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Vol 2, No 41
27 November 2000
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Dignity in Diversity
Aleksandar Petrovic's Skupljaci perja (1967)
Skupljači perja: An old New Film

Aleksandar Petrović's neglected classic Skupljači perja
James Partridge


In 1967, when Skupljači perja was released, it attracted international acclaim and elevated the director, Aleksandar Petrović, to the first rank of European directors. The film was nominated for the Academy Award for best foreign film—actually won that year by Jiří Menzel's Ostře sledované vlaky (Closely Observed Trains)—and the same year it won the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. The following year it was nominated for a Golden Globe.

Mature master

Even before he achieved international success, Petrović was already considered to be one of the pre-eminent directors in Yugoslavia and was recognised as one of the founders of and a leading light in the Novi Film (New Film) movement that dominated Yugoslav cinema in the 1960s. His 1961 film Dvoje (Two) had paved the way for Novi Film, while Tri (Three, 1965) was widely seen as one of the most mature and accomplished films of the whole movement.

In fact, Petrović was one of three directors who effectively dominated Novi Film tendencies throughout the 1960s, the others being Živojin Pavlović and the much more well-known Dušan Makavejev, later to achieve international fame and some measure of lasting notoriety with his film WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1970).

The Novi Film movement did not have a specific program but can perhaps best be seen as one aspect of the major changes taking place in Yugoslav society during the 1960s. As society moved towards a greater level of democratisation and decentralisation, filmmakers too began to demand the right to greater individual artistic expression and more freedom from bureaucratic control.

They also wanted more leeway for experimentation with the form of film and in particular they wanted to be able to address the more negative aspects of their society and of human existence in general. Nevertheless, these goals were still to be realised within the context of a Socialist state, and not in opposition to it. One might look at this as an early expression of the famous "Socialism with a human face" that the Czechs were to make their own in 1968.

Roma romp

Skupljači perja (literally "The Feather Buyer" but more usually—and with far less elegance—translated into English as I Even Met Happy Gypsies, a reference to a line one line from a Romany song, "Djelem djelem," that we hear several times during the film) is set in the Vojvodina region of Northern Serbia—an area of great ethnic diversity. Serbs, Hungarians, Slovaks, Slovenes and others all live alongside each other, and on the margins of all these communities live the Roma, who are the real subject of the film.

The central character, Bora, (played by "the Yugoslav heart-throb" Bekim Fehmiu) is the feather buyer of the title. Bora, a Rom, lives in the town of Sombor (northeast of Novi Sad, close to the border with Hungary) and trades in goose feathers. He has divided up the territory with his main rival Mirta (Velmie Živojinović). Bora is married, with a small posse of children, but spends most of his free time drinking, making love to other women (notably the Romany singer Lenka, played by Olivera Vučo) gambling and generally leading a virile and macho lifestyle.

Bora is also, however, in love with his rival Mirta's ward Tisa (actually the daughter by another marriage of Mirta's first wife), and he is determined to have her at any cost. Mirta is equally determined to prevent this, not because of any paternal feelings towards Tisa but because he wants her for himself. To
Aleksandar Petrovic's Skupljaci perja (1967)
A slice of life
this end he first marries her off to a 12-year-old boy and then, after Tisa has thrown the boy out of her bed in disgust, attempts to rape her.

She escapes, fleeing to Lenka's house. The singer advises her to go to Belgrade and gives Tisa the address of her son, who is apparently making a fine living from singing. Tisa still isn't ready to go to Belgrade but she does leave the town to hide from Mirta. Bora soon catches up with her. The two declare their passion for each other and set off to the local priest (from whom Bora has recently bought all the feathers from the mattresses of all the deceased or departed brothers in the local monastery) to be married.

Bora brings Tisa home to his other wife and children and they live together for a short time in a kind of state of uneasy truce. Eventually, however, while Bora is away, his first wife persuades Tisa that she should go to Belgrade and earn good money as a singer. This time Tisa decides to go, attracted, no doubt, by the exotic scenes she sees on the television of Belgrade teenagers dancing to rock'n'roll music and riding scooters.

Tisa makes it to Belgrade where she finds Lenka's crippled son living in the appalling squalor of the Romany slums, singing and begging for coins. Disillusioned, she sets off to hitchhike home. She is picked up by two Hungarian lorry drivers, one of whom is funny and charming, while the other, after she refuses his advances, beats her up and throws her into the back of the (refrigerated) lorry. As they pass through Sombor, they throw the barely conscious Tisa out of the lorry and into a muddy field. She is found by a passing Rom, who takes her back to Mirta.

In the meantime, Bora has followed Tisa to Belgrade and back again. Now he comes to Mirta to claim Tisa back again and the two men fight in a storeroom full of feathers. Both disappear into the mounds of feathers but only Bora emerges, wiping his knife clean of Mirta's blood. He takes Mirta's body and shoves it under the ice of a frozen lake.

The body eventually surfaces and the film finishes with scenes of the police conducting a door-to-door search for Bora, questioning all the Roma as to his and Tisa's whereabouts. Unsurprisingly, they are met with a wall of silence.

The realist touch

Such a brief synopsis of the story of Skupljači perja does little to convey the richness of this magnificent film.[1] Take the characterisation, for instance. Bekim Fehmiu (Bora) is one of the few professional actors that Petrović uses; all of the extras and a few of the more prominent characters (in particular Tisa, played in her screen debut by Gordana Jovanović) are drawn from the real Vojvodina Roma.

As a result, the film feels at times more like a documentary, although this is never allowed to overpower the central story or to turn the film into a lecture on the customs and habits of the people it portrays. Fehmiu himself delivers a blistering performance. Bora is aggressively macho, capable of viciousness and cruelty (during the film he beats up both his wife and Lenka the singer, as well as murdering Mirta), and a relentless and hard bargainer when it comes to his business.

But Bora's character is much more complex that this might suggest. His passion for Tisa is quite genuine—so much so that he is even prepared to break with the Romany custom of civil marriage (or "marrying in the street," as the local priest Father Pavle puts it) and go to church to have his union with Tisa blessed. Naturally, he looks on the ceremony as a bit of a joke, but he goes through with it anyway and appears to take his vows quite seriously—more so than he did with his first wife, anyway. In a certain sense he is too obsessed with Tisa, almost wanting to imprison her in his passion for her.

A celebration of freedom

So the womanising and faithless Bora refuses to abandon Tisa and is prepared to murder to protect her and keep her. We see another side of his character in a scene which is, perhaps, one of the key moments in the whole film. Bora has struck an excellent bargain and is returning home with a lorry load of feathers in sacks. In an idle moment he slits one of the sacks with his knife and watches as the feathers blow out of the back of the lorry and onto the road.

Bora is fascinated and delighted by this and rips open sack after sack until the air is full of goosefeathers. This is the same man who earlier was trying to buy geese from the family of a recently deceased Slovak farmer even as they were carrying his coffin to the grave. He is totally dependent on his feather business and yet he throws away sacks of feathers for no apparent reason.

Later, when he is questioned in court about his "littering of the public highway" he explains that he opened the sacks because the feathers "flew away, like birds"—something he is quick to point out that the judge will never understand because he is not a Rom.

At every turn we see more aspects of Bora's character, such as the way he gently and lovingly takes one of his children out of his wife's arms before beating her up, and how he later plays happily with his children at home. Daniel Goulding writes about Bora that his "virile and passionate spirit beats and rattles against the cages of his confinement. He wants to feel sensibly the pain and joy of freedom."[2] Bekim Fehmiu captures this spirit to perfection.

Other characters in the film impress almost as much. Some light relief is provided by the delightful Father Pavle (Mija Aleksić), who is in some ways a pragmatic and ironical man of the world, but who also is kindly and at heart genuinely tries to practice what he preaches. He provides a strong contrast to the cold and heartless nun (Rahela Ferari) who refuses to christen or even bury a dead newborn until Bora threatens to stop doing business with her.

It is very noticeable how Petrović resolutely refuses to take up any kind of ideological stance towards these two contrasting clerics as one might expect. Just as with the Roma in the film, he is concerned with their qualities as human beings before their qualities as representatives of any particular race or religion. This is a film wonderfully free of prejudice of any kind.

An aural feast

The characterisation is not the only aspect of the film that impresses. From the beginning, Romany music and song accompanies the story and plays almost an equal role to the dialogue. Some of these songs are sung by Olivera Vučo—the actress who plays Lenka and who was in real life an accomplished singer of Romany and folk songs—while the others are just sung by the Roma in the film. Whether sung professionally or simply, the music is fabulous, and the film is unimaginable without it.

Aleksandar Petrovic's Skupljaci perja (1967)
Bleak and muddy landscapes

Similarly, Tomislav Pinter's cinematography adds greatly to the mood of Skupljači perja. Almost the whole film is shot in a kind of sickly and drab grey-yellow light, rather reminiscent of that used some two decades later by Krzysztof Kieślowski in Krótki film o zabijaniu (A Short Film about Killing). This light perfectly suits the dreary, flat, rainy and muddy landscape of this part of Vojvodina (see stills from the film). Only occasionally are there moments of colour: a Romany wedding, for instance, or the villagers dancing in the streets.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about the film, and certainly something that can't have pleased the Yugoslav authorities although it is very much in keeping with the ideas behind Novi Film, is the desperate poverty and brutally primitive living conditions of the Roma. Sombor is pretty grim in this respect, but the shanty town on the edge of Belgrade is far worse. It is just as bad as anything in Mexico City or Calcutta, and absolutely not what we expect from a European city, let alone one that was supposed to be basking in the benefits of Socialism.

Also worthy of mention is the language of the film. Primarily, the characters speak Romany, but we also hear Serbian, Hungarian and Slovak; the ethnic diversity of Vojvodina is, naturally enough, reflected in its languages. This too adds another layer of richness to the film in much the same way the music does.

Vanishing from film memory?

Petrović's films do seem to have been largely forgotten now, and this seems to me to be a great tragedy. There is little information available about him and what there is needs to be taken with a whole handful of salt. A case in point is the description of the film given on the All Movie Guide website and reproduced in several other locations. The author of the piece, Hal Erickson, has misunderstood the movie so completely that his review cannot go unchallenged:

The Yugoslavian leading man Bekim Fehmiu plays a charismatic but mean-spirited gypsy, married to the submissive woman (Olivera Vučo). The gypsy couple's various escapades end up in a desperate flight from the law... The film was shot in a near-extinct Gypsy language called Romany, requiring the film to carry subtitles even when released in Yugoslavia.

Evidently, when Hal Erickson saw the film it had no subtitles at all. Bora isn't mean-spirited, and he certainly isn't married to Olivera Vučo's character,
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Lenka the Romany singer. They don't have any escapades together and there is no "desperate flight from the law." And the idea that Romany is a "near-extinct" language is strange, to put it mildly. I have quoted this not to be sarcastic but rather to lament the fact that such a magnificent film by such an accomplished director can been reduced to such a dismal level. As far as I have been able to find out, the film is not even available on video.

In Skupljači perja, Petrović shows us the real lives of Yugoslav Roma without idealising them in any way or showing the tiniest trace of romanticism. This is a grim and brutal life, but it also has its moments of passion and music, and the people themselves have a dignity and presence that we cannot help but respect, even if it is often difficult for an outsider to admire or comprehend. Perhaps, this is one of the best films about the Roma ever made, and, in my judgement, it is a true masterpiece of cinema.

James Partridge, 27 November 2000

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1. Daniel Goulding provides a much more detailed synopsis of the plot of Skupljači perja and an analysis of the film in his invaluable book Liberated Cinema: The Yugoslav Experience. Sadly, this book is now out of print, although copies can still be found in second-hand bookstores. I am indebted to Goulding's book for some of the information in this review and for the stills from the film that accompany the review.

2. Ibid, p 129.


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