The Short Life of José Antonio Gutiérrez & Gypsy Caravan

The Short Life of José Antonio Gutiérrez & Gypsy Caravan featured image

The Short Life of José Antonio Gutiérrez. Heidi Specogna, director. Feature documentary.

Sometimes, it isn’t the life that people lead that makes them famous. It may be their death that ensures their hold on the public’s imagination. Such is the case with Marine Lance Cpl. José Antonio Gutiérrez, a Guatemalan orphan, who immigrated illegally to the United States, only to die an American hero. Gutiérrez, you see, was the first American soldier to die in Iraq. Emerging from anonymity, the dead Guatemalan was feted by the American government, which even went to the extent of giving citizenship to Gutiérrez’s sister and her family.

In this well researched doc, director Heidi Specogna journeys to Guatemala to find out the full story of José. Gutiérrez was a street kid with artistic ability who hoped to become an architect, or at least a draughtsman. He spent years trying to find his sister, from whom he was separated as a very young child; ultimately, he succeeded in reuniting with her. Still ambitious, José took the perilous illegal trip across borders, from Guatemala to Mexico and then on to the United States.

Though American propaganda tried to paint a picture of José as a young patriot, eager to defend “freedom” in Iraq, it seems clear that he enlisted, as did many other “green card soldiers” in order to obtain citizenship. His death, ironically, made it clear that such enlisted men should receive citizenship straight away, since José never did become a naturalized American.

Specogna’s doc goes beyond the story of Gutiérrez. Every step along José’s travels, the director stops to tell other tales of young Guatemalans and Mexicans suffering today from the same economic and social deprivation, as did the martyred American soldier a few years before. It may be that, in death, José’s example may serve to make the lives of others somewhat easier than the one he led. And that in itself may be the ultimate triumph for Gutiérrez—and Specogna.

Gypsy Caravan. Jasmine Dellal, director; Albert Maysles and Alain de Halleux, cinematography. Featuring the music of: Taraf de Haidouks, Esma Redzepova, Maharaja, Fanfare Ciocarlia & Antonio el Pipa Flamenco Ensemble.

Gypsy or, more properly, Romani culture has been the subject of abuse—and mythologizing—for centuries in Europe and North America. Coming from Asia, the Roma people, like the Jews, were often reviled as outsiders, their culture deprecated and their customs misunderstood. The Nazis hunted them down, too, and many “gypsies” died during the Holocaust. But, they also figure as legendary characters, respected for their music, dress and provocative style.

Jasmine Dellal’s documentary Gypsy Caravan captures the duality of the Roma people in contemporary Europe. Groups like Taraf de Haidouks and singers like Esma Redzepova are celebrated for their brilliant musicianship. Yet many Roma live in poverty, in rural areas in the Balkans. Others eke out an existence in urban centres, where lack of education and prejudice make it difficult for modern-day “gypsies” to escape their stereotype and do well economically.

Understandably, Dellal spends a good deal of the film’s time documenting the successes of a group of Gypsy artists, on tour in North America. A celebratory tone is maintained through most of Gypsy Caravan though effective side trips back to the homes of artists like Redzepova and Neacsu, the leader of Taraf de Haidouks, do bring the real issues of the Roma people to the foreground from time to time.

There is much to celebrate in modern “gypsy” culture, of course, and Dellal, with the aid of ace cameramen Al Maysles and Alain de Halleux, manages to capture wonderful performances by the great vocalist Esma Redzepova, exceptional musicians Taraf de Haidouks and terrific dancing from the Iberian Antonio el Pipa Flamenco Ensemble and Indian ensemble Maharaja. Despite the gravity of the Roma situation, it is impossible not to enjoy unreservedly the artistry of these performers. Gypsy Caravan is a serious delight.

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