Disregard for the survival of Roma Gypsy culture has long typified public opinion in Europe. Even the “Decade of Roma Inclusion,” the campaign of several European countries to finally confront ostracizing anti-Roma policies, has done little beyond spread a relatively affluent layer of Roma lobbyists over their impoverished brethren. To reenergize the Roma rights movement, new forms of communication must be utilized to cultivate outside support for their grassroots efforts.
Documentary filmmaker Michael Jovic explored the continuing plight of the Roma Gypsies when he traveled to Bosnia to film his friend Zijo Ribic’s return to his childhood village, the site of his family’s massacre during the Bosnian war. As a child, Zijo witnessed the execution of every person in his village, an industrious community of Roma Gypsies, at the hands of rouge militia. Only by playing dead amongst the bodies of his parents and siblings did he escape the slaughter. As children, Michael Jovic and Zijo Ribic met at the rehabilitation clinic where 11-year-old Zijo had been sent after the slayings of his family. Michael’s mother, a UK national, was a volunteer at the clinic, and she and Michael both became family to Zijo. His story exemplifies the multitude of horrors inflicted upon the Roma during the Bosnian conflict. However, unlike the shocking majority of such brutalities, his case may finally see justice.
Jovic was already active in film production in the United Kingdom when he decided to alter his professional path and enroll in the New York Film Academy (NYFA) Documentary Film Program. He’d long mulled over the idea of retracing Zijo’s childhood journey in a film but had previously been unable to construct the visual story. Enrolling in film school was far from a necessary career move for Jovic, so his decision to attend NYFA was motivated strongly by his desire to capture his brother’s story.
Documentary film is a tremendously powerful tool for promoting humanitarian interests. By exploring an individual’s story and putting faces to headlines, documentary films are capable of enlivening an exhausted topic and making exceptional circumstances relatable. A film can contextualize casualty figures and evoke an emotional reaction that generalized news reports cannot. Andrea Swift, chair of NYFA’s Documentary Film Program and Michael Jovic’s advisor, explains, “The experiential nature of a character-driven documentary…creates a phenomena in which we find we suddenly care deeply about the plight of people we didn’t even know existed 90 minutes earlier.” Moving the public to identify with the victim or victimized group is the key to catalyzing social change, and the efforts towards gaining basic rights for the Roma could especially benefit from a cohesive, personal examination of their past and present struggles.
Defined by historically discriminatory policies and the apathy of regional governments, the oppression Romani people face today is just as evident in the political minefield transparently installed around them as it was in the nationalistic graffiti Jovic and his crew spotted while filming near Zijo’s home. Selective understanding of Roma Gypsy lifestyle has resulted in their repeated forced relocation and perpetual marginalization. Decades-long residents of a country will find themselves suddenly evicted from their homes, detained in migrant camps and deported to places where they are often equally unwelcome. Being constantly uprooted and thus blocked from applying for legitimate citizenship, the Roma have limited rights to public services throughout Europe, and education and healthcare are often out of their reach. They are politically cornered in destitution and then criticized for being unable to improve their state of living.
A reflection of the enduring indifference towards the wellbeing of the Roma, the main press never released an official estimate of Roma Gypsy casualties during the Bosnian war. Roma Gypsies were persecuted with the same aggression as other minorities, but until recently, there had still been no trials for crimes committed specifically against the Roma during the Bosnian war. The very few attempts to investigate the Roma experience during the war have produced mostly inconclusive casualty figures and prompted little effort to seek justice for them. The need for Roma representation appears with screaming clarity.
Though he’d heard the story 2nd-hand many times, it wasn’t until his trip to Bosnia that Michael Jovic learned from Zijo exactly what happened the day his home was attacked. Zijo left his last orphanage at the age of 18 and for years remained silent about the events that took place in his village when he was a child. Eventually, he opened up about his experiences to his cousin Fadil Ferhatovic, a successful businessperson in Bosnia. Fadil immediately threw his support behind his cousin. Demonstrating entrepreneurial zeal to mobilize a scattered people, Fadil established an organization to represent Roma Gypsies and began working to publicize the story. He put Zijo in contact with Natasa Kandic, a Serbian lawyer, whose help led to the discovery and arrest of his family’s murderers. At this time, the case has traveled to the highest courts in Belgrade, becoming one of very few anti-Roma war crimes to receive public attention. When the courts reconvene, Zijo will be called upon again to deliver testimony on behalf of his community, and Michael Jovic hopes to be there to document the next stage in his work.
Since Zijo and Fadil began promoting Roma rights awareness, several Roma women who were abducted and forced into marriage during the conflict have sought solace with Fadil’s organization and are now in the midst of a battle for justice that would have been impossible until very recently, justice still unattainable for many Roma victims of decades-old crimes.
Michael was always aware that Zijo’s story of survival was layered with importance and that the span of Zijo’s experiences makes his story especially illuminating. He witnessed some of the worst brutality brought against his people, but he and Fadil’s work has led to rare triumphs for the Roma. While racial hatred brought about the unthinkable violence against Zijo’s family and myriad others, it was a very diverse line of people that saved Zijo’s life and now work to win the Roma the support they deserve.
Jovic, himself half Serbian and half English, recognized the potential in Zijo and Fadil’s efforts in the various backgrounds of those who have helped them. The struggles of a Roma orphan inspired the help of a charitable group of British women, doctors and caretakers from Montenegro to Bosnia, a Serbian lawyer, a Roma businessman and a half-British, half-Serbian filmmaker, to mention just a few of the people who have fought for Zijo since his childhood. The dedication of this united front has brought about one of the first criminal prosecutions in response to violence against the Roma Gypsies during the Bosnian conflict. By introducing Zijo and his story through Zijo’s Journey, Jovic’s documentary film, others will have the opportunity to learn about the condition of the Roma Gypsies and lend their aid to the betterment of the people. The film is currently in post-production and will have its first screening on August 20th at the New York Film Academy.
 Europe’s Roma: Bottom of the heap. The Economist.
 Italy’s choice: risk from Roma vs Roma at risk. OpenDemocracy.
 The Forgotten Roma Victims of the Bosnian War. Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.
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