How to make a film in a Roma settlement – 15 lessons I learned

Shooting in places where people are poor is always a tightrope walk. For my documentary Angry Buddha I regularly visited a Roma settlement in the Hungarian village of Sajókaza during three years. It was one of the toughest and most rewarding experiences of my life. Here are 15 lessons I learned.

  1. Have time. People will trust you only when they see you come back.
  2. Don’t walk around alone. Find advocates. Local NGOs and respected elder community members can be good door-openers if they like you and feel that your intentions are good. In private houses, build a good relationship with the head of the family.
  3. Never underestimate people. They know media products dealing with poverty and misery, maybe even about their own community, and they are fed up with it. The know current stereotypes and narratives. In a miserable shack, in the middle of the night, a heavily drunk family father once asked me: What is your dramaturgy? He used this word, and he knew what he was talking about! Declare honestly who you are and what your aim is.
  4. Some people will hate you. No matter how noble your intentions might be. Live with it. Get out of these people’s way and work with those who are open.
  5. Speak people’s language. If you don’t, learn it. Even if you have an interpreter. Learn some words and start speaking right away. When people see you making a serious effort with their language, it will help you a lot.
  6. Take part in people’s lives whenever you have the opportunity. Eat, drink, cook, dance and chat with them. Play football with the kids. But remember that you will never be „one of them“, but only a sympathic guest from a different planet.
  7. Don’t take yourself too seriously. When kids start to make jokes about you and call you by respectless nicknames, it might be the first step of your integration. Having a good sense of humour can help you to cope with many tough situations.
  8. Be polite to other journalists and avoid them. If the community where try to work has already received many media people, it might be a good idea to go somewhere else.
  9. Resist the temptation to exploit the misery visually. Concentrate on what makes people proud. The kids, the little garden in front of the house or the local box club. Nobody wants to be protagonist of a heart-breaking documentary about misery and neglect. That doesn’t mean to sugarcoat thinks.
  10. Get rid of your guilt feelings. Of course, as a sensitive person you will feel uncomfortable or wonder how you deserve to have a good life while others suffer. Acting shy or showing guilt feelings is not a solution. Be friendly and confident. Realize why you are here and stand up for it.
  11. Give back. Little gifts, lifts in your car, lunch invitations or giving other practical help are a good way to give back without paying money. In Sajókaza we learned that many people like to have their picture taken if they get prints. We made a system out of it and gave out prints from our last visit whenever we came back. This gave us a good „excuse“ so visit people spontaneously and ask yout the news. Giving back means also: Share things about yourself. Your family, your love, you work. Let them interview you and learn to see yourself through their eyes.
  12. Reasons to pay money to protagonists: Money can motivate people to cooperate with you. It can also be a fair compensation for being filmed – especially when you ask people to do specific things for your film. After all, you make money or gain prestige with your film too. Why shouldn’t your protagonists have a benefit?
  13. Reasons NOT to pay protagonists: Money creates expectations. If you pay once, you always have to pay. You also might want to avoid that people cooperate because of the money. He who pays the piper calls the tune. You might prefer that your protagonists keep a certain independance. That is to say: that they always have the option to kick you out  without losing money. (For this reason we did not pay our protagonists in Sajókaza but found alternative ways to return the favour).
  14. When it comes to a conflict, be smart. Don’t be a hero. When it’s necessary, hit the road.
  15. You will face fights, difficulties, adversities. Don’t lose heart. The beauty about this kind of situations is that you cannot control everything. Even if it is tough: In places like a Roma settlement, you can feel very much alive and learn a lot about the world and yourself.

Angry Buddha
Theatrical Release in Austria, Hungary and Germany: 23 September 2016

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