History is not what happened in the past, it is how we make sense of it in the present. It sets the terms by which we can reconcile past injustices with current inequalities. This short video documentary, shot in March 2019, asks one question: “What do you know about the history of Roma slavery?” What follows is not one account, but numerous voices speaking across, over and without knowledge of each other.
Filmed over the course of a week in multiple locations in Bucharest, the film shows a broad range of people engaging with the subject of Roma slavery, 163 years after legal emancipation. We meet Roma and non-Roma Romanians, random people on the street, as well as activists and educators. Charlotte Kühlbrandt and Andrei Serban, living in London and Bucharest respectively, collaborated on the project after discussing how Roma history, and the history of Roma slavery in particular, is not part of a public conversation in Romania – or anywhere else, for that matter. Both active in Roma rights activism, this film is their first collaboration to date.
For Charlotte, the film asks important questions about how forgotten histories link to the present moment. As she says: “We specifically wanted to politicise the past and bring it into conversation with the present.” Having studied Roma health policies as a social science researcher, Charlotte has written about the ways in which today’s social and economic inequalities are explained in terms of personal choice, rather than past injustices. “People often tell me that Roma don’t want to integrate, that the Romanian state has done enough for integration. The problem is, they say, that they self-segregate. Discussions tend to circle around neoliberal ideas of success-through-effort, the idea that everyone can make it if they only try hard enough, and those who are not doing well in society are not trying. Of course this kind of perspective completely eliminates history from view, particularly the historical trauma that is Roma slavery.”
In the early 19th century, the Code of Wallachia declared that “Gypsies shall be born only slaves, anyone born of a slave mother shall also become a slave…” and that “Gypsies without a master shall be slaves of the prince.” First documented in the 14th century, slavery in Romania was legally abolished in 1856, but not followed by re-distribution of land or any other form of economic restitution. During a period of more than 500 years Roma were held as slaves by the state, by noblemen, and by the Orthodox church. It is a part of history that is “still a taboo topic”, as one of the interviewees remarks. The topic of Roma slavery is not part of the Romanian school curriculum and up until now, there has been no form of reparation, neither by the Romanian state nor by the Romanian Orthodox Church.
Andrei says he was surprised by the intensity of Romaphobia that they encountered while shooting the film. “We made sure to explain to everyone that we would be putting this film on social media. We were amazed how, even when we were pointing a camera at people, people would still launch into unfiltered anti-Roma racism. Some of the people we interviewed knew a lot about the history of Roma slavery, but it didn’t stop them from saying horrific things.” The openness with which racist opinions are voiced is symptomatic of an increasingly oppressive right-wing atmosphere in Romania, says Andrei. When, after the interview, Andrei told people that he is Roma himself, they tried to back-pedal, saying things like “of course they are not all like this” and “wouldn’t it be great if more of them were like you”.
As filmmakers, Charlotte and Andrei decided not to include explicit Romaphobia, which they believe is getting too much airtime already, and which cannot be adequately unpacked in under five minutes. At the same time, these off-screen opinions dispel the hope that knowledge and education alone might produce understanding and tolerance in any straightforward way. Nonetheless, Charlotte and Andrei hope to set in motion more conversations on the topic: “if as a result of watching this film one or two people decide to look into the history of Roma slavery and start thinking about the economic, social and psychological effects of this legacy on the inequalities we see all around us today, we will have achieved our aim.” As one of the participants remarks: “power relations and social hierarchies take a long time to change, but certainly a good education about Roma slavery could be a beginning”.
Charlotte Kühlbrandt is a Mildred Blaxter postdoctoral fellow in medical anthropology at King’s College London.
Andrei Șerban is a Roma actor, acting trainer and director. He is a founding member of Macaz Bar Theatre Coop, a space in Bucharest dedicated to contemporary political art.