Jimmy Marks is a paradox. Fiercely proud of his thousand-year-old Romani heritage, he has broken one of its most strongly held tenets—a code of secrecy that forbids revealing or explaining that heritage to gadje, or non-Gypsies. Throughout their history, the Rom, commonly called “Gypsies” for a mistaken identification with Egypt, have suffered persecution and believed that the key to their survival lay in keeping strictly to themselves, “in order to remain pure.” That’s why Jasmine Dellal had such difficulty making the film American Gypsy: A Stranger In Everybody’s Land. Even though there are approximately one million Rom in America, her attempts to find someone who would open up to her were universally rebuffed—until Jimmy Marks returned her phone call one day.
American Gypsy airs Tuesday, August 29, 10 p.m. ET on POV, public television’s award-winning showcase of independent nonfiction films. POV is aired regularly on Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. through September 26, 2000. For more information about POV presentations see the attached program schedule (check local listings).
The road that led Spokane resident Marks to return Dellal’s phone calls was paved by an injustice at the hands of Spokane police and a determination to right that wrong. A 1986 police raid on the Marks family’s homes sought to uncover stolen property, an expectation coinciding with the stereotypical view of Gypsies as thieves. The conduct of the police that day—ransacking the houses, seizing cash and jewelry, frisking the residents, especially touching the women—while simply inappropriate by American standards, was a gross violation of the “purity” of the Marks family by Romani standards. The police brought no substantial charges, but the Markses were still seen as irretrievably sullied by other Gypsies. In their view, to continue to associate with them would only taint the purity of the community.
Having acted as a community leader, Jimmy Marks was abruptly turned into an outcast along with the rest of his family. This double injustice led him to undertake two very atypical courses of action—to seek vindication in American courts and to publicly defend Romani civil rights and way of life. Though Rom to the core, Marks is also imbued with American qualities of outspokenness and a belief in equal rights for all. He quickly came to see himself as the “Rosa Parks” of his people. Agreeing to provide Dellal with unprecedented access to Gypsy life and culture was one of the ways Jimmy carried on his many-sided battle.
Dellal sensitively weaves a record of her own interactions with the mercurial Jimmy, plus family interviews and home movies, with an account of the tortured course of Jimmy’s suit against the city of Spokane. Adding historical materials, Dellal achieves a poignant, humorous, colorful and tremendously informative portrayal of Romani history and culture, including an intimate revelation of modern Rom and the migration that began a millennium ago in India. At the film’s center is the voluble, charming, conflicted Jimmy, whose fight with City Hall and singular break with the Romani code of secrecy have made him something of a folk hero to many non-Rom in the Spokane area. Though he is vindicated eventually, Jimmy continues to live on the horns of a dilemma—the more he speaks out in defense of his people, the more ostracized he and his family become.
“What is amazing to me is that there are a million Gypsies in America with a million stories and nobody’s ever made this film before,” says Dellal, who was inspired to make this film during a trip from India to California. “After reading Jan Yoors’ book, The Gypsies, I remember being on the plane and thinking it was taking me 24 hours to make a journey that took the Gypsies one thousand years,” recalls Dellal. “Over time, I became intrigued with this ethnic group that didn’t seem to be protected by notions of ‘political correctness.’ The same people who were careful to say ‘African American’ instead of ‘Black’ might say something like, ‘Don’t get gypped by the Gypsies.’ When I began to investigate further, the very lack of information about Rom, and then Jimmy’s determination to speak out, moved me to make this film.”