13 June 2024

Interview: Mira Erdevički on her heartening, hands-on portrait of Roma in UK

Denisa Gannon is the first Roma British lawyer, currently assisting migrating families in their civic integration. Petr Torák is an acclaimed police officer, with exceptional contribution to his community. Ondrej Oláh is a graduate of Babington Academy, taking his first steps into academic studies and assisting members of his community in their educational affiliation. The three of them got settled in the UK 20 years ago. Now, in the aftermath of Brexit and after the COVID outbreak, they are holding Mira Erdevicki’s camera, pointing at their lives. 

‘Leaving to Remain’ is an intimate profile of Roma people, spurting out of a community hardly ever represented. The first-person narrative and the self-directed footage only legitimatize the attempt to give space for having minority voices heard. It also verifies the possibility of a stable and prosperous life, even within an adopted home. This quality makes this documentary not only heart-warming and inviting for questions of identity and belonging in the rapidly changing European context, but also rare and thus inspiring for any ethnographic study. Yet, the three figures don’t shy away from the harsh realities still lurking in Roma communities; their stories quietly unravel around them, making their examples still exceptions. 

The director, Mira Erdevicki, gives a radical, hopeful image of the world to come for the Roma people. Solidarity and generosity are the underline characters of her story. Although, fighting within the ever-present hostility towards the Romani diaspora. One remark in passing: Roma people, Europe’s largest ethnic minority, are still holding the lead in receiving racial assaults and experiences of discrimination worldwide. 

Mira dedicated 30 years to studying the life of these communities. ‘Leaving to Remain’ is the closing piece of her trilogy. With applause for her work, we hosted her for a conversation on her final endeavour. 

Your film follows three exceptional cases from displaced communities. How did you meet with the characters? How did you become interested in the subject of displacement and migration, in particular in the UK?

This film is part of a trilogy. Every 10 years I do a film about Roma communities. I haven’t planned it like that, it started innocently in the 90s in Czech Republic and Slovakia. I first made the ‘Véra Bílá: Black and White in Colour’ film. It is a portrait of a Roma singer who became very popular in Europe; at a moment when a huge amount of Roma people from the Czech Republic and Slovakia migrated, trying to get a better education for their kids, because they were facing terrific segregation in education. That was my first connection. Then I did the second one, ‘Somewhere Better’, an epic story about a large Roma family who came to the UK as a last resort, travelling all around Europe trying to settle somewhere and failing all the way through. This one was really about asylum seekers. It really struck me because they all said they left for better education for their kids. And I wanted to see how these kids are doing 10 years later. They are the first generation of educated kids from a Roma community. I was really surprised to find out that these kids became scientists, artists, engineers, you name it! It was also clear that it was not only about education, but about the beauty of helping each other, with volunteering or charity work. Something one can learn while being in a school. The criteria to choose these three characters for ‘Leaving to Remain’ was based on who really helped the most in their community.

Your title suggests discomfort and dislocation, in the name of hope for belonging. As someone who has been observing these families closely for years, seeing their struggles and aspirations, how would you say moving communities such as Roma can find or create a social and working life, without the fear of discrimination?

The most important thing is having access to an inclusive system, especially an educational one. This is basically a primary human right. To be respected from the start of your life. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, they would have been sent to a special needs school, just because they are Roma. They would have been segregated, and deprived of having a proper education, and later on a proper job and a decent life. Besides that, you really need to have family support and proper income, access to jobs, and accommodation you can afford to pay. When all these can happen here in the UK, they suddenly live a better life. And they also contribute to the English society. In Europe, we fail with the Roma communities on a big scale. Statistically, an average Roma woman leaves 11 years less than a white European one. For men, I think it is 17 years less.

The case of the Babington Academy is a good example. When we started filming, they had 80 kids from the Czech Republic and Slovakia with Roma origins. So, when these kids arrived at the school, they would be settled straight away in classes and spread around to interact with other kids. But the school is also taking into consideration the housing conditions of these kids. They need, for example, a place to do their homework. The school stays connected with the parents as well. The difference between the Czech Republic and Slovakia education (I could also refer to the one from Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria) is that when a Roma kid doesn’t come to school, nobody really bothers to reach out to parents. But in Babington, if a kid doesn’t arrive at school, they will call or visit the parents immediately. In most cases, when these kids don’t attend school, the teachers discover that they cannot afford, for example, the bus ticket. So then the school will make sure that there is no practical barrier for the kids to attend. It is all about interaction and respect. We all do better if we are respected. Then, it is also important to have the opportunity to socialize after school.

We see your characters speaking to their camera or being filmed by their close ones. Quite an empowering narration.

The whole idea was quite tricky, but it was worth it. I belong to the classic cinema vérité. I finished the Prague Film School. I spend 5 years enjoying the privilege of working with directors of different styles. When I came to England, I really loved the free cinema movement. The work of Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz and all these extraordinary filmmakers. I really like their manifesto and attitude. I share the same values. So for this film, I had to start from that. Which required a huge amount of trust.

I needed to teach my characters the basics of film language; what close-ups, personal points of view, or holding a camera really mean. What they are actually filming, and how honest they can be. I did one-to-one workshops with them, that included directing, script writing, and camera. I didn’t want them to copy each other. I wanted them to let go and try. So we had a period of preparation for filming. That’s how we began. By the time they started filming for the documentary, I kind of knew about the locations, situations, and what we can really expect. They really tried hard to live their lives in front of the camera honestly. One of them actually managed to get a more concrete story on camera. I knew he could take it further, so I did more workshops and discussions with him. He is still my student, and now he is attending a film school.

Who do you think will be interested in the three stories of your film? Who do you hope will get to see it?

I think these characters are really positive role models, and through them, we can get rid of the negative stigma. So, I really wish that everybody can see it. Starting from secondary school kids to all the right and left politicians and all the kinds of people who are curious about rethinking equal rights and how we live in societies. People with progressive thinking in general. I think it can be an inspirational film, especially for those from a background with disadvantages. And I wish this film can have some impact. I hope that segregation in education will stop—especially in countries such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia which have a lot to offer. But it is also a beautiful film for everyone who would like to know a bit more about migrants.

Beyond filmmaking, your educational and professional background includes journalism. How do you perceive these two as different mediums?

I did journalism when I was very young, even before I went to the film academy. I was making money working on the radio. Documentary making and journalism are similar fields. But I think that with documentaries, you have more space and opportunities to spend more time with one subject and go much deeper. Plus, you have visual storytelling, and I prefer to tell my stories with moving pictures.

What comes next?

I want to keep working with real stories. It gives me huge pleasure. I feel blessed that I am around such an inspiring environment. Leicester is the most diverse city in the UK. I am now planning to make a fictional series based on real stories.

Leaving to Remain’ is in cinemas and on digital from 28 April, 2023.

2022, 92 mins | Dir: Mira Erdevicki | Produced by: PubRes (Slovakia), Spring Films (UK), Krutart (Czech Republic), Česká televize (Czech Television), and Rozhlas (Radio and Television Slovakia)

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