In an earlier post about another documentary - “Baraka”, I was moved by the power of the image to convey a story. That, like “Latcho Drom” here, was a documentary with no cast, no story, no narrative yet conveyed so much just though images, sounds and clever cinematography and editing.
Latcho Drom delivers all the same. Latcho Drom, meaning “Safe Journey”, is about the Roma people, the gypsies. They slowly migrated westward from northern India about one thousand years ago. Now they live all over the world but mainly in Europe, which they reached in the early 14th century.
The construct of the film is simple : Gatlif’s cameras and microphones follow the Gypsy musicians, beginning in Rajastan (India), Egypt, Turkey, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, France and Spain, main stations in the wanderings of the Gypsie, following the journey the gypsies made over thousands of years.
In covering this journey, there are some key subliminal messaging that comes through. In keeping with my academic training, I will attempt to summarize in five points:
First, is the tenacious spirit of the people. A journey this long, in distances and in time, through harsh deserts, cold winters, tumultous periods of history. A long hard day of travel, is invaribly capped off with participative music, around a fire, with smiles and merriment.
Second, the glorious tradition of music associated with these people. The keen sense of rhythm and soulful melodies. In their music, it is easy to spot the common threads of a shared history amongst the descendants who are now separated by thousands of miles. Whether that be in similarities of the flamenco castanets to the rajasthani khadtal, or the jews harp to the morchang, or the violin to the Kamaycha or for that matter in the dance that accompanies the music – from the Kalbeliya dancers in rajasthan, to the belly dancers in Turkey, to the flamenco dancers from Spain.
Third, a community so mobile, obviously cannot count on institutions to further their culture. Thus invaribly, the traversal of skills is oral, from father to son, from mother to daughter. Children are born into the cacophony of the music around them and learn to take their first steps: in step with the rhythm around them.
Fourth, the film takes a moment to paraphrase the lament of the Roma people : of being unwanted, driven away, viewed with suspicion, misunderstood. When all they do is keep to themselves and revel in their unique view of life. And the few chance encounters they have with “regular folk” they walk away giving more than they take. A poignant moment in the film, is when a woman on the verge of tears waiting at a train station is gifted a smile, by passing gypsy folk. With a snap of a finger, clap of the hands, the tap of a foot and the whimsy chanting they share a bit of their gift and walk on… on their journey without a destination …
Fifth, the film concludes with a threnody about the unwanted. It is sung by a woman on a hill top overlooking a city’s public housing. The windows and doors of the vacant lots are bricked shut to prevent the gypsies from squatting in them. It is a meloncholy reminder of the never-easy-to-answer question. What to do about these people of no fixed address? European policy makers have had their share of worries formulating policies to deal with the issue. There are no easy answers. Like several vanishing communities, the aborriginals, the tribes of Andaman, the legacy of the gypsies will be equally missed if allowed to quietly dissapear into urban nooks and crannies.