Ask any 10 people where Gypsies originated and you're apt to get 10 different answers. Ask any 10 people what's the first word that springs to mind when you say "Gypsy" and you're apt to get the same response: "thief." It's also probably a safe bet that those people were frightened as children with some version of: "Behave, or the Gypsies will get you!"
The stigma of land pirates with one hand on a crystal ball and the other on your wallet has haunted Gypsy culture since the beginning.
In reality, Gypsies or Roma were nomadic peoples that migrated from northern India in the 14th century and over thousands of years have settled just about everywhere. Many maintain a rich sense of cultural identity and speak the Romany language of their ancestors.
The fact that many have had to resort to nefarious means to survive only adds to the myth and the unfortunate impression of the people. As the old Gypsy saying goes, "When the road bends, it's hard to walk straight."
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Persecuted throughout history by everyone including the Nazis and the "ethnic cleansers" in Kosovo, the Roma have survived and flourished.
The new documentary "Gypsy Caravan" (aka "When the Road Bends") attempts to afford them some respect by exploring a joyous bond they share, the uniting force of music. Roma music, embracing such diverse genres as raga and flamenco, is like its performers: a wild mix of the reverent and the devil-may-care.
"Gypsy Caravan" seeks to weave these rhythmic threads by following five Gypsy groups on a whirlwind tour of North America. The spectrum of blood-tied musicians is amazing. We have Antonio El Pipa & His Flamenco Ensemble from Spain, Maharaja from India, Esma Redzepova from Macedonia, and Fanfare Ciocarlia and Taraf de Haidouks (Band of Outlaws) from Romania.
Watching as they bond and share music over six weeks on the road is an exciting prospect that is repeatedly dulled by the filmmakers. Dubbed the "Buena Vista Social Club" of Gypsy music, "Gypsy Caravan" is a decidedly lukewarm endeavour that lacks that film's spark.
Written, produced, and directed by Jasmine Dellal, creator of reality TV's "Beauty School," the proceedings are too often rendered perfunctory rather than powerful. The presence of the great documentarian Albert Maysles as cinematographer is equally disappointing as the puzzling overall camcorder look belies his reputation as one of the innovators of the documentary form. Perhaps the greatest frustration is the short shrift and screen time given to the musical performances.
Juxtaposing the tedium of the tour bus with vignettes from each performer's home, the film's whiplash approach strives for emotional depth but falls flat. The brief peeks into their backgrounds are tantalizing but over too quickly, and we're back to five-minute stretches of the exciting luggage restrictions on airplanes.
The film does have some bright spots in certain "characters" from the groups. Aside from Antonio El Pipa (who seems to be on board because of his matinee idol looks rather than his flamenco skills), there are some choice moments with the performers where the film really shines.
We see Harish Kamar from Maharaja, who performs as a female, fussing over his saris and transforming into his striking feminine self to do the dervish-style knee dance. We listen as the crusty patriarch and self-professed "star" of Taraf de Haidouks, Nicolai Neaucescu (who died during filming), reminisces about his life and his lust for women.
Along the way we are also treated to scenes and sensibilities foreign to Western eyes: a mournful Gypsy funeral and Taraf's Caliu as he rejoices at the marriage of his 19-year-old son to a 13-year-old village girl. It's in these sequences, and the truncated musical numbers, that one gets a glimpse of what a truly great film this could have been.
Alas, the viewer is advised to withhold silver from this particular "Gypsy" and wait for the DVD. In the meantime, buy the soundtrack and seek out the excellent Roma music documentary "Latchmo Drom."