The female Roma trailblazers shaping Romania’s cultural landscape

A group of pioneering Roma women are fighting centuries of exclusion to create space for representation in the arts.
Alina Serban in the 2019 movie "Gypsy Queen"

By Raluca Besliu

Raluca is a freelance reporter based in Belgium

11 Mar 2024

In the dimly lit corners of Romanian theatres and film studios, a struggle for visibility has long simmered. Once hidden in the shadows of stereotypical casting calls and systemic biases, Roma artists are now claiming the spotlight, guided primarily by the creative force of female Roma playwrights and filmmakers.

Mihaela Dragan is one of those trailblazers. In 2014, she dared to challenge the oppressive status quo when she co-founded Giuvlipen, Romania’s first feminist Roma theatre company. “The Romanian theatrical and film environments were not favourable to us. There was nothing representing us with dignity,” she told The Parliament.

Since its founding, Giuvlipen has tackled controversial subjects like the hyper-sexualisation of Roma women, the suffocating grip of structural racism, and the #MeToo movement in Romanian theatre and cinema. Not only has it offered a platform for Roma actors to shine, it has defiantly carved its place in the national theatre scene.

Excluded and marginalised

Alina Serban, a feminist Roma director, has used cinema to put forth equally ground-breaking work. In her short film I Matter, released in 2021, she portrays the gripping tale of a young Roma woman living in an orphanage and battling societal constraints to become an actress. Drawing considerably from her own childhood experiences, it is a searing indictment of a system that has excluded and marginalised Roma. Now, Serban is working on transforming this story into a feature film.

The reality is that Roma, although Romania’s second-largest minority, have long been denied their rightful space in the arts. This exclusion stems from a complex and painful history, marked by more than 500 years of slavery and mass atrocities during the Holocaust. Despite the weight of historical injustices and the persistence of prejudice, still largely unaddressed in Romanian society, artists like Dragan and Serban refuse to be silenced.

Through bold acts of self-representation, they are reclaiming narratives, memorialising forgotten histories and crafting innovative stories that breathe new life into Romania’s artistic landscape. Their art is not merely entertainment; it is a catalyst for societal transformation, daring society to confront deeply entrenched biases, amplify silenced voices and move towards a more inclusive future.

Challenging stereotypes and systemic injustice

“Film and theatre have played a very important role in creating, stabilising and proliferating stereotypes about Roma,” says Anna Mirga-Kruszelnicka, a Roma anthropologist who works with the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture (ERIAC). ERIAC is a transnational, European-level organisation based in Berlin that promotes the recognition of Roma arts and culture.

Mirga-Kruszelnicka highlights a century-long portrayal of Roma in two stereotypical ways: the romanticised image of mysterious, promiscuous and beautiful women and men, and demonisation as witches, thieves or impoverished and excluded individuals.

Films and plays are among the most powerful tools in anti-discrimination we have.

Taking the reins as storytellers, Romania’s rising female Roma artists are challenging and adding nuance to these one-dimensional narratives, while examining political issues of systemic injustice and discrimination.

“Films and plays are among the most powerful tools in anti-discrimination we have,” says Mirga-Kruszelnicka. “There is only so much you can achieve with studies and providing evidence. Telling Romanians they are racist does not make them less racist towards the Roma. The only way we can achieve this is to go beyond the cognitive to the emotional level.”

By placing Roma females at the heart of their narratives, these storytellers are not only breaking free from the confines of conventional roles but also inviting viewers to empathise with characters traditionally relegated to the sidelines, both on stage and in society. This shift in perspective encourages audiences to embrace an alternative viewpoint – one they may have never considered before.

For me, reclaiming Roma witchcraft is a feminist political act.

Dragan enjoys subverting Roma stereotypes. One that she has repeatedly confronted in her plays is that of the witch: an uneducated woman tied to the supernatural and disconnected from contemporary advancements. In Romacen – The Age of the Witch, she presents a futuristic tale of six cyber-witches who create a Utopian society that blends technology and magic power.

“For me, reclaiming Roma witchcraft is a feminist political act, something we should not be ashamed of. It is part of our culture and an act of resistance,” she tells The Parliament. “If we think about it, historically, witchcraft was a weapon to fight against rationality and slavery, which had concrete, sharp weapons. We people of colour did not have the same weapons, so we used this supernatural, less rational knowledge to fight back.”

Revisiting history

Roma artists also play a crucial role in memorialising their history, documenting and reinterpreting chapters that span from more distant events like slavery, the Holocaust and forced sterilisation of women to recent occurrences that are not yet fully fixed in Romanian society’s collective consciousness.

In her short film Letter of Forgiveness, inspired by a true story, Serban follows a 19th-century Roma slave’s fight to free her son from their owner. At that time, a ‘letter of forgiveness’ was the document that officially liberated Roma slaves.

Another Giuvlipen production, Who Killed Szomna Grancsa?, commemorates an event in Romania’s more recent history: a 17-year-old Roma girl’s death by suicide in 2007. Staged 10 years later, the play challenged the media portrayal at the time. The official account, in the press and other public discourse, attributed the girl’s suicide to her family’s decision to prevent her from attending school.

Giuvlipen’s play reenacted the tragic incident and presented multiple reasons – less visible and discussed – that could have influenced the girl’s decision. It explored the behaviour of the teacher and children at school who may have treated her inappropriately, the pervasive sense of Romaphobia in Romanian society, poverty and hardship, as well as broader discrimination against women in Romanian society.

By doing so, the play allowed its viewers to be “post-witnesses to this very traumatic event, seeing it not through the eyes of the authorities, of the media, of public opinion, but through those of Szomna Grancsa, who likely endured significant suffering before being compelled to commit suicide for reasons unknown to the authorities,” Maria Asavei, a professor at Charles University in Prague, Czechia, tells The Parliament.

Transforming audiences

While the play did not significantly shift overall public opinion, its impact occurred at the spectator level.

“It managed to foster communities of remembrance from the bottom up, within which the suicide of this teenager is now commemorated differently than the official narrative,” Asavei says. This gave rise to alternative pockets of memory within Romanian society, fostering a more nuanced understanding of Grancsa’s death.

That transformative effect extends to the Romanian intellectual and cultural elite, Asavei says. Female Roma artists are actively challenging the conventional perception of Roma women as exclusively “child-bearers, wives and fortune-tellers”, she says. Instead, they are positioning them as “professional and independent creators”, with a distinct voice and empowered presence.

Beyond the cultural elite, for both Dragan and Serban, Roma communities are a key audience. Giuvlipen held a tour of Roma communities each summer before the pandemic. “We played in the schoolyard, in a classroom, at the cultural centre – wherever we found a space,” Dragan says. “We need to increase Roma’s access to theatre and culture.”

After the pandemic, funds ran dry and it became difficult to continue. “Still, we collaborated with the National Centre for Roma Culture, which managed to take us to several communities,” she says.

Serban also offered her films for free in several locations. Letter of Forgiveness was presented in Roma communities, universities and schools. “I tried to bring my work to places where stories about Roma people are missing. I believe art should go everywhere,” she told Radio Europe Liberă.

A question of money

The fight for artistic expression extends beyond societal perceptions, however. Assembling cinematic and theatrical performances requires substantial funding.

“It’s very difficult to finance a film starring a Roma woman,” Serban says, adding that there is a need to ask “who has the opportunity to tell stories, who has the opportunity to receive funding for these kinds of stories? Then who provides access to these kinds of stories?”

The issue lies not in individual hurdles but in broader systemic challenges. “There are no specific programmes at the European level for Roma culture. This is problematic because the Creative Europe programmes are extremely competitive,” says ERIAC’s Mirga-Kruszelnicka.

Creative Europe is a community fund managed by the European Commission to support cultural and creative projects across the EU and beyond. “In the times where in Europe, all culture has significant budgetary cuts on the national level, that competition is even more radical,” she says.

Language barriers add another layer of complexity. Sorin Enus, coordinator of the Culture Subprogramme at the Creative Europe Desk Romania, says language can be a disadvantage for applicants from marginalised backgrounds. Although submissions in Romanian are accepted, he often advises applicants to opt for languages such as English or French to increase their chances.

“When an application is submitted in Romanian,” Enus explains, “the Commission’s translation services may have to render it into English, and there’s no guarantee that the translator will capture the essence of your message with full accuracy.”

All we are missing is our space. It is our right to have one.

Romanian MEP Ramona Strugariu of the Renew Europe Group emphasises the need for proactive measures at EU level. “Roma artists need dedicated funds and specific programmes,” she says. “Cultural recognition should be built through Roma narratives and promoting Roma role models.”

Dragan’s attempts to establish Romania’s first Roma state theatre capture the struggle for financial support and cultural recognition. “We are many Roma artists and have staged numerous performances,” she says. “All we are missing is our space. It is our right to have one.”

With appeals and petitions to the Ministry of Culture being met with silence and inaction, Dragan’s call for equality has a growing urgency. When Hungarian and Jewish minorities have state theatres, denying the same to Roma becomes not just an imbalance but a glaring injustice. Dragan’s fight is more than a campaign for a venue: it embodies the quest for dignity, inclusion and the rightful recognition of Roma artists’ contributions to the cultural tapestry of Romania and Europe.


Culture & Arts