Jehan Harney - documenting the involuntary sterilization of Romany women

Jehan S. Harney

Jehan Harney is a journalist and filmmaker of Egyptian-American extraction. Over the last year, she has lived in Prague and taught journalism at the city's New Anglo-American College. During her time in the Czech Republic, Mrs. Harney developed an interest in the issues surrounding the enforced sterilization of Romany women. Subsequently, she made a documentary on just that theme, titled 'Sterile Dreams'. Jehan Harney is now back in the United States, but I caught up with her just before she left to ask her why she decided to make such a film:

"Well I heard about this issue from an AP wire. And I was surprised that, in this day and age, you find such abuses. So, I was curious to learn more about it, from the perspective of those people. Especially because I didn't even know what 'Roma' really meant. So it was an eye-opening experience, just to meet with these people, learn about this issue, be in their environment and spend many days with them, traveling back and forth."

"It was important also for me, not just as a film-maker or a TV journalist, but as a mother. I have two kids, aged three and five, and I know what it means to really feel like you really want to have kids, and all those maternal instincts. So to see that somebody has been deprived of that, for any reason, seems unreasonable to me."

How did you find that people had reacted - the people that you studied - to the deprivation of their fertility?

"Well people are angry about this, you've seen it on TV, on short TV reports, and possibly on radio. But my film was not a TV report. I really wanted to know more about them, and about their lives, beyond just the publicity, and what you usually see. I realised that for a Roma to be sterilized, it is doubly difficult."

"Number one, I learned that, in their culture, the culture appreciates, and the people appreciate, women who are reproductive. If a woman is not able to give birth, husbands usually have the right to divorce their wives, get another wife, at any point in time they can change their mind about a relationship and go off with somebody else who can give them kids. Even if the first wife, who was sterilized, gave him two or three or even four children."

"In their culture, they like to have as many kids as possible. I believe, from my research and understanding of their history, it is because they have been discriminated against in the past. I heard that after the Jews and the Polish, there was the Gypsy holocaust, and that they were the third most exterminated people."

"So basically, after this experience, they feel like they want to cling to each other more. They want to stick to their culture, their history, and their traditions more. And one of these traditions, as well as a means of keeping the population up, is to have more kids."

You yourself are a mother, and so did you find it very easy to empathise with these women that you worked with so closely? What was your relationship like with the subjects of your documentary?

"Well, it was very difficult to see a woman talking about this. When you saw her holding her grandchild in her arms, and talking about this, and looking through the eyes of her grandson - the boy that she herself would have liked to have had. And then you see that she is crying. The whole story is in those tears. You know, people can go to the press and say 'oh, I'm upset, I do not accept this, we have to do something about this!' and that's great, but what I saw there was them in a more fragile situation, just cradling a baby in their hands."

This has been a year long project, and it sounds to me like quite a departure from some of your previous films that you have made, you have made one called 'The Feng Shui of New York', for example. So in what way does this compare to your previous work?

"Well this is absolutely the opposite, because Feng Shui of New York is really about the city. I interviewed experts from around the world, who knew all about feng shui, to talk about New York, different parts of New York, and its feng shui - and how that translates into the city being both a cultural and economic icon."

"[Sterile Dreams] is really about people - completely. It's about their human stories. I try to differentiate completely between things and people."

"And also, I'm not trying in this film to advocate a certain solution. It's about people. And I'm not being judgmental in this film. There is no right, and no wrong. I am just there. I filmed it with a Czech filmmaker, Libuse Rudinska, and we went together and spent many days with these people. We were there to capture events which developed, things which were happening in their lives. So we didn't really structure things, we just went along with it. And our focus was mainly those people, and not a specific idea in my mind."

How was it to work so intensively with the Roma community all over the Czech Republic?

"It was lovely. I think that was the best part of doing the film, really. Especially for me, as an American and an Egyptian."

"First of all, they were very happy that an American was making a film about them, because they believe that in that part of the world, people don't know much about the Roma, and this issue."

"And when they saw my face, because I have slightly darker skin, they thought, 'you look a little bit like us'. And when they learned that I am also part Egyptian, they kind of liked that, because they said 'you know, in our history, we have been to different parts of the world, and Egypt is one of these places. You look like us and you share things with us'. So, you know, they were happy that looks and background can be conducive in a nice friendly way to learning more about them, and also sharing this with the world."

"They'd welcome us, we would pop in and they would have just woken up and they would be in their dressing gowns. They would fix us tea, and hang out with us. I didn't feel much difference, and I didn't feel that I was a stranger with them. They were very welcoming, very friendly."

"I really liked that there was this aspect to the Czech culture. It's not just all white people living in nice places, but there are also minorities. And they might not live in as affluent areas, but they also have something to say and something to add to the culture. And I really liked meeting them."

You have previously won an award - the Christopher's Making a Difference Award in film - in what way do you think that making films can make a difference?

"I think to me as a TV journalist, who became a filmmaker, it is great way. Because you are trying not just to tell a story in two or three minutes, but you are diving deep into the world of these people."

"And when viewers become engaged in their stories, they start to see their concerns and issues as something common with them as humans, beyond race, beyond gender, beyond colour. It's something that can link people more on a different level, beyond just a piece of information. It is engaging people in other people's worlds."