Thursday, October 18, 2007

Film Review #130: American Gypsy
1999/DVD 2007
Director: Jasmine Dellal
Cast: Jimmy, Jane , Grover & Lippie Marks

“It just goes to show, you don’t know what you have till you get back in the editing room! I had rejected that interview in my mind, because I didn’t get the answers I wanted. Then I watched it and it’s gold dust!”

British-born filmmaker Jasmine Dellal is talking about one of my favorite scenes too in American Gypsy, her 1999 feature-length documentary about the Marks family and their eleven-year civil rights suit against the city of Spokane, Washington, for a 1986 police raid during which money, jewelry and family heirlooms were confiscated and women in the family manhandled in ways particularly repugnant to their culture. Once a student of the great Marlon Riggs (Tongues Untied, 1990), Dellal has spent the past decade researching, filming, editing and marketing this film and its exuberant successor, last summer’s concert tour movie Gypsy Caravan. Although it’s long sold well on VHS, American Gypsy just released last month on DVD, getting a leg up from the summer buzz trailing Gypsy Caravan. Both have taken awards and broken serious cinematic ground in their coverage of the Rom – a.k.a. Gypsies – legendary for their avoidance of strangers or gadje, because of persecution they have endured nearly everywhere in the 1,000 years since they left northern India to wander westward and because of their own cultural practices around ritual purity and contamination.

Dellal’s films hit US screens at important moments in public attention toward the Rom. This particular scene – the magic one Dellal almost threw away – clearly records what feels like one of those deal-breaker moments without which Dellal’s films might not have happened in nearly the same form we now have them.

The scene she and I are talking about on the phone – she lives in New York City where she runs Little Dust Productions, and just got back from Gypsy Caravan premieres in two European countries – involves getting a kind of implicit permission along with more obvious background information from Jimmy Marks’ parents in order to proceed with filming what became American Gypsy. A charming, pudgy, Stetson-wearing tale-spinner and head of the family car dealership in Spokane, Jimmy had already stepped shockingly outside custom by suing the city. Then he answered Dellal’s newspaper ad. (She wanted to make a movie about Gypsies in the US, of which there are about a million, by far the greatest number being Vlax, those hailing from Romania where landowners held them as slaves until 1864.) Then Jimmy got his wife Jane to appear on camera with Dellal. But Dellal could not go forward as easily if Jimmy’s parents, Grover and Lippie, said no.

Lippie is the hold-out, a bent old woman with wisps of silver hair, huge dark-framed eyeglasses dwarfing her face, and a high-stake poker player’s ruthless, steady, calculating squint. With one eye ever on the alien camera in her dining room, Lippie’s a marvel of cool evasion, mildly answering with contradictions, testing this gadje girl. Then Dellal catches a lie, asks, amused, “Lippie, are you joking me? You said…” and lays out the trick. Once Lippie stumbles and laughs back, heartily, until they are laughing together – and you know the movie’s on.

Not that Dellal didn’t have other superb footage and spokespersons. American Gypsy is remarkably rich in texture and background, employing archival photos, historical texts, swooning music, a thread of dramatic reading about an “Uncle Noah,” and clips from Europe’s wide store of films about Gypsies, often used as astute ironic asides about persisting stereotypes. She also spoke extensively with Bill Duna (Minneapolis musician, college teacher of Rom history and Rom representative on the US Holocaust Commission) and with fellow-Brit Ian Hancock (University of Texas Rom scholar, UN rep for the Rom and coiner of the term Porrajmos – “the devouring” – for the million and a half Gypsies lost in Hitler’s camps). But both men’s life works is to act as public translators and advocates. It’s the Marks family saga and their journey out onto the skinny branches of encountering the larger culture that makes American Gypsy so special.

And the achievement of American Gypsy is largely what made “direct cinema” master Albert Maysles want to shoot Dellal’s next film, the five-bands-from-four-countries, nine-languages-and-35-musicians, sold-out, 16-cities-in-six-weeks 2001 extravaganza that captures so vividly why Time Magazine has compared the emerging growth and popularity of Roma music to the birth of jazz.

So Lippie was right about Jasmine.

This review appears in today’s issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is regular column reviewing DVDs of movies that didn’t open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth. Look for an interview with Jasmine Dellal next week at