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Traveller Education, 23:17-23 (1993)


Director: Bob Hoskins
Writers: Bob Hoskins & Nicole de Wilde
Handmade Films, Ltd., 102 mins.

Ian Hancock

According to the promotional literature, the film The Raggedy Rawney, directed and co‑authored by Bob Hoskins (who also stars as Darkie in the leading role) is about "a roving band of gypsies" who live on the fringes of an ongoing war in an unspecified country, presumably sometime during the 1940s to judge from the dress, cars, tanks and so on which appear in the film.

Bob Hoskins has acknowledged his own Romani ancestry in print more than once, and has indicated that the idea for the film was based upon a story told to him by his grandmother. One cannot help being reminded, however, of Righteous Price's own wartime experience well known among British Travellers, during which he managed to evade capture by dressing in women's clothing. A more accessible candidate for the character turns up in Jim Phelan's account of the "Raggady Rawnie" in his 1951 book Wagon Wheels, which tells of Zolian, the Polish‑born husband of Lilygay Lorreker, who was related to the Scampes) who evaded arrest for murder for ten years disguised as a mad woman following the First World War. But whatever his real inspiration, Mr. Hoskins clearly had a personal investment in bringing his tale to the public, and his sympathy for the Gypsy "band" is apparent throughout the film.  He is probably responsible for the appearance of Romanies in his later film Last Orders (2001).

The story involves Tom, a sixteen year old army recruit unable to deal with the horror of war, who blinds his commanding officer in the left eye and deserts his unit. In his flight, he stumbles across a small girl singing to herself in a barn and putting on her mother's lipstick and dressing in her clothes. The child draws Tom into her game, applying makeup (very badly) to his face and giving him a dress to wear. It is only after this that he discovers that all her family has been shot as traitors and are outside in the farmyard in various postures of bloody death. The child's mind has snapped, and Tom's own abhorrence is only reinforced. He continues his escape through the woods, eventually tripping over a teenage Gypsy girl Jessie who is squatting down to urinate behind a bush on the outskirts of an encampment. Immediately recognizing Tom to be a deserter from the army, she calms him, soothing him with a kiss, and apparently falls in love with him on the spot, possibly feeling some shared bond as outsider‑on‑the‑run. When later, now in makeup and frock, he makes his presence known to the Gypsies, they (unlike Jessie) are completely fooled by the disguise, and he is taken without question to be a rawney or "magic‑mad" woman. Their belief in this identity of Tom's, especially on the part of the girl's father Darkie, played by Bob Hoskins, leads to a succession of self‑fulfilling prophesies; he helps the men pick the winning horse at a horse‑race, and leads them to a secluded, run‑down farm where, after the farmer's initial hostility, they settle in, repair the buildings and vehicles, and develop a congenial relationship with the farmer and his wife, generously lubricated with the farmer's apple brandy.

Things are fine for a while, in fact an elaborate wedding takes place at the farm between one of the couples from the Romani group. Meanwhile, Tom and the girl are continuing to meet clandestinely, with her soon becoming pregnant. During one of their trysts, Jessie's mongoloid brother comes across the couple making love near a river, loses his temper and in a scuffle with Tom gets pushed into the water and drowns. To keep Tom's identity and responsibility for the pregnancy secret, Jessie tells her family that her dead brother is the baby's father, and that he drowned himself in shame. Her mother induces a delayed abortion which only happens after Jessie has run away and finds Tom. Tom had by this time been told to leave by the Travellers because he accidentally shot and killed one of a group of soldiers who had come across a couple from the group making love in the woods and who were taunting them, and who appeared to be about to kill them. Because the rest of the soldiers' company are now looking for them, the Gypsies have to pack up and get back on the road.

In a confrontation which takes place in the ruins of the farm, by this time burnt down and ransacked by the soldiers, the now exiled Tom kills the officer he blinded, and drives back to the Gypsies together with Jessie in the dead officer's car. The film ends with a vast army approaching from beyond the horizon, and the leaders deciding to save the children by putting them into some of the vehicles and having them drive away to the west, while those few who remain settle in with rifles, their trucks and waggons drawn into a circle, waiting to hold off the encroaching army.

Despite Mr. Hoskins' background, the film includes very little that is convincingly or even particularly Gypsy. Not a single word of Romani is spoken throughout, except for the one which occurs in the title, viz. "rawney," and this is incorrectly used to mean a "magic‑mad" witch. "Witch" in the same Romani dialect as the word rawney, whether mad or sane, is chovihawney or sometimes choovicon (and chohani or choha'i in other dialects). Rawney simply means "lady," and has the form rani or ra'i in other dialects. It is because the word has a specifically Romanichal (British Romani) form, and would not be pronounced with the ‑aw‑ vowel anywhere else but in the speech of English Gypsies, that we must conclude that the unspecified land is in fact England, and that the war was one in which the enemy had occupied that country. This being the case, the historical facts oblige us to rule out the Second World War. Furthermore, the officer whom Tom blinded and the company he deserted were British, and not part of the invading force, which is never encountered head‑on in the entire movie. This makes a point which Gypsies can identify with very well: even one's own troopsCor policeCare the enemy, if you're a Gypsy. They are periodically forced to hide their young men to prevent their being taken away by force to fight; at one point in the film, the soldiers steal some of their food supply; at another, in the scene in which Tom fatally shoots one of them, the soldiers are about to kill two of the Gypsies whom they encountered in the forest.

For someone not knowing anything about Gypsies beyond the literary stereotype, the film would not be a dissappointment. For one with some knowledge of Romani life and social behaviour, on the other hand, it is riddled with inaccuracies. The family itself is composed of individuals a couple of whom are obviously Gypsies (a number of Gypsies were hired to play in the film), but contained in addition several characters who, to judge by their dress, behaviour and physical appearance would have been more at home at Woodstock or a Renaissance fair. The idea that Gypsies consist of anyone who joins their ranks and wears shabby clothes or walks around clutching a violin is reinforced in the promotional blurb which speaks about Tom's "becoming one of them." Of course one cannot become an ethnic Gypsy any more than one can stop being one, despite the wishful exploits of various gypsilorist writers over time; Romani identity is inherited, not acquired.

The wedding scene, which included a procession along a huge phallus outlined on the ground with rocks painted white, and which included decidedly Celtic music played on decidedly Celtic instruments, and the young women lifting their skirts thigh‑high as they danced, were most un‑Romani, as was the keening as the body of the drowned brother was incinerated on a pyre. The discussion which took place about the girl's pregnancy, and of the abortion, and later on of the post‑partum blood she was losing, would certainly not have taken place in the way depicted in the film. The music, the abandon, the pagan rites, all successfully keep alive the romantic image of Gypsies most moviegoers have been weaned on. One might assume too, from the very short time it took for Jessie to develop a sexual relationship with the non‑Gypsy boy Tom, that Gypsy girls were promiscuous; like Carmen or Paprika, the gypsy girl of literature is a wanton, and the film does nothing to persuade the audience otherwise. Although the reality is quite different, those learning about Gypsies for the first time from this film would never be made aware of the high moral value placed on virginity in Gypsy society, or of the Romani pollution taboos which are a principal factor in keeping social interaction between Romani and non‑Romani to a minimum, and which would have made Jessie's liaison with Tom improbable. Even the possibility of incest is introduced, reminiscent of Peter Maas' King of the Gypsies, roundly condemned within the Romani community for its racist portrayal of Gypsy life.

It is possible that Bob Hoskins was aware of all of this, and knew that he was exploiting a stereotype. Indeed, it is difficult to believe otherwise given the amount of background research the production of a film usually demands, and Mr. Hoskins' evident sympathy for the characters and their life. We must ask, therefore, what his motivation was for not remaining more faithful to authentic Romani life. In Britain, there are various groups of Travellers besides Romanichals (although they are all referred to as "gipsies" in the media), and the scenes were more typically reminiscent of the non‑Romani Irish Travellers or the "New Age Gypsies" than of actual Romanichals. This is a point which has already been made by some other reviewers of this film, and it is a valid one; at least two of the reviewers referred to the entourage as " hippies".  More than anything, this reviewer was reminded of folk‑singer Donovan's heyday in the 1960s, when he cultivated the company of Gypsy Dave and promoted the image of an Arthurian bard or a Druid priest. The group is referred to as a "wandering band" in the promotional flyer, and refers to itself as a "tribe" in the film; that Gypsies travel in "wandering bands" has become cliché, and promotes the notion that Romani life has no direction or purpose. We don't hear of "bands" of English businessmen "wandering off" to their offices each morning.  The scenes in which the characters are blowing soap bubbles or picking daisies while a war is going on around them, add to this sense of childlike innocence and aimlessness.

One theme which threads its way through the story deals with a curse, another association found in the Gypsy stereotype. From the beginning, when Tom is told by a fellow soldier that anyone who deserts the army will be cursed and (we imagine) interprets the accidental murder as proof of this, to Darky's belief that he, and Jessie's mother, are cursed because of the pregnancy, the Gypsy Curse is acted out in each individual 1ife, though it adds nothing in itself to the story other than to reinforce a stereotype, and we are left thinking that the curse probably existed only in the minds of those who believed themselves to be its target.

One criticism which has been made is that the film lacks coherence,  that its symbolism is amorphous; but this may reflect a failing on the part of the reviewer rather than on that of The Raggedy Rawney. Like the excellent French film Les Princes, also produced by a Gypsy writerCTony GatlifCand dealing (in a much more harshly realistic way) with day‑to‑day Romani life, the message is clearer for those with a knowledge of Romani culture than for the uninitiated. Indeed, both of these films simply succeed in underscoring the stereotypes for the latter category of viewer, a point I find myself repeatedly coming back to in this review.

Another review of Raggedy Rawney says that it disappoints because it gives only "tantalizing glimpses of a world where madness, magic, the devil, and spirits of all descriptions are very much alive." Reviews of the earlier release Time of the Gypsies, produced by Emir Kusturica, say much the same thing; most of them spoke of the believability of the mystic, magic world of the Gypsy.

I question whether, for all their imagery and beauty, films such as these ultimately do our cause much good; for as long as our people are seen as fantasy characters living in a time outside of time, picking flowers while the bombs fall, then our real problems must fade into oblivion. In June 1990, The Evening Standard announced that "plans for a gipsy transit camp have been dropped because it would spoil the view from Windsor Castle," and "spoiling the view" from his office window at the Sony plant in Munich was the reason given by that company's president in 1988 which led to the forced relocation of a number of Romanies to a compound that used to be a Nazi concentration camp, and which is now a toxic waste dump. The village of Messing in Essex decided last year to abandon the construction of six pull‑ins at a Traveller reservation at Red House, in the event that American President George Bush might want to visit his ancestral home there whenever he came to England and be offended by the site of Gypsies. Bush has never been to Messing, and at time of writing, those Romanichal families are still looking for a place to stop. In the same county, as elsewhere in Britain, our people are the only ethnic minority whose numbers in a given area are restricted by the law of the land.

Already this year there have been two statements from public officials in England to destroy the Gypsy population by driving it into the sea. Apartheid, calls at the official level for mass extermination, these are the problems real Gypsies face in the real Gypsy world, and meanwhile the British Romani population's basic requirements for living take a back seat to the sensibilities of visitors to places such as Messing and Windsor Castle. Mr. Hoskins knows these things; perhaps he might be persuaded to produce another Gypsy film, this time depicting our real situation and struggle, and thereby bring the public to a proper awareness of the British Romani minority.