Danis Tanovic's semi-documentary won this year's Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival, in spite of having been produced on a shoestring budget of 50000. The jury thus honored the most relevant film in the competition, owing to the fact that for the first time ever, the conditions of life of Roma (gypsies), Europe's largest stateless minority, is accurately described. The film is much more effective than I expected it to be for two reasons: one, it's focused on a not particularly spectacular, yet shocking incident and two, instead of using professional non-Roma actors, the actual Roma couple to whom this happened re-enacts the events - a move so bold that the jury deemed it worthy to award the actor's Silver Bear to the male lead.
The story: Nazif, an 'iron picker' who takes apart used cars and household appliances with basic tools to sell their metal for scrap. His wife Senada, a mother of two, takes care of their ramshackle house in a remote Bosnian village. One day, she complains of cramps so Nazif takes her to a hospital in the next city Tuzla. They learn that Senada has miscarried and needs to have the dead fetus removed. However, the clinic they are referred to refuses to perform the operation because they have no health insurance; they are asked to pay 980 marks (500) which they do not have. Nazif must find a solution within days or else Senada dies.
Tanovic's skill as a film-maker shows in his strapping of the story to the absolutely essential. Working with non- actors, he waives all emotional development, which is a radical departure from his earlier films, like the Oscar-winning 'No Man's Land' (2001) or the Colin Farrell-starring 'Triage' (2009). I've read reviews which criticize this rigid no-nonsense approach, citing the muteness of the performances, but in fact, Nazif and Senada's unexcited response to their predicament is the very strength of the film, because this is the response of people who have been said 'no' to all their life: resignation. So it comes as no surprise that when aid workers urge Senada to accompany them to go to the clinic for a third time, she refuses, meekly repeating 'it's no use'. Being half-Rom from my mother's side, I can assure you that this is indeed the fatalistic reaction to even far more serious challenges, but many people seem to expect gypsies to behave like in a Kusturica film. These, however, are not and were never intended to be an actual portrayal of gypsy life.
What prompts Tanovic to tackle this issue materializes in a brief exchange between Nazif and the aid workers: although he served in the Bosnian war of Independence, he did not receive any benefits or a pension like other veterans. The film does not elaborate on this - too much explanation would have hurt the film's focus, but since I translated testimonies of Ashkali (Kosovo gypsies) refugees for an NGO during the conflict, I might as well add that this is a common phenomenon on the Balkans where gypsies represent the lowest end of the social spectrum, and suffer from structural racism in accordance with this 'role'. For instance, in Kosovo, gypsies were driven out of their houses by returning Albanians who had their houses razed by the Serbs, accusing them of collaboration, and UNMIK - the UN administration - didn't act on their behalf because they focused on appeasing the national minorities.
The solution Nazif finds in the end stays in the family, illustrating that Roma have only their own kind to rely on. Because of the film's two wins, maybe a larger number of people will finally become aware of this problem which, in my view, is the most pressing and shameful European reality today: we notice Roma when they steal or beg or wipe our windscreens without asking, but we never wonder why they do. There's an uncomfortably large number of people who believe that Roma are abject and poor or even criminal 'by nature', and this film could serve as an instrument to change this perception if it gets screened in classrooms.
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