The Atlantic Selects
Ghost Stories Keep the Roma Alive
Feb 28, 2020
For 500 years, the Latvian Roma people have been collecting berries in the Kurzeme forest. As one woman puts it, “a Roma without forest isn’t a Roma.”
The woman is part of a Roma family that Astra Zoldnere follows in her short documentary Blueberry Spirits. “It wasn’t easy to earn their trust,” she told me. “I had to live with them in the forest for a while.” Zoldnere traded in their currency—stories—by sharing some of her own. But she quickly realized that their tales were unlike hers, or any she’d ever heard before. They were ghost stories.
“I stepped out from the tent at night,” recounts a man in the film. “I was in a completely different place. One face appeared, and then another. I saw an old woman with a little girl in her arms … they’d been shot dead. Their anguished faces, cold eyes … how many people did the Germans shoot in the forest?”
Like this man’s nightmarish tale, which alludes to the mass murder of the Roma people by the Nazi regime during World War II, ghost stories are important elements of oral history in Roma culture. “Ghost stories help to maintain the community’s identity in the globalized world,” Zoldnere said. “Telling them brings together different generations.”
The tales are woven from the loose fabric of time that characterizes itinerant life in Roma communities. Blueberry Spirits, too, feels like a film out of time, existing somewhere in the space between reality and dreams. Zoldnere evokes this feeling through poetic, eerie imagery of thick fog seeping through the pine trees and the moon slowly rising above the clouds.
“At first, I was surprised that the Roma live in a world where past, present, and future are so connected,” Zoldnere said. “Different times, places, and faces entwine to form a more circular existence.”
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Author: Emily Buder
About This Series
A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.