Michel Dahamani Gatlif: The Persistence of Memory, Light, and Transnationalism


The Romani people, also known as Gypsies, historically, became widely dispersed ethnic segment throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe.  The Gypsies arrived in Europe from the Middle East in the fourteenth century, either separating from the Dom people or very closely having a similar history. Genetic findings in 2012, suggest they originated in northwest India and migrated as a group.  The ancestors of both the Romani and the Dom left the North India sometime between sixth and eleventh centuries.

The Gypsy condition is in essence, the story of the human condition throughout all of human history as it specifically relates to the very nature of human migration across vast geographical regions.  In many ways, the Gypsy experience is an encapsulation that lends itself to the transnational thread of recent human migration of people in search of political and economic freedoms, enabling the workings of cross-cultural pollination that changes both the transnationalist and nationalist alike, where each opposing interest will adopt some aspects of each other’s culture.

The successful exchange of cross-cultural ideas are the catalyst of cultural and social change; subtlety and nuanced, but always through cultural mechanisms of the socialization of the arts and language, or freedoms of expression, that manifest either modern or legacy mediums of digital and physical outcomes, but always turn away from and against physical violence of any kind, e.g., Gandhi, Mandela, and King.

Without such cross-cultural pollination mechanisms and socialization, new ideas about human thought, democracy, cultural arts, science, and technology in all its forms would stagnate globally, leaving global populations siloed under the controlling oligarchies of politics, economics, and markets, as witnessed today.  In spite of the surge in populism with a vein of nationalism occurring in  2017, the observations of the cross-cultural pollination merits are neither new nor archaic, but always on razor’s edge of creativity and innovation of every era, in every century.

“India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grandmother of tradition”Mark Twain

Michel Dahamani Gatlif (b. 1948): French film director, screenwriter, composer, actor, and producer of motion pictures under the name of Tony Gatlif.  Born in Algiers, his mother a Gypsy and his father of Arab descent; his early childhood revolves around with his mother’s family of Andalusian Gypsies, and it is here in Algiers, Gatlif becomes exposed to his family’s rich Romani ethnic culture, which becomes a kernel in his memory that eventually leads to his creativity efforts in film making. Other than to film aficionados, his film works are virtually unknown to most of the North American public, and the narrative of the Gypsy world, which will be a theme in Gatlif’s most commanding and compelling cinematic achievements.

By all measures, Tony Gatlif is an artist with a unique world vision; his early life consists of struggling against all odds and obstacles against European social conventions and classism. Tony Gatlif found his way through the mean streets of Paris, to become a storyteller of wandering travelers, the unwanted, persecuted, and the musical cadence that bonds the Gypsies of Europe.

In 1960, Tony Gatlif at age of twelve leaves his family in order to avoid an arranged marriage, and he decides to distance himself from the family, begins to work as a shoe-shiner on the streets. By the age of fourteen, he arrives in France and wanders between Marseilles and Paris, lives a life as a child of the streets with acts of delinquency, illiteracy, and thuggery.

“We were close to 500 children, we lived on the streets, free, we hated school, its fences, its benches, and we did not want to be locked up”.

On the grand boulevards of Paris, Gatlif spends most of his time in movie houses, finding the theater a warm and safe haven from the chaos of the streets. Gatlif, recalls in those days sleeping though show sessions of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. During this same period, Gatlif ends up in a house of recovery, this will later serve as the basis of his first screenplay, La Rage in the fist.

One evening in 1966, an encounter that changed Gatlif’s life forever, he decides to go to see his idol, Michel Simon, in a play by René de Obaldia. At the end of the show, he works up the courage to slip into the dressing room of the immense actor, and there he faces the decisive moment of his life.

“I thought it was cinema, when the curtain opened on this big luminous box, with the real Michel Simon, it was a shock. When all the admirers left, Michel Simon who was removing make-up, turned and asked what I wanted, and I said, “I want to do cinema. Do you think it is possible? He stared at me for a long time, then with this huge voice; of course it is possible!”

The encounter enables the actor write a recommendation to the attention of his impresario on Gatlif’s behalf; this in turn, allows Tony Gatlif joined a drama course in Saint-Germain-En-Laye.  Unable to read, Gatlif learned his first texts phonetically. In the following years, he cuts his teeth as a player in plays; begins to write his first screenplay with a plastic toy typewriter; La Rage in the fist, is conceived.

In 1981, Gatlif, now the filmmaker, begins themes of predilection; it turns to Spain with the film Corre gitano Court métrage, the first film that recognizes the Gypsy condition. This film became the pantheon of his film trilogy of the Gypsy experience.

Les Princes (1983): About a Gypsy family, which revolves around the social, culture, and economic conditions in the Paris suburb or outskirts, and the challenges they face as Gypsies.

Latcho Drom (1993): Journey though time, starting from Northern India and ending in Spain, a beautiful film hymn to Gypsy music and the transnational experience. Cannes Film Festival recognized Gatlif’s film.  “At the time, it was useless to use words to make the case for the Gypsies, so I used music as the key”.

Gadjo Dilo (1997): A young French man wandering his way from Paris to Romania in search of the legendary singer of his father’s era, who goes by the name of Nora Luca. The young French man stumbles across with a community of Gypsies, than becomes immersed into their community, and falls in love with Sabina, the daughter of the Gypsy who takes him in.  Romain Duris plays Stéphane and Rona Hartner plays Sabina.

Other Notable Films:

Exils (2003): The film follows the trail of two young bohemians, a brooding Zano and a wildly passionate Naima who both decide to travel to Algeria to visit Zano’s once exiled parents. Romain Duris stars as Zano and Lubna Azabal as Naima. The film was also a homecoming for Gatlif as well after returning to Algeria 43 years later. The film features original music by Tony Gatlif and vocals by Rona Hartner. The film also won the Best Direction Award at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival.

Transylvania (2005): the story of Zingarina, a rebel Italian girl who travels to Transylvania with her best friend Marie, and a young interpreter named Luminita. Zingarina seeking to find a past lover, Milan Agustin who was expelled from France, where they had known each other. Zingarina finds him during a pagan festival (Herod’s Feast), where Milan ends their relationship. Zingarina endures her senseless travel through the boulevards and the villages, meets Tchangalo, a charming and traveling merchant of a Turkish descent. Both director Tony Gatlif and composer Delphine Mantoulet won the “Georges Delerue Prize” at the Flanders International Film Festival for the film score. Gatlif was nominated for the “Grand Prix” award in 2006.

Liberté (2008): The film takes place in a village in the Occupied Zone during the Second World War. Theodore, a veterinarian and mayor of a village takes in nine-year-old P’tit Claude whose parents have disappeared since the beginning of the war. The Gypsies who are in the near the village are there to make the harvest. Mademoiselle Monday, the teacher made the acquaintance of the Gypsies, with the help of Theodore, arranged for Gypsy children to attend school. P’tit Claude became friends with Taloche, a thirty-year-old Bohemian gamin who walks around with his monkey on his shoulder. However, the identity checks imposed by the Vichy regime are multiplying and the Gypsies, a nomadic people, no longer have the right to move freely. P’tit Claude becomes increasingly fascinated by the way of life of the Bohemians – a universe of freedom where children are kings; however, joy and carelessness are short-lived. The police and the Gestapo intensify their pressure and danger threatens at every moment.  As the Gypsies have always done for centuries, they will have to take the road again.

Indignados / Indignez-vous (2012):  Gatlif abandons the world of Gypsies temporarily, to dedicate himself to Indignados, a documentary and free style film about the global protests in Europe, Middle East, and around the world including Chile, France, Greece, Israel, Japan, Mexico, UK, and North American occupy movements, all inspired by the book by Stéphane Hessel ,”Indignez-vous!” or “Time for Outrage!”   Stéphane Hessel (b.1917 – d.2013) was a diplomat, ambassador, writer, concentration camp survivor, French Resistance member.  Born in Germany, became a naturalized French citizen in 1939.  He became an observer of the editing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.  In the last years of his life, he was still active and focused on economic inequality and the injustices of European society.  Spanish title of Indignados  is from the movement of the “Indignados” in Spain.

Geronimo (2014): A film about the universe of Gypsies in 2014 in an urban Paris setting.  The film, which is rhythmic in dance, deals with themes related to the world of the street, in which young people seek freedom. Gatlif draws inspiration from his personal story. The story setting takes place in the South of France. Enters Geronimo, a young social educator, she attempts to ease tensions between the youngsters of the St Pierre neighborhood but tempers flare up with the heat of the summer when Nil Terzi, a teenage girl of Turkish origin, rejects an arranged marriage, flees to the arms of her Gypsy lover, Lucky Molina. Their plan to run away results in hostilities between the two clans and manifests into jousting and the musical battles.  Geronimo is left with the struggle to manage the conflicts and ensuing chaos around her.  French actress, Céline Sallette plays the role of Geronimo.

Film Chronology:

2017 Djam
2014 Geronimo
2012 Indignados
2008 Liberté
2007 Vertiges – Du flamenco à la transe
2005 Transylvania
2004 Visions of Europe
2003 Exils
2001 Swing
2000 Vengo
1998 Je suis né d’une cigogne
1997 Gadjo Dilo
1995 Lucumi, le rumbero de Cuba
1995 Mondo
1993 Latcho Drom
1990 Gaspard et Robinson
1989 Pleure pas my love
1985 Rue du départ
1982 Canta Gitano Court métrage
1982 Les Princes
1981 Corre Gitano Court métrage
1978 La Terre au ventre

Sources: Festival De Cannes, Mubi.com, AlloCine, IMDb, YouTube.com, Facebook.com,Tonygatlif.Free.Fr, and Wikipedia

All Rights Reserved © Richard Anthony Peña 2017

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