Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A silence long held is being disrupted!

By Daniel K. Buntovnik

"Aferim!" is (virtually) the first film ever to depict the enslavement of Rromani people that occurred for some five hundred years in the present day territories of Romania. The film's writers set out elucidate a period which Romanian society is for the most part reticent to acknowledge — much less critically engage with. The void is not less existent in the Anglosphere.

While critics have proclaimed "Aferim!" to be "something new", they have also touted the film as a Western à la Vlach, pointing to influence from this genre observable in its frequent shots of expansive landscapes with men on horseback and wagons. This is hardly groundbreaking in and of itself, since the conventions and tropes of this seemingly quintessentially American film genre were long ago appropriated (and, to an extent, subverted) by Europeans on both sides of the Iron Curtain, giving us the Spaghetti Western and the Red Western, aka the Eastern. Both had significant overlaps with the Revisionist Western: a genre that undermines narratives of the Wild West as the domain of the white settler. "Aferim!" has also drawn comparisons to more recent American slave movies, but it is certainly much more than a rehash of these films, never losing sight of the brutal particularities of the 19th century Wallachian context.

Insofar as this particular historical period has until recently remained unvisited by cinema, we are not coming back to anything, but approaching something new. What we do revisit in "Aferim!" are actually present day social attitudes (in particular, antiziganism).

The Revisionist aspect of the film also means pushing back against what little narrative does exist acknowledging the enslavement of Rromani (and Tatar) people at the hands of the Romanian Orthodox Church, nobles, and principality-states. In Romania, the "official" narrative is to downplay and minimize the reality of Rroma enslavement. Its main tactics are to highlight alleged fundamental differences between "sclavie" (slavery) and "robie" (another supposedly milder form of servitude unique to this region). This stress of difference between "sclavie" and "robie" is at the same time accompanied by a playing up of the similarities between "robie" and feudal serfdom. "Aferim!" demolishes these pedantic arguments by laying bare the chasm of difference between social statuses ascribed to Gypsies and Wallachian peasants. In this regard, "Aferim!" is a "Revisionist Eastern".

Despite its orientation towards the past, the film is clearly forward thinking. At one point, Costandin engages in an interrogatory monologue about relations between the living and the dead; he wonders how "we" (21st century people) will remember "them". What will we say about "them"? But this monologue is ambiguous. "They", the dead, could be he and his son (and the larger white, Orthodox community they belong to), but the dead could just as easily be the Gypsy slaves in their captivity. Costandin's comments reflect the research of ethnologist Patrick Williams presented in his book "Gypsy World: The Silence of the Living and the Voices of the Dead". For Williams, the way that European societies erase and render Rromani communities invisible was reflected in the way the French Gypsies he lived with (seemed to) render the dead invisible by avoiding talking directly about them and by discarding their belongings whenever possible, and treating the belongings with a special level of care and respect if it was not possible or very undesirable to discard them. "In order to constitute their real presence," Williams writes, "they have chosen to refer to real absence." Accordingly, Costandin is quite right when he concludes with the assumption that any breach of this silence will be a curse ("If our descendants do say anything about us, it will only be to curse us," he says, and I paraphrase.)

"Aferim!" is a Revisionist pox upon the "official" narrative of Gypsy slavery because it does much to break the silence about it. The film brings dishonor to the dead partisans of slavery in exposing them as the cruel, naive, close- minded bigots that they were, and it may even bring shame to their descendants, those who have vicariously and transgenerationally inherited their attitudes. It was without a doubt for this very reason that King Carlos III of Spain demanded the erasure of any mention of the "Great Gypsy Round-up of 1749" (which resulted in decades of enslavement for Rroma in Spain) from the preamble to a new law on Gypsies in 1772 on the pretext that "it does little honor to the memory of my brother (Fernando VI)."

Costandin illustrates a middle class psychology in a lot of ways. He exalts himself over the slave Carfin, while he practically cowers in fear of the master Iordache. Costandin almost seems to redeem himself when he shows skepticism towards the dehumanization of Rroma; he asks a spiritual authority if Gypsies are indeed human beings. He is not impervious to the injustice inherent in enslavement, but within the logical confines of the system, profit is simply higher on the priorities list. Costandin attempts to put "a human face" on slavery. When this proves to be impossible, social atomization allows him to sacrifice others on the altar of his narrow self-interest. Ultimately, "Aferim!" shows that promises of "gentler injustice" are likely to end in depraved perversity.


De IMDB, 11/09/2015

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