A celebration of survival

Issue 

Latcho Drom (Safe Journey)
Directed by Tony Gatlif
With Rom musicians of India, Egypt, Turkey, Romania, Hungary, France and Spain
Lumiere Cinema, Melbourne
Reviewed by Bronwen Beechey

About 1000 years ago a Sanskrit-speaking tribe, for unknown reasons, left India. Their descendants, now estimated at 12 million, are correctly known as Romany (or Rom) but more commonly as Gypsies.

In Europe, where Rom are concentrated, their "different" appearance and nomadic lifestyle have been the subject of both wild romanticism and racist bigotry: in World War II, up to 1 million Romany were exterminated in Hitler's death camps. In recent years there has been an upsurge of violence against the Romany as part of the revival of nationalism and racism in Europe.

This knowledge is not essential to enjoying or understanding Latcho Drom, but it makes the film more poignant and timely. Tony Gatlif, a Rom born in Algeria and raised in France, has used an unusual but effective format to tell the story of the Romany. He describes it as a musical, rather than a documentary or fiction film, although in fact it has elements of all three.

Latcho Drom uses the music of the Romany to tell the story (the minimal dialogue is not subtitled). As the film traces the centuries-long journey west from India, we see the diverse Romany cultures depicted in a series of striking images — an Indian tribe's journey through the desert, children in Turkey selling flowers and shining shoes in the street, an old Romanian man singing about the uprising against Ceausescu, French gypsies driven from their camp by armed men. In one unforgettable sequence, an elderly woman in a frozen landscape sings of the suffering of Gypsies at Auschwitz, her tattooed camp number clearly visible.

As Gatlif says, "It takes a strong love of life to resist five centuries of persecution and sorrow." This passion for life is expressed in music and dance, from the hypnotic chants of Rajasthan to the jazzy rhythms of French musicians; from the exuberant ghaziya dancers of Egypt to the defiant flamenco of Spain.

Filmed in 35mm with stereophonic sound, Latcho Drom is a feast for both eye and ear (the soundtrack is also available on CD) and a powerful demand for respect for a culture that has survived against all odds.