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‘Aferim!’ Looks at Romania’s Thorny Past with Dark Humor

'Aferim!' Looks at Romania's Thorny Past with Dark Humor

Big World Pictures will open Romania’s entry for the foreign-language Oscar, Radu Jude’s Balkan black-and-white 35 mm western “Aferim!,” which won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin International Film Festival, at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York and the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles today, followed by a national release.
In Romania, where the word “gypsy” is politically incorrect, “Aferim!” is the first contemporary film to address the country’s long history of anti-Roma prejudice. The movie is set in Eastern Europe in 1835 as we follow two riders across a feudal Wallachia landscape. Gendarme Constandin and his grown son are searching for a runaway gypsy slave, interrogating people in various communities along the way—Turks and Russians, Christians and Jews, Romanians and Hungarians—about what happened. They hear that the slave had an affair with his nobleman owner’s wife. They eventually track down the slave Carfin and bring him back to his master. 
Some have compared Jude’s third feature to “The Searchers,” “12 Years a Slave,” and “The Last Detail,” and even to Tarantino’s long dialogues. My favorite scene in the movie is shot moving on horseback, as a cleric runs through every single different prejudice that he can come up with. I think we can all relate to our dark pasts, especially here in the United States. 

I talked to the producer Ada Solomon at Sneak Previews. 

Anne Thompson: This has a 90 rating on Metacritic. That’s how good the reviews are. Are you surprised by how well it’s been received outside of Romania?

Ada Solomon: What we didn’t expect is that the film would be so well understood in the United States.

For something that’s set so far in the past (1830) in a faraway country, there’s something resonant and timely about it. Because all of these divisive religious stereotypes and prejudices have been held for centuries apparently.

Indeed. These mentalities are not staying somewhere as roots, but they are actually branches — and they live today as well.

I always knew that the Gypsies were discriminated against and treated badly — I didn’t know they were slaves. 

Well, you are not the only one. And actually this is not known in Europe as well, and this is not known even in Romania. I mean, the history books are mentioning the abolishment of the slavery, like a positive event — right? But what happened, how long, what was going on over there… it’s still somehow under the carpet. 

Did the filmmaker think of the film as a Western? Like “The Searchers?” 

Yes and no. The basic idea was to do an ‘Eastern Western.’ He sticks to his interest in the family-related stories. It’s a coming-of-age story. And that’s something that’s really very important to Radu. And it’s in all his films, this relation with the family — he’s never telling stories about heroes, about big figures, or about big events in history. He’s always looking, somehow, under the microscope. To get to the cell, the family. And from there, he’s making a picture of the society, on a much bigger scale. 

This character, the Bailiff, is not altogether a ‘good guy,’ or a ‘bad guy.’ He’s got prejudices and treats people roughly, and yet there’s something empathetic and lovely about him. 

He’s trying. But the rules of the society don’t allow him to do what he feels. But he has a heart, and he has wisdom. And he’s trying somehow to pass this to his son, but at the same time, teaching his son to obey the rules. For me, it’s heartbreaking. 

How was this received in Romania?

It was a very pleasant surprise for us. There were hundreds and hundreds of pages and debates, and references to the film. Not only from the film critics (there are very few—we actually don’t have an independent student magazine or film magazine, in a country of twenty million people). So not only in the cultural world, but the historians, the political and social analysts, and it launched a HUGE debate. About prejudices, about slavery, about inheriting prejudices, about the roots — because nowadays in Romania, every time something bad is happening: big corruption, poverty, whatever, it’s the fault of the Communists. So everything is like, 50 years ago. And this film is pointing out the fact that life wasn’t magnificent before Communism. We had a small period of the country really flourishing (between the wars), but that was really very, very short. And deep down, as you can see in this film, it was a medieval society in the middle of the nineteenth century.   

So the movie looks very difficult to shoot, it must have been a real challenge, physically. 

Yeah, it has a lot of elements that made it very difficult to be made: a lot of locations, a lot of extras, a lot of horse riding. We were lucky, we were crazy, and it was a lot of risk. It was first and foremost on our shoulders (Radu’s and mine), but I’m so very grateful to this bunch of people in these core positions, that we had worked together with before. Also the other thing that was important was the knowledge that we accumulated big international foreign productions that were shot in Romania. And from there we learned about the logistics — of course in our case, we didn’t have such a budget, the budget of the film was somewhere around $1.5 million dollars, so we had to adapt also this, but we knew the rules. 

Does anyone have any questions? 

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I looked up what the title means (“bravo!”). Was it meant to be ironic ? And I understand shortly after the time it was filmed slavery became abolished. Was there a political movement that brought that about? 

It will always have a little bit of an ironical connotation. And of course, the title is really ironical. With a touch of the black humor that you see all through the film. The abolishment of slavery was in 1859, and actually it’s part of the real modernization of Romania. And that’s why we wanted to place the film right before the modern revolution of the liberals and the free spirits, the youngsters, in 1848. Some of the participants of this revolution were people who studied in the Occident; they were thinkers, really open-minded towards modernity, and tried to really do something for their country. And one of them became the prince and united Valahia, and afterwards he abolished slavery. And of course it was an important movement towards democracy, free spirits, everything. 

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Knowing the history of Romania, during the 40s and 50s, not all of these prejudices and hatreds are relegated to a past before 1840. When your audience in Romania sees that Priest’s dialogue reflecting on everybody, does the 2015 audience in Romania still silently nod about the views toward Gypsies, Russians, Turks, Jews? In other words, is this really just the past? Or are you really talking to people today?

It’s not at all the past, and this was also one of the statements of the film. That the things are originated long ago, but they are so damn present today. The film is strikingly actual, it’s not Hungary (thank God) yet, but it’s not far from there. The surveys with the question: who would you NOT like to have as a neighbor? In first place are the Gypsies. In second place, Gay — which is mind-blowing. And in the third place; Jews. Knowing that today in Romania, there are 6,000 Romanian Jews still living (100%, not mixed), six thousand in a twenty million country, it’s nothing. But still, Anti-Semitism is very, very strong. 

AUDIENCE MEMBER: What is the size of the Gypsy population of Romania today? And, when they were emancipated, did they get citizenship? And if not, when did they receive citizenship? 

Yeah, they received citizenship towards the end of the 19th century, and the size of the minority — it’s the biggest minority in Romania. This I know. The size of it, I don’t know if it’s like eight percent of the population, or reaching towards ten. Because even today, the ones that have papers and are declared that they are of Gypsy origins, of Roma, members of the Roma community — some of them are denying it. 

AUDIENCE MEMBER: And is that the term that is still used to describe these people? 

Roma is actually the politically correct word, I mean, in the public speech, you don’t call them Gypsies. You call them ‘Roma.’ 

AUDIENCE MEMBER: What is a Roma? Or a Gypsy? I think here we consider Gypsies different, but what is a Gypsy?

They are coming from India, basically. They were nomads, and they settled, and they settled somewhere around the 12th century, in our part of the world. And actually, the idea of slavery, it’s not even Romanian, it’s coming from the Hungarians (laughs). But they didn’t do it in their country, they just inherited us with this. 

But they traveled through the Balkans, they’re all over Europe.

Of course, the Gypsies are all over Europe, and especially in Eastern Europe, there are very strong communities, in the former Yugoslavia, they have a very strong community, in Hungary they have a very strong community, and so on.

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