LATCHO DROM (Tony Gatlif, 1993)

Written and directed by Tony Gatlif (born Michel Dahmani), a Frenchman of Romany and Algerian descent, Latcho Drom is one of the ten best musical films of all time. With visual grandeur, it traces the combinate journey of the people we familiarly call Gypsies, from Rajahstan (India) to Egypt, Turkey, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, France and Spain. In each location, Gatlif stages scenes of performance—folk dance, song, instrumentals (including an utterly dazzling instance of dueling guitars)—employing local Gypsies. The resulting documentary is a truly epic musical.
     The title means “safe journey.” The irony turns on the discrepancy between the commemorative “journey” that Gatlif films and the real original circumstance. In the desert, a child is dying of thirst; suddenly the image explodes, water is plentiful and the trekkers are joyful. Now they are aboard an ocean liner, but in the same water are tiny, flimsy, imperiled boats.
     The Romany people were doomed to their nomadic existence by white European hostility, which at one point is crystallized—in a film which elsewhere expresses great love for animals—by snarling, barking dogs. A passage of Kusturícan exuberance is followed by a tracking shot along barbed wire and somber singing about Auschwitz.
     The glorious music takes center stage. It is as though Gypsy music burns off impurities, leaving the essence of Gypsy history, community, suffering, joy.
     Adaptation, endurance, survival: “We Gypsies are like lost sheep,” a ubiquitous boy sings. “No one will change our way of life.”
     A grown woman: “Why does your evil mouth spit on me? So what my skin is dark, my Gypsy hair black?”
     Latcho Drom is undiluted by explanatory PBS voiceover. Watching it, you see and hear in song and dance what you need to know to experience the film to the full.


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