Tuesday 18 October 2011

Our School / Scoala Noastra

A few weeks ago I was invited to play accordion at the Camden International Film Festival here in Maine. The festival focuses exclusively on documentary, and this year there were several amazing films. As a musical prelude, I played my normal repertoire for all of the films, weather they were about returning Iraq war veterans, Fly fishing, or skate punks. On Friday afternoon I was happy to play before a film that was directly relevant to the music I was playing - Our School.

Our School, produced and directed by Mona Nicoară, follows three Roma children through the process of integrating Roma and non-Roma schools in the Transylvanian town of Targu Lapus, Romania. Thirty towns in Romania were given funds to integrate schools, and the production team chose Targu Lapus as the most likely to succeed. Integration was a resounding failure, and the Roma children who stayed in school were transferred into schools for the mentally disabled at the end of the 'integration' period. While similar stories have been repeated over and over across Eastern Europe, but perhaps most severely in Romania, the film poignantly shows how school administrators, teachers, and officials talk about racist policies that we most often hear about in headlines.

The filmmaker, Mona Nicoara, is a Romanian human rights activist who made the film, admittedly, from an advocate's perspective and with the optimistic assumption that the integration program was going to succeed. I spoke with her after the film screening about her experiences working in and outside of Romania.

One major difference of opinion between Mona and some of the Roma I met in Serbia is that Mona believes that the benefits of Roma integration outweighs its pitfalls. While acknowledging the difference between integration and assimilation, her position is that the fact that Roma have lived side by side with Gadje (non-Roma) for millenia is proof that their identity will remain intact regardless of changing circumstances. Even loss of language, what I would consider a strong indicator of the death of cultural identity, is something that she believes Roma will be able to overcome. In Mona's view, any theory, accepted truth, or prediction by anthropologists and social theorists, Roma buck.

One point of view she shared with my friends in Serbia - the European Commission's 'Decade of Roma Inclusion' is a conduit for recycling funds that leave Roma, quite literally, in the dust. Funds (which are substantial) for this initiative are explicitly structural. That is, they are distributed exclusively to NGOs who will reinforce government programs, in turn strengthening national objectives to assimilate or relocate Roma. A strange time we live in, when the name betrays the nature, a la Clear skies Initiative and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Citizen beware.

Our School closes with one of Gogol Bordello's most apt refrains, 'You love our music but you hate our guts.' The film has garnered much-deserved international acclaim, and perhaps more importantly, has received a lot of attention in Romania. Will this affect any positive change for Roma? Who knows. In speaking with Mona, she told me how the school system and the non-Roma Romanian families had no problem with the film crew focusing on the Roma kids. Perhaps in part, because the presence of the film crew underscored how they were exotic and out of place in a formal school setting. In any case, a candid portrayal of the situation did not threaten Romanian families or school administrators who blatantly and systematically filtered Romani children out of the educational system, and thereby society at large.

Monday 10 October 2011

Goodbye Serbia, Hello world

It's been a slow time for updates but a busy time in life since I returned to the US from Serbia in late August. I have a number of posts that I have been meaning to catch up on, and hope to get the ball rolling again in the coming weeks.

Although I started this blog as a way to share my experiences studying Romani music in Serbia, I have been pleasantly surprised how much I have been able to continue my independent, low-budget, non-academic, highly anecdotal and personally thrilling research since I returned stateside. Highlights include hanging out with some amazing people over the past month - two Roma rights activists, a Romani dancer from Kosovo, a filmmaker from Romania, and an amazing Romanian/Serbian Rom accordionist living in Queens, NY.

So, while gears have shifted from Eastern Europe to the East Coast of the US, I'm planning to continue to write about my encounters with Romani music and issues as they warrant interest. In part to ease my pangs of Serbian nostalgia, but also as a way of widening scope beyond my own experiences from this summer in Valjevo, I'm hoping to use this blog as a way of gathering, filtering, and relaying topics that I, and hopefully you, will find interesting.