Stella came to France to try and save her
very ill husband. They come from the working class that post-communist
Romania no longer values and has left behind. Forced to beg in
order to survive, enduring endless waiting and hospitals, and
resigned to her fate, Stella fights back.
Christine André: What was the
starting point of your film?
Vanina Vignal: It is my connections with Romania, which go back
a long way. I’ve been going back and forth for the past
fifteen years, working on different jobs, and it has become my
second country. I then had the opportunity to work as assistant
to a director who was making a film about Romanies and French
institutions, which enabled me to go into the shantytowns in the
Parisian suburbs, and that’s where I met Stella.
How did Stella impose herself on you?
When I was working as the director’s assistant, I realized
that he was making a film that didn’t interest me at all.
I saw different things than the subjects he was treating, I wanted
to go in a different direction, and meeting Stella gave me the
idea to make this film. I understood that, thanks to her, I could
talk about these people that we very rarely actually meet because
I was lucky enough to come into her life at the right time: she
wanted to talk to someone from out of her environment and escape
a little from the “shantytown-husband-begging” circle.
She was very depressed with the way her life had turned and she
was in great need of a “friend”. Of course, the fact
that I speak Romanian made it easier.
Being Romanian, Stella and Marcel are
stigmatized as Romanies and beggars. How did you tackle that?
These people are very often stereotyped in films about Romanies,
or Gypsies. Apart from the film Caravane 55 (by Valérie
Mitteaux and Anna Pitoun), Romanies are crystallized in an extremely
negative image. However, I have met many Romanies from the working
class, who are not necessarily Gypsies, like Stella, and I’ve
seen people trying to make something of their lives, who dream
of settling down and integrating well in a country, though not
necessarily through deliberate choice but because they can’t
find work in their own country and emigration represents hope
of a better life. In my mind, they are economic immigrants like
so many others, no better and no worse. What is more, when Stella
arrived in France, she really believed she would find a job. She
worked for a while as a babysitter, paid cash in hand, she went
to the local job centre, tried to find work as a cleaning lady,
but people from shantytowns inspire fear: people think straight
away of the mafia and criminal rings. I wanted to film people
who live quiet lives, like children coming back from school, those
who stay in the background, avoiding stereotypes like thieving
Romanies or quaint Gypsy musicians. I didn’t want too many
characters present so that we could really get to know them. During
editing, we tried to translate what I had filmed as simply as
possible, without putting words in their mouths, and especially
without adding stylistic effects.
Is there a political dimension in your
I wanted to broach politics but keep it in the background. We
learn that Stella represents Eastern immigrants from the working
class. Many of these blue-collar workers still haven’t grasped
the meaning of the 1989 revolution, their world tumbled around
them and no one has explained the new rules to go by. This new
ultra liberal society doesn’t take care of Romanies, old-age
pensioners, the poor or the sick. Many people have been dumped
along the way and have no chance of finding work. In Romania,
one of the only unqualified jobs left is working in the fields,
paid just one or two euros a day. Gabi, Stella’s sister,
worked like that but she didn’t earn enough to feed her
three children. If she begs in Paris, she can get between two
and ten euros a day, and so feeding her family that has stayed
in Romania. Before making the film, I didn’t really understand
the nostalgia for the totalitarian communist period. But during
that period, every worker had a job, a roof over their heads,
holidays and a social position.
Throughout the film, we feel the complicity
between the two of you.
I spent a lot of time with her, both with and without the camera,
sharing such a lot. I wanted the spectators to meet Stella, Marcel
and all the others, just as I met them. I wanted to film them
in all their normality, in their humdrum everyday life. She grasped
the importance of my project and accepted to go along with it
because she considered me, above all, as a friend. She didn’t
really know what to expect but she didn’t try to control
her image. She trusted me.
How did you go about filming her begging,
which she quite simply analyses?
One day, when she was feeling really fed up, Stella talked to
me about begging. She was on her last legs, she was depressed,
and yet she talked about it in a way we never hear – without
moaning. The first time I saw her begging, it was very difficult.
But filming her wasn’t so difficult because it didn’t
bother her. She didn’t see begging as demeaning or shameful
as she wasn’t “stealing anybody’s bread”.
Also, in the film, we take the time to meet her first, especially
in the sequence where we see her getting ready, doing her hair,
doing herself up, before seeing her begging, or as she says: “working”.
There is a lot of waiting in your film:
the uncertain waiting whilst begging, waiting for treatment, as
if time is crumbling...
Yes, because that is what their life is like. I needed to show
that rhythm, which is not ours. It’s as if they drift through
time that they can’t master. During filming, I was in that
temporality, asking myself the same questions as them: will they
manage to get health treatment, will they be deported or succeed
in finding work, will I manage to finish the film, will they go
back to Romania...
There are moments where the rhythm is more upbeat and Stella is
almost cheerful, such as during the French lessons, where she
is quite alert, even mischievous.
Stella is desperate to have friends and be in a social context
with people. During the French lessons, she is no longer a beggar,
no longer an Eastern immigrant, but a student, a person in her
own right. As a result, she gets her energy back.
With their return to Romania, the rhythm
picks up. The journey’s sequence is very short and when
she arrives home, she resumes the rhythm of a normal life.
For her homecoming, we used a process of ellipses. The time given
over to the journey in the film was the right one from the editing
point of view. It was important to follow her back to Romania
to understand where she comes from socially. She goes back to
her small two-roomed apartment, her neighbours, her family, her
memories, and her environment. And that is where I finally saw
her photo album...
Right, tell me about the photo sequences...
When we look at her album, we see a whole chapter of her life
and her country’s history. I didn’t show them too
early on in the film as I didn’t want to make it too easy
for the spectators from the start in rendering Stella too nice.
I wanted to make the spectators work, confronting them with their
own prejudices and limits, before understanding her better. The
photos that take us back to Ceausescu’s era, when Stella
had stability and economic security are a way of rebuilding her
life story, and the life stories of so many Eastern immigrants...
Interview by Christine André,
for the Cinéma du réel 2007, international documentary
Interview made by students of the Master
2 Image et Société, University Evry Val d'Essonne,
France. The extracts from this film, made by Mickaël Dal
Pra, Jean-Baptiste Fribourg and Julie Verger, will shortly be
on line on this site.
Interview made by the French TV channel « TV
bruits », during the Résistances Festival, Foix,
France, july 2007-
See the video
Images: Hocine Kentaoui and Corentin Charpentier
Interview/editing: Corentin Charpentier Interview