J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Roma History and Family: Searching for the 4th Nail

According to legend, the fourth nail of the crucifixion was stolen by a Roma blacksmith. In gratitude, God granted his descendents the right to steal. For American Romani filmmaker George Eli, this creation myth is a double-edged sword, simultaneously giving the Roma and Sinti a sense of mystical identity, but also facilitating low expectations of rootless lives lived in the margins of society. Eli turns his camera both outward and inward, asking not just what it means specifically to be an American “Gypsy,” but Roma in general, in his debut documentary Searching for the 4th Nail (trailer here), which starts a special two day engagement in New York, following its debut at the New York Gypsy Roma Film Festival.

Not everyone in Eli’s family was thrilled with the project, but his sons Alex and Christopher got on-board and perhaps even stole the show. His wife however, is notably absent. Still, it is his sons’ questions which initiates Eli’s search for answers about their place in history and society. Most notably, father and sons take a trip to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to see first-hand how the Roma Holocaust experience is treated there. It turns out they had half a shelf in the bookstore.

While Eli does not deny the existence of anti-Roma prejudice, he is also critical of some Roma preconceptions, particular the notion that education is only for the Gadjie (non-Roma). Indeed, Eli handles his cultural inquiry with a great deal of nuance. While there have been many documentaries that use the family teaching experience to address wider issues, the American Roma and Sinti family experience has been virtually undocumented on film. As a result, Nail seems fresher than its conventional sounding documentarian approach would suggest.

The Elis, father and sons, are consistently likeable on-screen personalities. As a filmmaker, Eli keeps the Nail moving a healthy pace and deftly addresses some serious issues without getting overwhelmed by their weightiness. With a running time just under an hour, it makes its points without overstaying its welcome. For many viewers, it will be a quick and informative introduction to the fascinating culture and tragic history of the Roma and Sinti. It screens tomorrow (2/9) and Wednesday (2/10), with Eli taking Q&A both evenings.

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