With an estimated population of around 10 million, Romani people constitute what is arguably Europe’s largest ethnic minority – and the high level of impoverishment, dire living conditions and systematic exclusion from employment and education that blight the group are among Europe’s most pressing social problems. Though Europe’s Roma primarily reside in the centre, east and south of the continent, growing populations in northern Europe have regularly been the subject of political antagonism in recent years, as with the infamous deportation programme of the Sarkozy government in France. There were also headlines in the UK earlier this year when Sheffield MP and former home secretary David Blunkett spoke of the “explosion” that would occur in the city if authorities failed to “change the behaviour and the culture of the incoming community, the Roma community.”
Compared to near neighbours Slovakia and Hungary, the Czech Republic’s 250,000 or so Roma make up but a small proportion of the country, but nonetheless continually find themselves the subject of controversy and condemnation. Routine segregation from mainstream society in quasi-ghettos means that unemployment is rife, with accordingly high levels of poverty and crime. Opportunities for social advancement are hindered by a school system rigged to siphon off the majority of Roma children to “special schools” from which it’s extremely difficult to progress to further and higher education (a practice which, in 2007, the ECHR found to be in violation of Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights). Meanwhile, far-right groups regularly hold mass demonstrations against the presence of Roma in Czech towns and cities, often leading to violent confrontations and riots.
This is the context of Czech director Petr Václav’s latest film The Way Out (Cesta Ven). As the director reminded the audience at the Made in Prague Festival, organised by the Czech Centre, at London’s ICA, “it is not just a social commentary film, it is also a film” – yet it’s difficult not to see the work as a scathing criticism of the attitude taken by the majority of Czechs towards their Romani neighbours.
The film follows the ever-fluctuating fortunes of Žaneta, a young Romani woman living in the northeastern Czech city of Ostrava, along with those of her large and tight-knit family. Žaneta and her boyfriend David, a couple engaged in a difficult search for full-time work, struggle to make ends meet and to support both their infant daughter Sara and Žaneta’s teenage sister. Relying on sleazy loan-sharks and unemployment benefits, they have the latter taken from them when David misses an appointment to sign on. The couple’s relationship is tested when local prostitute Andrea comes up with a dubious scheme to improve their financial prospects.
One of the most striking things about the film is the depth of segregation between the Roma and the ethnic Czechs with whom they share the city. Žaneta and her family have barely any contact with non-Romani Czechs, but when they do it’s almost invariably with people in positions of power and authority: doctors, potential employers, social workers, landlords, often in sterile surroundings and speaking in cold, officious language. Then there’s the pervasive discrimination that the Roma suffer, ranging from the subtle – one woman asking Žaneta in a job interview whether her Romani identity would cause her to be absent from or late to work, and another simply ignoring her greeting “dobrý den” – to the overt: one altercation between David and a social security worker sees a skinhead dragging him outside and beating him up, to shouted racial slurs. Yet prejudice and racism are not limited to Czech antiziganism: Roma and ethnic Czechs alike allude to a dislike of recent Ukrainian immigrants, the film’s Roma characters frequently use the word gadjo as a derogatory term for non-Romanis, and one would-be employer warns David: “if you want a job, you should stop acting like a Jew“.
Václav’s script for The Way Out crystallised over a seven-month period, based on the experiences of a number of Czech Romani people, many of whom went on to star in the film. Yet this preponderance of non-professional actors is belied by convincing and often highly emotional performances, especially in the case of lead actress Klaudia Dudová, who has already finished her second collaboration with Václav on another upcoming film. Though The Way Out is largely scripted, the director also uses the semi-improvised method favoured by London-based director Mike Leigh. The cinematography too evokes classics of British kitchen-sink drama, as well as the work of more recent British social realists like Andrea Arnold, whose 2009 film Fish Tank dealt, among other things, with prejudice against gypsy and traveller families in England. But unlike Leigh and Arnold (and indeed Ken Loach), Václav does not intend his films to carry a particular political message: “I don’t have any solutions [to the problems of Roma integration]” he said in the Q&A that followed the screening, “I am just a filmmaker and show what I see.”
The film is poignant and ultimately pessimistic: the “way out” promised by the title never materialising except in the yearning of its central characters. Yet it falls short of being downright depressing, largely thanks to the sharp sense of humour wielded by Žaneta and her family members, as well as the sporadic glimpses of true warmth and kindness that the film is peppered with. It all makes for a vividly delivered portrait of the desperate Roma experience in the Czech Republic, and more broadly, the situation of the other in civilised society.
Petr Václav’s The Way Out was part of the ‘Made in Prague’ Festival (2nd-30th November), organised by the Czech Centre, London.