Life on the Edge | Looking for my Gypsy Roots

In Communist Hungary, many Roma, or ‘gypsy’, children were taken from their parents and brought up in grim state orphanages. Among them was Arpad Bogdan, whose experiences inspired his prize-winning feature film ‘Boldog új élet’ (Happy New Life). But Arpad still isn’t sure whether to embrace his gypsy roots, or whether he really belongs in the wider, globalized world. To help him decide, he sets out to try and find his family. In this extraordinary film from director, Antonia Meszaros, Arpad finally discovers the truth about his mother, brother and father… and finds himself asking whether even he has been affected by stereotypes of gypsy life. As his Dad says goodbye again, this time with an affectionate wave – should they keep in touch? Or is it better for everyone if Arpad finally breaks free from his Roma roots?

In communist Hungary, Roma (Gypsy) children were often taken from poor families. They were raised in grim state orphanages with hundreds of other children. They grew up with a double disadvantage – lacking a proper family, and being a ‘minority’ in the heart of a prosperous continent.

Among them was Arpad Bogdan, a young film director who turned his experiences into an award-winning feature film, Happy New Life. The dilemma Arpad faced was – Do you stick with your roots, or do you break out into the wider world?

‘When you get out from an orphanage you might know you are a Gypsy but you can’t really relate to that in a cultural sense because you don’t speak the language, you didn’t grow up in the community and you don’t share any of its values,’ he says. ‘Other Gypsies accept that, but you’ll never really belong with them’¦ or the Whites. You just get caught somewhere in between.’

positive discriminationAnd his very success has led to accusations of ‘positive discrimination’. When he goes to Radio C, the Gypsy radio station in Budapest he’s told that when he won several film awards in 2007, the cynics said he got them out of sympathy, because he happens to be a Gypsy. Arpad can answer that one: ‘Nobody cares at the international festivals whether you are a Gypsy or not. People see a film and they either like it or they don’t. I am proud of my work because it gives people an insight into a world that is mostly ignored.’

He decides to set out to try and find his family. He starts at the archives of the Child Protection Agency. Thanks to a recent change in the law everyone can now see their own file. At last he may have the chance to find out who his parents were and why he was taken from them.

But Miklos Radoszav from the Agency gives a warning: ‘There are very few success stories. I have to be frank about that. The distance is so great and the cultural gap so wide – so much time spent away from each other in very different environments – that these families can never really be reunited properly.’

Armed with a few names and dates, but not much more, Arpad goes back to the orphanage where he first stayed. It closed down a few years ago.

Orphanage records give some details of his family: ‘The father had been the only breadwinner in the family, and he was serving a prison sentence’¦ Domestic environment: cleanliness and personal hygiene in the family is unsatisfactory. The parents like a drink. They discipline their children by beating them.’

He goes to the village his family came from, but is told that his family no longer live there. But the mayor knows where his brother lives. And in the local archive he finds a disturbing account: ‘The mother has been obstructing the authorities by fleeing with three of her children to an unidentified location on May 28th 1979. One child, by the name of Arpad Bogdan, born on June 13th 1976 was left behind, locked in the store room. The mother has not visited him since. The child was eventually fed by the neighbours.’

LaszloEventually he meets his brother Laszlo – and then his father. His mother has died. Laszlo has vowed never to visit his mother’s grave. So Laszlo’s son, Gabor, takes Arpad to see it. Gabor says: ‘I was still little when she died, but I really loved my granny and she loved me.’

Arpad’s father, it turns out, has a new young wife and 40 dogs. He doesn’t see much of any of his nine children. He explains to Arpad that he was in prison six years, and that was when the family split up. ‘It all fell apart when I was put in prison. Your mother went to town, shacked up with someone. I found out about this and I handed in the divorce papers from my cell. Okay, I’m not saying I wasn’t at fault; it can’t all be one. I made mistakes and your mother has made mistakes too. Had I stayed at home, not been imprisoned, you would have stayed as well.’

Back in Budapest, Arpad reflects on the experience. ‘I expected a lot worse when I went to meet these people, my brother and my father. I was worried about finding much more deviant, marginalised creatures. But they ended up surprising me. In a way their lives are more rooted than mine is.’

Post-Communist Hungary and its Roma minority still need time to come to terms with each other. And so do Arpad and his Dad, but at least now they have the opportunity – if they want to take it.

TAGS: development people & communities

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