Contemporary Romanian cinema has a reputation to uphold abroad. Following the international success of films like Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) and Călin Peter Netzer’s Child’s Pose, which won the Golden Bear at Berlin in 2013, the so-called New Wave has been a dependable source of mordant and socially conscious dramas about the everyday brutalities and vicissitudes of Communist and contemporary life.
In keeping with the New Wave template, Aferim!, the third film by 38 year-old Radu Jude, tackles a deep social wound. Perhaps the deepest: the enslavement of the Roma throughout parts of modern-day Romania, a practice which was abolished only in 1856 and whose commemoration is now a deeply problematic issue. It was also a success at the Berlin Film Festival — traditionally a happy hunting ground for the New Wave — where it won a Silver Bear for Best Director. Yet in almost every other respect, Jude has broken the mould.
Aferim! is a black-and-white period piece, set in the Ottoman era (the title is a Turkish word meaning “bravo”). The script plays on archaic folk idioms, the cruelty is gratuitous and the comedy unbearably crude, jarring with the film’s pristine landscape photography — the work of veteran cinematographer Marius Panduru. To cap it all, the film is an unabashed homage to a genre far removed from the New Wave’s granular realism: the classic American western. In the urgency of its subject matter and the boldness of its execution, Aferim! makes even its domestic contemporaries seem docile.
The action unfolds amongst the rolling hills of the Romanian province of Wallachia in the 1830s. Aging constable Constadin (New Wave stalwart Teodor Corban) and his feckless son Ioniță (newcomer Mihai Comănoiu) travel on horseback across the county, seeking out the fugitive Roma slave Carfin (Cuzin Toma), accused of having seduced the wife of a local nobleman. As they clip-clop indolently through fields and rivers, Constadin unleashes a barrage of vitriol, often in the form of sing-song folkloric couplets, while a cast of supporting characters, from racist priests to sex workers, heaves into view. And always the same refrain is repeated: it is Romanians, not the cuffed, beaten and indentured Roma who are the real victims. Aferim! is a film with much to say about the plight of the Roma in contemporary Romania, and how that plight has been allowed to persist.
“How do you want people to believe that there was such a thing as Roma slavery when they’ve never heard of it? When they’ve never even seen it in a book?”
“The topic of the film is not the past nor the present but the connection between them,” Radu Jude tells me when I meet him in a London hotel. An imposing yet soft-spoken and restless figure, Jude talks with the thoughtfulness that his subject matter requires. “I was interested in dealing with a story that happens in the past but is relevant for today’s Romania.” Roma slavery certainly fits this brief, although Jude admits that he arrived at the topic by chance. “I started elsewhere, but little by little this story became more important,” he says. “The first impulse was not to make a film about slavery, which was something I didn’t know much about.”
In this he is not alone. Aferim! is not only the first feature film to tackle the issue of Roma slavery: Jude is speaking into a near-total cultural vacuum. I speak to Claudiu Stanescu, a Roma activist based in Bucharest, to gain more of an insight into the issues that the film raises. He tells me that many Romanians refuse to accept that Roma slavery ever even occurred, such is the paucity of public discussion. “We’ve never had a movie about this until now, we’ve never even had a documentary. We don’t have it in history books in schools,” he says. “How do you want people to believe that there was such a thing as Roma slavery when they’ve never heard of it? When they’ve never even seen it in a book?” This historical ignorance feeds directly into the crisis of today’s Roma communities. To a degree that is rarely appreciated in the west, the Roma of east Europe are subject to institutionalised discrimination: in education, health, housing and media representation.
I ask Stanescu about the film’s reception in the Roma community itself. “Many Roma historians have debated this issue, as to whether it does well [in telling this story],” he replies. “From my point of view, it was necessary. It was an important step. I don’t debate right now whether it was right or wrong. Of course, he should have consulted with more Roma activists, more Roma historians before making it.” Not that Aferim! is a Django Unchained-style fantasy: in an attempt at verisimilitude, Jude and co-writer Florin Lăzărescu constructed the film’s narrative from events described in historical sources — court records, arrest warrants, diaries — and hired an historical consultant to run an eye over the results, before adding their own playfully archaic take on 19th-century dialogue over the top. “More important for us than reconstructing its props or costumes was reconstructing its ideas,” Jude says. “Society is created by its attitude towards things.” This strange marriage of history and fiction is perhaps the best compromise for an artist trying to recreate a lost era — even if, as Stanescu points out, the documents that Jude and Lăzărescu consulted would have been written by the literate non-Roma elite of the time.
Oddly it was this commitment to historical truthfulness that led to Jude and Lăzărescu adopting the Western genre. “It was all there [in the sources],” Jude insists. “The relationship between white people and ‘savages’, the lawman, the guns, the horses, the landscapes. So at some point we said, ‘why not really go for it.’ It adds to the irony and the artificiality. We started to look at the old Westerns – Howard Hawkes, John Ford – with their beautiful black-and-white photography, and decided to make [Aferim!] a kind of homage to those films.”
The vitriol directed towards Jude and his crew is prompted not so much by Aferim!’s sympathetic depiction of Roma as by its skewering of the idea of Romanians as innocent martyrs
Not that Jude is being purely reverential, of course. Whereas in the classic American setting, the lawman would be an antihero redeemed by his pursuit of justice, Costandin is a violent and confused alcoholic: “an idiot”, in the director’s own words. As always, Jude refuses to provide his Romanian audiences grounds for self-mythologisation. To that end, he could hardly have picked a more confrontational topic than Roma slavery, a grand historical injustice ignored even as its legacy remains visible across society, politics and media. Is Jude satisfied that his film, with its bawdy jokes and hapless protagonists, is sufficiently severe in tackling the subject?
“I don’t consider it a didactic, simple-minded product. It’s the mixture of the humorous and the non-humorous that makes it a complete artistic and political product. I don’t have a problem if people are laughing. But there have been hundreds of thousands of comments, especially after the release of the film in cinemas and on television, showing that the nationalists and racists are really pissed off. They’re insulting the film and us, the makers, in a really horrific way. The film has had an impact.” In a domestic market where festival-favourite New Wave dramas have struggled for attention, Aferim! may yet make a more lasting mark: in the wake of the film’s release, Claudiu Stanescu tells me, an NGO from Bucharest has attained funding for a scholarship looking into the history of the Orthodox Church’s involvement in slavery that has attracted many newly-intrigued non-Roma students. “Everything starts from education,” he argues. “What you bring to the media, as a filmmaker for instance, is what you learn in school.”
Auteur cinema and university scholarships aside, there is still much to be done to overturn the indifference and hostility of the public at large. One suspects that the vitriol directed towards Jude and his crew is prompted not so much by Aferim!’s sympathetic depiction of Roma as by its skewering of the idea of Romanians as innocent martyrs. Constadin is forever bemoaning his people’s lot, whether at the hands of the Ottomans or the invading Russians; for Jude this “over-victimisation” is another link between past and present.
“That victim-mentality is all around me, and while researching the film I could track it very far back: in proverbs and fiction from the 19th century it appears like a leitmotif. I thought it was important to show this nihilism, this fatalism.” At a crucial point in the film, Ionită questions Carfin’s guilt but is rebutted by his father: the Roma must be treated harshly, he tells the boy, because that is how they have always been treated, and “this world will stay as it is.” Aferim!’s tragedy is that of a people justifying their cruelty with reference to their own suffering. The challenge to today’s audience is laid bare in Constadin’s one moment of self-doubt, as he wonders out loud: “In 100 years, will people say good things about us?”
I ask Jude who has replaced the Ottomans and the Russians in the imagination of today’s Romanians. “Well, Russia’s still there,” he laughs. “And I think there’s a difficulty in dealing with the European Union for many Romanians. I was really shocked, during this refugee crisis, to see that most Romanians are totally against the European Union providing any support. It’s weird to see this attitude in a country where people have benefitted from precisely this kind of tolerant attitude. I don’t understand it.” Maybe not, but with his new film Jude has found a startling way of highlighting the history of these double standards. Perhaps Aferim!’s greatest achievement is its reconstruction of the hypocrisy that allowed slavery to flourish – and its legacy to be ignored.
Aferim! is available in the UK on DVD from 7 December from StudioCanal.