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By Bryan Newbury
August 12, 2008

It has often been observed that all worthwhile traditional music emerges from suffering a combination of repression, violence and want. One could say often enough to make the sentiment platitudinous in the abstract. In the concrete, it is as essential a statement as could be made, especially to those who have been the ones experiencing the suffering.

If these tribulations are indeed the provenance of brilliant music, then no one has carried a heavier weight than the Roma people. 

A few additional elements are resourcefulness and soul, which the Roma have in spades. To argue which type of performance is more stirring, or to suggest that one kind of music is more soulful than another, is to court a series of debates which all turn up at a dead end. Then again, it would be difficult if not impossible to debate the earth moving spirit, the virtuosity, the proficiency and the originality of Roma, or gypsy, music. In the series of dead end roads, the dirt path trod by these beleaguered geniuses might well be the most magnificent. Whether playing on the traditional saarangi spike lute, the violin, the ney or the trombone, whether influencing Andalucían string music and dancing or appropriating Ottoman military marches, the Roma have historically absorbed hatred and bigotry and repaid their hosts with cultural expansion. 

In her latest film, Jasmine Dellal provides us with a glimpse into the music and lives of disparate yet unified Romani, as they venture from their homes in India, Romania, Spain and Macedonia on a North American tour. Equal parts performance film, travelogue and ethnological study, Gypsy Caravan does precisely what any fan of world music – music, for that matter – seeks. While treating us to largely uninterrupted sets (when interrupted with dialogue or shots from the performers’ home countries, done incredibly tastefully and without distraction) of some of the finest musicians and dancers in the world, it presents us with a look into just who the people are making their art. 

No character could be more arresting than the undisputed star of the film, Nicolae Neascu. Founder of the award winning and awe-inspiring group Taraf de Haïdouks, Nicolae was the living embodiment of a Romani musician. The viewer feels giddy and lucky at the prospect of listening to his setbacks, successes and desires, of seeing him interacting with kinsmen and countrymen, of hearing him proclaim from his humble abode that he is a star, and that “I am going to build a swimming pool, like Johnny Depp. Johnny Depp.” (Depp, of course, has spent a bit of time with Taraf. That alone establishes their must-know bona fides. Whenever someone is really worth knowing, Depp takes his plane out to hang with him/her/them, in order to bolster his greatest life ever credentials. Yes, ladies, Mr. Depp does appear in the film. Let us move on.) 

From Neascu’s village in southern Romania, to the Romania-Moldova border home of Fanfare Ciocarlia, the superlatively adept eleven-man brass band whose sound permeates Goran Bregovic’s stunning Underground soundtrack, to Skopje, Spain and northwestern India, Caravan commits to film something more than slice of life. In the stories and songs of Esma Redzepova, who can fairly be promoted from “Queen of the Gypsies” to “Patron Saint,” in the passionate torrent of Antonio el Pipa and the heart-rending saga of his aunt Juana, in the joyous and troubled qawwali blues of Maharaja and the cathartic dancing of their leader by fiat, Harish, we receive an adequate rendering of Roma music, culture and daily life. The word “adequate” seems harsh in most instances. In this case, it conveys the highest compliment. To expect a filmmaker to cover the millennial odyssey of such a colorful and complex people in a mere hour or two, while providing us with stirring live music from five distinct and enthralling ensembles would be beyond harsh. 

Dedicated to the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015 (, Gypsy Caravan dispels popular mythology of the Roma people while providing footage of events and attitudes even in the United States, no stranger to prejudice, but with a much less present Roma Diaspora as that of Europe, that indicate the need for such mythology to be shattered. The Decade project prioritizes education, employment, health and housing, which the interviews in the film indicate are central to the dreams of Romani young and old. Among the less pernicious myths about the gypsy is his happiness with his lot of wandering and entertaining, a kind of Old World spin on the noble savage. It is clear that, while embracing a distinctive and many hued heritage, these people aspire to the same things the rest of us do. As Redzepova relates, the world could learn a few lessons from a people that have never engaged in warfare or occupation of a country. If one needs proof that music has the power to break barriers, to communicate and universalize the suffering of all, and to forge a path toward understanding and appreciation of his fellow man, he need look no further than Gypsy Caravan

If, however, the viewer wishes only to have a film whose music stirs the soul and injects frenetic energy and baffling musical proficiency, she might procure the exact same film.


Gypsy Caravan: When The Road Bends…

Written, Directed and Produced by Jasmine Dellal

Color, 2006, 111 minutes

English; Romani, Spanish, Romanian, Macedonian, Hindi and Marwari with English Subtitles


By Umut Newbury
August 7, 2008

“To me it’s so simple that life should be lived on the edge of life. You have to exercise in rebellion, to refuse to taper yourself to rules, to refuse your own success, to refuse to repeat yourself to see every day, every year, every idea as a true challenge and then you are going to live your life on a tight rope.”  -Philippe Petit

Life, death, dreams and rebellion… The French have always been extraordinarily talented in defying the mainstream Western cultures’ accepted notions on these. The last time the French were truly successful at jarring our sense of what is good – life, what is evil – human mortality, was done through New Wave cinema with the likes of Jean Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut.

James Marsh’s new documentary, Man on Wire, combines the best of that era: Godard’s Breathless, and Truffaut’s 400 Blows, with a touch of Camus. For the post-911 world inhabitant, it is a foreign time, where breaking into buildings, i.e. the World Trade Center towers, and mocking death was an act of art, not an act of terrorism.

The subject of Marsh’s masterpiece, Philippe Petit, is not your typical Frenchman, just smoking cigarettes and drinking Bordeaux and cursing the meaninglessness of life at a sidewalk cafe. He is a reckless high-wire walker taunting death on a daily basis. His goal: To walk on a wire suspended between the North and South towers of the World Trade Centers shortly after they are built in 1974.

“My story is a fairy tale,” Petit begins rather innocuously. He was a little boy with a passion for climbing things, anything: “Why, I’ll let the psychiatrists to figure out the reasons. To escape things, to see things from a different perspective.” Well, the little French boy gets a toothache someday and is sitting in a dentist’s office looking at magazines. He sees a picture of these two towers (the French media cleverly juxtaposed the Eiffel Tower in front of them to show how magnanimous they would be when they were built) and is smitten instantly. He rips the picture out of the magazine and carries it with him: “Usually, when you have a dream, it’s there, tangible. The object of my dream doesn’t even exist yet.”

The film doesn’t quite explain how Petit grows up to have the luxury of just walking on wires in his backyard and dreaming of scaling large, prominent buildings, and it really doesn’t have to. This story originates in France, after all, and we must start with a romance. Petit pursues a shy 20-year-old, Annie Allix, and she immediately becomes his number one fan and supporter of reckless acts. By 1971, Petit gets his first grandiose idea: To walk on a wire between the towers of the Notre Dame Cathedral. He sees it not as trespassing on the holy, rather describes himself as “a poet conquering beautiful stages.” The footage is simply breathtaking, even for those who have never been a fan of circus acts. There is a deep philosophical sense about Petit’s act. Somehow, it is not about the ridiculousness of a young man risking his life publicly. He is making a statement.

Two years later, in June of 1973, Petit, Allix and Petit’s other, nonsexual cohorts, repeat the act at the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Again, it is a magnificent scene. The whole bay of Sydney stretched out below a lunatic, while regular folks are communing to work, provides an immensely ironic perspective. When he gets arrested, Petit is still playing around, managing to swipe the watch of a Sydney policeman. The viewer would think this is a child who does not understand the consequences of his actions. But he does. “The fact that high-wire activity is framed by death is great,” Petit says. “You have to take it seriously.” With every potentially fatal act, Petit seems to be saying, “I understand life. I understand death in a way you will never know.”

After the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, where does the high-wire walker take his act? Of course, he could have chosen any of a number of well-known European or Asian sites, however, this was all a means to an end – The World Trade Center towers. “The two towers galloping in my head, as I return to Paris, the towers were almost built,” Petit recalls. His girlfriend Allix admits to having limits to her undying support. “When he showed me the pictures, I was afraid. It’s inhuman to want to go up 450 meters in the air and walk. This was demonic, I wanted to say, ‘Stop.’” But she doesn’t. Neither do his buddies, Jean Louis Blandeau or Jean Francois Heckel. Heckel says about the Notre Dame project, “It was against the law, but not wicked or mean. It was wonderful.” So when approached about the World Trade Center project, Heckel is in. So is Blandeau, after receiving a postcard from New York. He looks at the towers on the front of the card, with a line drawn between them. “I thought, of course, that’s why they are there.”

Blandeau is the voice of reason in the group, immediately realizing that there is no way to accomplish Petit’s crazy dream legally. No one is going to authorize such a wildly risky, childish dream. Once again, this will be a covert operation. Petit’s small group of outlaws soon grow, with an Australian, a couple of stoner Americans, and even an inside man from the WTC. To some, it is “a fun adventure,” others admit that they have been drawn to things, “that are not totally legal.”

The team travels back and forth between New York and France. They spy on the World Trade Center towers, disguise themselves to get information, set up a “training camp” in a meadow in France. By all modern classifications, they must be terrorists. The day of the act, affectionately nicknamed “Le Coup” by Petit, they sneak in the buildings with fake IDs. Everybody is terrified, everyone is convinced they will get busted and end up in jail or deported. But after more than 12 hours, in the early morning hours of Aug. 7, 1974, Petit manages to get on his wire between WTC North and South towers. He walks back and forth for 45 minutes, making the crossing eight times. Sgt. Charles Daniels, one of the two Port Authority police officers on the scene describes him as a “tight rope dancer because you couldn’t call him a walker.” Petit keeps walking back and forth smiling at the police, taunting them, only agreeing to step off after being told that he will be plucked by a helicopter. Everyone, including the authorities, is mesmerized. “I personally thought I was seeing something I would never see again, once in a lifetime thing,” Daniels tells the local press.

The footage of this crazy little Frenchman kneeling on a wire in between the two World Trade Centers is one of the most haunting images one will ever see on the big screen. The images of Petit on top of the Notre Dame Cathedral and the bridge in Sydney are powerful, too, but because of our collective history in the 21st century, it becomes something else. It makes the viewer wonder what happened to us as a human race. When did we get from that to this in less than 30 years? But perhaps, it is best to not think of this film in the context of recent history at all and to stick with Petit’s philosophy, “Why? There is no why.” Modern life is both beautiful and terrifying, and we’d be better off just accepting that. Man on Wire will help anyone come to terms with the absurdity of our existence on this planet.


Man on Wire

Directed by James Marsh

2008 Magnolia Pictures

94 minutes


By Umut Newbury
August 6, 2008

Less than three months from a historic presidential election comes an extremely timely documentary from Docurama Films. The Robert Drew Kennedy Films Collection, including Primary, filmed in 1960, Crisis, filmed in 1963, and Faces of November, filmed in 1964, is a crucial trilogy for students of history and political junkies everywhere. 

History repeats itself and the resemblances of this year’s presidential race, or more accurately, of one candidate, Sen. Barack Obama, to the Kennedys, both JFK and RFK, have already been underscored earlier in the year. Primary only makes this more evident, as it follows John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey during the Wisconsin primary election. The similarities are eerie. Humphrey talks to farmers and older folks. Though he has a populist message similar to that of John Edwards in this year’s campaign, the size of his crowds resembles more that of John McCain’s. Then we see images of Kennedy that are all too familiar: Large crowds, mostly young people, mostly young girls, cheering, running down the streets to meet the candidate. Just like with Obama, JFK as a candidate is more like a celebrity; everybody wants to shake his hand, everybody wants an autograph. Humphrey tells the farm folk, “Fortune and Life magazine don’t give a hoot about your life,” in an effort to undermine JFK’s celebrity status. Isn’t that what John McCain was echoing when he ran the recent attack ad “Celeb,” asking the question about Obama, “Sure, he is a celebrity, but is he ready to lead?”

Kennedy’s strength in Wisconsin, as Primary shows, is in the heavily populated areas, mostly the big cities. Fast-forward to 2008, Obama’s strengths are the same. Then, of course, there are shots of the first great First Lady, Jackie Kennedy. She is quiet and graceful, the symbol of the good, supportive wife of the 1950s and 1960s, much like the character Betty Draper in AMC’s Mad Men. The viewer cannot help but think of Michelle Obama. If only Mrs. Obama stayed quiet and doting like Jackie Kennedy, she would be beloved as well. But this is 2008 and Mrs. Obama is the symbol of the 21st century wife: strong, independent, smart, but never timid. 

Primary’s closing shots are from the campaign headquarters where we see JFK chain-smoking his H. Upmann petite cigars and admitting that he did indeed tell a reporter, “if lost here, I’d find it extremely difficult to be nominated.” Luckily for him, the newspapers never had a chance to use that line against him to get him to drop out of the race. As Humphrey leaves his headquarters quietly at the end of the evening, it is evident the candidate from the neighboring Minnesota has lost the election to the “Catholic elitist from the East.”

As fascinating as Primary is with the déjà vu moments, the next film of the historic three-film collection simply blows it out of the water. Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment has some of the most incredible behind the scenes White House footage ever seen on film. The footage starts on June 10, 1963, the day before the first two African-American students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, would try to enroll for summer classes at the University of Alabama. Alabama is the last state in the nation to allow integration and the state’s infamous Governor George Wallace threatens to stand between the students and their education. Read the rest of this entry »