Ghetto Nr. 1: new Czech film documents life at country's biggest Roma ghetto

'Ghetto Nr. 1'

"There are more places like this one in the country but as far as size, uniformity, and fame are concerned, we can rightfully claim that Chanov is our Ghetto No. 1." - a quote from a new 90 minute documentary on one of the most infamous Roma housing estates in the country. For almost a year, Czech director Ivan Pokorny filmed the daily life of its residents and explored why Roma and non-Roma Czechs find it so hard to co-exist.

Ivan Pokorny (right) and director of the National library Vlastimil Jezek
Film director Ivan Pokorny:

"It is difficult to say what the documentary is about because it doesn't have a storyline. It is not a feature film. It is a documentary that tries to map out the way we think and the way the Roma think and it looks at the syndrome that we are calling the 'Roma Problem' or 'Roma question'. So I asked those involved in various spheres to state their views on the current problem and I've also followed the lives of several Roma in Chanov throughout that three-quarters of a year and then I put it together in the editing room."

Although the residents at Chanov are a closed society with their own internal rules and regulations, some of them, including this woman, allowed the film crew into their homes. Flats that once had electricity and running water are now rundown and almost untenable:

'Ghetto Nr. 1'
"This is just the way it looked when I got it... There are leaks in the bathroom and the toilet... Take a look at this... Look at these walls...look this is the way it was when I got it...and when something's got to be repaired, they want money...I got this flat through the commission and they told me if I turn it down, there's no other one for me...for these little kids and my little boy. He goes to school. And this little one is always sick and I can't even take her for an operation because she's got this hacking cough...come and take a look at the mould.... And I painted the place just a while ago."

Ivan Pokorny says:

"Chanov is a housing estate that came to being in 1979 as a genuine attempt by the then Communist government to solve the Roma integration problem. So they tried to bring the Roma and non-Roma together by housing them in the Chanov district, which is about 2-3 kilometres on the outskirts of the northern town of Most. Naturally, after a few years the non-Roma population moved away, leaving the Roma behind. The Roma then started leading their own lives by their own rules and regulations and, unfortunately, devastated the place.

'Ghetto Nr. 1'
"But since everyone was obliged to work under the Communist regime, the Roma had jobs. They mainly worked as manual labourers in the coal mining area. But then the revolution came and they lost their jobs. Now, Chanov is a place that houses 1,600 Roma. Their quality of life is miserable and 95 percent of them are unemployed. The situation they are in is truly complicated and no-one really knows how to help them."

[Narration in film] "At the end of 1938, the Czechoslovak government sent a special delegation to Nazi Germany to gather information on the operation of their work camps. On February 6, 1939, the Prime Minister of Czechoslovakia Rudolf Beran, proposed the setting up of work camps "for gypsy families and other vagrants". And on March 2, 1939, two weeks before German forces entered Czechoslovakia, Beran's cabinet approved the order for the establishment of disciplinary work camps. After the war, none of the people responsible for the camp at Lety were brought to justice - neither by a Czechoslovak nor a German court."

Ivan Pokorny:

'Ghetto Nr. 1'
"In the documentary, the Chanov housing estate serves as a background. It's a starting point from where I explore the problems surrounding co-existence between the Roma and the non-Roma majority Czechs. For almost twenty minutes, for example, I divert to the topic of the Lety concentration camp. What happened there is directly related to what we're seeing in Chanov today. The co-existence problem has a much wider context and is deeply rooted in past events - from the First Republic, through the Second World War, and after the war. After WWII, there were only 600 Roma on Czech territory. Then they started moving here from Slovakia and so on. So, I don't only concentrate on life at Chanov today but also on the other related areas that Chanov led me to.

Some of those interviewed by Ivan Pokorny were willing to speak but unwilling to reveal their identity. This local administration worker prefers to stay anonymous - for safety reasons, she says:

"We're always proclaiming that the employment of Romanies has to go hand in hand with education. But this isn't true. Not at all. Because educated Romanies end up unemployed just like the others. And so, it's actually counterproductive because they say 'why bother if I can't find a job anyway - because I'm a gypsy'. And that's the way it is."

Ivan Pokorny:

'Ghetto Nr. 1'
"I met a man called Mr Barszoy. He is a very intelligent man and is around fifty and he is trying to get out of the ghetto and is taking part in various re-qualification courses to become independent. He faces one disillusion after the other and at the end of the film he finishes yet another re-qualification course just to end up unemployed. He starts losing strength to try over and over again. That, for me, was a very powerful fate.

"At this time, because that's where fate has led them to, there are many Romanies, who aren't eager to work. But on the other hand, there are many non-Roma who don't even have the faintest idea of what it means to be Roma and their perception of the Roma is that he is dirty and a thief. And that is absolute nonsense.

"Our mutual relationship is burdened by many prejudices. I'm not saying that they are all false. Many of them are true and not everything is rosy. But if we don't address these prejudices now and do something to make them a matter of the past, we might as well give up; it would end badly."