Cinema and Slavery in Romania

By Daniel K. Buntovnik

In Eastern Europe, a silence long held is being disrupted, by the film industry, no less!

aferimposterRecently I seized the opportunity to go and see Aferim! (2015), which is [virtually] the first film ever to depict the enslavement of Rroma (Rromani people) that occurred for some five hundred years in the present day territories of Romania.* Director Radu Jude, writing in conjunction with novelist Florin Lăzărescu, set out to develop a screenplay that would elucidate a historical period which Romanian society is for the most part reticent to acknowledge — much less critically engage with. Here these two have defied the norm and succeeded. For that we should all say Bravo! to them and their award-winning movie. In an interview with MEDIAFAX, Jude cites Țiganiada (1812) by Ioan Budai-Deleanu and Ciocoii vechi și noi (1862) by Nicolae Filimon as being among those few Romanian literary works which do make mention of this slavery, though largely only in passing. The void is not less existent in the English-speaking world, where historiographies and critical analyses of exploitation and domination have also tended to leave the matter untouched. For example, treatment of slavery in Romania (and enslavement of Rromani people elsewhere) are noticeably absent from Orlando Patterson’s landmark work Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (1982), “the first full-scale comparative study of the nature of slavery”, as well as from Edward Saïd’s Orientalism (1978).  An exception includes Ian Hancock’s The Pariah Syndrome: An Account of Gypsy Slavery and Persecution (1987).

Set in the year 1835 and in Wallachia (or Țara Românească–“Romanian Country”–one of the territories which would later unite to form the modern day nation-state Romania), the main protagonists of the film are a father-son duo called Costandin and Ioniță. Costandin is a bounty hunter whose objective is to capture a runaway slave named Carfin and return him to his master, a boyar (nobleman) by the name of Iordache. Their quest takes them through the Romanian countryside with its villages, mountains, forests, plains, peasants, priests, and țigani–a Romanian language racial slur used to refer to Rroma which has no exact equivalent in English, but which is usually translated as “Gypsies”. (In fact, țigan comes from the Greek term athinganoi, the name for members of what was a religious sect in the Byzantine Empire, which means “untouchable”, while Gypsy is a diminutive form of Egyptian.) Eventually Costandin and Ioniță track Carfin to the neighboring county where they must bribe a local official in order to be directed to the home of a peasant couple who are harboring him along with another fugitive Gypsy, a young boy named Țintiric. Soon enough, Carfin reveals to his captors that the real reason for which he fled from Iordache’s estate was not because he stole some money (as had been alleged) but because Iordache’s wife, Sultana, seduced him while he was watering horses in the stable.

Regarding the significance of the film’s title, it might be interesting to partake in an exercise of pseudo-etymology. The Romanian word aferim resembles the word afară, which means “outside” or “out” and can also be used in the sense of “(get) out!” or even “kicked out/deported” (dat afară). Romanian verbs are conjugated in the first person plural (we) with a suffix ending in -m, so if afară was to be converted into a verb infinitive, you could anticipate that aferim might signify “Let’s get out!”. But aferim actually means “bravo” or “well done”. What could there possibly be to applaud in a film about slavery? Ironically, far from being a call to get out from the yoke of slavery, “Aferim!” is what Iordache tells Costandin when the latter returns his “crow” to him. Dictionaries list the word aferim as a Turkicism (one out of a number of words imprinted onto the Romanian language from the period when Wallachia and Moldavia were under the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire).

While critics Veronica Lazăr and Andrei Gorzo have proclaimed Aferim! to be “something new in Romanian cinema”, they and others have also touted the film as a Western à la Vlach, pointing to an apparent influence from this genre observable in its frequent shots of expansive landscapes with men on horseback and wagons. Here Gypsies have even been analogized to American Indians. 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, also known as the Eastern (which in its Romanian form gave us bizarre blockbusters like The Prophet, the Gold, and the Transylvanians [1978]). Both movements had significant overlaps with the Revisionist Western: a set of films that emerged alongside the postmodernist turn that tend towards undermining the narrative stupidity of the Wild West as the rightful domain of the white settler. Inevitably, Aferim! has also drawn comparisons to more recent American movies like 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained, but it is certainly much more than a rehash of these films. Jude never loses sight of the brutal particularities of the 19th century Wallachian context.

Besides being described as a Western, Aferim! has also been called a drama, a tragicomedy, an adventure/road film, and a historical film. While these are all valid ways to describe Aferim!, it ought be recognized as more than the sum of its parts. As cinéma engagé, Aferim! engages society with its past, present, and future.

But why does this historical episode need revisiting — and what is really being revision-ized?

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, misogyny, even antisemitism). By delivering a fictional narrative situated within a past reality, it reveals what are unmistakably the roots of these attitudes. The ubiquitousness of disdain for Rromani people embodied in the characters’ frequent slinging of the term cioară (“crow”), for example, bears witness to continuity between past and present. Jude contends that the choice to film Aferim! in black and white functions as a signal of its irreality, marking the rupture between the reality of Gypsy slavery and the constructedness of any revisitation to this time preceding the invention of motion pictures. However, paradoxically, this actually, in a way, adds to “the sentiment that one is seeing a live transmission from Wallachia, 1835” because black and white images have come to represent a generalized bygone era whose boundaries become more and more indeterminate as we leave it further and further behind.

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 Romanian society, the “official” narrative is one that downplays and minimizes the reality of Rroma enslavement. Its main tactics are to highlight alleged fundamental theoretical differences between sclavie (slavery) and robie (a form of servitude which some contend has no direct translation into English) in an effort to show that no, there was no slavery in the Romanian territories: only robie. This stress of difference between sclavie and robie which denies their synonymy, 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 in social statuses ascribed to țigani and Wallachian/Vlach peasants. In this regard, Aferim! is a “Revisionist Eastern”.

Despite its orientation towards the past, the film is clearly forward thinking. At one point, as Costandin and his son travel on horseback with their captive Gypsies, Costandin wonders out loud about what people will say about them in hundreds of years. He asks (and I paraphrase): Will future society revere us, their forefathers who have blazed the trails for them? Will they speak of us with a sense of gratitude for what we’ve done and what we’ve left them with? Will they say anything about us at all? Costandin answers his own questions: No, and if the future generations do say anything at all, it will only be to curse us. The bounty hunter’s musings here have a measure of ambiguity to them. In Costandin’s interrogatory monologue about relations between the living and the dead, the dead could be him and his son (and the larger ethno-religious community they’re a part of), but the dead could just as easily be the Gypsy slaves in their captivity. Costandin’s comments seem to reflect the research of ethnologist Patrick Williams, who presented findings about his time spent with Manush (Rromanies of Germanic [Sinti] origin in France) in the book “Nous, on n’en parle pas” (1993). For Williams, the way that the dominant French society erases and renders Rromani communities invisible was reflected in the way these Sinti Rromanies 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 if it was not possible or very undesirable to discard them. Iulia Hasdeu summarizes the idea nicely, “The dead are to the Manush as the Manush are to the gadže: one doesn’t talk about them, but accords them a place in the cosmic order.” “In order to constitute their real presence,” Williams writes, “they have chosen to refer to real absence.” In other words, the silence of the living is what allows the voice of the dead to be heard, and this silence is held out of respect for the dead. Similarly, blogger Qristina Zavačková Cummings recently spoke of “Nostalgia as Forgetting”. Accordingly, Costandin is quite right to assume that any breach of this silence would be a curse. 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, naïve, 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].” [Antonio Gómez Alfaro, La Gran Redada de Gitanos, Ed. presencia gitana, Madrid, 1993. Page 9. ISBN 84-87347-09-6]

From an economic perspective, the minimizing, downplaying, and even outright denial of the reality of the 500 year period of enslavement of Rromani people is in line with the capitalist strategy of divide-and-rule, which uses race and ethnicity to drive a wedge between members of the working class. It also makes us overlook a major source of contribution to modern day wealth. Romanian slavery negationism perpetuates the invisibility of Rromani labor and the myth of the lazy Gypsy. Salome Kokoladze debunks this myth and shows in her article “Cooking in the Basement: The Invisibility of Romani Labor and the Profitable Discrimination” how social prejudice, alienating workplace conditions, and lack of legal recourse puts racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities at increased risk of hyper-exploitation, all while ensuring increased levels of good ol’ regular surplus-value-extractive exploitation for the more privileged poor (or, “middle class”) who are dimwitted enough to exalt themselves over their would-be comrades with the psychological wages afforded them by their white bourgeois heterosupremacist overlords.

(Warning: spoilers in the following paragraph)

Costandin illustrates the aforementioned middle class psychology in a lot of ways. He exalts himself over the slave Carfin, while he practically cowers in fear of the boyar Iordache. Costandin almost seems to redeem himself in a few instances. First, he shows skepticism towards the dehumanization of Rroma when he asks a priest if Gypsies are indeed human beings, and this priest says that they definitely are (but that Jews are inhuman and in Moldova they use Christians instead of horses to pull their carriages). Ioniță sympathizes with Carfin so much that he actually implores his father to release their captive, and tell Iordache that they could not find his slave, but Costandin rejects this on the basis that they won’t be paid if they do not retrieve the slave. He is not impervious to the injustice of it, but within the logical confines of this system, profit is simply higher on the priorities list. Costandin also humanizes Carfin to an extent when he assures him, after the latter begs to be set free for fear of being killed by his master, that Iordache will only give him some strikes of the whip for his misdeeds. He is putting “a human face” on slavery. When Costandin returns the slave, he even puts in a good word for him with his master, cautiously informing the boyar that the fault lies with Sultana. The woman and her infidelity are more to blame than Carfin, Costandin argues. But when Iordache gets ahold of his property, this myth of the possibility of a gentler slavery is, like Carfin, castrated. Aghast at this boyar’s perverted sense of justice, Costandin tells Ioniță that they should leave. His consolation for Ioniță: “He wasn’t your brother!” In the final scene, Costandin assures his son that his future is bright; he will join the army, fight some wars, and surely make an officer’s rank. Social atomization allows him to sacrifice others on the altar of his narrow self-interest.

Aferim! also sheds some light on what was the then crystallizing Romanian national identity. When, in a forest, Costandin and Ioniță come across a wealthy Ottoman travelling by carriage and asking for directions, Costandin revels in having sent him in the wrong direction, where he is likely to be attacked by bandits. He also dislikes Russians, and listens to a priest mock Hungarians. Director Radu Jude, in the same interview cited above, succinctly points out the hypocrisy in the fact that there is a commonly held belief in Romania, which basically amounts to a cliché, which says that many of the country’s problems are rooted in the fact that it has always been at the intersection of inter-imperialist conflicts, and yet many of the same people who express this idea are reluctant to consider that 500 years of slavery, which we are only 150 years distant from, might have left some significant traces on the present.

The film has solicited plenty of negative, defensive reactions from specimens exhibiting these petit bourgeois and nationalist psychologies. In an East that it is no longer “Red”, these mentalities are all the rage in some circles. These spectators are offended, not by the fact that the Orthodox Church was relatively recently a slave-owning institution, but by the fact that they are being reminded of it.

Film critic Elena Dulgheru derides Aferim! as, “the hipsterization of history”. Clamoring to sound the alarm bells of reverse racism, she writes:

“The movie pretends to speak about hate, discrimination, and ignorance, being itself made with hate and ignorance towards a misunderstood history, read from the screen of an iPod, scoffed at before being tackled; made with constant and sickly discriminatory incrimination of Orthodox clergy and faithful Christians as the principal causes of the so-called “Vlach backwardness”, so that you ask yourself if somehow the obsessive defamation of Orthodoxy and Romanianism, present from the first shot to the last, were [sic] not somehow the principal motivation for making the movie.”

In his review “What I understood from the film Aferim”, Gabriel Duca, in also describing this topsy-turvy world of oppressed white Christendom, quite rightly perceives the dual Red and Revisionist heritage at play in the film, though from a reactionary perspective:

“Well, how to start giving my opinion about Aferim!? Do you remember anticlerical propaganda from the 50s? While priests, monks, and nuns were thrown in Communist prisons, Party propaganda always brought forward stories about greedy priest and monk drunkards who kept the people in the darkness of unawareness and who sought only to fill their own pockets, wagering exactly on the people’s lack of culture, religion — opiate of the masses, etc.  Well, those old ideas (oldies, but goldies) that we thought long forgotten, we find them in Radu Jude’s multiple award-winning film Aferim!

What novelty does this film nevertheless yield? Yes, it’s a question of novelty. If films made by “The Party” presented the hard life of Romanians to show where we would have been left if “liberating Communism” would not have come, and films made after 1989 presented us with the sad life under Communism to show us where we would be without “democracy and European values”, Mr. Jude’s film combines these two “strategies”: clichés once presented by “The Party” are now understood through the prism of “liberty, tolerance, and European values”. Only by virtue of “tolerance” and these “values” have we arrived where we’ve arrived. Without them we would have remained primitive and boorish ignoramuses, like the characters in the film.”

In an East that has long since traded in its red flags for the blues of the EU and NATO, making a film that emphasizes the humanity of Rromani people might reasonably require receiving a grant from some occidental NGO’s. In this case, the film was sponsored in part by the Foundation for an Open Society, associated with George Soros, a business magnate and philanthropist of Hungarian and Jewish origin and a favorite boogeyman for imbeciles pushing the “Zionist Occupied Government” conspiracy theory. It is unfortunate that a genuine Left does not have the resources to fund more cultural projects like this. However, there should also not be any stake put in the myth of capitalism with a human face. Reformist progressives may from time to time help raise awareness of key issues to an extent (and reforms are certainly welcome on the path to upheaval), but Malcolm X hit the nail on the head when he said, “You can’t have capitalism without racism.” This is because capitalism–the system of rule by entities concerned with atomized financial gain–can only maintain itself if the masses are sufficiently lacking in awareness of how and why human rights are intrinsically violated by this system of rule and of the fact that they can act together to end this unjust situation. Because capitalism relies on instilling false consciousness–that is, dubious ways of perceiving one’s place and one’s relations to others in society, in the economy, on Earth–it is highly unlikely that these dubious ways of thinking can be fully extricated from the fabric of this system’s repressive and ideological state apparatuses. As Aferim! shows, promises of “gentler injustice”, especially those made by people who appear to speak with authority but who lack the actual power to make good on those promises, are likely to end in depraved perversity.

* [Updated on 11 September 2015]: Actually, the first film to depict slavery in Romania was a 1923 silent film called Gypsy Girl in the BedroomHowever, it is a lost film.

All works cited in compliance with the fair use doctrine.


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