An Interview with Katalin Barsony, Romani Activist and Film Director

Katalin Barsony is a Romani activist from Hungary, an internationally-recognized film director, and head of the Romedia Foundation. She is also a PhD fellow in Media and Communications at the Corvinus University of Budapest. She spoke with Bernard Rorke about the Romedia Foundation’s work to “deliver an alternative narrative to mainstream media” about what it means to be Roma in the 21st century.

Could you say something about your latest project “Requiem for Auschwitz”?

This is a hugely important and very exciting Europe-wide project initiated some three years ago. I remember meeting with international partners in Auschwitz-Birkenau, two years ago, on the anniversary of the extermination of the Gypsy lager (camp), to discuss how to realize this project. And, now, next week, on the November 6, the Requiem will be performed here in Budapest in the Hungarian Palace of Arts.

The Requiem itself was composed by the self-taught Dutch Sinto musician, Roger “Moreno” Rathgeb, who wished to commemorate all the victims of the Nazi genocide. The Requiem was first performed in Amsterdam and then Tilburg in May of this year, there will be a performance in Prague on November 4, just before Budapest, and then another at the end of the month in Frankfurt.

The project involves Romani organizations from across Europe, bringing communities together in a shared understanding and to shed light on the fate of all who suffered in the Holocaust. On our Requiem website we have assembled factual documentary evidence from libraries in Hungary and the U.S., recorded personal testimonies, filmed witness accounts of the genocide. We staged a highly successful film festival about very original takes on the 20th century genocides between October 26 and 28. We are also organizing an art exhibition, and we’ve been working hard on an intensive media publicity campaign leading up to the performance of the Requiem. Our TV spot is being broadcast on many TV stations, our radio spots aired regularly, and our posters are on display right across the city centre in Budapest. This is the first time such a message is out there on so many platforms.

And 2012 is also the Raoul Wallenberg Centennial….

Yes, it’s an interesting coincidence that this year is the Wallenberg Memorial Year in Hungary. Before we started the project I went to see my grandma, who told me that part of the reason our family is here today is because my great-grandmother was one of the Jews “chosen” by Wallenberg. She was picked by him from rows of people standing near Nyugati railway station awaiting deportation. She was taken from there to a safe place of hiding and survived the war. My grandma was not so lucky, she was 16 when she was taken by the Nazis, but she did survive the camps. She impressed upon me the importance of remembering, as did my father. The Jewish and Roma parts of me say that we should strive together to preserve the memories of all who perished in the Holocaust and share these memories with the wider Hungarian society.

What is most exciting is that we have discovered and filmed new, previously unheard survivor testimonies from Jewish eyewitnesses, Eva Fahidi and Erzsebet Brodt, of the extermination of the Gypsy lager on the night of August 2 to 3. In her heart-wrenching account, Erzsebet Brodt vowed she would survive, for “everybody has to be told about this, and all those who survived have the responsibility to fight so that such things never happen again.”

The Requiem is just the latest in an impressive body of work. For instance, the documentary series “Mundi Romani—the World through Roma Eyes” has garnered much international praise and recognition. How did you get started and what films mean the most to you?

I started being involved in TV work when I was 17 as a presenter on a show at the Hungarian state television. I became the editor-in-chief and reporter of the Mundi Romani series when I was 22. Let’s say that at first my colleagues did not share my vision. It was clear that I needed to direct and do the post-production myself, and I fought to be able to do so. My sixth film Granada—the Maya Family won the Best Visual Coverage Prize at the 5th Ethnic Minority Film Festival in 2008. Since then I have continued to function as a director!

I think Trapped—the forgotten story of the Mitrovica Roma is one of the best films I have made. This drew attention to the desperate plight of Roma stranded for 10 years in the lead contaminated refugee camps in Kosovo. The film was nominated for the Monte Carlo and International Festival of Audiovisual Programs (FIPA) awards in 2008-9.

In 2009, we were closely following the developments in Italy, the attacks on Romani camps and the “Nomad Emergency,” and made the documentary Lashi Vita, where we were able to give voice to the people in the camps and make these voices heard by policy makers. We were arrested while filming in Italy. This was an interesting experience for us as working journalists. It created a media scandal and attracted great international attention for the film, which was then nominated for the CIVIS prize in 2009.

The film Uprooted was nominated at the 8th Aljazeera International Documentary Film Festival earlier this year….

Yes, it was our first nomination in a Middle-Eastern country. It was a great opportunity to present our work in Doha, and we were thrilled at the level of interest and the prospects of cooperation to expose our work to a wide new audience. The film came in the top three in the Child and Family Award category. Uprooted goes back and forth between Germany and Kosovo and examines Germany’s repatriation policies through the eyes of children and the devastating impact upon their lives.

In addition to film-making there is a strong empowerment component to your work. Could you say something about that?

Digital technology is empowering, and the tools are cheap. We are working in partnership with the Anne Frank House on the Free2Choose youth citizen journalism project to train young people—Romani and non-Romani high-school students in Hungary, Ukraine, and across the Western Balkans—the basics of critical thinking and camera handling. They can record their own short films, and we provide them with the skills to edit and upload.

Also our campaign “I’m a European Roma Woman” was driven by the need to deliver a positive affirmative message to the wider world. We were motivated to do this campaign during the spate of hate crime and killings of Roma in Hungary. Indeed straight after we attended the funerals of Robert and Robika Csorba in Tatarszentgyorgy we went into the studio and worked a whole weekend to produce the first video. This was the first ever Romani women’s empowerment campaign to reach such a wide audience, and I am proud to say that to date there’s been more than 100,000 downloads of the English, Hungarian, and Spanish versions of the video spot. We also produced a regional version for the Western Balkans including testimonies from Bosnia, Montenegro, and Serbia. On the campaign website we have over 60 videos—many from women who were previously unknown to us which show just how diverse and heterogeneous we are and how much we Romani women contribute to society.

What are the challenges working in a climate of heightened prejudice and virulent anti-Gypsyism?

I don’t have a solution, but we do not believe in taking a reactive stance. We continue to release positive messages into the mainstream media, to inform and raise awareness. We are pro-active and will not let racists set the agenda. Our primary goal is to present an alternative narrative of what it means to be Roma in the 21st century. We have a wonderful team of people Marion Kurucz, Elemer Santa, Peter Kohut, Barbara Solyom among others. We are encouraged by our successes and the recognition we have gained over the last five years, and we believe in what we are doing. And we remain determined to continue to do the right thing.

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