A fascinating portrait of acclaimed larger-than-life gypsy singer Vera Bila, “Black and White in Color” is a fine, gripping study of artistic pride and ethnic intolerance. Though its subject matter is obscure, its themes are universal, so it makes sense that the docu should see Stateside arthouse play in select areas. (New York’s Film Forum has already booked it for December.)
An enormous woman with a soulful, mesmerizing voice, Bila and her group KALE have a recording contract with BMG. She is a cult celebrity in Europe, having played to packed houses in Paris and Germany, yet in the Czech republic where she lives, her Romany heritage prompts indifference or scorn. Gossips call her arrogant and selfish, sniping that she sits on huge piles of cash while her friends and musicians remain impoverished. She even has to endure barbs from the press: One journalist likened her to a dwarf sumo wrestler.
In truth, Bila is not rich: She lives in a simple apartment with her husband and adopted son, often flounders deep in debt and has taken her stereo to the pawn shop 18 times. Bila certainly doesn’t fit the Western conception of stardom: She smokes 30 cigarettes a day, buys second-hand clothing, walks outside barefoot, enthusiastically plays slot machines and eats avidly despite her obesity.
But she also takes pride in her life and her culture: The songs she sings so lovingly are a testament to Gypsy tradition.
Writer-helmer Mira Erdevicki-Charap has succeeded beautifully in razing the wall that artists often place between themselves and the media. And Bila allows the filmmaker total access, revealing a life that is at once poignant and in its own way full of great joy. Bila’s emotional nakedness and personal confessions are extraordinary: Nowhere else will you hear the line “I love my man so much I trim his toenails with my teeth.”