realize the futility of his own errant ways, and so he turns toward God to redeem himself before he ends up like Perhan and Ahmed.

The film is heavy on imagery; it begins and ends with a wedding, and the spirit of a bride, Perhan and Danira’s mother, also appears halfway through. In Rromanipe, marriage is the fulcrum, and it is difficult to believe that Kusturica didn’t know this when producing the film, or else—and what is more likely—that the members of the almost entirely all-Romani cast hadn’t helped him to understand it. The kintala or balance one must maintain involves two sides equally weighted; stray from Rromanipe and the balance shifts. The two sides are just one manifestation of the overall duality which characterizes the Romani world view: Rom and gadjo. God and the devil, purity and defilement, luck and misfortune, male and female, child and adult. Marriage is the boundary between one’s status as a boy or girl (in Romani, chav or chej) and man or woman (Rrom or Rromni). This boundary has nothing to do with biological age; a girl who marries at age twelve becomes a Rromni or woman, because the word is synonymous with ‘wife,’ and a boy becomes a husband and a man. In Rromanipe, marriage and parenthood are seen as healthy and part of the natural order, while single status is seen as bad. It can bring retribution (prikaza) from the guardian spirits (the mule) in the form of bad luck (bibaxt) or illness (nasvalipe). The non-Romani world is an evil place fraught with danger, because those who inhabit it are seen, from the Romani perspective, to have no moral or spiritual structure. Perhan’s entry into that world meant an automatic rejection of his own, and seen from that perspective his ever-increasing misfortune, and ultimately his death, are justified.

Time of the Gypsies meant quite different things to the two audiences—Romani and non-Romani—who saw it. For the Romani audience, it was a cautionary tale replete with symbolism which had immediate relevance for them. For the non-Romani audience, the same message was apparent. But without a knowledge of the Romani world view, much of the symbolism must have been interpreted simply as a part of the ‘mystery’ of the Romanies. This was reinforced by the quite unnecessary introduction by Kusturica of magical tricks, moving cans, flying forks, floating scarves and women. These things are not part of real Romani life, but they are certainly what caught the imagination of the reviewers, and what those reviewers thought belonged in a film about Romanies; Variety’s account of the movie (May 24, 1989) called ‘the film’s best moments ... its flights into fancy.’

Without a proper understanding of the Romani world of southern Yugoslavia, a non-Romani audience must react on one or two levels only; the references by its characters to ‘Gypsy whore,’ ‘lying Gypsy bastard,’ and so on would not seem out of place to an audience (especially a European audience) who probably use such expressions themselves. But the contemporary Romani world and this kind of social behaviour cannot be understood without putting it into the context of history; the centuries of dehumanizing slavery during which such epithets were flung at them by their owners have resulted in the internalization of that disdain, but the audience won’t learn this from the story. Nothing was apparent in the film which told the audience why characters such as Ahmed and Perhan were drawn into crime, even crimes against their own people; nothing was explained to the audience about why the Romani village was so squalid. Those watching the film knowing little about Romanies beyond the fictional stereotype (and this includes most of the American audience) are likely to come away from the theatre with the unquestioning assumption that that’s just how Romanies are. In their incredible journey by foot and on horseback from India into Europe a thousand years ago, the ancestors of the Romanies remained together, one people speaking one language. Only after encountering the European population did they become fragmented and thereafter subjected to centuries of oppression and infamy, enslavement, and genocide.

It might be argued that artistic licence needs no defence, and that similar portrayals exist for all kinds of populations. This is certainly true; but while the public is entertained with fictional representations of, for example, Italian criminality in the countless films and novels dealing with the Mafia, it is also made aware in the school curriculum of the great contributions Italians have made to society: Columbus, Botticelli, and Michelangelo are names known to everyone. This is not so in the Romani case. Two recent books with Romani themes are Julian Thompson’s Gypsyworld which, written for young adults, deals with ‘middle-aged Gypsies’ who drug and kidnap children. The other is Joe Gores’s 22 Cadillacs, on the cover of which is written “Gyppoes: Con artists, scammers, liars, thieves and dangerous charmers, Gypsy Americans are one nation united in street crime.” Films such as King of the Gypsies (now in re-release at Blockbuster Video), Golden Earrings, Hot Blood, television documentaries such as Geraldo, America’s Most Wanted, and Now It Can Be Told consistently and unrelentingly present a negative and unrealistic stereotype of Romanies2.  Unless children also learn in school about the Romani contributions to the world, to the arts and to music, unless they learn that such well-known personalities as Django Reinhardt, or Carmen Amaya, or Carlos Montoya, or Lafcadio Hearne, or Bob Hoskins, or Charlie Chaplin are of Romani descent, they will continue to get an unrelievedly one-sided picture of a people only ever represented as immoral and dishonest.’ A balanced view, the non-Romani public’s kintala, will never exist for them.

Since such behaviour is not genetically determined, but characterizes only individuals defined by social behaviour, the notion that Romanies are a behaviorally defined population is simply reinforced, allowing those such as Gores or Geraldo Rivera to make hurtful and damaging statements about Romanies that they would never make about other racial or ethnic populations. Kusturica was to some extent also guilty of this. By his own admission, he didn’t want Time of the Gypsies to be ‘just a realistic movie ... if you’re going to make a structure based on Gypsy life, you have to change your form.’ It is a great pity that, in exploiting both the present-day tragedy of Romani life in Europe, and the mystical, magic Romani image created in the European mind, he did not also take the opportunity to educate the audience about the real history of the Romanies.

In an earlier review of Raggedy Rawnie, another ‘Gypsy’ film (Traveller Education, 23:17-23, 1990), I criticized what disturbs me with the production under review here: the exploitation of the mystical at the expense—even to the exclusion—of the actual. Ironically the one Romani film, Les Princes (produced by Tony Gatlif, himself a Romani) which does deal with the depressing realities of Romani slum life in the gitaneries outside Paris, was neither well promoted nor positively reviewed. One can only conclude that the need on the part of the general population to be fed Gypsy fantasy is tenacious indeed, and goes beyond a desire for mere entertainment. But until the Romani people are demystified, credit for their real contributions and accomplishments will continue to be attributed to others, and public outrage at the contemporary realities of anti-Gypsyism will remained muted.


1. Chaplin’s Romani ancestry is not once mentioned in Richard Attenborough’s biographical film of the same name; in fact, Chaplin is presented in that film as being of Jewish descent, which is commonly believed, ‘despite the contradictory evidence prompting it, particularly the evidence coming from Chaplin himself [in his own autobiography]’ (John McCabe, in his Charlie Chaplin. p. 2). David Robinson (Chaplin: His Life and Art, p. 2) discusses Spencer Chaplin’s marriage to a seventeen year old [G]ypsy girl called Ellen Elizabeth Smith, in the parish church of St. Margaret, Ipswich. The witnesses to the marriage included the girl’s father, who was illiterate, but no Chaplins, so perhaps the family was not happy with the match. Ellen Elizabeth died in 1873, at thirty-five, and no photograph of her survives, so we can only speculate that it might have been she who originated the striking looks, jet hair and fine eyes that became the Chaplin heritage.

The widespread misassumption of Chaplin’s ancestry is a curious one, and serves to illustrate how the lack of information about the Romani people can lead to such popular myths. The notion that Chaplin was Jewish can probably be traced to his role in The Little Dictator, an anti-Nazi film in which he plays the part of a Hitler look-alike. The film, now half a century old, was thought naturally enough to have been stimulated by Jewish concern, as indeed it probably was—but so little was known then, as even now, of the immensity of the Nazi campaign against Chaplin’s own people, that it was automatically assumed that he was Jewish. Even today, the identity of the Romani victims of German skinhead attacks and the deportations organized by the German government is hidden behind the phrase ‘Romanian refugees’; similarly the fact that hundreds of thousands of Romanies being tortured and imprisoned in what used to be Yugoslavia, and are being used to test the minefields in Banja Luka and elsewhere, is kept from the American public because their identity is concealed behind the names ‘Muslims’, ‘Serbs’, or ‘Croats’, despite their being not only a culturally and linguistically, but also a genetically distinct population.

2. Since writing this Daddy Daycare has been released by Columbia Pictures (Spring 2003), written by Geoff Rodkey and produced by Matt Berenson.  Aimed specifically at children and starring Eddie Murphy, it includes a character called the “Old Gypsy Woman” who runs a child-care centre.  The children are kept locked in an underground bunker, and she appears dressed in the requisite bandanna and hoop earrings, to the accompaniment of Gypsy violins.