Remember when it was an endorsement of a film to advertise “It’s only a movie!”? The tagline was used for the 1972 horror (and horrific) Wes Craven film The Last House on the Left which advertised: To avoid fainting, keep repeating “It’s only a movie…It’s only a movie…” That was a film I wish I had never seen and the tagline was a useful mental exercise which I continued to use for films that push the boundaries of inhumanity; films filled with unimaginable cruelty, depravity and evil. For me, such unforgettable films began with Night of the Living Dead (1968)and include The Exorcist (1973) and end with Se7en (1995). Se7en was the last horror film I knowingly chose to see. Perhaps so because as a practicing lawyer, I took the execution of the lawyer in that film for greed a bit too personally despite the fact the story was not true.
Two films based on true stories reminded me of my old horror film mantra that it’s only movie but with a twist. I chose both films because they were dramas based on fact and the subject matter was of interest. In the film Mao’s Last Dancer, a child of farmers born into Mao Tse-Tung’s China becomes a ballet dancer. The story sounds more like the product of a good imagination. But the film is based on the autobiography of Li Cunxin and watching a young boy grow from an uncomfortable dancer into a breathtaking premier danseur was all the more exciting because this isn’t only a movie – it’s real life! And for me, real life can evoke much more emotion than when it’s only a movie, particularly when experiencing someone living the American dream.
The second film resonated given the current political climate in France concerning the expulsion of Roma from the country. In August of this year, a crackdown on Roma immigrants was ordered by President Nicolas Sarkozy and he sent scores of Roma back to Romania. The film Kokoro looks at a gypsy family returning to France in 1943 to work in a vineyard. The clothes, the music, and their culture are beautifully depicted and then contrasted with the ugly prejudice and mistreatment they suffered. A look at the past gives more meaning to the present because the story is drawn from real life and a history of abuse that the Roma have endured.
In 1943 during the Second World War, a Gypsy family of twenty men, women and children returned to a French town where they usually stopped for a few months of work in the vineyards. They are no longer welcome as before and there is a new law that prohibits them from being nomadic. Theodore, the town mayor, and Miss Lundi, the local school teacher try to help the family settle but they are all arrested and sent to an internment camp. Theodore gives the gypsies his old family home to live in so that they can be released from the camp. But the gypsies who love their freedom most still suffer prejudice from the locals, find they cannot stay there and try to return to Belgium. While travelling they are arrested again.
This film is based on testimony by historian Jaques Sigot about Taloche. Taloche was interned at Montreuil-Bellay until he was released after buying a small house through a notary. But he could not bear remaining in one place and after taking to the road to return to his country of origin, he was again arrested and then disappeared in Poland.
Director Tony Gatlif whose mother was Roma states: “It is important that those who don't know, learn that the Roma were deported in France and in the whole of Europe. It is important that the young come to know the Roma people from the inside. That they learn of the evil laws of 1912 (anthropometric identity cards) against the Tsiganes, and the Vichy laws which forbade nomadism on the national territory: those laws which led them to the Nazi extermination camps or into French camps, from which some did not get out until 1946.”