Welcome Nowhere, and an interview with director Kate Ryan

In Lyulin, Bulgaria, a group of over 100 Roma gypsies lived their lives among family and friends. Although the Roma have never been accepted by society at large, in Lyulin they at least had their own space to live their lives and raise their children. When a supermarket chain selected the land the Roma were living on as the location for their new site, the group was brutally moved by authorities into a narrow arrangement of 21 box cars in the capital city of Sofia. This move was meant to last only a few months until suitable accommodations could be built for them by the Bulgarian government, but the plan was abandoned, and the Roma's boxcar housing devolved into a maze of squalor and neglect. Welcome Nowhere takes an unprecedented, haunting look at the lives of the boxcar gypsies, the people dedicated to helping them, and the issues that keep them in a constant state of societal exclusion. Narrated by Ethan Hawke.

I was initially attracted to this masterful documentary because like many people, I knew very little about the Roma gypsies. In Europe, we see them begging in major cities during the day, and vanishing into abandoned buildings or their own trailers at night. They are as ubiquitous as they are ephemeral; a loathed group that so many work to wish away, but that no one can ignore. I learned a great deal about their background from this film, and found myself at once touched and enraged, saddened at the treatment the boxcar group and Roma communities in other countries face every day.

In a modern culture and climate so bent on the ideas of global villages, in a technological age where the use of all our digital gadgets is wired to build networks and connections and being "social", it's staggering yet not surprising that an entire group of human beings can be swept under the rug by the authorities in Bulgaria and other countries. Yet there's also a catch-22 in all this, because the Roma's problems would not simply be solved by society recognizing them with food and shelter. We would have to make room for these people in our schools, at our workplaces, in our lives at large. These are people with little to no schooling, and often with absolutely no work experience.

How can we, as members of a modern day society, bring the Roma and other marginalised groups into the fold so we can all move forward together into the future?

It was fantastic to get such an in-depth mailterview on these issues and more with the wonderful Kate Ryan.

Miriam Lee: Where does your interest in the Roma people come from, and why did you decide to look at this group in Bulgaria?

Kate Ryan: My exposure to the Roma people began in 2001, when I took a trip to Eastern Europe with an NGO.  I was fascinated to learn about this marginalised group that lives on the outskirts of society, something that is not very noticeable in America.  I couldn't understand how this situation could exist in today's day-and-age, and had a thousand questions about them.  Why did they live like this?  Why were they so hated by others?  What had they done to warrant such discrimination?  I returned to Europe every summer for a few years, and eventually decided to make this film as a way to find and document answers to my questions.

This particular group of Roma people, the "Boxcar Community", stood out to me because of the forced eviction that they had experienced.  Using the eviction - and lack of required follow-through on the part of the government as a background - their story painted a detailed picture of what is going on all over Europe.

ML: How long did you film with the group? How did Ethan Hawke get involved?

KR: We (myself and my director of photography, Mirella Contoli) filmed in Bulgaria for five weeks in the fall of 2009.  We had hoped to go back a few more times, but ran out of money and had to make the film with what we already had.

Ethan Hawke's mom runs a Romanian NGO that works to get impoverished children (many of them Roma) into kindergarten (www.ovid.ro/en).  Because of this, he is acutely aware of the issues the Roma people face, and was willing to lend his voice to the project when we approached him about it.

ML: How did you come to meet the mayor of Sofia?

KR: We interviewed two mayors - the former mayor who moved them originally, and the current mayor who we met with at the end of the film.  The first we met through Antoinette Shishmanova (also featured in the film) who connected us with him.  She was very involved in politics and was responsible for lining up most of the interviews we got.  The meeting with the second mayor was set up by Zhoro and Mariana Penchev, who had been trying to meet with her for awhile, and we happened to be able to get the meeting on film.

It's also worth pointing out that the mayor who was responsible for moving them out of the Boxcars was a new mayor altogether, not the ones featured in the film.

ML: Was it hard to be "let in" as a foreigner to talk about this issue both with the Bulgarian government and with the Roma you spoke to?

KR: Roma communities are typically very leery of outsiders (gadje, or non-Roma).  This community in particular was weary because of being treated very poorly by journalists and politicians claiming to have their best interest at heart.  Thankfully Zhoro and Mariana Penchev (the two pastors in the film) assured them that I would allow tell their story however they wished, and they trusted me because of this.  Those who did speak to me on camera were all open and willing to tell their sides of the story, and those who weren't I simply didn't film.

As far as the politicians were concerned, I think being an outsider helped because I was coming at it from a point of curiosity.  This allowed me to ask them to "teach" me in a non-threatening way, because I wasn't as opinionated about the issue as perhaps a local would have been.

ML: How did you learn about the pastor and his wife?

KR: I first met Zhoro and Mariana when I was 18, on my first trip to Eastern Europe with the NGO I was working for.  I kept in touch with them over the years, and I knew early on that I would want to feature their story somehow in the film.

ML: I was stunned that Stefka's [one of the women in the community] son was 10 and unable to read while
going to school. Are the schools not regulated? Why does Stefka say the teachers don't teach?

KR: Like many kids who come from families with uneducated parents, they enter school at a much lower level than students who have had the benefit of preschool or other early childhood education.  This setback can affect the rest of their schooling unless the teachers are able to help them catch up.  Unfortunately, teachers in Bulgaria are faced with numerous challenges, and often don't have the time or patience to work one-on-one with struggling students to give them the attention that they need.

ML: What did you learn about the Roma culture while filming? One of the women was talking about how she dropped school once she got married as a teenager, and it was known in their culture that a married woman could not go to school. How are women regarded within the culture?

KR: First of all, it's important to note that this particular community lives in such poverty that they are not able to properly practice their culture due to needing to merely survive.  I also need to point out that the Roma culture varies greatly depending on what part of the world they live in, and that culture and poverty should not be confused.  Many issues of poverty (i.e. high birthrate, teen pregnancy, etc.) can be found all over the world regardless of culture, not just in Roma communities.

That being said, this particular community (and many Roma families in Eastern Europe) has the tradition that a girl is ready to be married around 14-15 years old (shortly after starting menstruation).  Once they marry, it is their duty to have children, and that if they are unable to, it is a curse.  As with anywhere in the world, it is difficult for teenage mothers to both go to school and take care of their children, so they are expected to focus on the family instead.  Couple that with an already leery view of school as being a hostile - and futile - environment, and most young moms are forced to follow a more traditional route of housewife.  That is not to say that all Roma women only work inside the home, though, as many are forced by circumstances to look for jobs to support their families.

As Stefka and Maria (the other young mom who dropped out of school to have kids) both say, they wish that they had waited to have kids and stayed in school longer.  I think that these particular women are realizing that the world is changing rapidly, and this insular tradition isn't helping their chances of survival.  But the pressure from within the community to continue years of cultural tradition makes it difficult to break the cycle.

ML: Where are the Roma people who have "gotten out" and succeeded in their lives? Do they ever try to go back and help, or make an opening in society for their people to start having a chance at change?

KR: I have met many educated Roma people who have still maintained their culture, and are passionately working to change mindsets.  Two Roma people in the film, Georgi Parushev, and Dimitar (the heath care worker), serve as examples of this.  Parushev is a poet/author, and an outspoken activist on Roma Rights issues.  Dimitar works to educate Roma communities about health concerns.  Other great examples are the Romedia Foundation, the European Roma Rights Centre, and the Trust for Social Achievement.

ML: The point made by the man present at the meeting with the mayor of Lyulin is what hits the heart of the situation: without education in conjunction with a move to better accommodations, lasting change among the boxcar community would be impossible. The root of the problem is in the minds of the Roma people after generations of facing society's prejudice against them. What other initiatives did you see in place that were aimed at bringing an outside voice of hope coming in to reach the Roma?

KR: Through this entire experience I have come across many wonderful organizations who are working incredibly hard to help on both sides of this issue (a few mentioned above, and others on my website.  Some have specific focuses, such as early childhood education, political policies, and tolerance training.  The theme that I have heard from many of them, however, is that this problem is too large for NGO's to accomplish on their own.  Obviously the more there are, the better, but until systemic racism is truly punished, and the struggling Roma are shown that they will be welcomed into society instead of pushed father away, it will continue to be an uphill battle.  I believe that if there are more Roma families able to get education for their children, and more non-Roma Europeans teaching their children about tolerance, then perhaps in a few generations we will see a difference.  Currently, however, the tide is looking like it may go a more alarming direction.

ML: I found it interesting that the children were the ones still attempting to dream of something else, like becoming a dentist or learning karate. Stefka and others seemed to just want to live their lives with the space to do so, and something different for their kids but not for themselves. What did people around you talk about when it wasn't about the topic of the film? Did their everyday conversations reflect a mindset of helplessness?

KR: Like many children, I think these Roma kids weren't encumbered yet by the harsh realities of survival that their parents were.  Off camera, the adult conversations were very similar - they were frustrated, angry, and hopeless.  Their many years of getting doors slammed in their faces (literally and figuratively) had left them disillusioned, while the kids had yet to experience this for themselves.

ML: Have the Bulgarian authorities seen this film?

KR: We had a screening last fall in Sofia, and a few authorities attended with a positive response.  We are trying to set up additional screenings there in order to bring it to the attention of more people in places of influence throughout Bulgaria and Eastern Europe.

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To learn more about Kate and to follow the film, make sure to check out the website and Facebook page. Also, don't miss this fantastic interview with Kate on Eyes Opened. My deepest thanks again to Kate!

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