Black And White In Colour

Mira Erdevicki-Charap

Czech Republic 1999, 59min.

This film invites you into the life of Vera Bila, a truly gifted gypsy singer from Prague who earns her living interpreting the songs of her ancestors. Vera’s world is her husband, their son and her band. All the scenes revolve around these characters, providing a fascinating insight into Vera’s everyday concerns: her son’s prison sentence, keeping the band together, and the constant lack of money.

black-and-white-in-colourAlthough Vera Bila is a well-known singer, often performing and releasing CDs, she makes very little money from her art. Had she been living elsewhere, she would probably have been wealthy, but wealth in itself is not her primary goal. When she appears in Paris, it is striking how unimpressed she is by the whole ordeal of having to appear on national television, and performing at a big venue.

The same goes for the rest of the band. Playing music has changed their lives somewhat, but most of them need to hang on to their day jobs to get by. One sells sausages at a hotdog stand; another operates the power drill at a road construction company. But being a gypsy in the Czech Republic is not easy, and Vera and her band are probably among the lucky ones. We realize this when Vera and her husband travel to a remote gypsy village in Slovakia to find a wife for their son. The gypsies here live in terrible conditions. Their houses are in ruins, their clothes are washed in the river.

Here Vera stages an impromptu “playback” and we are presented with a bizarre music video clip where the whole village acts as extras – the toothless old man together with wide-eyed unwashed kids sing and clap hands. It is a playful and yet powerful scene, forming a social commentary within the unlikely framework of the music video genre.

Vera Bila herself is huge. At 200 pounds plus, this women makes a terrific impact on the screen, and with her high spirit you feel you are in really good company. The filmmakers switch effortless between “fly-on-the-wall” scenes and interviews, but they never make their direct presence known on camera. This narrative style is a good choice, leaving more room for the gypsies who are anxious to offer their unique commentary on their own life and others’. Vera, for one, offers up spectacular gems such as: “I really like my man. So much so that I trimmed his toenails with my teeth. Most women wouldn’t do that.”

Black and White in Colour is marred by a somewhat hesitant start, but the film soon gathers momentum and unfolds into what is essentially an engaging and entertaining documentary which gives us a rewarding introduction to Vera Bila and her band of gypsies.