Director: Michael Zomer
Running time: 11mins
The Romani are the largest ethnic minority in Europe. Having originated in Northwest India, they migrated through the Middle East, North Africa, and eventually to Europe. Of the global Romani population, it is estimated between 10 and 12 million live in Europe – where they have faced centuries of racist persecution.
Among the long list of wrongs done to the people, it is estimated more than 70% of the Romani were murdered during the holocaust, while anti-Roma bigotry is still the open preserve of Europe’s political elite. Hungary’s governing fascistic Fidesz Party is unsurprisingly the most infamous example of this – its co-founder Zsolt Bayer said in 2013 that a “significant part of the Roma” were “not fit to live among people” – but even in the supposedly more ‘enlightened’ parts of the continent, such bigotry is not uncommon. During the 2021 local elections in the UK, the Labour Party was pilloried for its distribution of racist leaflets, which assured voters the party was “dealing with Traveller incursions.”
I note all this because, as is noted multiple times in Michael Zomer’s documentary, Os ultimos negociantes de cavalos, the story of the Romani has been historically marginalised. At the same time, hurtful disinformation has been spread in place of the facts by landowners and the political class. Zomer’s camera focuses on one small group in Portugal, who all go by the family name Garcia, to try and address some of these.
Illustrating the myths surrounding the culture, there is the phrase “gypsy.” It is not addressed in the film but the term is a slur which is well avoided – originating apparently from white Europeans wrongly believing that the people originated from Egypt, due to their darker skin colour. As such, while the family repeatedly refer to themselves using the term, it is not a word that I will be using again in this review.
With so many misconceptions still clouding the world’s judgement of the Romani, then, Zomer’s attempt to show any unfiltered aspect of the Romani life is an honourable one – even though it is somewhat patchy in its execution. His cinematography gives us a gorgeously framed insight into the Garcias’ lives, without becoming obtrusive. Views of the group’s cart wheeling along lush, green country roads, or the smiling faces of their children illuminated by the flickering light of an open-air film-screening capture candid glimpses into their everyday routines, but the camera also waits patiently to be invited to show more personal details, such as the inside of a tent.
In this regard, Zomer executes exactly the level of caution necessary to tell this story. He does not treat the people in the camp as specimens to be poked and prodded at will – as so many anthropological filmmakers have done in the past – and instead works to level the playing-field. White documentarians often ignore the power and privilege their background affords them, and treat the world as their own backyard, but in doing so they end up producing self-fulfilling prophecies, where people either defer to the person who they believe could do them harm unless they meekly do as bidden, or respond angrily to the attitude of the filmmaker’s lack of respect.
Here, however, Zomer is apparently taken in by the Garcias for a short time. The older members of the group seem comfortable talking about their hopes and fears, on a personal and cultural basis, while the children are so calm around the camera, they treat it like a visitor their own age. At one point, they gather excitedly around Zomer’s lens before pulling it to their tents – keen to show it every detail in a way many of us did with our childhood bedrooms when we had guests.
As a result, Zomer’s portrait of ‘the last horse traders’ is warm, affectionate and relatable in a way that could have made the telling of the stories of the travellers really potent. Unfortunately, though, the film could do more to actually tell that story. For all the lovely slice-of-life insight we gain from the 11-minute runtime, it is unclear what the film or its subjects would like you to take away from it all.
For one thing, the history of the Romani is rushed through in a way that is quite disappointing. It is impossible to know for sure what the people in the film are knowledgeable about, or what they are willing to talk about, but from the footage we are shown, it does not appear as though Zomer tried to ask them to define their own story. There are no talking heads covering the origins of the Romani, no reflections on the horrors their people have endured since their arrival in Europe, and no comment on the external pressures which are still trying to extinguish the culture.
Instead, we get a relatively brisk opening monologue delivered by a narrator (Constanca Sardinha), which somewhat brushes over all of this. The space this information could have occupied is instead padded out with several meandering segments where elder Garcias speak about young people leaving their past behind. On more than one occasion, one in his sixties states that his grandchildren are not interested in horse trading, that they have cars instead, and that this will be the end of the culture he has kept alive.
Much like The Bronze Men of Cameroon, it is strange that this line of argument is repeated more than once, and that the filmmakers never look to push the matter further. If this is really the topic people want to talk about, why not pry further? At several points, the men who have lived this way the longest admit it is sometimes “sad” to live as they do, while one middle-aged woman says if she were a millionaire, she would happily leave nomadic life and its tents behind. If this is the case, what makes you upset to see the next generation moving on? What should they do instead? Is there a way of keeping the culture alive that doesn’t depend on living hand-to-mouth on a commodity fewer and fewer people need?
Mechanisation of farming is something that has made it much harder to make a living from the trading of horses – yet again this is something that we hear from the narrator, instead of the Garcias. On top of making it seem as though Zomer might not have asked all the questions he might to have the Romani tell their own story in their own words, this adds a layer of distance between the viewer and the people appearing onscreen – which is a great shame considering the good work of the director to break down barriers in the first place.
All this means that while the film does still perform one important function, it is a misfire on other fronts. I cannot state how important humanising the Romani to audiences who have feared or distrusted them is. Anti-Roma sentiment is on the rise once again, so that is an incredibly significant end in and of itself. Beyond that, though, once audiences are aware these are real human beings who they can empathise with, it is unclear what the film wants from us.
Should we be sad that age-old traditions are being lost due to economic and technological changes beyond the control of the Romani? Should we be hopeful that the new generation are adapting – and that the culture may live on while selling cars, the horses of the 21st century? Should we take any kind of action to fight the hate-mongering politicians still targeting these people? Or was this all just an exercise in modern historiography, preserving a moment in time on film without further implications?
This is a measured, technically polished attempt to tell the stories of one of Europe’s most marginalised and discriminated minorities – and its greatest victory is to show them for the vibrant, caring and relatable people that they are. With that being said, it is also a missed opportunity – as having that humanising foundation Os ultimos negociantes de cavalos does not push forth with any actionable purpose. There is a lot of potential here which demands fleshing out, and if the director feels he could revisit the topic in a longer format, with more space for building up contrasting narratives, I would wholeheartedly encourage him to do so – there is an incredible film there for the making.