Jasmine Dellal

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 July, 2007, 12:00am

Towards the end of When the Road Bends ... Tales of a Gypsy Caravan, Jasmine Dellal's documentary about an ensemble of Romany musicians and dancers on a world tour, the camera zooms in on a note that a a receptionist at an American hotel has written: 'Watch out for the Gypsy's [sic]. They barely speak English, and they are scary. They look at you kind of funny. I'm not sure what to think of them except, 'I'm scared.' Oh Jeezuz God save me from the Gypsy.'

The musicians who bring the note to Dellal's attention seem more amused than agitated. Given the long road they've travelled to attain recognition against all odds in their home countries, it's probably a minor irritant.

Life has been harder for some of the musicians than others. Esma Redzepova, the Macedonian singer known as the Queen of the Gypsies, has been a celebrity at home for more than four decades. By contrast, Romanian groups Fanfare Ciocarlia and Taraf de Haidouks suffered under the late dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu and the anti-Roma climate he encouraged.

Although there are odd moments of racism in Where the Road Bends, it largely shows the musicians being feted by audiences in Europe and North America. The Gypsy Caravan world tour has become an institution for Romany music since it began six years ago. Dellal interweaves images on tour with footage of the musicians at home (the film also features northern Indian combo Maharaja and Spain's Antonio El Pipa Flamenco Ensemble).

To see the musicians at work and at play on their home territory provides an additional perspective on a group who are celebrated by some concert-goers merely as cultural exotica. Dellal's exploration of Roma culture goes much deeper.

From the mid-1990s, she followed the Marks family in Washington state for five years as they attempted to rehabilitate their name after a run-in with police. The family sold second-hand cars and police suspected them of trading in stolen property. The Markses say police searched their homes, confiscated sacred objects and money, and humiliated the women with body-searches - all without a warrant.

The family accused the authorities of assuming they were guilty solely because of ethnicity. Dellal's documentary American Gypsy (1999) revealed how the Markses had been subjected to such discrimination from neighbours and authorities for decades.

By contrast, Where the Road Bends offers a more upbeat exploration of Roma culture, focusing on the performances and camaraderie among the groups. Even so, a sense of melancholy underlines the documentary - particularly in showing the abject poverty in Romania.

One of the Romanian musicians, Taraf's leader Nicolae Neascu, provides the documentary's most joyful and saddest moments: his humour at the start, and his well-attended funeral at the end.

Among the mourners is his granddaughter, already a budding violinist more than ready to step into his shoes and continue his legacy.

When the Road Bends ... Tales of a Gypsy Caravan, HK Arts Centre, tomorrow, Jul 15, Jul 17 and Jul 21