Roma representation in focus - Critical pedagogical approach in film education
INTRODUCTION & THEORY
How can we learn about Europe’s biggest minority, the Roma, who are still heavily discriminated against, and avoid the constant repetition of their historical traumas and victimization? Although their oppression and discrimination in several epochs and different regions are recognized facts that have been analysed and understood, we can enhance and expand our knowledge of them with the help of contemporary Roma art, media and academics and turn it into something else: a deliberating process of ‘unlearning the inherent dominative mode’ (Raymond Williams).
When critically examining representations of the Romani communities, not only in the media, literature, films and images, but also in anthropological texts and academic journals, one can detect the practice of othering, mechanisms of orientalism and fetishized stereotypes. Even well-intended representations often resort to stereotypes and describe Roma as a homogeneous group within society, rather than recognize the heterogeneity of Roma as is generally assumed for non-Roma. Using notions from subaltern and postcolonial theories, scholars and activists have shown parallels in which Roma can be considered colonial and subaltern subjects – the treatment and depictions of Roma as other within society as well as the devastating consequences of this for these communities have also been compared to the treatment and depictions of African Americans and the difficulties of breaking vicious cycles caused by poverty, lack of access to education and social services, and discrimination (Selling, J., 2018; .Rucker-Chang, S, 2018; Mirga-Kruszelnicka, A., 2018).
In her essay “Can the Subaltern speak?”, post-colonial theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak - often quoted by scholars analysing Roma representation - reminds us to distinguish between two senses of representation: one being political representation, the other referring to depiction, performance or image. This needs to be considered when looking at representations of minorities such as the Roma who, given their lack of political and institutional power, are often depicted by non-Romani people and placed in the category of 'Others'. The number of stereotypical representations in literature, film and media of Roma communities cannot be denied, and has created a trap of visibility as well as invisibility of all those who do not fit the constantly repeated images/representations. Producing knowledge while neglecting these facts results in epistemic violence ‘that is violence exerted against or through knowledge … probably one of the key elements of domination’ (Kóczé-Trehan, 2021) and analysing Roma representation in film in the spirit of critical pedagogy can be one of the most effective tools to deactivate it.
SELF-REPRESENTATION & POTENTIAL OF FILM
Increasingly, Roma film makers, writers, creators, intellectuals and activists are speaking out for themselves and claiming agency over their self-representation. Initiatives such as RomArchive, a digital archive of the Roma that collects narratives by Roma, is crucial to including their perspectives and deconstructing dominating narratives. Indeed, media, photographs, films and stories, though complicit, also have a subversive potential. Films and autoethnographic projects play a key role in intervening, especially in mainstream media, to enable a better understanding within the public domain. They have the potential to make more people aware of the prejudices they knowingly or unconsciously harbour, and can help lessen ignorance or unawareness of the subject and encourage greater open-mindedness and consideration.
One notable filmmaker is Tony Gatlif, who returns repeatedly in his films to the Roma community. His early works focused on the unromantic reality of “Gypsy” life (La Terre au Ventre, 1978, Les Princes, 1982), but he has also made films that celebrate Roma culture through its vibrant music (Latcho Drom, 1993 and Gadjo Dilo 1997).
Another promising filmmaker is Leonor Teles, whose 2013 film-school production Rhoma Acans was shown and won awards at several film festivals. The director looks at her family’s history and its relationship to the Roma tradition. Her first film after graduating from film school was Batrachian’s Ballad, which was shown at the 66th Berlin International Film Festival and won the Golden Bear in the Best Short Film category. This short experimental film takes a critical approach towards a representational tradition full of clichés and commonplaces. The film’s narrative is framed by archival footage, specifically Super 8mm home movies of Teles’ family. To quote the director:
‘The film is based on the assumption, a naive one perhaps, that action might possibly trigger a change in attitude. I wanted to produce a film that is energetic, ironic and irreverent. A film in which Punk is an oppositional and political element, yet at the same time an aesthetic one. A short film as incisive, appealing and impetuous as Punk music. As a filmmaker, I felt it was important to treat the topic with the sincerity and honesty it deserved. Anything that breaks rules and defies convention almost always becomes controversial; and that is precisely what happens in Batrachian’s Ballad’ (Leonor Teles).
Her film provides an example of art as a powerful device for cultural resistance. Even if the protagonist/director is engaged in an act of destruction, the film itself is capable of building bridges between ‘the oppressed and the oppressor’.
Film and art create relationships between the filmed subjects/protagonists and filmmaker, as well as the viewer. The negotiation of this relationship is inscribed in the images, the process of filmmaking and watching the film to create an intersubjective experience (MacDougall, 1998; Edwards, 2001), which allows viewers to question their own notion of themselves and of those they are looking at. As André Raatzsch, artist and intellectual of Romani descent who presently heads the Documentation Department at the Documentation and Cultural Centre for German Sinti and Roma in Heidelberg and was also the curator-in-chief of the photography section of the RomArchive states:
‘I believe that art by and about members of the European Roma minority can only find its place in Europe if viewers and artists knowingly perceive it as such and subject it to critical analysis. In this day and age, it is necessary that different images coexist; only viewers can decide whether or not they match reality. And making this decision is the greatest civic responsibility.’ (André J. Raatzsch).
FILM EDUCATION – CRITICAL PEDAGOGY & A COMMON POLITICS OF IMAGES
As storytellers and/or educators, we need to take seriously this responsibility when creating, using, looking at and selecting images and content for our classes. We need to include Roma voices and their works, and encourage students of all backgrounds to challenge and to see beyond preconceived notions and stereotypes. We also need to constantly question our own possible biases, deconstruct preconceived notions and learn to listen. As bell hooks states:
‘When not addressed critically, education, including film and media education, can reproduce and reinforce hegemonic and, at times, damaging values. As such, efforts to transform film and media education must go beyond mere changes to curriculum content but must also seek to change pedagogical and personal habits and attitudes (hooks, 1994).’
To teach this responsibility in film and media education, educators can make use of critical pedagogy. To begin with, it can help to map the social and media environment around one’s chosen subject. What representations are out there, and what do they truly say about both the subjects depicted and their creators? Are we perhaps mistaking cultural essence for a set of circumstances? The ability to distinguish between these aspects could be a goal for the course. How can we as teachers foster empathy, critical thinking and understanding as essential skills for film, media and art creators?
We also need to question our own biases and critically examine the material and content we choose for our classes and what our teaching goals are. Being aware of our responsibility, are we also practicing it? To question power relations, one must also be ready to renegotiate power relations in the classroom. That way, we can contribute to ‘empowering and participatory learning experiences that seek to transform the social world’ (Webb, Allen & Walker (2002). Teaching and learning can be sites of resistance and practices of freedoms. For this, students need to be engaged and included in the dialogue. They should not be silenced. To be inclusive, we also need to be open to experiment with our teaching, be open to traverse genres and disciplines and to let go of the faith and reliance on hierarchical setups and distance as realism.
As teachers, we can provide students with theoretical tools, for instance from postcolonial studies, to help them deconstruct images and their own biases. Students need to be given space and time to also reflect on their own positionality and to find their own ways of expressing themselves. As teachers, we can also enable encounters and deeper engagement for instance through field work in the given social environment. Meeting NGOs, visiting cultural art institutions, planning projects together, analysing media representation, and inviting and listening to members of Roma communities to include their perspectives, films and texts in the course material. Encounters can lead to changes in attitudes whereby, for example, social disadvantage is not an essential, often self-imposed, unchangeable condition, but a consequence of systemic, structural and operational problems. Identifying these, students can replace them with their own experiences and thus gain a more valuable knowledge from doing so.
The RomArchive can be used for ‘virtual fieldwork’ to provide an archive of films, photographs, texts and articles. Film Screenings can raise awareness and create bridges. For this purpose, the project Romacinema has created a pedagogical kit for educational screenings as well as a training curriculum to show how film and cinema can become a space to counter racism against Roma communities. These platforms can be used as resources when preparing a curriculum and looking for films and texts.
There are many reasons why it is important as film and media educators to also focus on representations of diverse groups of people, and to be aware of what we do when we create images. André Raatzsch’s statement in relation to images can also be said in relation to moving images, and responds to the purpose of studying Roma representation and educating future film/image/media creators and storytellers:
‘Reality is being equated more and more with that what is portrayed in the media, in film and photography. It is, however, up for debate whether this really constitutes reality. It is our responsibility and our democratic right to decide what we see in images: do we see ‘strangers’ or ‘fellow citizens’? Will there ever be a European politics of images in which we are able to better explain the complex connections between our society and our history? A politics of images, in which the medium of photography can serve to re-establish our own self-image – a self-image that promises us a future. We need photographs that show our human dignity, that make visible for all the memories that have been lost or banished from collective consciousness; images of Sinti and Roma which link together the lost knowledge of our mutual experiences of European history and which place our common fates into the foreground. Will there ever be a time in which the codifying glance of dominant representational strategies is altered and in which a politics of images is created where photographs are utilized to promote equal rights and human dignity? All who create media, all who make images, who view them or those who have images taken of themselves, they all face the enormous challenge of developing a common politics of images, one that promises a better future for us all’ (André Raatzsch).
Kóczé A. Trehan N.: ‘When they enter, we all enter…Envisioning a New Social Europe a Roma Feminist perspective, In Ryder, A.-Taba, M.-Trehan, N. (eds): Romani Communities and Transformative Change: A New Social Europe, Bristol University Press, 2021, https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv18gfz6v.14?seq=1
Williams, Raymond 1958, Culture and Society 1780-1950, New York: Columbia University Press.
hooks, bell. (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.
Webb, Lynny M., Allen, Maria W. & Walker, Kandi L. (2002). “Feminist pedagogy: Identifying basic principles.” Academic Exchange Quarterly, 6, 67–72.
Spivak, G. C. (1995). Can the Subaltern Speak? In G. G. Bill Ashcroft, The Post- Colonial Studies Reader (pp. 24-38). New York: Routledge.
MacDougall, D. (1998). Transcultural Cinema. In D. MacDougall, Transcultural Cinema (pp. 245-279). New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Edwards, E. (2001). Raw Histories: Photographs, Anthropology and Museums. Oxford: Berg.
André Raatzsch, https://www.romarchive.eu/en/politics-photography/
Leonor Teles, director’s note in press kit: http://portugalfilm.org/film/detail/balada_de_um_batraquio
Rucker-Chang, S. (2018). African-American and Romani Filmic Representation and the ‘Posts’ of Post-Civil Rights and Post-EU Expansion. Critical Romani Studies, 1(1), 132-148. https://doi.org/10.29098/crs.v1i1.8
Selling, J. (2018). Assessing the Historical Irresponsibility of the Gypsy Lore Society in Light of Romani Subaltern Challenges. Critical Romani Studies, 1(1), 44-61. https://doi.org/10.29098/crs.v1i1.15
Mirga-Kruszelnicka, A. (2018). Challenging Anti-gypsyism in Academia. Critical Romani Studies, 1(1), 8-28. https://doi.org/10.29098/crs.v1i1.5
USEFUL LINKS & RESOURCES
Training Curriculum by Romacinema
Lectures and Suggestions for text / video:
Different Angle- The RomArchive Film Section in the making, video (15 min)
Louise Adams is the project manager of the future.film.education project and is involved in the research groups. She holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in media and cultural studies and completed study and research stays in Germany, Greece, Spain, Austria, France and Namibia. She was awarded the prix d'excellence of the FGU (Franco-German University) for her intercultural competence, social commitment and academic achievements. Her research interests include cultural and commemorative practices, postcolonial & gender studies, film and visual culture. As associate for international affairs at the ifs internationale filmschule köln, she oversees and advises international students, coordinates student and staff exchange programmes and manages cooperation with international partner schools and organisations.
Freelancing cultural researcher, film scholar, curator, visiting lecturer at Budapest Metropolitan University. She has been conducting research about Roma representation in film and media for more than a decade and published a book about it titled: Passing – the (an)archaeology of Roma image making. Her academic activities are devoted to purposes of domesticating engaged scholarship and building cultural resistance, working out new higher education methods of teaching film, media and cultural studies. She has been working as a film curator in many film events and as academic expert in RomArchive. Recently her research interest turned to archival and memory studies, in 2021 she has become a Goethe Institut Fellow at documenta Archiv, Kassel, Germany.