A Roma Future through a Process of Decoloniality

Želimir Žilnik: Kenedi Goes Back Home (2003, Serbia and Montenegro, 75 min, DV, transfer to 35mm), video stills. Courtesy: Želimir Žilnik.

Helios F. Garcés, in his brilliant analysis published in Spanish in 2016, “El racismo antirom/antigitano y la opción decolonial”, which translates as “Anti-Roma/anti-Gypsy racism and the decolonial choice”, situates anti-Roma racism through a decolonial perspective at the very foundation on which modernity is built. The severe processes of racialisation have historically and materially displaced Roma from everywhere in the EU nation-states. As I argued in a text, in lieu of an artist statement:

My country Slovenia is a racist, turbo neoliberal necrocapitalist state that was once socialist, but this is history. Born in 1991, amid the breakdown of Yugoslavia, its birth was soon marked by the erasure (an act of an organized administrative genocide) of more than 25,000 people, mostly born in other republics of former Yugoslavia, from Slovenia’s registry of permanent residence. […] This was a sign of evident racial violence that will soon become grounds for further processes of anti-refugee policies, homotransphobia, antisemitism, Islamophobia, sexism, anti-Romaism, etc. Slovenia has cases of apparent demands for the lynching of families appertaining to the Roma community in Slovenia (the best known case is that of the Strojan family). [Gržinić 2020, 77]

Why and how? Already around 2010, increasingly visibly due to the economic crisis, Europe was heading toward necropolitics and necrocapitalism. At that point, refugees without citizenship found themselves constantly under the pressure of death: to die is their primary condition of existence. Why? Because necrocapitalism operates under necro, i.e., the Greek prefix meaning death. Thus, necrocapitalism functions via politics that govern over death and makes a surplus of profit via the instrumentalisation of death. Necro is not only Thanatos in opposition to Eros; the necro in necrocapitalism defines the neoliberal global capitalist regime presently implementing the machinery of war and destruction to make a profit.

During the period of post-socialism in the 1990s that was heavily pressed by the West to forget its socialist past (and to cut any relation with socialism), we recognise other important counter-positions. In ex-Yugoslavia: there was the LGBTQ+ movement that organised and critically intervened in Slovenia, and then the media technology and internet possibilities, which opened up production of independent projects that, during the Balkan wars in the 1990s, addressed important cultural and media reflections on the war.

On the other hand, the whole former East of Europe was blind to racism (though discrimination against Roma and minorities remains present until today). The reflection of colonialism was also distorted in the 1990s, and in contrast to the socialists’ anti-colonial support, hyper-nationalist stories of being colonised by totalitarianism and/or neighbouring socialist countries began to form public discourses. These ideological myths were amply supported by the West of Europe, which had engaged in a heavy “cleansing” of Eastern Europe’s territory of any reflection of socialism (that was seen as a direct enemy of capitalist exploitation), while invigorating the brutal neoliberal turbo-capitalist processes of wild privatisation and deregulation of the social and public systems, and turning a blind eye to discrimination based on gender, and of minorities. We witnessed violence of unbelievable proportions against the LGBTQ+ people in the former Eastern bloc, in the former Yugoslavia: beatings and killings, as well the negation of their basic human rights. To be precise, this was not about the “former West” being more civilised than the former East, but a process of new racialisation. In the meantime, the West included all those who were, until then, seen as the “Other”, who had been discriminated against in the past (white gays and lesbians, queer, but not trans*), to produce, on the other hand, at the same time, an endless list of new “Others” in the West: migrants, refugees, sans-papiers, people (including women) of colour from other parts of the world, and other religious backgrounds. Of course, the practices of inclusion in the West brought the danger of homo-normativity.

RomaMoMA asks for suggestions of a work of art to be included in a virtual collection of Roma art. I suggest including the film trilogy by Želimir Žilnik (born 1942 in Niš; currently living and working in Novi Sad, Serbia) – Kenedi Goes Back Home (2003), Kenedi, Lost and Found (2005), and Kenedi Is Getting Married (2007). Žilnik’s trilogy narrates and traces the forced repatriation of Roma families in 2002, following the end of the Balkan Wars in the former Yugoslavia, in Serbia. During the period of the Balkan Wars, the Roma suffered the most in the context of Serbia. In the war years of the 1990s, they fled to European countries. In Germany especially, they spent years, the children learning German, finishing school, being integrated. And in 2002, they found themselves in the severe inhumane police action, entrapped on the street, where they were taken away, and from work, from schools and from their homes, and forcibly brought back to Serbia. After making a series of highly successful films in Serbia in the 1990s, and exploring Europe’s new borders in his semi-documentary, Fortress Europe (2000), artist and writer Hito Steyerl (see Gržinić and Steyerl 2004) once again plumbs the democratic cruelties of an emerging Schengen state seeking to rid itself of refugees in Žilnik’s Kenedi Goes Back Home. Gržinić and Steyerl’s thoughts were formulated during an interview with Želimir Žilnik. The interview was commissioned by publisher Klaus Behnken for a book on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Oberhausen International Short Film Festival, but was ultimately not published. The interview was labelled “unsuitable” for the book, in a clear act of direct and pure censorship in 2004.

This first film in the Kenedi trilogy looks at the fate of Roma who, after spending up to 12 years in Germany, have been deported back to Serbia, a place that is no longer familiar to them, and where anti-Roma resentment denies them access to the most basic facilities. In early 2003, Žilnik suddenly learned by word of mouth that there were hundreds of Roma families in the Roma villages around the city (Novi Sad), whose children spoke only German.

Želimir Žilnik: Kenedi Goes Back Home (2003, Serbia and Montenegro, 75 min, DV, transfer to 35mm), video still. Courtesy: Želimir Žilnik.

Between 2002-2003, hundreds of Roma families were quietly and secretly deported from Germany back to Serbia, literally overnight, without any public debate. German police forces and special officers came in the night, ordering these families to take only the bare necessities with them, as they were taken immediately to the airport and deported to Serbia. Everything had to be left behind in Germany. In Serbia, these families have faced a great tragedy, as the younger generations spoke only German, and had learned all their life patterns and values in Germany. As of yet, there have been no critical or massive public reactions to this flagrant violation of basic human rights, either in Germany or Serbia. Žilnik has made a brilliant documentary that is a sharp and deadly dagger to the head of democratic processes and the struggle for the rights of civil society in Germany and in Serbia.

Žilnik’s work is not about music and love, but about prices, wages and court fees paid to bureaucratic structures to preserve the Roma’s basic rights. It is not only the content, but also the elaborate semi-fictional form of this film that offers a stark contrast to the humanitarian and voyeuristic politics of visibility that govern interventionist policies, as well as the aesthetics of a civil society that deports Roma on the one hand, and portrays them as helpless and pitiable victims on the other. In pre-war socialism, Roma were considered subhuman, vagabonds, uneducated and weak; it was the Occident that gave them shelter, placing them in their constructed and racialised subhumanity, and then kidnapping them after 12 years in Germany, to send them back to a country that many have no connection with.

Želimir Žilnik: Kenedi Goes Back Home (2003, Serbia and Montenegro, 75 min, DV, transfer to 35mm), video stills. Courtesy: Želimir Žilnik.

Through fictional additions to the documentary material on which the films are based, stigmatisation and non-acceptance of Roma identities, mechanisms of sexual exploitation, and the struggle between breaking out and appropriating different role expectations are addressed.

Želimir Žilnik: Kenedi Goes Back Home (2003, Serbia and Montenegro, 75 min, DV, transfer to 35mm), trailer. Courtesy: Želimir Žilnik, via doclisboafestival.

The story of decolonisation and Europe is rooted in the period after 1945, with decolonisation processes beginning in the aftermath of World War II. Relations between Europe’s colonial powers (including France and the United Kingdom, but also the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, and Portugal) and their colonies were transformed (Césaire 1972). In the aftermath of WWII, the Holocaust, and the destruction of Europe by Nazi Germany and its allies, the colonised populations were aware of the weakening influence of the colonial European powers, and encouraged by the creation of the United Nations. The first phase of decolonisation ran from 1945-1955, encompassing the Middle East, as well as Southeast Asia.

The second phase began after the conference of the Non-Aligned Movement in Bandung (West Java, Indonesia) in 1955, and primarily concerned North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. The Cold War (the period of geopolitical tension between the Soviet Union and the United States, and their respective allies, from 1947 until the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union) split Europe into Eastern and Western Europe. Socialist and communist countries supported the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles. The 1955 Bandung Conference, which brought together 29 delegates from African and Asian countries for the first time, paved the way for the process of decolonisation in Africa and the emergence of Third World states on the international stage (CVCE 2017).

The decolonisation movements impacted art, culture, and theory. Postcolonial, feminist, queer, and Marxist perspectives at that time led to the important movements of today’s transfeminism, Black thought and practices, and diaspora art.

The term postcolonial therefore denotes the period roughly after 1960, when many formerly colonised states had at least begun the decolonisation process. In the U.S. context, this period was linked to the aftermath of the African American civil rights movement, and questioned U.S. imperialism, as well. Though what became clear is that these processes compounded already colonial and heavily racialised discourses and practices. C. L. R. James’s The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938), Frantz Fanon’s Les Damnés de la terre (1961; The Wretched of the Earth), and Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (1983) – all (Cedric even anticipated the formation known as “racial capitalism”), with their monumental analysis, showed clearly that processes of dispossession of capitalism could not be understood without taking into account the processes of racialisation working hand in hand with class differentiation and gender discrimination.

In the decades that followed, postcolonial studies as a theoretical positioning initiated by Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy (in the UK) made visible the racist assumptions within the linear nature of historical development that granted historical agency to white, mostly male, Euro-American actors, while excluding Blacks and people of colour.

Around the end of the 1990s and beginning of the 2000s, the decolonial that was launched by Latin American theoreticians, as opposed to the previously described postcolonial and post-WWII decolonisation, brought the colonial matrix of power, or coloniality of power, to the centre stage. In 2017, Cetshwayo Zindabazezwe Mabhena vividly summarises:

A colonial power matrix is in place that functions through governments of the world, big businesses and other entities. The interconnectedness and networking of these organizations to make a world system is what is called the world order, how the world works. When he coined the term ‘coloniality of power’ in 2000 Peruvian sociologist Anibal Quijano did not really invent anything new but came up with a fresh way of understanding a colonial and imperial problem that had haunted thinkers and leaders of the Global South for centuries. By the coloniality of power and colonial power matrix decolonial theorists have come to mean the structures and institutions of power, control and hegemony that emerged with the modern world of colonialism starting in 1492 and are still at large. [Mabhena 2017]

I would like to emphasise a genealogy of racism, which bypasses individual racism, and which manifests itself in the form of insidious, visible and non-visible processes, procedures, and conditions that through the category of “race” produce systematic, permanent and unquestioned marginality, inequality and discrimination. Race is projected onto individuals only due to their skin colour, culture, or ethnic origins. The regime of whiteness is therefore privileged and unquestioned from the very outset, as “white” is seen as “colourless” and “neutral”. This genealogy of racism presents itself historically as scientific racism, institutional racism, social racism, and finally, as structural racism, operating on every level of capitalist societies. In this sense, the term racialisation designates and emphasises the very process of discrimination that is ideological, systemic, and material, and at work within different racisms. Farhad Dalal (2002, 27) stated that “racialization is the very complex and contradictory process through which groups come to be designated as being of a particular ‘race’ and on that basis subjected to differential and unequal treatment”.

When we talk about the processes of exploitation, deregulation, dispossession, and racialisation, we must do so in the historical context of western colonialism, as well as within the present colonial matrix of power. As revealed by Achille Mbembe in his book, Critique of Black Reason, many people, not just Black people, are in a situation of deprivation, subjugation, and exploitation. These are forces to think of a new condition people are subjected to in the world of global necrocapitalism, the condition of what Mbembe (2017, 6) calls “Becoming Black[s] of the world”. We might conclude with a rhetorical political utterance: Becoming the Roma of the world – but with an important addendum: not only victimised, but empowered.

As Helios F. Garcés (2016), himself Roma, and a brilliant analyst, demonstrates, the Roma need alliances, but the power of analysis is in their own hands, with their own artists, scientists, and a forensic strength to not allow things to continue as usual.

Works cited:
Césaire, Aimé, 1972. Discourse on Colonialism. [Translated by Joan Pinkham.] New York: Monthly Review Press. Originally published as Discours sur le colonialisme (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1955).
CVCE, 2017. “Introduction – Decolonisation: geopolitical issues and impact on the European integration process”. Last updated 1 March 2017. Accessed 30 June 2021. https://www.cvce.eu/en/education/unit-content/-/unit/dd10d6bf-e14d-40b5-9ee6-37f978c87a01/c73d4620-b964-4a67-ab1e-d2457898711d
Dalal, Farhad, 2002. Race, Colour and the Process of Racialization: New Perspectives from Group Analysis, Psychoanalysis, and Sociology. New York, NY: Brunner-Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203768679
Fanon, Frantz, 1961. Les Damnés de la terre. Paris: Editions François Maspero. Translated as Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1991).
Garcés, Helios F., 2016. “El racismo antirom/antigitano y la opción decolonial” [Anti-Roma/anti-Gypsy racism and the decolonial choice]. In: Tabula Rasa, no. 25, 225–251. http://www.scielo.org.co/pdf/tara/n25/1794-2489-tara-25-00225.pdf
Gržinić, Marina, 2020. “Statement”. In: Živo in mrtvo/Dead and Alive, edited by Vít Havránek, 77–82. Ljubljana: Museum of Modern Art, 2020. Exhibition catalogue, 9th Triennial of Contemporary Art, Museum of Modern Art, 10 October 2019 – 12 January 2020.
Gržinić, Marina, and Hito Steyerl, 2004. “An Interview with Žilnik”. In: “Technomythologies”, ed. Marina Gržinić. Special issue, ART-e-FACT: Strategies of Resistance, no. 3. http://artefact.mi2.hr/_a03/lang_en/art_zilnik_en.htm
James, C. L. R., 1938. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. New York: Dial Press.
Mabhena, Cetshwayo Zindabazezwe, 2017. “On the Colonial Matrix of Power”. In: The Sunday News, 6 August 2017. Accessed 30 June 2021. https://www.sundaynews.co.zw/on-the-colonial-matrix-of-power/
Mbembe, Achille, 2017. Critique of Black Reason. [Translated by Laurent Dubois.] Durham, NC: Duke University Press. https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822373230 Originally published as Critique de la Raison Nègre (Paris: Editions La Découverte, 2013).
Robinson, Cedric, 1983. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. London: Zed Press.
Žilnik, Želimir, dir. 2000. Trdnjava Evropa [Fortress Europe]. Ljubljana: Low Budget Production.
Žilnik, Želimir, dir. 2003. Kenedi se vraća kući [Kenedi Goes Back Home]. Novi Sad: Terra Film & Multiradio.
Žilnik, Želimir, dir. 2005. Gde je bio Kenedi 2 godine [Kenedi, Lost and Found]. Novi Sad: Terra Film.
Žilnik, Želimir, dir. 2007. Kenedi se ženi [Kenedi is Getting Married]. Novi Sad: Terra Film.

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