Letter to National Geographic about "American Gypsies"

Dear National Geographic,

 

So you think you know Gypsies? Or rather, you think Ralph Macchio does?

 

What I see when I watch "American Gypsies" is another scripted reality show that focuses on fights and conflicts to raise ratings. Sure, you put brief articles about Romani history and culture on your web page for the hardiest explorers to find. You even quoted Dr. Ian Hancock, one of our own scholars. But then you overshadowed that more factual—but by no means complete—information with a big brazen exhortation to "Solve your dispute in Gypsy Court" by taking "your case to your Facebook peers." Now, there are some wise elders for you.

 

This is exploitation! All the more so because you bypassed scores of accomplished, serious Roma filmmakers for the likes of the "Karate Kid." And perhaps the most hateful thing about all this is how, although you mention that the Johns are one American Gypsy family, your articles and much of your advertising implies that viewers will know the Gypsy people once they have seen Ralph's outsider vision of them. And what does Ralph do? Well, in interview after interview last week, he compared us to the Mafia!

 

So, let's add this up: You know, because you consulted experts like Dr. Hancock, that most Gypsies are not fortunetellers or any other one profession, or criminals, or any of the stereotypes that have dogged our people and led to our persecution over centuries; still, when push comes to shove, you represent us with a commercialized fortune-telling family and compare us to the criminal Mafia. Furthermore, if you and Ralph used the word "secretive" to refer to us once, you used it a thousand times. Is that secretive, like "Orientals" are "inscrutable"? Or perhaps you’d like to bring back Birth of a Nation so we can see the Ku Klux Klan as heroes?

 

Do you really not see the racism in all this? Well, I'd like to open your eyes. I challenge you, National Geographic, to air films by Romani filmmakers who show the diversity of our culture. Enclosed is a list of filmmakers who have a much greater clue than Mr. Macchio to who we are.

 

National Geographic, I challenge you. If you really want to know Gypsies, redeem your reputation as worthy explorers and scholars by airing work made within our community. Let our people truly speak for ourselves.

 

 

Glenda Bailey-Mershon

Board Member, Romani Zor

Views: 1640

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Dear Glenda,

Congratulations, an excellent letter! Two hours ago I added my like and started writing a reaction, that vanished due to internet problems. I will try again in shifts now...

First of all I am sorry that I saw your letter just now, although I have some excuses. I have beem drafting quite some letters last summer.

242 views and 5 likes for an excellent letter is poor and moreover, likes won't stop de film industry, in which Mr Macchio and National Geographic are participating too. As a child I loved cowboy films like Bonanza, which was probably closer to reality than Bloodlines, MBFGW and American Gypsies. Today cowboys are running farms, or banks or factories. Now the focus is on Gypsies, on furtune tellers and other secretive professions from a secretive world. We hardly know the people, so that we can fully use our imagination to turn them into funny or even crazy actors in commercial movies. It is all about money making. Cowboys are out, Gypsies are in.

Why am I the first one here to do more than lifting my thumb? There are at least 80% of Roma on this site, who could and should have thanked you for drafting this strong letter. Khetanes has an International Romani Anti Defamation League (IRADL) group on the site, we also have lawyers here. Each case of discrimination can be tackled in an official way. Not only by drafting letters, but also by publishing them. There are many reporters here too! The skills and structures exist, but coordination is lacking!


No one can fight Romaphobia and racism alone. Are Roma alone? In Europe live 12-15 million Roma, In Canada and the States far less. Yet, I have the impression that American Roma are better organised and take stronger stands. About one year ago in Uk the book "Gypsy Boy" appeared. That boy also came from a secretive culture, but he knew to escape! On the cover is the photo of a rather dirty child and in the Dutch title the word "zigeuner" is used. That sells better. A Dutch cultural organisation, that prfepared an exhibition on Romani art,  put the book on its website to inform the visitors. When authorities use state money to contribute to racism, we are back in the 1930s. When I made this statement, a Romani artist got so angry with me that she left Khetanes. I was believed to exaggerate. Some people prefer to look away instead of facing threats. I say "We", because a racist society is in no one's interest. Justice is a common good, in spite of what populists try to make us believe. We have a global crisis, but also a global desease that is called "discord". Again Roma are in the ranks of victims. If victims are, on top, divided among themselves, life becomes even more difficult.
Els said:

First of all I am sorry that I saw your letter just now, although I have some excuses. I have beem drafting quite some letters last summer.

242 views and 5 likes for an excellent letter is poor and moreover, likes won't stop de film industry, in which Mr Macchio and National Geographic are participating too. As a child I loved cowboy films like Bonanza, which was probably closer to reality than Bloodlines, MBFGW and American Gypsies. Today cowboys are running farms, or banks or factories. Now the focus is on Gypsies, on furtune tellers and other secretive professions from a secretive world. We hardly know the people, so that we can fully use our imagination to turn them into funny or even crazy actors in commercial movies. It is all about money making. Cowboys are out, Gypsies are in.

Why am I the first one here to do more than lifting my thumb? There are at least 80% of Roma on this site, who could and should have thanked you for drafting this strong letter. Khetanes has an International Romani Anti Defamation League (IRADL) group on the site, we also have lawyers here. Each case of discrimination can be tackled in an official way. Not only by drafting letters, but also by publishing them. There are many reporters here too! The skills and structures exist, but coordination is lacking!

For 5 years I was in politics. I learned to know the phenomenon of power. Power without control and transparency easily becomes abuse of power. That is why justice of the constitutional state are no aim of final destination, but a permanent struggle. A garden requires maintenance not to become a jungle. As justice is our common good, maintenance is our common responsibility. In politics I witnessed how bad statemen were protected, how innocent children were forgotten, how principles were neglected and how painful facts were hidden. Because of politics, I thought. With artists it will be different, I believed.

It differs, but not enough!

We are not even 800, we could easily be 3000 or 9000, if all musicians and actors sign up individually. Not all of us can draft excellent letters, but other talents are needed too. In a community of 20 million Roma, among whom are so many artists, people can raise their voice successfully once they unite. Facebook is no help. Facebook encourages people to start their own pages and groups. As a result Facebook is a parc full of bemvhes where people talk and talk.

To this very day I remember how our FB Cause was hijacked and closed by one crazy, jealous guy. We protested in vain and lost 3600 supporters, plus the possibility to do fundraising. The new Cause is a failure due to all confusion. We have over 5000 likes, but only some 2000 supporters.

Meanwhile the situation in Europe is worsening. No need to tell you, Glenda. A a Board member of Romani Zor you know perfectly well. Everywhere are fences and walls to separate the two worlds, that of Roma and that of non-Roma. Far-Right is getting ready to make one world out of it. We know their methods...

One thing I learned. I never understood how it could happen 80 years ago. Now I know: we just let it happen.

Els

Oh, I so fear you are rights,Els, that people are just letting it happen. Here in the U.S., of course, we put our hands over our eyes for some time after we were asked to join the anti-Nazi cause, years after American Jews warned our government of Hitler's aims, long after the first Roma died at his hands. Today, trying to break through the din is just as hard. We do know our State Department is watching, but I, personally, believe that if they really cared they would be leaning on their ally, Canada, to stop their horrific new refugee measures against our people fleeing Eastern Europe. Very soon, one of our Rromani Zor board members will go with ACRE to visit the Hungarian embassy and demand some answers. I don't know if we can do something more substantive, but we are trying to find ways to raise alarms.

Thank you for your comments, Els. I did not write it to be thanked, of course, but to help by giving one template people could use to write their own letters. People, including yourself, we're kind to compliment it.

I did not get a reply, of course; I did not expect one. I will move forward trying to get as many people as possible to know that what they are watching on that channel is false. However, Rromani Zor has several other moves up its sleeve to counter National Geographic. My favorite is a new effort to actually show what they would not: films from our list in the letter that give much more accurate and nuanced views of "Gypsies." We are trying to spread those improved images and stories around the country, and in that, people could join in a very positive effort to counter the negative propaganda. They can contact me or Aaron Williams for more details.

And what about a Romani film series for Khetanes in Europe? That could be an excellent means of countering the right-wing propaganda as well as a fundraiser. What film series are there already? I do not know this, and I should, perhaps.

Glenda


Els said:

Dear Glenda,

Congratulations, an excellent letter! Two hours ago I added my like and started writing a reaction, that vanished due to internet problems. I will try again in shifts now...



Els said:
Glenda

>

For 5 years I was in politics. I learned to know the phenomenon of power. Power without control and transparency easily becomes abuse of power. That is why justice of the constitutional state are no aim of final destination, but a permanent struggle. A garden requires maintenance not to become a jungle. As justice is our common good, maintenance is our common responsibility. In politics I witnessed how bad statemen were protected, how innocent children were forgotten, how principles were neglected and how painful facts were hidden. Because of politics, I thought. With artists it will be different, I believed.

It differs, but not enough!

No need for thanks, just organize!

Glenda



Els said:


No one can fight Romaphobia and racism alone. Are Roma alone? In Europe live 12-15 million Roma, In Canada and the States far less. Yet, I have the impression that American Roma are better organised and take stronger stands. About one year ago in Uk the book "Gypsy Boy" appeared. That boy also came from a secretive culture, but he knew to escape! On the cover is the photo of a rather dirty child and in the Dutch title the word "zigeuner" is used. That sells better. A Dutch cultural organisation, that prfepared an exhibition on Romani art,  put the book on its website to inform the visitors. When authorities use state money to contribute to racism, we are back in the 1930s. When I made this statement, a Romani artist got so angry with me that she left Khetanes. I was believed to exaggerate. Some people prefer to look away instead of facing threats. I say "We", because a racist society is in no one's interest. Justice is a common good, in spite of what populists try to make us believe. We have a global crisis, but also a global desease that is called "discord". Again Roma are in the ranks of victims. If victims are, on top, divided among themselves, life becomes even more difficult.
Els said:

First of all I am sorry that I saw your letter just now, although I have some excuses. I have beem drafting quite some letters last summer.

242 views and 5 likes for an excellent letter is poor and moreover, likes won't stop de film industry, in which Mr Macchio and National Geographic are participating too. As a child I loved cowboy films like Bonanza, which was probably closer to reality than Bloodlines, MBFGW and American Gypsies. Today cowboys are running farms, or banks or factories. Now the focus is on Gypsies, on furtune tellers and other secretive professions from a secretive world. We hardly know the people, so that we can fully use our imagination to turn them into funny or even crazy actors in commercial movies. It is all about money making. Cowboys are out, Gypsies are in.

Why am I the first one here to do more than lifting my thumb? There are at least 80% of Roma on this site, who could and should have thanked you for drafting this strong letter. Khetanes has an International Romani Anti Defamation League (IRADL) group on the site, we also have lawyers here. Each case of discrimination can be tackled in an official way. Not only by drafting letters, but also by publishing them. There are many reporters here too! The skills and structures exist, but coordination is lacking!

Romani film series in Europe do not exist. It was UK where MBFGW was born, broadcasted in other countries too, but that is not the kind of movies we need. Sometimes good documentaries are made, for example by Bob Entrop, a non-Roma producer and director who has and deserves the respect of Roma. Films made by Roma are rare, certainly in mainstream media.

The problem is not the lack of skills, the problem is racism, prejudice. That can only be tackled by a huge media and educational offensive, like Romano Them Transmission. So far 7 people reacted on my call for assistance. Seven is not enough! I repeat my own words. Justice is a common good that needs our permanent maintenance and this permanent work for justice is our common responsibility. We can blame racists, but if we don't stir a finger, we should also blame ourselves. Or: silent is consent! Brief: I am waiting for the noise, waiting for the help!

Els, that is interesting, because most of the films on my list are by European Roma or sympathetic Europeans of other ethnicities. Now I see that I did not upload my list here; I am sorry for that and will copy it below.

As for Khetanes participation, perhaps we need to simplify. It is sometimes hard to get people to jump in when we are going in many directions. 

Els, let's have a Skype talk where I can see where I might help you.

Glenda

Here is the list. Additions welcome. 

An Annotated List of Films about the Romani People

Films by Romani filmmakers:

Latcho Drom (Tony Gatlif, Director) is a hymn to the music of Sinti and Roma from Rajasthan to Andalusia, via Egypt, Romania, Hungary, and France. Gatlif's films are numerous and many have won awards: Corre Gitano, on the Sinti and Roma from Grenada and Seville; Les Princes, on the Sinti and Roma who live in Paris’ suburbs; Gadjo Dilo recounts the story of the arrival of a young Gadjo (non-Rom) in a Roma village in Romania; and Vengo (2000) describes the rivalry between two Andalucian families involved in flamenco dance. Swing (2002) was filmed in eastern France, and describes the journey of Max, a young boy who wants to learn Django Reinhardt’s guitar playing.

Migration (Milutin Jovanovic, Director) recounts the efforts of a young Roma boy to document his home in a Romani settlement that was moved by the Belgrade City Assembly; a rough story about Gagi, his ambitions, the Roma and their problems, intertwined with several comic situations.

Mundi Romani––the World through Roma Eyes (Katalin Barsony, Director, the UNESCO award winner series; more than 40 episodes), has won many awards for telling the stories of various Romani groups around the world.

 

Roma Memento. Zukunft Ungewiss? / Roma Memento. Uncertain Future? (Marieka Schmiedt, Writer, Director) Beginning with pictures of the current living conditions of Roma in Belgrade, the film takes us from the grim contemporary situation to a forewarning past. In a conversation between the filmmaker and her mother, she speaks about her experiences of exclusion and her parentless childhood. Her mother was murdered in a concentration camp and she knew nothing about her own origin; neither did she know or understand the reasons behind the prejudices and continuous experiences of exclusion she encountered. The mother confides to her daughter how she has been haunted by these long-term experiences of discrimination, along with the current political situation for Roma in Europe, throughout her whole life. Also from Schmeidt: Vermachtnis (Legacy), 2010-2011(Vienna), a portrait of Roma Holocaust survivor and artist Ceija Stojka and her offspring.

 

Searching for the 4th Nail (George Eli, Writer and Director) turns a camera on the secret life of Romani culture when the writer’s two sons ask, “What does it mean to be a Gypsy?” From the Holocaust Museum to Hollywood, from ancient India to Ellis Island, they search for an answer.

 

Romani Kris: Court of Common Consent (Cristinela Ionescu, Writer, Director, and Producer) describes the results of Romanian authorities turning to Romani judges as mediators in conflicts and as aides in law enforcement, following the Roma’s homegrown justice system, led by elected Romani judges, typically educated elders who are respected in their community and have good relations with the non-Roma. These unique Roma courts represent a symbol of peace and stability in the family and community for Romani people all over world, and may function as a model of a just and egalitarian way of resolving differences and contributing to the creation of a truly functioning multicultural coexistence.

 

Films by Non-Roma Filmmakers with good access to Romani communities:

A People Uncounted (Aaron Yaager, Director; Tom Rasky, Producer; music by Robi Botos, an Hungarian-born Roma pianist) was filmed in 11 countries and features dozens of Roma—including Holocaust survivors, historians, activists and musicians—bringing Romani history to life through the interplay of their poetry, music, and compelling first-hand accounts, placing the Romani story within the larger context of the world’s legacy of racism and genocide.

 

Bold as Love: My Time with the Kalderash Gypsies of California. (Rana Halprin, Director; forthcoming) A record of the Kalderash community in California.

Carpati:50 Miles, 50 Years (Yale Strom, Director) Also, Man From Munkacs. Both films recount relationships between Jews and Roma.

Gypsy Caravan, (Jasmine Delal, Producer) A dazzling display of the musical world of the Roma, juxtaposed to the real world they live in. This feature documentary celebrates the luscious music of top international Gypsy performers and interweaves stirring real life tales of their home life and social background. Shot by documentary icon Albert Maysles. The film takes place on location in Spain, Macedonia, Romania and India, as well as in Europe and in the USA during the Gypsy Caravan concert tour created by World Music Institute. Also from Delal, American Gypsy, which follows a Romani leader and his family through a series of crises.

 

Just the Wind (Bence Fliegauf, Writer and Director) recounts one day in the life of a Roma family during the serial murders that took place during 2008 and 2009 in Hungary.

Opre Roma, (Tony Papa, Director; Gillian Darling Kovanic, Producer) celebrates the vibrant culture and tenacious struggle of the Canadian Gypsy and introduces a new generation of Roma who claim their Gypsy roots with pride, while fighting the myths that caused their parents to live in fear.

Our School (Mona Nicoara, and Miruna Coca-Cozma, Directors) tells the story of three Roma children segregated in Romanian schools who are part of a pioneer initiative to desegregate the local schools in a small Transylvanian town. The film asks the question, if you’re not given a chance in first grade, what’s the likelihood that, as an adult, you are going to access a better life than your parents?

Romano Drom
(Kristyna Balaban, Director) takes us into the lives of four Roma youth living in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

 

Suspino––A Cry For Roma (Gillian Darling Kovanic, Director) takes an unflinching look at the persecution that continues to plague Europe's largest and most vilified minority. The film focuses on Romania, where Europe's largest concentration of Roma are considered “public enemies,” and Italy, where the Roma are classified as nomads and relegated to living in camps, denied basic human rights available to refugees and foreign residents.

The Gypsies of Svinia, (Directed by John Paskievich; produced by Joe MacDonald, 1998) takes an unprecedented look into the everyday lives of Roma who have been relegated to the farthest, most grotesque margins of society during Eastern Europe's painful transition from communism to democracy. 

 

––Compiled by Glenda Bailey-Mershon for Rromani Zor. 

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