Film researcher Izabella Wodzka is seeking to deconstruct contemporary cinematic representations of Gypsy, Roma, Travellers. She focuses on Papusza (2013), a film that departs from Bronisława Wajs' life—the first female Roma poet to be published—, and which represents an attempt to decolonise the knowledge that is unevenly spread with regards to such meta categories.

“I thought that Eastern Europe was empty and grey.” These were the words of my Italian partner after his very first visit to Poland a couple of years ago. In defiance of this sad, yet persistent notion I have decided to devote my academic work to re-conceptualising the assumed meta categories of West and East, or the centre and its periphery. I aim to (at least partially) reposition the artistic and cinematic dialogue that has been so far concentrated mostly on the Global West/Western Europe and its culture, albeit with growing body of works including post-colonial and Third World countries and regions. With this in mind, I have begun my research journey into the field of Central and East European visual culture. 

Stories of displacement, migration, integration, and discrimination underpin many contemporary debates surrounding this part of Europe and its inhabitants. Landmark dates such as 1989, 2004, or the 2016 Brexit referendum are evoked when talking about the region, continuously bringing on the images of post-soviet spaces as recent creations, unexperienced and young democracies resting on the peripheries of the established world. The end of the Cold War meant not only the beginning of the neoliberal capitalist system in the region but also the challenge of conceptualising the void left by the First, Second, and Third World narratives. This is a process that is still very much happening to this day and only recently there has been a renewed interest in the previously neglected post-communist spaces in Europe. Especially in academia, many scholars and researchers are starting to note the stubborn use of binaries such as West and Oriental, West and post-colonial, or the Global North versus the Global South. While these are all valid and important epistemological categories, they do not always neatly apply to the local and historical specificities of Central and Eastern Europe, or as some call it ‘the semi-periphery of Europe.’ And so, my own approach to East European films is loosely guided by the decolonial option, a theoretical framework which I personally find extremely useful in conceptualising identities and their cinematic representations, especially in reference to the so-called peripheries and peripheral communities. 

Madina Tlostanova and Walter Mignolo provide a convincing theoretical approach to post-Soviet spaces and post-communist nations by repurposing the decolonial option (originally developed from a Latin American perspective) for the use in Central and Eastern European contexts—they challenge the matrix of Western European essentialism and cultural domination and the notion of backwardness often attached to the region, as well as any simple dichotomies.[1] They propose an epistemic shift in which the categories of margins and peripheries are brought back to the debate and no longer viewed as secondary in cultural importance and production vis-a-vis the centre. Simultaneously, I view contemporary films as products of many regional and cultural efforts, often crossing linguistic boundaries and national borders. Increasingly, European film productions are becoming transnational with funding often provided by diverse bodies and institutions, and the expansions of the European Union in the 2000s allowed for even more trans-border cooperation between various film and media industries.[2] Therefore, the concept of transnationality allows me, on the one hand, to look at cinema as a cooperative practice which is often hybrid and, on the other, to multiply, without making assumptions about its character guided by the film’s country of production.[3] The national cinema approach does not only lock in our understanding of nation and nationhood into narrow, limited spaces, but it also attaches labels that are at times more of a hindrance when trying to conceptualise/decolonise films. 

Viewed from the decolonial and transnational perspective, many previous attempts to depict Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller characters on screen are largely outdated and extremely orientalised in their scope. Celebrated directors, such as Tony Gatlif or Emir Kusturica, are being credited for bringing in the larger issue of these characters’ visibility to the forefront of public debates and are often portrayed as filmmakers who provided space for the marginalised people in European cinema. As much as I agree with the above, I would also like to point to the mostly stereotyped images these and other directors have contributed to cinema, with limited focus aimed at depicting only chosen aspects of “Gypsiness” like music, nomadism, or particular clothing style. The persistent cinematic trope of an exoticised, colourful Gypsy figure exists across the European continent and has been described and analysed by an array of academics and film critics.[4] There are, however, recent examples that testify to the changing attitudes in the industry, where the tendencies have started to shift from portraying Roma as colourful props to more nuanced representations, and there are many films from the region which are spearheading such paradigmatic changes. 

Papusza (2013) is certainly a representative example of this paradigmatic shift; the film was directed by Polish duo Joanna Kos-Krauze and the late Krzysztof Krauze, an established couple of writers and directors who have a long list of commercially and critically acclaimed productions to their credit. Their joint effort to produce Papusza, a semi-biographical film about Bronisława Wajs[5] (aka Papusza, meaning ‘doll’ in Polish Romani), the first female Roma poet to be published, is an adequate representation of how the decolonial approach can be utilised with regards to the topic of Polish Roma in cinema. As Tlostanova argues, “the decolonial option attempts not to ‘study colonialism’, but to decolonise knowledge, subjectivity, gender and sexuality, from a multiple border position.”[6] Following a similar undertaking, the Kos-Krauze duo tries to move away from the notions of victimisation and constant stereotyping and embrace new forms of representing the marginal and the peripheral. Below I outline what I believe to be the most significant elements of this decolonial attitude when it comes to the Polish Roma community, especially framed through the lived-in experiences of a Roma woman. 

Papusza, photograph from the archives of Tarnów Museum

The first and perhaps the most significant narrative device is the non-chronological approach to time—the film consists of several interwoven stories from various stages of Papusza’s life, from her birth through her adolescent marriage to her later life as a celebrated and then as a largely forgotten poet. While some critics have described it as confusing (see, for example, this Guardian review, which calls it “a story [that] might have worked better with a leaner, more direct approach. As it is, the film is a bit of a slog and bizarrely, given the subject matter, rather lacking in poetry”)[7], the cinematic representation successfully provides a purposefully disruptive experience that questions the conventional reading of time. While chronology and time as a systemised instrument play an important role in modern society (contemporary society has become metronomic), for most Roma people in Poland speaking Romani, time is a relative and abstract point of reference. As Papusza herself explains at some point in the film, there is no word for ‘tomorrow’ in Romani. This idea is poetically depicted through long static shots of Papusza and her tabor (Romani for ‘mobile company’) travelling through rural Polish landscapes at various times of the year. These takes are mostly long-distance wide-angle frames, impossible to pinpoint with no obvious temporal or spatial markers, and the non-diegetic Roma music provides an almost mythical canvas for depicted scenery. 

Roma tabor on the road, Papusza (2013)

Despite sometimes falling into overly nostalgic tones, these scenes give an important visual account of a nomadic tradition, now eradicated in most of Europe, which has traditionally constituted one of many identity-building stones for the gypsy, Roma, and travelling communities across the continent. Depictions of what is considered “east of the East”, in this case eastern regions of Poland, bring such previously unmapped territories into the collective imaginary of Europe, imbuing them with the sense of belonging to the European continent. It is particularly important to create discourses that will be inclusive of various identities and peoples as many academics until recently, and some even now, have questioned Eastern Europe’s right to be considered part of the European cultural continuum.[8] Eastern Europe’s geographical proximity to Asia and its peripheral position in regard to the assumed centre of the West has added to the popular image of the region as backward, lacking in cultural and economic resources and forever ‘catching up’ with the centre. 

Making a Roma woman the protagonist of the movie is another step towards Eastern Europe’s decolonisation, as well as towards moving away from patriarchal patterns of power that have permeated discussions surrounding regional identities. Since most of the European cultural oeuvre depicts female Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller characters as orientalised sexual objects (i.e. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Carmen opera and its spin-offs, and so on), it is at last a much welcome change of gender perspective where the main character is not only Roma but also female artist, poet, adoptive mother, friend, and wife. Eastern European women, especially those coming from non-mainstream societies, have often been considered by Western feminists as ‘backward, apathetic, and apolitical’,[9] offering a counter-hegemonic depiction, Papusza forms new ways of representing Eastern European womanhood. Papusza as a filmic character is not your usual sexualised, young Gypsy dancer, neither is she an old fortune teller with a crystal globe and a set of Tarot cards (although these do appear in the film). She is a fully fledged character in her own—she is persistent and coherent, she fights for her right to read and write despite her community’s mistrust of the written word. 

Papusza (2013) still. Directed and written by Joanna Kos-Krauze, Krzysztof Krauze

The film depicts the struggles linked to overcoming the traditional patriarchy-based organisation of Roma society in a frank manner. Papusza is expected to bear children and take care of the household chores, yet she persists in writing poetry and in attempting to publish it, paying the highest price for going against the tradition—she is declared ‘unclean’ and excluded from the Roma community. Her mental health declines and her last days are spent in isolation and poverty. These difficult terminal years of her life are not shown in the movie, which perhaps would have added an interesting and much needed link with the contemporary Roma situation in Poland. 

Nevertheless, creating a fully nuanced female Roma character immersed in lived-in reality undoubtedly adds to an ongoing process of decolonising Eastern European films and narratives from their Western baggage of associations: usually depicted as either orientalised fantasies or poverty-stricken post-socialist anti-utopias. By emphasising the multitude of ethnic, national, and social identities of the region, the directors steer away from the homogenising views that dominated the narratives during communism (nationalist politics of creating a socialist nation with one language, one culture, and one ethnicity) and which have increased their relevance in many post-communist states today. By inserting a profoundly female, non-Polish perspective in the film, the directors touch upon the controversial debate on nationality and citizenship, recently dominated by the rising wave of populist rhetoric that has swept through Europe. Realising that Central and Eastern Europe is much less of a solid block than is often depicted, the deconstruction of assumed identities and the overt acknowledgement of the plurality of ethnicities collectively bring forward a new voice to the established canon. 

While certainly some film scholars and critics will find fault with casting a white, ethnically Polish actor in the main role, I personally do not. Jowita Budnik did an excellent job portraying a complicated, often conflicted character of Papusza and the struggles she faced as a Roma woman. The supporting cast was drawn from the Roma community and most of the dialogues are in the Romani language, meaning that the Polish cast had to spend considerable time learning Roma language and customs. Additionally, the decision to use predominantly Romani in the film forces the presumed Polish speaking audience to disrupt their smooth cinematic experience by reading subtitles. It is worth noting that Papusza is the first non-fiction Polish film to feature a substantial amount of its spoken language in Romani, and one of very few movies to have any dialogue in a Gypsy, Roma, or Traveller vernacular. 

Jowita Budnik as Papusza, Papusza (2013)

In the margins-centre discourse, the decision to tell a story of a Roma woman in the Romani language marks a shift in the power dynamics that rule contemporary Poland: from the presumed centre (here the dominant Polish culture and language) towards the peripheries (the Roma culture and history). The shift is multi-layered and takes place on several planes. Spatially, the tabor is forcibly removed from its traditional itineraries in the Eastern Poland to the newly gained Western territories after World War Two as part of the communist government’s scheme of ‘Gypsy settlement’. The forced settlement scheme has been considered as a major contribution to the crumbling of the nomadic Roma lifestyle in Poland and its devastating effects on the community are partially depicted in the film. The communal housing provided to the Roma was of poor quality, often moulded or infested, the breakdown of traditional occupations resulted in high unemployment rates and a lack of sufficient efforts towards inclusivity resulted in low Roma participation in public life, including schooling or health care systems. The imagined superiority of settled life over a nomadic one and the supposedly prestigious movement form the East (peripheries) to the West (centre) proves in the film to be a mirage, with the anticipated qualities promised by a Western lifestyle never quite achieved in full. 

On the meta level, the entire film, from its production to its distribution, can be seen as means of decolonising Western attitudes to the East, understood both as the Western European gaze looking at the Central East Europe but also the smaller centres (like ethnic Poles) gazing at the marginalised groups (here, Roma). The narrative of Western supremacy is disrupted by the directors, and the idea of the West as a source of wealth, stability, and prosperity is being contested. In the words of Martin Lewis and Karen Wigan, the meta category of the West understood as the epicentre of education, culture, and progress, its imagined properties and qualities, and influence on the rest of the world, is reverted and resisted by telling a story of a Roma woman in a non-stereotypical way, using marked aesthetics, like black and white cinematography, and giving cinematic space to subjects traditionally regarded as peripheral.[10] If you get a chance to watch Papusza, do not hesitate a second and do not be put off by its slow pace—it is a film that captures your imagination and makes you question your assumptions about Gypsy, Roma, and Travellers in a poetic, non-Western way.


[1] Mignolo, W. & Tlostanova, M. (2008). The Logic of Coloniality and the Limits of Postcoloniality. In J. Hawley, & R. Krishnaswamy (Eds.), The Postcolonial and the Global (pp. 109-123). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

[2] And this is not to mention the influence of streaming platforms such as Netflix or Amazon Prime Video.

[3] Newman, K. (2009). Notes on transnational film theory: decentered subjectivity, decentered capitalism. In N. Durovicová, & K. Newman (Eds.), World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives (pp. 3-11). New York: Routledge.

[4] See for example Blasco, P. G. (2008). Picturing Gypsies. Third Text, 22(3), 297-303; Iordanova, D. (2008). Mimicry and Plagiarism: Reconciling Actual and Metaphoric Gypsies. Third Text, 22(3), 305-310; Andreescu, F. & Quinn, S. (2014). Gypsy fetish: music, dirt, magic, and freedom. Journal for Cultural Research, 18(4), 275-290.

[5] If you want to find out more about Papusza you can check out, for example, this website.

[6] Tlostanova, M. (2012). Postsocialist=/postcolonial? On post-soviet imaginary and global coloniality. Journal of Postcolonial Writing , 48(2), p.133.

[7] Wendy Ide (2016) Papusza review—striking portrait of a Polish-Roma poet. The Guardian, March 31.

[8] Longworth, P. (1992). The Making of Eastern Europe. Basingstoke : Macmillan.

[9] Suchland, J. (2011). Is Postsocialism Transnational? . Signs. Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 36(4), 837-862.

[10] Lewis, M. & Wigan, K. (1997). The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography. Berkley: University of California Press.

Izabella Wodzka is a second-year PhD student in Film Studies at University College London, where she conducts research on contemporary European cinema and the representations of Gypsy, Roma and Travellers (GRT), with special attention paid to Central and East European productions and how they compare to the West European ones. She is interested in the intersection between identity categories, such as gender, class, ethnicity, nationality or sexuality, and how they are depicted in various European post-1989 films that take on the GRT peoples as their protagonists. From a wider angle, Izabella Wodzka is trying to reposition the assumed marginality of East European cultural manifestations using postcolonial and decolonial theories alongside feminist ideas.