Jasmine Dellal’s affinity for Roma (or Gypsy) culture might well be linked to her own wanderlust. Born and educated in Britain, Dellal spent chunks of her childhood in a southern Indian village with her grandparents. She came to the Bay Area around 1990 to earn her master’s at U.C. Berkeley, where she came under the influence of iconoclastic documentary makers Marlon Riggs and Jon Else. “American Gypsy: A Stranger in Everybody’s Land,” her 2000 debut, pierced the Roma veil of secrecy while puncturing stereotypes about “Gypsies” left over from Cher’s days on the pop charts. Dellal’s new film, “Gypsy Caravan,” is a spectacular portrait of five top-drawer Roma acts from Macedonia, India, Spain and Romania. Shot by the legendary Albert Maysles (“Gimme Shelter”), the ambitious doc weaves concert performances and tour footage with images of musicians’ unglamorous lives in their native lands. Now based in New York, Dellal returned to San Francisco in February to present “Gypsy Caravan” at S.F. Indiefest. Before the show, we schmoozed over fried calamari and sangria at the Spanish restaurant across the street from the Roxie. “Gypsy Caravan” opens Friday, July 6 at the Lumiere, SF, Shattuck, Berkeley, and the Smith Rafael in San Rafael.
SF360: Did ‘Gypsy Caravan’ have its genesis here?
Dellal: Yes, I was still in the Bay Area [when] World Music Institute asked me to go and shoot some footage for them of the concert that became the origin of the concert that’s in ‘Gypsy Caravan.’ After a couple of days of doing that, I basically said to them, ‘If you ever do this again let me know, because it’s bloody great.’ And they did ask me, a few weeks before I saw Al Maysles in Taiwan, and that’s how it all started.
SF360: It’s quite a coup to get Albert Maysles to shoot your doc. How did that come about?
Dellal: I met Albert Maysles a few times in different places, but he never would have known my name. We weren’t friends; I volunteered as a student to drive him around from one speech to another, or something like that. And then I saw him at the Taiwan Independent Documentary Festival, where many of us who did not speak the language were in one hotel together and spoke to each other a lot. And he and I got along like a house on fire, and when I told him about this film, he just said, ‘I must shoot it.’ And I said, ‘I don’t know what your salary is, but I’m sure it’s higher than my budget.’ And he said, ‘No, no, I really must shoot it, I love Gypsy music, I really am interested in the people, I want to shoot it.’ So I didn’t fight back for too long. (Laughs.) And I’m really lucky he shot it.
SF360: How did you direct him? Did you just let him roll?
Dellal: As for communicating with someone of that caliber, most of the time I just sort of said, ‘Go.’ And that seemed to work just fine. (Laughs.) I think people who have reached a really, really high level also manage to go beyond their ego, at least in certain ways. So he would have been happy for me to direct him all along. He always asked me what I wanted. He didn’t behave like he was the master and I was the kid, which would have been just horrible. He was much easier to direct than a lot of people with less experience. But most of the time he was shooting exactly what I would have wanted him to be shooting, so I let him go. One very funny moment that happened was at Zellerbach Hall when we were shooting the concert there. I had three great camerapeople: Al Maysles, Jon Else and Andy Black.
Jon had been a teacher of mine, and an icon since I’d ever heard about documentary filmmakers. So there was a moment with Albert Maysles and Jon Else saying, ‘We’re here, what would you like us to do?’ I mean, behaving like they were junior cameramen, almost, and waiting for my directions. So I played this game for about five minutes, and then I just turned to both of them and said, ‘Look, you’ve been shooting concert films for longer than I’ve been alive. So you tell me, and I’m sure it’s going to be fine.’ (Laughs.) And that’s what we did.
SF360: Did you know from the beginning that you were going to go back to the hometowns of the musicians and include that context?
Dellal: When I first thought about making the film, I watched a lot of concert films and realized I didn’t like many of them. Live music is fantastic and you just cannot get the same thing on camera, however hard you try. So I felt that since you lose something from the performance when you put it on film, you have to give something else. And what I wanted to give is the home life. So, yes, I always meant to go back to their homes.
SF360: There’s a political and social dimension to that choice that moves ‘Gypsy Caravan’ out of the realm of the typical music film.
Dellal: Exactly. Most people think about Gypsies — if they think about them at all — singing and dancing. I want this film to show the glory of the music but also the reality of what it means to be Gypsy or Romani, which is much less glorious than that. When I first went to a Gypsy concert in the U.S., I was shocked to see how many people come along wearing long skirts and gold hoop earrings and kind of dressing like Gypsies. I came to realize [that] a lot of them think that Gypsies are people who appear on stage, perform and then magically disappear into thin air until they give another performance, and not that they’re real people in between. So my [goal] in making the film was to show the contrast between our image of Gypsies and the reality. Another way this comes up is the format. I shot the concerts in film, partly because I like the intimacy of it but also ‘cause it’s more glossy, and the home countries in video, because it’s more gritty. And cheaper. (Laughs.)
SF360: Did you have any models when it came to editing and structuring ‘Gypsy Caravan?’
Dellal: As I said, I haven’t found concert films that I liked, except for Martin Scorsese’s film about The Band, ‘The Last Waltz,’ which I loved. I’m probably one of the few people of my era in the West who didn’t already know intimately all those musicians, or feel that they did, and all that music, but I thought it was a fantastic film. So I wrote a script before shooting which basically was a rip-off of the script of ‘The Last Waltz,’ but with my footage and my characters and my story. (Laughs.) And then of course all the shooting went terribly differently and it was a whole other thing and it wasn’t going to work that way at all.
SF360: But I imagine you still picked up a thing or two from Scorsese and his editor, Thelma Schoonmaker.
Dellal: In the editing, a few things did stick. I knew that I did not want to do the kind of music film where people edit lovely sequences of footage over the music MTV-style or illustration-wise. I wanted the music to stand on its own as music. I think it’s music that deserves that respect. I also wanted to do as little cutting away as possible, just have people be themselves on camera. So the first thing we did was edit hours of songs in a row, just music, and pick out what would be the best scenes and then try to match the idea of those scenes with certain songs. And edit pure scenes of a few minutes each, which I figured we’d intercut with the songs. It didn’t work out exactly like that, but kind of. And that was because of ‘The Last Waltz.’ Basically, I sat and timed out ‘The Last Waltz’ at one point, and it’s [a lot of] two-minute songs and two-minute segments which have an obvious theme. It kind of goes like that the whole way through. But the segments bounce off each other. So my idea was that watching [my] film should feel like it feels to read a book of short stories or poems. Each segment would stand on its own, but at the end you would realize it wasn’t actually short stories; it was a novel. Things bounce off each other and the themes reflect and things you didn’t know you remembered from previously would inform what you’re seeing now. If somebody had to show abbreviated segments, it wouldn’t be very hard to take a song and a sequence next to it and just show it. But when they come together, I hope the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
SF360: Most music films don’t have a narrative, and the audience’s attention inevitably wavers. How did you take that into account?
Dellal: There were three strands that we were braiding together. One was the music itself, one was the home countries and the other was the [six-week] journey that the musicians take together on the bus, where they get to know each other and become friends. I toyed with the idea of taking out the musicians on the bus because in the end, if you come to see a film like this and you leave the theater, what are you really going to talk about? Probably either the music or the stuff you see with them at home. You’re not there to see a bunch of people get to know each other on a bus. But I felt like that was the strongest narrative element and that’s the thing that we all identify with pretty easily: You don’t know somebody, you hang out with them, you get to know them, you joke, you laugh, etc. And that was also my way of meeting them, hanging out in this bus and in hotels and late nights and seeing how they laughed with each other. I cut back on [that strand] a lot and it takes up much less time than the music, but I felt like that was the closest we had to a narrative. And [the elapsing of] the six weeks [is] a way to let people know that this will not go on forever. (laughs) Which can be a concern when you’re watching a movie which doesn’t have an obvious beginning, middle and end.
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