"Gypsy Tears" by Czech-Austrian director, examines life in Slovak Romany settlement

Czech-born Zuzana Brejcha is an Austrian filmmaker whose latest project "Gypsy Tears"( Romane Apsa)was screened at a Prague art cinema this week. The two-hour+ documentary was Brejcha's first outing as a director - after 25 years in editing - and she admits her project had a far greater impact on her life than she ever expected. Gypsy Tears is a complex portrait of several Romany families living in an extremely poor settlement in eastern Slovakia, where living conditions leave much to be desired.

Romane Apsa or Gypsy Tears
The director told me she spent more than two years preparing for the project, which was shot on digital mini DV.

"I found this family and wanted to shoot about this family because I liked them and I thought they were a good example of people who were trying to get out, but for whom it was made impossible by the authorities. I knew this family for two years when I started to shoot, so I was sort of involved with them. And I planned to do portraits of four women, different generations, and each season, each part of the year, was another woman in focus. I think this project kind of found me. It became a part of my life."

'Gypsy Tears'
The director admits she attempted to unravel different story lines in the film that eventually went beyond the original four women, touching upon many different aspects of everyday life. At first, images of the haphazard settlement alone are somewhat unsettling. Inside peoples' homes: bare walls, bare light bulbs and very little furniture where the most luxurious item is a TV or a musical instrument gotten back from the pawnshop. Outside: roofs are of sheet metal, some of the homes feature a satellite dish. In reality, of course, the village is never empty: there is always someone around. Children play on the ground with found objects, adults don't often have all that much to do. Director Zuzana Brejcha again:

'Gypsy Tears'
"This kind of settlement doesn't exist in the Czech Republic: there are other types of ghettos that are part of cities. It's not so much in the villages or outside the cities, but parts of the cities that 'become' ghettos or slums. It's not like these settlements out in the open by the woods, of which there are 250 in eastern Slovakia, which is a horrible number. These settlements are never on a map, so if you'd like to find them, you can't find them. If tourists would go there they would only find them by chance."

Says the director, at first sight the settlement appears worse than it turns out to be, although there credit goes to the families, whose members are mostly positive and also endearing. Among the happier scenes, says Brejcha, are moments of celebration: when families gather for traditional meals, drink, and play music.

'Gypsy Tears'
"I think that's one of the things that the rest of us envy the Roma for, is this energy that they have and this love for life, because they live very much in the moment. Which is of course difficult because they don't think so much about the future: they celebrate if there is anything to celebrate, which is not very often, and they spend their money on celebration. They have a great celebration and only afterwards think about what to eat because there is nothing to eat."

"On the other hand, I think a lot about the future and I always 'plan' and whenever I travel I take clothes for hot and cold weather but I lose the ability to enjoy the moment as much as I would wish. I am just afraid that they will lose the unique ability to be happy in the moment and this will destroy them completely, I think."

'Gypsy Tears'
Grimmer moments in the film appear almost whenever different family members have to deal with authorities: in Brejcha's lens these come across at best as distrusting and world-weary. It is this indifference by authorities that leaves a deeper impression: whenever the Roma in the community must deal with police officers, post or unemployment office officials, or department store clerks, the Romanies don't really "belong". Zuzana Brejcha lays blame with institutions and broader society for not taking proper steps to help. She points to one notorious problem, that of special schools:

"What kind of a solution is it if you put all the [Romany] kids in special schools? They have no chance to get any further education. I was shooting in a special school where I saw these very handicapped white children next to completely normal Romany children put on the same level or treated on the same level, so they don't really learn anything, or not more than the handicapped kids."

'Gypsy Tears'
"in the movie you see Gita's beautiful daughter and see that she's normal; completely normal, okay, not a genius but normal, and she was spent to a special school because somebody decided. Her parents didn't understand it was a special school and that was that. She didn't have a chance to go and learn something and this beautiful girl ended up getting engaged when she was seventeen and she had a child, and she has her second child now at the age of twenty-four. She loves her husband and they get along, and that's her career. But she's on social benefits like everyone else."

Nor does the filmmaker think the situation with work might change: on the contrary she sees the situation as even more hopeless than before.

"Quite often I hear that they should help themselves: they can't help themselves. It's just impossible. Maybe seventeen years ago, after the fall of communism there was still hope. Because they were used to going tow ork, they had some work, kids still grew up with their fathers going to work. It would have been easier to do something then. Because kids who are now 18 or 19 never saw their fathers going to work: they are certain they will never get any jobs, they will never get any further educations. There's no point in going anywhere, so they just sit around and watch soap operas or MTV."

'Gypsy Tears'
Even so: there are a few bright spots at least in Gypsy Tears, and not all of the director's cast of characters give up hope. One of the young women prides herself on preparing for a driving test. At other times the filmmaker herself gets involved. She says there was a time when she headed for the settlement every other weekend, to provide support, not least when one of the men in the film is charged with a crime he didn't commit but faces a very real possibility of 12 years in jail.

The filmmaker told me she also invited her close friend from the settlement, the "matriarchal" Helena, to her home in Austria. Here Mrs Brejcha describes her relationship with Helena - who is in her mid-60s.

'Gypsy Tears'
"It's difficult because she's not much older than I am but our relationship is more like that of a mother and daughter. Her daughters say I'm like their sister and for them I am now part of the family. Helena visited me: I picked her up in Slovakia and she visited me for a few days at Christmas. She would like to live in Austria, somewhere near me. Nobody was staring at her, and she felt safe."

The story doesn't end there: since filming ended in some ways the story has taken turns for the worse: several members of the family - including Helena - left for England. As a consequence, she and perhaps others now feel more uprooted than ever, says filmmaker Zuzana Brejcha, one reason she's gotten down to filming a sequel to 'Gypsy Tears'. As she admitted on her visit to Prague, she couldn't now "leave" the Roma behind.