The Rom Road Films

Washabaugh, W., 1997, Journal of Flamenco Artistry 3(2).


No matter how they are named, whether they are called Rom or Romanichal or Gypsy or Gitano,* they bring music to mind. In Spain, they are credited with making significant contributions to, if not out-and-out creating the flamenco style. As a result, we have a good deal of film footage that documents, illustrates, popularizes and, inevitably, puts a spin on the legendary Gypsy element in flamenco. Gitano-centered films such as Ciertos Reflejos: La Chunga (RTVE, 1978), An Andalusian Journey: Gypsies and Flamenco (BBC, 1988), and Latcho Drom; Bonne Route (1994), will occupy our attention here.

All three films narrate steps on a journey, charting change and development by the mile. As films, they work like Easy Rider or The Sheltering Sky with a narrative line drawn from a sojourn rather than from characters whose strengths and weaknesses mesh or clash. In the case of Latcho Drom (1994, 103 minutes), the road stretches out ahead of people who are persistently stylized as nomads. Clearly, however, the camera does its own fair share of traveling, wandering from India to Egypt, to Turkey, to Romania, to Slovakia, to Germany, to France, and finally on into Spain. Even if the people on the screen happen to be stable and sedentary - they often are - the westward wanderings of film subtly recast these people as mobile. A little less ambiguous, as road films go, is An Andalusian Journey (1988, Part I (50 minutes; Part II, 50 minutes). Like the series Rito y Geografia del Cante (1971-73), this BBC production steers its traveling camera around different cities and towns of southern Spain, from Sevilla to Utrera, in part one, and then from Jerez to Lebrija to Cádiz in part two. The Andalusian Gitanos it visits are sedentary, but still in all, the camera's sojourn keeps whispering travel in our ears. Finally, Ciertos Reflejos: La Chunga (1978, 40 minutes) is just as much a road trip as the other two, but here the voyage is temporal rather than spatial. We leap from youth to maturity, from dreams to reality, and from the poverty of a little Gypsy waif to the bright and beautiful world of La Chunga.

The filmmakers' reliance on travel imagery in all three films is hardly accidental. The theme of the road befits the Rom. It runs throughout these films as well as others beyond the scope of discussion - I am thinking of The Time of the Gypsies (1987) and Angelo, My Love (1983). Something about the Rom just loves the road, and as a result, Gypsy films seem to travel even when the Gypsies themselves do not.

Just as persistent in these films is the issue of intolerance. It comes in two varieties, the mean-spirited intolerance of the gadje, and the noble intolerance of the Gypsies themselves. The racist variety is obvious and well explored in all three films. In Latcho Drom, Gypsies are rousted out of their camps and barred from their buildings. In An Andalusian Journey, Moraito-on-the-road dramatizes the fact that if you are hitchhiking and you look like a Gypsy, you might as well give it up and walk. In Ciertos Reflejos, the bartender ignores little Micaela, requesting a glass of water, as if she were no more than a bug on his sleeve.

The second sort of intolerance, the Gypsy's own, is worth a moment's reflection. I refer here to the claim, explicit in Latcho Drom and implicit in the flamenco style, that Gypsies do not tolerate the dominant world because it reeks of moralism and for-display-only virtue. Gypsies, it is suggested, may be wily, but they are also brutally honest. They call a spade a spade, and they'll not brook the hypocrisy from those who lack the guts to face life as it is. Better to just pull up stakes and move on down the road.

Our films imply that this fabled honesty, this Rom candor, this Gitano penchant for wearing hearts on sleeves is a born-and-bred Gypsy trait. However, an increasing amount of historical research makes it seem more likely that nineteenth-century Gypsies exploited and co-opted a "cult of sincerity" that was then sweeping across all of Europe, turning people towards matters of the heart and away from the fatuous airs of the prior epoch...conceits displayed so disturbingly in feature films such as Dangerous Liasons (1988) and Ridicule (1996). From 1825 onward, Gypsies, travelers, and bohemians - the lumpen cast-offs of the increasingly bourgeois society - found ways to survive by playing honest and by riding the bandwagon of sincerity through social doorways and economic portals that had been previously closed to them. They played and sang and danced with excessive joy and exaggerated sorrow, and went on to become kings of hearts, the Gypsy kings. Their music may have lacked the mathematical rigor of Bach's and Mozart's, but it offered something that that elite music couldn't touch, namely, soul.

Unfortunately, most films on the subject say nothing about this Gypsy co-optation of sincerity, and leave us - even lead us - to believe that the candor and passion of Gitanos is timeless, having been carried down the long Gypsy road, and having been preserved in pure form time immemorial, "pure as the lemon" and "pure as the olive" as La Fernanda and El Chocolate say in An Andalusian Journey. This Gypsy candor is said to be a blood thing, rather than a class thing or a money thing. To its credit, Ciertos Reflejos: La Chunga sidesteps this linkage of blood and sincerity, and instead acknowledges some hard economic realities of Gypsies and music without flinching or apologizing. That is, song and dance was, and is, one of the few avenues that poor Gitanos could pursue if they wanted shoes on their feet and food in their bellies.

One final word about all three films taken together. They treat "Gitano" as if it simply meant a distinct ethnic group. This interpretation makes good sense in the post-WWII era, but not in the decades that preceded. When Antonio Machado y Alvarez wrote in the 1880s and when Federico García Lorca wrote in the 1920s, Gitanos were understood to be Andalusians - wrongfully disparaged and musically adept, but Andalusian nonetheless. They were "Gitanos-Andaluces". During the Franco years, however, this term was prized apart - with Antonio Mairena's hand wielding the lever - so that suddenly the term "Gitano" stood for its own separate thing, for a distinct Gitano identity. As a result, "flamenco Gitano" emerged as a term for distinguishing a Gitano style from an Andalusian style. This development, however much it helped to advance social justice for contemporary Gitanos, had a double downside. It masked the historical class struggles described above, and, worse, it left us with an image of Gitanos as timeless people living an immutable way of life. While such an image may seem respectful from one angle, it demeans Gitanos from another by making Gitano culture seem exceptional and exotic, if not freaky. Every other cultural system changes with time. Life is flux. Why should Gitanos to be any different?

Now to the films themselves. Ciertos Reflejos: La Chunga is a one-hour musical biopic made for Spanish National television in 1978 and directed by Mario Gómez Martín who also directed the Rito y Geografía del Cante documentary series. Donn Pohren may have been referring to this film in his Lives and Legends when he wrote that "La Chunga's performance on a Spanish TV benefit program showed clearly that she has not lost a hard core of pure dance possessed by few in baile flamenco today." But calling this film a TV benefit program undersells its richness and subtlety. It is a commentary on the social lives of flamencos depicting La Chunga's rise from poverty to stardom by playing on moments of mirror gazing...hence the title. As she gazes into her mirror, preparing herself for the stage show that punctuates the film, she is carried back in time to her childhood of poverty, to her loving family, and to her fitful rise to stardom. In witnessing this rise, we catch a glimpse of the social fabric with its sharp creases and its disturbing division between the wealthy business class and the poor Gitano class.

The film opens to a theatre being readied for a performance. La Chunga (Micaela Flores Amaya, born 1938 and raised in Barcelona) sits in her lavish dressing room adjusting her clothes, putting on make-up, and finally changing her shoes, at which point the camera closes in on her feet. The screen then flashes back to her barefoot childhood. As a young adolescent girl, she is wandering the streets in tatters, gazing wistfully into display windows. She eventually sneaks into one shop to dance in front of a mirror, and is apprehended by the proprietor who recognizes her talent. His enthusiasm rekindles her own eagerness, thereby touching off La Chunga's rise to stardom. Along the way, the young La Chunga plays off life in her hovel (chabola) with an increasingly intense schedule of teachers, agents, and finally producers. At various moments of flash-forward during this period of development, the mature La Chunga dances a caña and soleá to the cante of El Moro (José Silva Montañez, whose oaken-barrel voice can be heard on Manolo Sanlucar's disc "Tauromachia"), a long tango with El Moro singing, an alegrías with María Vargas, a martinete with El Moro, and a brief bulerías staged amid the hovels of a Gitano settlement. Finally the film finds the young La Chunga poised to make her very first professional appearance. And she walks forward the screen turns again to the mature La Chunga as she bounds out onto the stage to dance the rumba, with María Vargas, that closes out the film. Despite its simple and naive rags-to-riches plot, this film is complex and satisfying because it extends itself so generously to handle the social lives of Gitanos and also because it presents lengthy segments of La Chunga's performances, all filmed with long camera shots that make it possible for the viewer to appreciate her barefoot technique and her passionate style.

An Andalusian Journey is also a television documentary, produced by the BBC in 1988 and directed by Jana Bokova. José Luis Ortiz Nuevo serves as on-screen commentator in portions of part one, and then for the remainder of this two part project, artists and aficionados respond to questions from off-screen interviewers. Their questions and responses pivot around matters of Gitano art and social life. The upshot is a film of Gitano social advocacy.

The musical events consist of complete performances. In a gathering of the Montoya family, El Farucco dances to the cante of El Chocolate. La Fernanda performs with Paco del Gastor in a resonant old estate hall in Utrera. Angelita Vargas dances the escobilla section of a soleá in a staged setting that seems to recapture the same haunting atmosphere that we see in John Singer Sargent's "El Jaleo". Pedro Bacán, whose recent loss has devastated all of us who fell in love with his flamenco guitar, chats informally with family and friends and eventually falls into a performance of an astoundingly powerful tarantas as he sits the steps of an old cortijo. Many of these scenes pulsate with flamenco sensuousness. You can almost smell the wine-musk of the old bodega where El Moraito plays bulerías and soleares, his rich guitar sounds bouncing off the stone walls and huge wine casks.

Latcho Drom is a 1994 French project directed by Tony Gatlif that leaps ahead of most previous efforts in both music and cinematography. Musically, this film starts out well and just keeps on getting better in presenting performances as if they were spontaneous and candid events flowing from people as water flows from a spring. The cinematography fixes the viewer's attention by exploiting visual mini-plots, a boy searching for spot from which to see a group of musicians, an elderly woman (photo) singing a lament for loved ones lost in Auschwitz - redone as a track on the CD Boheme by "Deep Forest," Eric Mouquet and Michel Sanchez, 1995) - a lively little boy who pays Romanichal musicians in hopes of brightening his sad mother's day, a boy wandering about after having been expelled from his hovel. If the performances in themselves can't hold the viewers, the visuals probably will. Either way, the film will hang on to its viewers. My one hesitation is that the footage of musical events is edited in short shots that are distracting to viewers who are eager to attend to the performances themselves. The section of flamenco consists of about fifteeen minutes of street-danced tangos and camaronista bulerías sung by La Caita and Remedios Amaya and accompanied by David Silva Santos. Their explicitly political lyrics add a new wrinkle to the flamenco tradition: "From Isabella the Catholic...from Hitler to Franco...we have been victims of their wars." But here, with its distinctly modern focus on Gitano ethnicity, such lyrics seem not only appropriate, but necessary.


* Back in 1982, at a hectic linguistics conference in Lawrence, Kansas, I kicked back for an evening with Ian Hancock and Anita Herzfeld. After some wonderful food and an inordinate amount of wine, I confided to them both that I was planning to step away from our then common interest in West Indian Creole languages so as to refocus my energy on Spain, music, and Gypsies. Ian advised me then - and continued to guide me thereafter - particularly with regard to the issue of Gypsies. It became immediately clear to me, even as we explored Gypsy scholarship during that memorable Kansas evening, that I was venturing into an intellectual minefield. The nature of Gypsy ethnicity is controversial, but even more hotly contended is the question of who has the right to comment on that Gypsy ethnicity. The Rom themselves generally avoid these debates, Hancock being a controversial exception. The Gypsy Lore Society, with roots that stretch back to English romanticism in the last century, claims its own kind of authority. And a variety of other anthropologists, sociologists, and historians, all with different angles on the matter, offer still other versions of who Romanichals are and why they have pursued the practices that they have.

Sometimes I been able to skirt these hotly contended debates, but on other occasions, I've felt bound to enter the fray. In 1992, I criticized a colleague for appearing on the Geraldo Rivera show and for suggesting that Gypsies are thieves. I lost a couple friends as a result. In 1995, at a conference in Seville, I sat through a very unsettling presentation by a prominent flamencologist in which he accused Antonio Mairena and his cronies - including some Gitano flamencologists who were present in the room - of fostering a genocidal racism not unlike that wielded by Hitler against the Rom. Subsequently, I wrote a strong rebuttal of that argument, and, as a result, I probably lost backing for my own efforts to rewrite the history of flamenco music. Finally - and on the other side of the fence - in scanning recent postings on the flamenco internet listserv regarding the writings of Gerhard Steingress, I have been struck by the outpouring of venomous but ill-supported comments from flamencos-cibernéticos who, without having read his book, accuse Steingress of ignorance, bias, and sociological naiveté in his handling the matter of Gitano ethnicity. I've grumbled aloud across cyberspace about such lose cannoneering - all the while reserving space to disagree with Steingress - and, as a result, I've probably been tagged a Gitanophobe.

All things considered, I've learned through hard knocks that this Gypsy issue is deeply divisive. Questions about Gitano ethnicity cause the most violent disagreements among the most well-intentioned people. Arguments over the matter will be defused only when it is understood that to postulate an invention or construction of Gypsy ethnicity does not necessarily discount the worth of that ethnicity or of the people who claim it as the foundation of their lives. By the same token, lives built on invented identities - that is, all of our lives - deserve respect, something that has often been absent from discussions of Gitano ethnicity and flamenco music.

Introduction: Reading Carmen (1983)

For American aficionados, Carlos Saura's film Carmen is a mezmerizing model of flamenco artistry. Its hypnotic powers emanate from the piercing eyes and the graceful but oh-so-well-controlled bodies of the dancers. We cannot help but be drawn into their web, more tightly, perhaps, with each viewing. As a model, this film hints at the point and purpose of flamenco, but always quietly if not subliminally. The master artists glide through their art, working hard, but never laboring. Antonio Gades, for one, has taken his dance inside himself to the point that his simplest step can stop our hearts. And as for Paco de Lucía, well, for many of us, Carmen offered a first glimpse of his complete control of the style. He slips in and out of his art with the nonchalance of a guy slipping in and out of his shoes.

In the more than ten years since my first viewing of Carmen, I've given it quite a few viewings and lot of thought, all enhanced by some very helpful reading - John Hopewell, Marvin D'Lugo, Marsha Kinder. I've come to the conclusion that it is an extraordinarily complex film. Complex? Never mind the choreography! And don't get hung up on the music! This film is complex because it dares the viewer to step outside and beyond all the obvious challenges. Carmen is complex because it's a tough read.

"Reading" is an activity most often associated with books and other literary texts, but here I will use it to describe the handling of the film text. As a term, "reading" may be singular, but it always operates with a certain a doubleness. Let me explain. One reads any text by deciphering expressions (words-on-a-page or images-on-a-screen) and assigning the expressions a meaning. In this way, I "read" the words on line 31 of my 1040 form, ascribing a fairly specific and literal meaning to the strange term "adjusted gross income." Similarly, Gracie Allen, in George and Gracie's classic comedy routine, always did a literal reading of George's sign-off phrase "say Goodnight Gracie." She read those words literally and responded guilelessly but inappropriately, saying "Goodnight Gracie." You can see, from these examples, that literal reading is a fairly mechanical process, one that assigns meanings without reference to anything outside of the text and its language. However, in a second moment of reading, we also pursue - all of us except Gracie - critical reading. Nothing fancy or high fallootin' here: critical reading is simply the task of interpreting expressions according to their context. Let me offer a homespun example of a critical read. My wife and I were strolling downtown last week. As we walked, I pointed to a small red car parked along the street. My wife looked at my pointed finger and then looked at the car, and, in a stroke, she knew exactly what I meant. She had done a quick critical read of my gesture. Her critical reading process consisted of matching my gesture to the surrounding physical context and simultaneously to my persistent interests. It is likely that she began by considering the possibility that I was pointing to the ticket on the windshield of the car, and chuckling in my annoying way at the poor schnook who would have to pay the parking fine. Then, chances are, she considered the likelihood that I was fingering this zippy red Miata as the car of my dreams. But in the end, she discarded both meanings when she read the car's vanity plate FLMNCO. Having rastered through her knowledge of my experiences and interests and through her perceptions of the world beyond my finger, she arrived at the properly critical interpretation of my gesture. At that point she leaned over to me and said, "Another aficionado, eh?" I confirmed her remark with a grunt and a smile, and we went on our way. The moment passed in the blink of an eye, and it only dawns on me now that her simple street-side interpretation might help illustrate the process critical reading.

Reading Carmen critically is no different from guessing at the meaning of a pointed finger. Initially we work our way along mechanically, recognizing sounds, identifying performers, and following the plot. But even as this mechanical reading is proceeding, we are cranking up our critical faculties, asking ourselves, why all the mirrors? Why does Gades spend so much time staring, not only staring at his dancers, but at himself. What is the significance of the play-within-a play structure? Such questions do and should come to mind as part of a critical reading of this film. And as happened with my wife and my pointed finger, one can only find answers to these questions by examining the larger context in which the film was conceived, produced, and presented.

In the case of Carmen, the critical reader needs to refer to history, and not just Saura's personal history, but to the larger and very public history of Spain during the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. More pointedly, Spain's history made its mark and put it stamp on Saura's films because of the political regime of Francisco Franco (1939-75). Nothing in Carmen, not the dance, not the guitar, not the mirrors, not selection of Bizet's opera as a point of departure, not even the theme of flamenco itself makes any sense if the Franco regime is left aside. After Franco died in 1975, Saura said as much: "I believe that when Franco was still alive, I had a moral obligation - more for myself than for society - to do everything that was possible within my form of work to help change the political system as quickly as possible." Why so? Why this passionate search to find an alternative to Francoism? Because Franco's regime was much more than ham-fisted police-tactics and clumsy censorship. It was a moral climate of paranoia and a Manichean cultural politics of black hats and white hats with nothing in between. It was an insistent and often backward-looking program of unrefusable likes and dislikes. And by the end, the regime generally succeeded in narcotizing most dissenters and deadening most minds.

During the regime itself Saura and other were blocked in their efforts to present open and public resistance. The censors came down on them like Maxwell's silver hammer. Instead, he created subtle symbolic subversions, strange, obscure, and twisting moments of film that the censors accepted as art-for-art's-sake, but which still transmitted their appointed political punch. For example, in his 1970 film "The Garden of Delights", the main character, who has lost his memory as a result of a head injury in an auto crash mutters, "My head! My head! Do what you want to my body, but don't touch my head!" Such powerful but elusive moments in the films of Saura and others of his day came to be known as the "franquista aesthetic."

This "aesthetic" lived on in Saura's films of the 80s including Blood Wedding, Carmen and A Love Bewitched, and because of the ambiguity and obliqueness associated with these films, you and I find our abilities as critical readers challenged in a special way. Reading my pointer toward the little red car challenged my wife, even though I wasn't trying to be obtuse. Reading the carefully concealed meanings of Carmen is far harder because the relevant political context, Franco's Spain, is more distant, and because Saura intentionally cloaked his political meanings and pawned them off as merely clever moments in an artful film.

So then, what of the stare? What, now, can we say about those awful eyes: Antonio Gades scrutinizing his dancers in search of a Carmen; Gades, visually dissecting the mirrored image of his own dance with those same laser-like eyes; the eyes of Laura del Sol breathing back fire to match each elevated degree of heat in Gades's own? The eyes have it, to be sure. But what exactly are these haunting eyes saying? The key may lie in the mirrors which abound in these films (as they also do in Saura's most recent work Flamenco). In the mirrors, Carmen's actors scrutinize themselves in the very same moment that we, the audience, scrutinize them from our seats. And the lesson that hangs in the balance is self-scrutiny. We, the viewers, find ourselves identifying with Antonio, emulating his penetrating gaze, and imitating his self-scrutinizing eyes. Like him, we are pushed to reflect back on ourselves, using our eyes to weigh and test the very vision that serves as the medium of the test. Let nothing be taken for granted. Let nothing in ourselves pass without critical reflection. We must live, as Antonio lives, with eyes wide, with head alert, and with all bodily systems ready to confront the meretricious agenda that comes down from the central office.

Self-scrutiny modeled by the intense gaze of the flamenco dancer is a power political theme in Carmen. However, curiously, it is paired here with another theme in which flamenco dance operates less as a vehicle of resistance than a target. Flamenco, the symbolic embodiment of critical scrutiny, is also presented as a stand-in for all that is seductive and oppressive in Franco's Spain. Paradoxically then, flamenco dance symbolizes the problem at the same time that it is portrayed as a solution. Viewers are brought face-to-face with the "problem" of flamenco late in the film, when del Sol's Carmen appears before Antonio in a stereotyped Andalusian outfit. He responds, accepting both her and her guise, saying "Why not all the trite commonplaces?". With this seemingly insignificant acquiescence, Antonio reveals the disturbing result of his whole-body commitment to discipline of flamenco performance, namely that his mind, so fiercely independent and directorial in the early going, has become submissive in the end to the artifice of the performance. His downfall is brought on by a devotion to dance that is so whole-hearted that he ends up confusing dance with reality. His bodily discipline as a dancer has gotten in the way of his good sense. With this, it becomes apparent that art, so potent a symbol of self-scrutiny, can become a source of precisely that sort of self-delusion that was endemic to the Franco regime. Morever, with this symbolic treatment of flamenco-as-danger, Saura revises the simplistic message of his earlier film ("Do you want you want to my body, but don't touch my head"), and forces us to ponder the disconcerting possibility that disciplining the body may be tantamount to disciplining the head.

The mystery and the challenge of Carmen lies in its paradoxical imaging of flamenco, in its symbolic treatment flamenco dance as source of, and solution to, the political problem of Francoism. In Saura's hands, flamenco is simultaneously virus and vaccine. It plays on both sides of the fence, symbolizing now, oppression and now, resistance. He neither wholly celebrates it, nor completely condemns it. Instead, he tells us that it is a promising danger and a dangerous promise. Like Clint Eastwood's William Muni in The Unforgiven, its promise and its danger are fused into one reality; it wears a white hat and a black hat at the same time. As a study of flamenco, Saura's film shows no inclination to simplify it, as do so many literary studies of the 60s and 70s. For Saura, flamenco is not just duende, nor wholly Gitano, nor consummately Andalusian, nor entirely national, nor completely anything else. For him, flamenco music harbors a multitude of voices, often singing against one another. All the more reason for us, like Antonio, to scrutinize it as we perform it.