Foreign-Language Oscar Spotlight: Confronting the History of Gypsy Slavery in Romania's 'Aferim!'

AFERIM! Still 2 - H 2015
Silviu Ghetie/ Big World Productions

Director Radu Jude won the best director's honor in Berlin for his tale, dubbed a Romanian '12 Years a Slave.'

In choosing the history of gypsy slavery for his 19th century, black-and-white drama Aferim!, Romanian director Radu Jude was breaking a code of silence that had held in his country for decades over the subject.

"Although there are a few books on this phenomenon, although there are Gypsy slaves appearing here and there as episodic characters in some literary works we study in school, that isn't a topic which is publicly discussed," he tells The Hollywood Reporter.

In deciding to tell the story in the style of a Western, following a bounty hunter and his son as they set out to recapture a fugitive Roma slave, Jude also set himself the challenge of making a brutal and painful period in his country's past entertaining, at times even savagely funny.

Aferim! is the director's first period film, and Romania submitted it for the foreign-language Oscar race. Raising money for a period drama in Romania is no easy task, especially one that deals with an era most in the country would rather forget. Add to that the practical challenges: teaching the actors to ride and reconstructing the Roma language as it was spoken in the 19th century.

"We — me and (co-writer) Florin Lazarescu — ended up using a lot of literary texts and documents (to reconstruct the language)," he says. "We wanted to make it clear that there is no way of knowing exactly how this language was used by people in the 19th century."

The result: dialogue full of literary references, proverbs and archaic words, gives Aferim! an artificiality, something the director encouraged to create distance.

"I don’t shy away from this. It is a way to emphasize also the idea that a cinematic reconstruction is a very artificial thing," Jude explained. "There is nothing natural in cinema, everything is human thinking turned into images."

With the issue of contemporary anti-Roma racism in Eastern Europe still acute, the subject of Aferim! is as timely as ever.

"There’s no reason to make a historical film, book or essay if you don’t put it in relation with the present," Jude tells THR. "I believe there are many problems nowadays that come from the past, recent or more distant ... I believe that us Romanians should feel responsible for the dark side of our own history, like anyone else.”

Although well-received internationally and by local critics, historians and the majority of viewers, Jude says Romanian nationalists hated Aferim!, something the director admits gave him "a perverse pleasure."

He quoted a comment on the film's Facebook page calling Aferim! "a piece of shit" and wishing everyone who worked on the film to "die in a gutter." Jude just laughs.

The director also dismisses comparisons between his film and Steve McQueen's Oscar-winning 12 Years A Slave, noting that the script for Aferim! was written two years before 12 Years came out. Jude says he admires McQueen's skill as a director, but criticized the 2013 best picture winner as being "so stupidly didactic."

Asked about his own chances at the Oscars, Jude is more humble — and more cautious.

"Since no Romanian film has ever been nominated or has won before, I think it would mean a lot to my country to receive the recognition," the director says. "But there are many beautiful films in this competition, so I can’t really think about that yet."