Sometimes the biggest hurdle for a documentary filmmaker is gaining the subject's trust. It's paramount, obvious-ly, since a film lacking intimacy and revelation is a major yawn. So Jasmine Dellal set a tough course for herself by embarking on a doc some five years ago about Roma -- or Gypsies -- arguably the most private, insular, and protective minority in the U.S. "They tend to be very suspicious," says Dellal, with a hint of understatement.
After months of futile attempts to interest Roma in the Bay Area and beyond, Dellal finally received a call back from one Jimmy Marks in Spokane. He had nothing to lose by cooperating on a film, he figured: Ever since Spokane police had mishandled the Marks women years earlier during a controversial house search for stolen goods, the Roma community had viewed the Markses as tainted and dealt with them accordingly. The fact that Jimmy Marks sued the city and strenuously pitched his case to the media didn't earn him any bonus points with his people.
"One reason the Markses talked to me is that they are pariahs," the S.F.-based Dellal explains, "and that makes them atypical. They've been ostracized to some extent. They no longer spend all their holidays with other Roma."
Born in England and educated at Oxford and Berkeley, Dellal's globe-trotting upbringing unexpectedly struck a chord with the less-than-fully-assimilated Markses. "Not being American helped, having spent time in India helped" -- the Markses belong to a tribe of Roma whose roots originate in India -- "and being Jewish helped," Dellal asserts. "These are all ways in which I might be perceived as an outsider to mainstream culture."
The Markses were also reassured by some habits Dellal had picked up in India. "I have no problem wearing long skirts around them, never turning up as a guest without bringing a gift (even a loaf of bread), and saying hello to the elders first when I enter a house," Dellal says.
After five years in production, and 11 years after the Spokane cops stormed into the Marks house, Dellal has just finished American Gypsy: A Stranger in Everybody's Land. Prior to a screening of the feature-length doc at the Taos Talking Pictures Festival in April, the film plays Wednesday, March 10, at 8 p.m. at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts as part of the Film Arts Foundation's monthly "sneak preview" series of new documentaries, "True Stories." As my Uncle Ralph used to say, be the first on your block.
As regular readers of this space may have surmised, 1999 is shaping up to be an extraordinary year for local documentaries. PBS's annual "P.O.V." series hasn't announced its slate yet, but I have it on good authority that the Bay Area will be disproportionately well-represented this summer. That's a bit of consolation for the questionable doings in the Oscar race for best documentary. To make a long story short, the Los Angeles contingent is pulling a fast one to sidetrack Bay Area voters, who might be positively inclined to the hometown representative, Regret to Inform. ... The world premiere of Lourdes Portillo's Tex-Mex biography Chorpus: A Home Movie for Selena is set for the San Diego Latino Film Festival (March 9-14).