(note: post re-edited after checking with Ms. Dellal about details (and apologies for spelling 'Gypsy' with lower-case letters; it's a proper noun, like all nationalities))
Jasmine Dellal's When the Road Bends: Tales of a Gypsy Caravan tells the story of five Gypsy bands from Macedonia (in Greece), Romania, India and Spain that go on a 6 week tour promoting Roma music in all its variety.
Gypsies are Northern Indians who emigrated to Western Europe, mixing their culture with the culture of their adopted country to make something unique, often influential--flamenco for example, that most Spanish of dances, is a Roma invention. Even so, they often struggle to survive, eking out a living in the margins of said adopted society. As festival program writer Chu jin-su puts it, "not once have the Gypsies harmed anyone, participated in wars, or conquered another nation. Despite this fact, they have been held in contempt as witches or friends of Satan, forcing them to struggle to retain their culture."
Dellal works with tremendous material--the Gypsies are a lively bunch, full of life and attitude and bravado, and they're not shy in expressing the same in their music. As Dellal put it, Esma, the musical "Queen of the Gypsies," was a far-from-slim middle-aged mother (though an early photo showed a bewitching, dark-eyed beauty), yet whenever she wanted to she easily took over the stage and audience, through sheer star presence and charisma (she has a powerhouse voice, too).
The documentary is a real delight (and I don't think I'm alone feeling this way--the picture won Jeonju's Audience Award), with Dellal intercutting performances with back stories of each band, their tales of poverty and racial discrimination adding context to the sadness you feel in their music. The film's something to look at too--Esme glows under spotlight, like a porcelain doll; Antonio el Pipa strikes a pose and you're held frozen by the drama of his arched back; Nicolae Neacsu of Taraf de Haidouks drags a deliberately broken string over his violin, and you're struck by the ingenuity of this homely instrument. 78-year-old Neacsu's is perhaps my favorite personal story--he supports his family with what he makes as a musician, lives an extremely humble and threadbare life, but when he comes home for the last time, hundreds of musicians show up to honor him.
I asked Dellal how on earth she got Albert Maysles (!?) to shoot the documentary, and she replied "We'd met at a film festival. I mentioned my proposed film on Gypsy music, he mentioned he'd like to shoot it. When I got around to doing this, I called him and said 'Albert, I don't know if you mean what you said about helping me shoot my next film, and I don't have a lot of money to offer, or even the money for a business class ticket' 'No way, just get me the cheapest seat you can find in the internet and let's do it!' he said.
"He's a master at putting people at ease so that his camera can come up close. Like if he were here while I was talking to you, it would almost be as if we were three old friends, and you can say anything to him. He was wonderful."
I asked how she got in contact with Johnny Depp (he had a short interview in the film, explaining that he came to be a big fan of gypsy music after having lived with them during the shooting of Sally Potter's The Man Who Cried (2000)). "I sent dozens of emails and packages to everyone I knew who said they could contact him. A package with sample footage got through.
"I have a story about him. We had a Romani (Gypsy) guy named George working as a soundman for the film and when I went to interview Depp, George asked me to deliver a letter. The short letter asked for an autograph for George's sons, explaining that his children were big fans of the star but were ashamed of being Roma, and would say they were anything but Roma. Depp said 'let me do something more,' and wrote this letter telling George's children how they should be proud of being Roma, that he was proud to have known the Roma and spent time with them, and that they should never deny their heritage."
The Indie Vision films over which I played the part of juror came from France, Norway, China; used everything from 35 mm to mm to DigiBeta to DV; were in experimental black-and-white, realist technicolor, or desaturated video; ran the gamut from lighthearted comedy to personal tragedy--ran the gamut in form and content and emotional tone, in other words. It was our unenviable task to screen the films, try make sense of them, and compare not apples and oranges but baseballs and hand grenades to try come up with a "best picture" choice.
Michael Schorr's Schröders wunderbare Welt (Schroeder's Wonderful World, 2006) is glossily made--most of the films did well within the confines of their small (sometimes microscopic) budgets--and resembles a German version of Bill Forsyth's Local Hero (fantastic scheme involving development of a town (here into an international tourist attraction) has all the locals with all their eccentricities humming with excitement). Perhaps the most intriguing element is the web of the social and political complexities found in a town bordering three countries--Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic. Affable and amusing entertainment.
Yoshiharu Ueoka's Rukku Ubu Rabu (Look of Love, 2006) has a voyeur peeping on his neighbors making love; a pimp sending his Thai prostitutes to service various customers; a loner obsessing over a satellite flying overhead. Strange stuff, though fans of Lynch's Eraserhead and Blue Velvet might find this more familiar territory. It's annoying/amusing to see the voyeur peer into what practically can be considered a widescreen (Cinemascope, even) window, and be treated to a carefully posed profile view of the couple opposite making love; on the other hand, it makes sense that the voyeur would fantasize such a window and such neighbors screwing opposite--it's the eternal adolescent's idea of an interesting premise.
Joachim Trier's Reprise (2006), about two young men struggling to write their novels--one is an instant success, the other, no--dabbles in a little experimentation (a voiceover narrator explains through a quick montage what happens next in their lives, a la Tom Tykwer's Lola rennt (Run, Lola, Run, 1998)); a strong debt is also owed to Truffaut's Jules et Jim (Triers is a self-admitted fan)). A story about two pretty European youths and their angst about art and love and life; a fairly experimental storytelling style, with an eclectic mix of punk and hip-hop songs. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.
Takushi Tsubokawa's Aria (2006) is about a recently widowed piano tuner named Ota (Masayuki Shionoya) who befriends a puppeteer with a beautiful, creepily lifelike doll named Aria. When Kuzo dies, Ota strikes out on a long road trip to look for the piano Kuzo's long-dead wife used to play during his performances; he's joined by Kuzo's clownish apprentice, and a mysterious woman who claims to have been Kuzo's daughter.
It's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, done in Tsubokawa's unique deadpan style--the apprentice is the Cowardly Lion, the mysterious daughter (who has to be Aria come to life) is either the Tin Man or the Scarecrow, and Ota is the film's glum male Dorothy. Tsubokawa repeatedly shoots the little van they ride in climbing up an endless-looking road rising heavenward (the concrete equivalent of a Yellow Brick Road); the giveaway clue, however, is a version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" played sweetly, hauntingly on a saw.
Where Tsubokawa's film differs from that great musical is on his insistence on dwelling on loss--a man losing his wife, a daughter her father. By emphasizing this theme (or, rather, by not emphasizing it), he renders the slight, barely remarked suggestion of hovering but not neccesarily malevolent death all the more poignant. Not without its delights, and not without its fair share of mysteries.