Brit-born, U.S.-based filmmaker Jasmine Dellal spent eight years hoping to demystify an historically secretive culture — but in hitching her wagon to a principal interviewee who appears manipulative, unreliable and private agenda-driven, she ends up shedding more confusion than light on the theme. Perhaps “American Gypsy” should have just gone with the flow, becoming a Ross McElwee-like docu-comedy about a runaway subject. Instead, helmer settles for an uneasy mixture, positing insights about Romani peoples as a whole, while being nose-led by one questionably “typical” protag.
In a voice-over that’s more plentiful than helpful, Della cites curiosity as her initial impetus for making the doc. Spokane, Wash.-resident Jimmy Marks was the first U.S. Rom she called who was willing to talk to an outsider. But he proves “prone to exaggeration,” while the cooperation of his family members varies — one grandmother seems to delight in making contradictory statements.
Then there’s Jimmy’s $ 40 million suit against the city of Spokane for an improper police search. In 1986, police conducted a sting operation on the Marks’ residences and found stolen goods and a mysterious $ 1.6 mil in cash. (Jimmy claimed his father’s manse was “an unofficial community bank.”)
The sting only resulted in a misdemeanor theft charge (one of many matters insufficiently explained here). But as a result of this home invasion and strict Rom laws about “unclean” contact with Gadje (non-Rom) people, the family was apparently ostracized from its close-knit ethnic community.
Jimmy launched a years-long crusade for damages, not only in the courthouse, but also on “The Jerry Springer Show” and any other public forums available. By the time the film wonders out loud if it’s in the hands of a crank — as the incessant sound-byte messages Marks leaves on helmer’s answering-machine suggest — we’ve long since ceased to find him ingratiating, while questions about his credibility are never sufficiently addressed, let alone answered.
Two high-profile Rom men in other states — both university professors, activists and more assimilated than Jimmy’s clan — offer commentary about the scattered American Rom populace’s history, ancestral heritage and stereotyped images. Yet a clear picture of this culture’s current U.S. size, lifestyle diversity, adherence to tradition, etc., never emerges. In part that’s due to excessive screentime granted Marks’ lawsuit (finally resolved via $ 1.1 mil settlement); but Dellal also leaves far too many points dangling or unaddressed, both about Jimmy himself and the larger subject.
Resulting mix of home movies, TV news excerpts, archival clips and verite material feels gap-riddled, with no cogent overall structure to link lurches between general (if frustratingly limited) examination of Rom society and Marks’ more-or-less chronological saga. (Even latter’s timeline grows muddy, since we’re often told about events a decade or more ago while watching what looks like very recent footage.)
Jimmy’s grandma insists “There is no truth,” meaning everyone has his own version. Rejuggling of elements here might turn that notion to good use, acknowledging docus don’t, or can’t, always tell the whole story — and can be misled, too.
Instead, “American Gypsy” struggles to maintain a pretense of impartial understanding. Few viewers are likely to be left feeling satisfied or enlightened, however. That unintended, ambivalent response doesn’t serve filmmaker’s obvious hope of eradicating age-old anti-gypsy biases. Rather overdramatic recitations of classic Romani lit passages on the soundtrack from time to time don’t help.
Tech aspects are OK, but pic really needs further editing to either realize more fully its broader goals or to restructure as an eccentric individual portrait. In this case, serving two masters ultimately serves neither.