Gypsy Caravan, When the Road Bends (review)

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Songs of Joy and Pain

I keep thinking of Pete, the diner owner in The Muppets Take Manhattan, and his little speech to Kermit about how “peoples is peoples.” Is true, no? Peoples is peoples, as Jasmine Dellal demonstrates so beautifully in Gypsy Caravan, When the Road Bends, the festival and arthouse favorite (it won an audience award at the 2006 Flanders International Film Festival) just out on DVD from Docurama Films.
Gypsies — more properly known as Roma or Romani — get a wildly unfair rap as thieves and con artists and other unsavory types, which Dellal counters merely by showing us a hint of the variety in the Romani culture, which encompasses more than 10 million people all over the world. Dellal joined a tour of Romani musicians from Spain, India, Macedonia, and Romania as they traveled the United States performing their ethnic songs and dances… and getting to know one another, too. They don’t even all share the same languages, and have lots of questions and curiosities about how their fellow Romani express their heritage among themselves. If you weren’t already openminded about the Roma, you’ll leave this flick with the impression that assigning the terrible “gypsy” stereotype to these diverse people is the same as suggesting that all ethnic Italians are mobsters, or all ethnic Irish or Arabs are terrorists. It’s absurd.

But the Roma live with the unfairness of that, and it comes through in their music. This is primarily a catalogue of performances, and they are magnificent. Actor Johnny Depp appears here briefly, as a big fan of the Romanian band Taraf de Haïdouks and gypsy music in general, and in the extended version of his interview, available among the bonus materials, he captures the appeal: “In their music you hear everything. You hear joy, in the purest and most honest sense possible, sorrow, suffering…” Romani music is, he says, all about “purity, honesty, intensity, beauty.” The music of Taraf — as well as Macedonia’s Esma Redzepova, Spain’s Antonio el Pipa and Juana la del Pipa, India’s Maharaja, and Romania’s Fanfare Ciocarlia — is music born of persecution, but also of perseverance. It’s powerful stuff.

The DVD: The sound is awesome, of course, and the bonus visuals include extra offstage performances (such as one of a violin player accompanying squeaking birds nesting in his house!), plus uncut stage performances from the featured groups.

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