Gadjo Dilo

We first meet Stéphane [Romain Duris] in the opening moments of "Gadjo Dilo" walking down an ice-covered road in the Romanian countryside. The young Parisian is in search of a legendary gypsy singer, whose tape he carries with him. Her songs had consoled his ethnomusicologist father on his deathbed, and the tape was recorded on one of his many field-trips. Stéphane is following in his footsteps.

I can understand the fascination with gypsy music. The authentic sound is nothing like the kitsch you hear in Hungarian restaurants. It has a simultaneously raw and ethereal power like no other music. Over thirty-five years ago I was listening to one of composer and ethnomusicologist Henry Cowell's radio programs on NYC's left-wing, listener-sponsored WBAI. He announced that he was going to play some field-recordings he had made of Romanian gypsy fiddle-players who had influenced Bela Bartok. The sound mesmerized me. To this day, I search for recordings of this type of fiddle-playing but nothing could possibly match Cowell's field-recordings. So I can understand Stéphane's passion.

Exhausted and half-frozen, Stéphane reaches a tiny village in the dead of night. All the doors are closed, the lights are out and the streets are empty. The only person he finds is an elderly drunken gypsy named Izidor [Isidor Serban], who is cursing loudly at the cops who have just taken his son Adrjani to jail on trumped-up charges. Stéphane asks the old man if he knows the location of a hotel, but the gypsy only wants to share his bottle with the young man, and pour out his complaints about the Romanian judicial system.

Stéphane listens patiently, shares from the bottle, but still has a warm bed on his mind. Finally he has an inspiration. He takes out the tape and plays it for the gypsy. "Do you know who she is? Do you know where I can find her?" From that moment on, Izidor is drawn to the young man, who becomes a surrogate son. They go back to the gypsy village where Izidor gives Stéphane his own bed.

The next morning the villagers are shocked by the presence of a "gadjo dilo" (crazy outsider) in their midst. They surround Izidor and press him with questions. How can he guarantee that Stéphane is not there to steal their chickens, since "gadjos" can never be trusted. The joke, of course, is that the gypsies project on to the outsider exactly the same fears that outside society has of them.

Stéphane enjoys gypsy hospitality for several days, but announces to Izidor that it is time for him to move on. He must track down the singer of his father's tape. Izidor pressures his surrogate son to stay for a few days more, and then the days turn into months. As Stéphane learns to speak their language, they lose their distrust of him. He takes part in their rituals and travels about the countryside with them on various adventures, including performances by the skilled musicians from Izidor's village.

The film was directed by Tony Gatlif, who made the award-winning documentary "Latcho Drom" in 1993, which depicts gypsy musicians in performance across the planet, from India to Spain. Gatlif is a gypsy himself, born in Algeria in 1948. "Latcho Drom" was part two of a trilogy on gypsy culture, that began with the 1982 feature "Les Princes." "Gadjo Dilo" is the final installment.

Ultimately Stéphane becomes assimilated totally into gypsy society. He falls in love with Sabina [Rona Hartner] who initially wards off the "gadjo." When he proves to her that he has cut his ties with "outsider" society, she takes him into her tent where they make passionate love.

In the climax of the film, Izidor's son Adrjani [Florin Moldovan] is released from jail and there is an joyous celebration in the gypsy village. The joy is short-lived, as Arjani and two accomplices go to town and track down the local official who victimized him. They murder him in a saloon in full view of the townsfolk. This leads to a raid on the gypsy village and the death of both Izidor and Adrjani.

While the film does not explore the underlying tensions between Romanians and gypsies, there is little doubt that it is related to the social disintegration following the fall of Ceaucescu. In a time of worsening economic conditions, gypsies become a convenient scapegoat just as they were in the 1930s when fascism was on the rise.

Anti-gypsy racism is on the increase everywhere, including Vaclav Havel's "enlightened" Czechoslovakia. A gypsy reporter writes: "Voicing stereotypes common throughout Europe, Czechs claim that Roma, with their traditionally large families, are a drain on the social service budget and live better than Czechs with jobs. They regard Roma as dishonest and often criminal. In a 1996 poll cited in the U.S. State Department's human rights report, 35 percent of Czechs favored 'concentrating and isolating the Roma' and 45 percent supported 'moving the Roma out of the Czech Republic if possible.'"

As a Marxist, I have always been interested in "exceptions" to normal bourgeois society. There is no greater exception than the gypsies, who resist assimilation like no other people. They originated on the west coast of India in the early middle ages and soon migrated into the middle east. They arrived in Europe by the fourteenth century, and now number more than 8 million there. They have always tried to find ways to avoid the confinements of wage-labor. By the same token, they show little interest in becoming captains of industry. While racist mythology paints them as thieves, most are hard-working. Patrin, a web page devoted to Roma (gypsy) culture and history states:

"For a collective economic effort, Roma may form a purely functional association, the kumpaniya, whose members do not necessarily belong to the same clan or even the same dialect group. Individually, many Roma are peddlers, especially in Europe. Some sell goods they have bought cheaply. Others sell what they make themselves, although in the twentieth century a number of Romani crafts have suffered from competition with mass-produced articles.

"There are certain staple Romani occupations, such as horse trading, metalworking, dealing in scrap metal, and vegetable or fruit picking in some countries. In gaining a livelihood, the women play their full part. It is they who often sell their wares from door to door and who do the fortune telling. Among the Vlad-speaking Roma in the United States, this latter profession, known as 'reading and advising,' is still widespread."

Bourgeois society has always had great difficulties with peoples who remain economically and culturally distinct. Like the gypsy, the Jews have historically been outsiders. During the nineteenth century, Eastern European Jewry existed on the fringes of bourgeois society as pawnbrokers, tax-collectors, saloon-keepers, etc. Christian society encountered them not only as an undifferentiated economic bloc, they also saw them as an alien presence, with their Yiddish language, their strange garb and religious beliefs. During times of relative economic stability, the Jew and gypsy was tolerated. During times of duress, they became scapegoats. And during the time of complete economic collapse in post-WWI Europe, they functioned as the ultimate scapegoats and were exterminated.

Today the Jews have become assimilated into bourgeois society. In the United States, they are virtually indistinguishable from other Americans. The gypsy, like the American Indian, remains unassimilated. There are pressures on both peoples to meld with the outside world. Like the American Indian, the gypsies face continuing cultural and economic genocide. As is the case for American Indians, one of the big worries for gypsy society is the disappearance of their language.

Tony Gatlif's "Gadjo Dilo" can be seen as part of the larger effort to preserve gypsy culture and society. Ironically, it is Stéphane the "outsider" who is assimilated into their culture and not the other way round. It is not too hard to identify with him as he discovers the joys of everyday gypsy life. There is a closeness and honesty that is obviously missing from the colorless and competitive world of bourgeois society. As our own society becomes more alienated and hate-filled--to the extent that fourteen year olds bring automatic weapons to school for the purpose of mass murder--, we will inevitably begin to think about alternatives to our own materialist values.

At this point many people will be tempted to find a way to assimilate into "outsider" societies, like Stéphane did into the gypsies. In many ways, this was what the 1960s counter-culture was all about. Unfortunately, these solutions can only exist for individuals, and not for greater society which revolves around the cash nexus. The crying need is for some sort of economic system that can make the freedom and solidarity of the gypsy village depicted in "Gadjo Dilo" universal.

("Gadjo Dilo" is scheduled for theatrical release on July 10, 1998)