Franciska Farkas in Three Thousand Numbered Pieces (dir. Ádám Császi, 2022)
Anti-Roma racism is one of Europe’s most neglected ills. Prejudice against Roma (and Sinti) populations is deeply entrenched in the politics and culture of much of the continent, and in countries where right-wing authoritarianism has taken hold of the electoral process – Viktor Orbán’s Hungary chief amongst them, but also Czechia and Slovakia in recent years – this racism has been made a core part of popular political platforms. Culture has played its part, too. Roma people – often labelled with the reductive, offensive term “gypsy” – are to this day often presented in stereotypical depictions that stress their poverty, anarchy, and uncleanliness. When it comes to the politics of representation, Roma are often caught between the outright opprobrium of the right, and the well-meaning but deleterious attention of liberals who mistake “non-judgemental” reflections on Roma life for solidarity.
A reckoning with this flawed cultural economy is the premise for Three Thousand Numbered Pieces, the latest feature from Hungarian director Ádám Császi. The film is adapted from a theatre piece that played to sold-out crowds in Budapest, titled Gypsy Hungarian. The result of an initiative conceived by Roma social worker Kristóf Horváth, the play was derived from a programme that aimed to engage marginalised Roma youth through performance art training, and saw performers use their real biographies as the raw material to confront negative stereotypes. Originally brought onto the project in an educational role, Császi has worked with the group for ten years. For the film version, he transposes the action to Berlin, where a similar play is set to be performed at the prestigious Deutsches Theater (the original troupe really did perform Gypsy Hungarian in Berlin in 2019). The film is primarily concerned with the tensions between the Roma actors and their non-Roma director.
Császi’s debut, Land of Storms, was lauded as Hungary’s first “coming out film” when it premiered at the Berlinale in 2014. At home, the film landed him with an unofficial “ban” on filmmaking that lasted for five years, being denied funding and facing calls to recut Three Thousand Numbered Pieces to remove perceived provocations. The new film leans into cinema’s capacity for ever-spiralling artifice, deploying a dizzying array of camera movements, fourth wall breaks, oddball cameos (including Wieland Speck, director of the Berlinale’s Panorama bracket), and musical cues in an assault on mainstream notions of allyship and representational politics. We spoke with the director ahead of the film’s screening at FilmFestival Cottbus to try and get to the heart of the film’s pointed and self-reflective critique.
Three Thousand Numbered Pieces (dir. Ádám Császi, 2022)
Could you tell us about the play that this film was adapted from, your experience with it, and the decision to turn it into a film? How was the original cast involved in that process?
The play grew out of my six-year collaboration with Tudás Hatalom (Knowledge Power), a Roma initiative for theatre art education for Roma youth. It started out as a biography writing exercise that I conducted with the troupe that was moulded into a performance tackling the issue of Roma self-representation. The text was written by them, with me serving as script advisor. We wanted to make theatre that disrupts reactions of pity and compassion and instead confronts a sympathising white intellectual audience with their own racism. The film, on the other hand, also reflects on my role in the process: it analyses white-Roma interactions along the lines of white guilt and “white saviourism”. The film is not a direct adaption of the play: both works concern themselves with whether it is possible to narrate tales of trauma in an authentic way, without turning them into emotional pornography, but the film also tackles the role and responsibility of woke white gatekeepers.
Why did you employ the cinematographic means you did – such as long, fluid shots and hidden scene changes – as part of this process of adaptation?
One of the key mechanics of the script is fragmentation: of story, characters, tone of voice, time, and place. Long takes give an illusion of cohesion and epic storytelling – they’re a means of tricking the audience so they think they see one unified story instead of slivers. They also give a narrative verve to the film: they put the audience within the same time and space as the characters and provoke identification.
I wanted to make a film that watches you at the same time as you watch it... The Roma gaze is turned on whites to make generalisations about them, making them experience what bias feels like
I think most of our audience in the UK and the US won’t be fully aware of the nature of anti-Roma racism in Central and Eastern Europe – its history, its ongoing prevalence, its role in contemporary politics, and so on – and within that, how pointed the question of representation has historically been. Broadly speaking, how do you reckon with that history when you’re working with Roma people and their material? The (non-Roma) director in the film claims that his play is not “about” Roma, but rather about the audience who consumes it. Is that partly the thinking behind the film?
Yes. It was never my intention to direct the film as an authentic Roma representation. I wanted to make a film that watches you at the same time as you watch it. The Roma people in it watch you, and presume that you’re white – and, thus, racist. As much as Roma people are humiliated by a system of white representations, now the Roma gaze is turned on whites to make generalisations about them, making them experience what bias feels like.
Following on from this: a lot of the discourse within the film centres around the idea of responsibility, both personal and collective/social: the director continually asks his cast to accept responsibility for their situations, and the play poses the question of who is “to blame” for the issues its characters face. As one character, Szintia, says: “I wanted to be born a Roma, so I always have an excuse.” How do you understand the idea of artistic responsibility as it relates to the film?
The responsibilities I see are moral, rather than artistic. White people need to be aware of their privilege and bias, they need to give respect. We all need to be aware that inclusion is never really done: it’s an ongoing struggle and the solution to racism is activism.
Christopher Pászik in Three Thousand Numbered Pieces (dir. Ádám Császi, 2022)
In this film version, you also introduce (and satirise) the second location of Germany, representative of this kind of liberal, financially and culturally powerful “West” to which the Hungarian artists feel the need to appeal. Making the film in the first place likewise means removing these people and stories from their original context. What were your intentions in that regard?
As I said above, the intention was to talk about how white intellectuals who see themselves as non-biased and anti-racist cling to the privilege of white guilt and white saviourism. Both of these are inherently racist as they put whites at the centre of the narrative. Also, the original context of the play was a radical exercise in telling autobiographical stories of racism and abuse in a way that makes the audience feel responsible for those evils, [in order] to provoke action. So, the film is not so far removed from that context at all.
the film raises the question: would you feel more sorry for these characters if these stories were true? If yes, that is also a manifestation of bias
The film obviously plays a lot on the distinction between artifice and reality. The selling point of the play is that these are “real stories”, but they are mediated by the act of performance and filming. As the director, do you think that this binary can or should be resolved one way or the other?
No, and the film intentionally doesn’t make this clear. Instead, it raises the question: would you feel more sorry for these characters if these stories were true? If yes, that is also a manifestation of bias. It tries to show how deep bias goes.
Finally, I wanted to ask about the very striking final shot of the film. It seems to suggest, in the last moments, a departure from the world of artifice or performance. Can you talk about your thinking with that shot?
The intention was to show you that the sociographic reality the film talks about is just one step away from you if you live in Eastern Europe. It is also to make you conscious that as a white person, this is the closest you will ever get to an all-Roma neighbourhood: passing through it by car, not wanting to get out.
Watch Three Thousand Numbered Pieces as part of our partnership with FilmFestival Cottbus until 30 November.