‘Korkoro’ is one of my favourite films. Directed by Tony Gatlif, a French Algerian of Roma ethnicity, it came out in 2010 and is one of those World War Two films you may not have seen, but it is a real gem. It documents the rarely-mentioned topic of porajmos, the Romani holocaust.
It is set in France and is subtitled, and it features a performance by James Thierrée, whic h is astonishing and memorable for its skill and poignancy. The plot is simple: a Roma family travels through France, attempting to escape the Nazis who are occupying France in 1943.
The film is a sympathetic insight into the Roma lifestyle, with the musical backdrop you’d expect in this sort of film, composed by Tony Gatlif and Delphine Mantoulet.The film begins with thought-provoking images and music : we see a wooden fence with barbed wire stretched between it and each wire becomes a harp string and vibrates with a resonant note. The tune is uplifting and represents the strength and spirit of a culture which will never be extinguished, even though over 25,000 and possibly even 50,000 Romani people were victims of the holocaust.
The theme of a family is central to the storyline: they are private people who are symbiotic, loyal and sometimes too trusting but mostly they shun authority and gadjo rules, preferring to follow their own traditions without causing disruption. Their culture is sharply contrasted by the attitudes of others, some helpful, some who display vehement anti-ziganism, some who simply turn their backs. The family of 15 are on their way to harvest grapes, but a rule has been passed forbidding nomadic lifestyles, and they are vulnerable to persecution and danger.
Korkoro means freedom in Romani language. The freedom they seek at the beginning is the freedom to pursue their traditional way of life; by the end of the film, freedom takes on another meaning and it is Gatlif’s mission to present a story about the persecution of an irrepressible, proud people.
There are some memorable, touching scenes and well- drawn characters. Theodore (Marc Lavoine), who is the town mayor and the local vet, is attacked by a wild horse while trying to save another sick equine and the Roma family surround him and cure them both in a scene which is both humorous and touching. Lavoine’s character is a hero akin to Schindler as he attempts to save the Roma family, bravely handing over his estate as shelter.
The family are also helped by Resistance heroine and schoolteacher, Mademoiselle Lundi (Marie-Josee Croze) and there are fascinating scenes in the classroom. She insists on trying to educate the Roma children and the contrast of cultures is very evident in this environment, demonstrating the voluntary incarceration and rote learning which is an accepted and desirable part of mainstream education, in sharp contrast to the Roma children’s natural inquisitiveness, their freedom of spirit and their natural understanding of the physical world we live in.
The character of Taloche (James Thierrée ) is worthy of special mention. Taloche is a free spirit, a visionary who senses the surrounding evil and increasing danger; he is a man who has never grown up and his family respect him and he is accepted unquestioningly with enthusiasm and love and treated with dignity.
Thierrée’s performance is a triumph of clowning and physicality, of violin-playing virtuosity and mime: it is not surprising to discover that he is Charlie Chaplin’s grandson. His rapport with other characters is bitter-sweet: he fawns over Mademoiselle Lundi and hides an orphan child whom he protects and nurtures. His performance is astonishing in his ability to create a character which is credible, laudable and loveable, and he creates tragedy and comedy in a character which might otherwise have become a stereotype.
The music is uplifting and the sound track is a strong semiotic for audience reaction. The scene at the French dance where the Roma musicians play guitars and violins for the locals’ entertainment is evocative of Eugene Hutz’s lyrics in ‘Break the Spell’: ‘You love our music but you hate our guts.’ It is shortly after this celebration of culture that the family are impounded and, when one character asks why they are being taken away, the French guard replies ‘To rid the country of vermin.’
Korkoro is a feast of visual and musical delight and it is seldom predictable: it contains none of the ubiquitous sentimentality of some films which deal with this topic. We are presented with the family and it’s characters and we follow their lifestyle and treatment from the outside with curiosity and empathy.
The French countryside is stunning and as a audience we are very quickly at one with the nomadic lifestyle. We share their independence and we stand alongside all the characters; one moment we are riding a horse to frantic violin music, the next we are hiding under a wagon with a character who is half Jenische, who loathes himself for failing to kill a Frenchman who has betrayed his family.
It is an emotional, gripping and stirring story which is accessible and fast-paced. It is a commentary on the bravery of the French people against those who colluded with the Nazis but, above all, it is a celebration of a strong and independent culture whose integrity and survival is paramount.