The story is simple: a sheriff and his son are returning a runaway Gypsy slave to his master. But gorgeous black-and-white photography and often bitter humor make Aferim!, set in Romania in 1835, a complex—albeit funny—tale of racism, greed, and ignorance, one that highlights the brutal anti-Rom prejudice at the heart of modern Romania. Director Radu Jude and cowriter Florin Lazarescu based the story and dialogue on historical documents, making the truth behind the luscious cinematography that much harder to bear (Gypsy slaves weren’t liberted in Wallachia until 1864). Aptly compared to The Searchers, Aferim! is equally satisfying to watch. •Availability: Opens in New York, L.A., and San Francisco January 22, with national rollout to follow. Click here for local listings. •Thanks to Sasha Berman, Shotwell Media, for arranging this email interview.•
DT: Most contemporary Romanian cinema focuses on the present or its Communist past. Why did you decide to focus on this period in Romanian history?
RJ: Simply because I strongly believe there is a continuity of the past into the present and some of the current problems or social situations have their origin in the more distant past. I’ve chosen this period—around the middle of the 19th century—because this is the moment that historians agree to define as the beginning of the modern era in Romania: there is the beginning of political independence, there is the first kind-of Constitution (the so-called Organic Regulation), so a story placed here has more to do with modern Romania than it would have if we had placed the story earlier.
DT: What is the public discourse in Romania today about the Rom people?
RJ: That’s a very difficult question. Even if many of the people around me are using a politically correct language and attitude regarding the Roma people, in reality there is a very deep racism among many of my compatriots. This racism is not necessarily a violent and obvious one, although there are situations where it can manifest itself in this way. But the racism I am talking about is of the kind where you will never see a Roma person acting in a TV commercial (I know all about it, as I have directed many commercials myself and most of the clients refused to accept a Roma actor, or, even more, a Romanian actor that has darker skin—the appearance of a Roma person). You will never see a Roma person being a TV host. Romanian parents try not to let their children in schools where there are a lot of Roma kids: “I don’t want my children to mix with Gypsies,” they say. And speaking of Roma children, most of them are treated with disrespect, even hatred, by some of their teachers. I invite everyone to see the documentary Our School by Mona Nicoara and Miruna Coca-Cozma, which depicts the segregation process of Roma kids. Recently, the mayor of a city built a wall in front of the buildings where a Roma community lives. And art students were invited to paint that wall (well, they shamefully accepted). In some newspapers there are often headlines like “A Gypsy Stole a Car…,” suggesting that the race itself is creating the crime. And I could go on. As you can see, simplifying a bit, we can assert that Romania is actually a very racist country.
DT: The film is incredibly brutal, but it’s also funny. Why use humor to tell such a black tale?
RJ: I learned from Chekhov that everything, every situation, also has a ridiculous side if you look at it from a certain angle. I also believe that the humor is directed toward the stupidity of the mentalities that create the evil, never toward the victims. And the stupidity should be laughed at. It is healthy.
DT: Both the dialogue and the story are based on historical documents and texts. Can you cite a few?
RJ: There were many, but nothing that would be relevant for the American audiences, since they are not translated. I would give only one name, Ion Creanga, a writer from the 19th century I strongly admire. The way he treated the humor and the popular genres is brilliant. There are some English translations of his work. He was fearless and extremely open-minded, and he had to deal with the authorities a lot. He has a story, for instance, known as “The Story of the Dick,” where the plot revolves around an old peasant woman growing giant penises in her garden. At some point these giant penises start sodomizing everyone around, including a priest…I used some of the lines from this story.
DT: The look of the film is absolutely gorgeous. You and cinematographer Marius Panduru shot on black-and-white Kodak Double-X film. After you made that choice, what factors influenced how you shot?
RJ: We had to be careful to have tonal contrast in the image. For instance, there were places in the forest where you couldn’t spot the characters because they had the same appearance as the background.
DT: In an interview you did with The Independent, you cited W. G. Sebald as an influence. I’ve read a number of Sebald’s works but wouldn’t have guessed at the connection. In what way did he influence you?
RJ: It clarified my thoughts. It is not a direct influence; I actually discovered Sebald after making the film, but what I admire about him, among many things, is how he can find small historical details that have an enormous symbolic and political significance. It is what we have tried with Aferim! In addition, the main theme of Sebald’s work is destruction, and our story is also a story about destruction.
DT: Do you feel the film has had any effect on contemporary Romanian consciousness? Or elsewhere in Europe?
RJ: I do not believe a single film can have such a big effect. I believe that a current of thinking can make a difference and a film can have its role in this current of thinking, of course.
DT: Underneath all the characters’ pompous declarations about Gypsies and Jews and women, there seems to be a tremendous feeling of insecurity. Am I reading something into the film, or was that subtext there?
RJ: Of course there is a feeling of insecurity. This is the essence of human life. Regarding the Roma slaves, I remember reading about a big boyar who, when the first debates regarding the abolition of slavery appeared, was all of a sudden very scared: How could he have a life without his slaves? It was inconceivable.
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