a stranger in everybody’s land
Many Americans are familiar with them, but to most they are still strangers. Outside mainstream America, beyond the consciousness of mass media, excluded from discussions about minorities, there are a million familiar strangers living in this country: American Gypsies. Americans, but are they really? Gypsies, but what does that mean anyway?
Gypsies worldwide, more properly known as “Rom,” are part of an ethnic group whose ancestors left India a thousand years ago. Today, many American Rom combine the extremes of what is very foreign and very American: they speak to ghosts in a foreign language, and wear Stetsons while driving Cadillacs to the local shopping mall for MacDonalds hamburgers. They also maintain ancient traditions and a societal structure revolving entirely around the family. By contrast, fairy tales and Hollywood churn out images of Gypsies as romantic nomads and cunning thieves: aimless wanderers with not a care for the past and no plans for the future; just read a fortune, steal a chicken and move on to the next town. Newspaper headlines talk of being “gypped” and police officers declare themselves experts on “Gypsy Crime” (just imagine a “Jewish Crime” specialist!). They get away with it because most people think that “Gypsy” describes anyone who fits the popular traveler fantasy. So, while the real Rom are strangers, their stigma is very familiar. A New York Times poll in 1992 reported the social standing of 58 ethnic groups: Gypsies were at the very bottom.
“AMERICAN GYPSY: a stranger in everybody’s land” is a film about the real people behind this image, about a people struggling between the cultures of ancient India and modern America, about the advantages and disadvantages of assimilation and about a family at the heart of this battle.
The Marks family stepped into the limelight in 1986 after a controversial police raid of their homes, during which police destroyed sacred items, searched babies’ diapers, body-searched women, removed decorative gold finger nails from their hands and seized a large amount of cash – without a valid search warrant. The Marks were charged with trafficking in stolen goods, but they claim they were suspected only because of racist assumptions that Gypsies are born thieves. More importantly, they say that police robbed them of their honor by misconducting the search, in the belief that Gypsies would not fight back. Police probably weren’t even aware of the degree to which their search would affect the family: ritual purity laws mean that women are permanently tainted by the touch of outsiders. The family still has not recovered, but they have retaliated, in one of the most American ways of all: they filed a multi-million dollar civil rights lawsuit against their hometown, Spokane, in Washington state.
However, the family’s public demands in court defied the hush-hush conventions of their own community. Historically, the Rom are silent in the face of hostility: better to shrug it off than become embroiled in the outside world. Romani Americans remain apart from mainstream society, partly because they are shunned, partly because they fear that contact with non-Gypsies contaminates their own people and values. This is why so little has been explained about their culture. Even their label is a misnomer; they were named “Gypsy” by Europeans who wrongly attributed their swarthy complexion to being vagabonds from Egypt. The people whom we call Gypsies refer to themselves as Rom or Roma which means “man” in Romani, the language of Rom across the globe. But the myths go uncorrected because, in a sense, Rom are protected by stereotypes about their being unapproachable or dirty: it keeps outsiders away.
Nevertheless, Jimmy Marks and his father, Grover, wanted respect for their heritage and an end to what they felt was police harassment. So, like members of other American minorities, they decided to fight the system. As a result, the family has been ostracized by their own people; the rest of Spokane’s Romani community left town to avoid associating with the Marks family. Now, they are pariahs in both American and Romani society. And they long for the good old days.
Before the raid, Grover Marks, like many other Romani Americans, ran his own business, as a car salesman. He would take the men in the family to buy second hand cars in Las Vegas – we see these roadtrips in old home movies, which also show family feasts, and the wedding of a teenage couple who had never met until their grandparents arranged a marriage. Grover was a community leader whose oldest son, Jimmy, was set to follow in his footsteps. Instead, Jimmy became obsessed with the lawsuit, and Grover sat alone in the same chair every day, all day, smoking Marlboros and staring out of the kitchen window. Waiting. This haggard grandfather barely moved for a decade. Jimmy began to rant about the case, which he saw as the only way for his family to regain acceptance among his people, and for his people to gain acceptance among the rest of society. Initially the Markses had won their case, but it was then placed on appeal – until 11 years after the raid. In the end, Spokane City paid the family an out-of-court settlement.
Jimmy Marks has been called “the Gypsy equivalent to Rodney King,” because his landmark civil rights battle against the Spokane police helped demonstrate the widespread prejudice faced by Romani people. He has also been called a madman, because he was consumed by this obsession. His tale is irresistibly human: as timeless as Don Quixote or Hamlet, as they go crazy battling to reclaim lost honor
For this documentary, the Marks family allowed their lives to be captured on camera over the course of five years – long enough to see their ups and downs, moments of intimacy and public grandeur, and a rollercoaster of emotions. Eventually, the whole family was along for the ride, and allowed the camera unprecedented access into their home. The filmmaker is present as a first person narrator, highlighting that this is a portrait from the point of view of someone who is, like most of the audience, an outsider. As a woman, the filmmaker also provides a contrast to the apparently traditional role of most Romani women – but the subservience of a Romani housewife is deceptive: she’s excluded from official decisions, yet she governs the family in an entirely family-centered society. In addition, she has an unusual prerogative: a woman’s lower body is deemed ritually impure, which both confines her to long skirts, and gives her the unrivaled power to defile and ostracize a man for life just by raising her skirt in his presence.
The Marks’ legal case is a window onto this world of American Roma, who are unknown but not unknowable. In this film, we see that secrecy has helped keep Romani culture as distinct as that of many new immigrants. Yet, Roma have been coming to the United States for centuries, beginning when they rowed ships for the early European settlers, later to escape slavery in nineteenth century Romania, and, more recently, to flee Nazi gas chambers. These scattered waves of immigration mean that there are now many different groups of Romani Americans. We meet Ian Hancock, an English Rom who has spent much of his life representing his people in academic and political settings. Hancock is a professor at the University of Texas and a world authority on Romani linguistics and history. In Minneapolis, we meet Bill Duna, a jazz musician whose grandparents emigrated from Hungary to play at the 1880 Chicago World’s Fair. Nowadays, Duna straddles both worlds: playing music at weddings accompanied by his sons, and teaching university classes on musicology and the history of the Romani Holocaust.
After centuries of protection behind a huge misunderstanding, several of today’s younger generation Rom are adopting new survival tactics that include a more open attitude to outsiders and a desire to see themselves accurately portrayed in the world around them. This has facilitated the first candid portrait of a culture that is either on the verge of extinction or at a critical turning point for survival. In this documentary, the Marks’ story weaves together: poetry, music, home movies, historical archives, news flashes, footage and interviews; personal stories of painful rejection and resilience; of traveling in camps at the turn of the century, or calling a tribunal to decide whether community laws have been broken; and of finally being acknowledged alongside Jews at the Holocaust Museum.
This is a poignant story, illustrating some of the most painful ambiguities of immigration, of culture clashes and of modern America. And this is the first opportunity to present it on screen.