Why do you like Gypsies? How did you get to know them in the first
As far back as I can remember, I've always felt compassion for those
little raggamuffins you see in the street and those young mothers with
babies in their laps and hands outstretched.
Today in Serbia there is unprecedented privation. Some 30 per cent of
Serbs are on the edge of starvation. Because of shortages of medical supplies,
mental patients are even being tied up in psychiatric hospitals, where
they die of hunger.
And the Gypsies in Serbia are worse off than everyone else. I have never
seen so many four- and five-year-old Gypsy children out on the street before.
You see ten-year-olds at crossroads, offering to wash your car windows
for a coin or two, always ready to laugh and joke. In summer they go barefoot,
and they're not much better shod in winter.
Because they are exposed to life's harsh realities from infancy, they
are far more mature and quick-witted than children from more privileged
backgrounds. They soon learn the ins and outs of the black market, which
is growing by leaps and bounds with the economic chaos that Serbia is now
in. They sell anything: car fuel, old clothes, toilet paper, cigarettes
imported from Romania. Now that it has replaced Trieste as the source of
supply, Romania has become the poor man's El Dorado.
When I look into the great dark eyes of these children of the wind and
poverty, I feel that I'm looking into the mystery of their origins. No
one knows where Gypsies come from, but they are a people in their own right.
Their eternal sense of freedom and music attracted me to them and inspired
me to make my film I Even Met Happy Gypsies.
What is the film's original title?
The title in Serbo-Croat was The Feather Collectors, which is
more evocative for us since we're used to seeing Gypsies on our roads carrying
enormous bundles of goose feathers that they sell in the villages.
Unlike the Gypsies of Bosnia and Croatia, most Serbian Gypsies are sedentary
except those in the east near the Romanian and Bulgarian borders, where
you can still meet nomads such as the last bear-leaders from Pozarevac.
In the spring the whole family clambers into an old cart drawn by a nag
and does the rounds of weddings and village fetes.
You say they are sedentary. Where do they live?
Gypsy dwellings are usually found on the edges of small towns and villages.
In Belgrade they live in certain central neighbourhoods and like their
forebears work for the city on road maintenance. They seem to lead a more
human existence in towns and villages than in cities, plying their traditional
trades and occupations as collectors of scrap metal, goose-down merchants
and--more rarely these days--as blacksmiths or small traders. The interiors
of their little houses are simply white-washed whereas we Serbs like to
decorate our walls. The facades, on the other hand, are painted in vivid
colours and imaginative designs. Their little houses look as if they might
be part of a fairy tale, but what with alcohol, poverty and sometimes,
unfortunately, petty crime, there is nothing romantic about the life they
The crime rate in Serbia today is rising by leaps and bounds. And although
the Gypsies comprise only two percent of the Serb population, one of four
offenders is a Gypsy. Yet the Gypsies are better accepted by the Serbs
than they are in many other places.
Nobody Thinks of Him as a Gypsy Anymore, Not Even his Own Family
The ties of friendship between Serbs and Gypsies are so strong that
a Gypsy singer appearing on Belgrade television recently said jokingly,
"You Serbs should put up a monument to the Gypsies because we're the only
ones left who still love you!"
He was referring of course to this awful, dirty war that is ravaging
parts of the former Yugoslavia.
Serbian goodwill towards the Gypsies does nothing to improve the Gypsies'
condition, because the word Gypsy also designates someone who belongs
to a certain social level--the lowest.
Whenever, through sheer grit, one of them becomes a doctor or lawyer,
no one thinks of him as a Gypsy any more, not even his own family!
How much of a barrier is the Gypsy language?
For Gypsies the language problem is particularly acute because on the
one hand their language has no alphabet and on the other they express themselves
poorly in their adopted language. Some non-Gypsies go so far as to claim
Gypsies are incapable of learning other languages, which is obviously nonsense!
First of all they speak their own tongue -- although it has diversified
into so many different dialects that sometimes Gypsies from different parts
of the world find it very hard to understand each other. In fact, all Gypsies
are bilingual since they also use the language of their host country.
Do they get normal schooling?
In Serbian, Macedonian, Slovenian and other schools, Gypsy children
are taught in a language that is not their own. So they are already at
a disadvantage in relation to the other children. Moreover their mother
tongue is not a written language, but it is the language they use at home.
And sometimes too, their teachers have a racist attitude towards them.
Palm-Readers Who Can Recreate the World
Not long ago a sociologist tried to show, in an article that appeared
in Belgrade, that Gypsy children are intellectually inferior and that in
a normal class they hold the others back. He proposed that special classes
and programmes be adapted to Gypsy children's "intelligence levels." That's
the kind of nonsense you still hear about Gypsies!
It might be a good idea to give Gypsy children special lessons, but
without separating them from their class, so that they can improve their
skills in the national language. Otherwise how can they possibly emerge
How much is known about their culture?
Gypsy mythology, which has been transmitted orally down the centuries,
is symbolically very rich, and their poetry is unreal, or rather surreal,
woven from dreams.
Although there is no written history of the Gypsy language (or rather
languages) -- and without written traces the life and history of a people
are shrouded in obscurity -- the oral tradition has kept alive in the Gypsy
mind the most dramatic episodes of their past.
In Serbia there are whole families of Gypsy musicians. One of the best
known are the Lakatoshes, one branch of which lives in Hungary, the other
in Serbia. I met Mikhailo Lakatosh in a remote village in northern Serbia.
He was singing one of his songs, Djelem Djelem,
which, after being sung in my film, has become the Gypsy national anthem.
"I wandered endless by-ways/I even met happy Gypsies/Oh the Gypsies, oh
what men ..."
In Gypsy language the word Rom also means "man". All non-Gypsies
are called Gadjos, or "foreigners".
If the true measure of humanity is the amount of freedom that people
manage to win for themselves in this life, then Gypsies are truly men--Rom.
Like everyone else, Gypsies are fond of money. But they'll never sacrifice
an immediate pleasure -- a moment of intensity -- for a few gold coins.
Their attachment to freedom is not a rational choice, it is part of the
natural order of things. They feel it in their bones. It brings radiance
to their sombre lives of mingled joy and pain.
The euphoria generated by a sense of boundless freedom can lead to atrocious
crimes. The Gypsy hero of my film, who refuses to think about the consequences
of his acts, is a character out of Dostoyevsky. He doesn't think about
the consequences before committing his crime. For example, he doesn't say
to himself, "I must not kill, because if I do I'll go to prison for ten
years." He goes through with his murderous act, knowing full well that
he is bringing about his own ruin. A little later in the film he is watching
television with his family when he suddenly kisses his children, takes
his hat and leaves. And that's that. He has moved into another world.
Compared with the fleeting sense of power, by which he crosses over
to "the other side" of social morality, his personal interest counts for
little. He is ready to sacrifice his life for absolute freedom, through
which he can affirm his personality.
Europe was recently horrified by murders committed by two Gypsies who,
while under the influence of drugs, massacred an entire family in northern
Italy. One was tried and found guilty, but the other chose to kill himself.
The police surrounded his parents' house, and he agreed to surrender but
only after having a coffee and a cigarette in the courtyard. When he had
finished his cigarette, he shot himself through the heart. He had set off
on a road without end, signifying by his act the mysterious link that exists
between crime and freedom.
Less attached to their personal interests than others, perhaps less
"rational" because they scorn to consider the long-term consequences of
their acts, Gypsies seem to me more sensitive than others to the world's
beauty and its suffering and more susceptible to unhappiness, for they
are more vulnerable to the call of evil--if that's what it has to be called--that
we have in each of us.