The Appeal of the Unknown

in 17th Ankara – Flying Broom International Women's Film Festival

by Selin Gürel

It must be a twist of fate that there were two remarkable movies waiting for us in the competition section of the Flying Broom International Women’s Film Festival, both of which deal in part with the racism and alienation Romani people are and were exposed to. Even if their choice of focus, period and perspective are totally different, they have one thing in common: the never-ending marginalization of Romani people and their timeless suffering as a consequence. One of these movies, My Dog Killer (Môj pes Killer) was the winner of the Critics’ Prize. The other one was Papusza, which tells the exceptional Romani poet Bronislawa Wajs’s tragic and equally interesting life story.

Visually, the directors have a certain style which is based on wide outdoor shots, beautiful black-and-white imagery and glamorous cinematography, and which perfectly fits with the Romani perspective on life. Every single frame is wide enough to include as many people as possible, to give the idea of their everlasting unity and solidarity and of course the sense of freedom which is the essence of being a Romani. The nonlinear storytelling is relevant when you think about which parts of Wajs’s life have been chosen to be told, why and in what order, while trying to portray a detailed aspect of Romani culture. Moreover the use of the Roma language as the main one is very crucial for the movie’s rightful intention of getting closer to the unknown.

The real story of Bronislawa Wajs, known as Papusza, which means “doll” in the Roma language, has so many layers, subtexts and is so rich in material, it could be told in a thousand different ways. But we should be very glad to have two Polish directors, Joanna Kos-Krauze and Krzysztof Krauze, whose approach to the story is just perfect as it is. The best thing about Papusza is that its biographical elements do not necessarily make the movie end up as a biography, which would be a very conventional way to tell this kind of story. Instead, the directors present a portrait of the Roma community by pointing out both its limitations and freedoms, not to say that it is rarely known to us, but to express what it means to be a female Romani poet in that very culture. By this means, Papusza is not a bold historical figure, but a simple human being that can be easily identified with.

It is not quite common to see a film devote itself fully to the dynamics of the Romani lifestyle. We should be aware of the fact that the representation of Romani people in cinema has always been problematical. They are alienated, marginalized or even worse portrayed as weird strangers dealing with magic, theft and so on, with highly exoticized looks. Needless to say, they are very rarely seen as main characters. This stereotypical representation is partially related to the fact that directors usually do not know how to portray them properly because they are such a closed community even now. Yet, for the same reason it is also very easy to get away with showing some strong symptoms of prejudices against them. Papusza is an exception in that sense, since it introduces its main issue as the world of Romani people, casts them to play a version of themselves, avoids all kinds of stereotypes and presents an extraordinarily detailed portrait of them. There is just one thing, one misleading choice that should be questioned: the choice of casting an actress who looks like a European rather than a Romani in the role of Papusza, in spite of the fact that her performance is breathtaking.

Papusza, who lived through both World Wars and survived Nazi and then post-war communist regimes in Poland, was an exceptional Romani, because she dared to learn how to read and write, which was a very unlikely thing to do in her community. The movie deals with both her initial position as a literate yet infertile female in the community and her eventual position as a “traitor” who is considered weak enough to open herself up to an outsider and make him find out all the secrets of the community. The so-called betrayal of Papusza is considered to start with her urge for learning how to read and write. Being literate is her curse. And this is something we are very familiar with, when it comes to women in such small communities; it is not some “weird” Romani perspective that we are supposed to disapprove of.
It should also be emphasized that Papusza’s multi-layered story makes us see the main character in different identities, which makes the journey even more significant. Let’s start from the very beginning: She is a beautiful baby whose mother is young enough to play with a “doll”, she is a child who longs for learning how to read and write even though it is highly unlikely for her culture, she is a child bride stuck with a long and unhappy marriage, she is a young woman who refuses to have intercourse with her husband and in return is labeled as infertile, she is a middle-aged woman who is attracted to someone belonging to another world, she is a talented but shy poet, she is a published poet who makes money, she is a traitor who is called unclean by the chief of her community, she is a suffering old woman who punishes herself and finally she is in a mental situation, out of guilt and shame, in which she denies every word she has ever written down. We see her rise and fall; an intelligent and talented girl turning into an incredibly sad and lonely woman. All these phases in her life present us with different identities and portraits of one single woman, each of which is rich enough to create a movie of its own.

Unsurprisingly, Papusza is not the only one who is excluded for life. Her community, the Romani people, have already been excluded from society from the very beginning. So she is the excluded one of the excluded. That’s why at the end we all ask ourselves the big question of whether well-preserved secrets that they have should be shared with the outside world for the sake of common memory or just let be. This is a tricky question, and there is no right answer.

Edited by Carmen Gray