This article was also published in Romanian on Hotnews.
Whenever a great Romanian actor dies someone tells me that this is the latest chapter in the decline of Romanian drama. Romanians can be very negative about their future and this negativity is projected onto the arts where they tend to see a glorious past and a miserable future. But I am not Romanian and I don’t share these views.
I am from Edinburgh, a city which hosts the world’s biggest theatre festival but is actually a deeply un-cultural place where alcohol and football are far more important than arts. (If you want to understand Scotland, read Irvine Welsh.) Like most of my compatriots I know little about acting and have no comment about the ancient Romanian actors whom people here hold so dearly. But whenever I go to a Romanian play or film, which is rarely as I am unable to resist the escapist attractions of Hollywood, I see great young actors. I recently saw Periphery and was mesmerized by the charisma of Ana Ularu.
Very occasionally I come across someone who is like a rising star, a force that is bright, unstoppable and has an impact on anyone who sees it. The last time I came across someone like this was when I met Damian Draghici when he had just come back to Romania from a successful musical career in the US. He was unknown in Romania at the time but he soon earned a name for himself as a highly diverse (and incredibly energetic) musician. (I did nothing to help him in case you’re wondering). Next month Draghici will play the pan pipes with Nigel Kennedy in the vast square in front of the Romanian Parliament. Who knows where he will go from here?
Recently I came across someone who seems to have the same confidence, drive and balance as Draghici : Alina Serban. I saw her one-woman-show at Green Hours and it was amusing, concise, and unsentimental. It felt authentic and it avoids moralizing about the rights and wrongs of the Roma situation. She used her one prop – an old overhead projector – to powerful effect.
She started off as a 10 year old Romanian girl and by 14 had become ashamed of her gypsy family (“all I wanted to be was a normal Romanian girl”). The play ends with her storming the stage of a foreign “punk gypsy” band and admitting – for the first time – that she was a Roma. Before the lights went out and we were plunged into darkness (another of her simple but powerful effects) she said to us: “it took some non-Roma, who thought that being gypsy was cool, to enable me to find out who I was.” I was left feeling rather stunned and wanting more.
I first came across Alina Serban on the 8th of April which is International Roma Day. I had been invited to a conference by the EU where some Roma NGOs were going to criticize the government’s Roma Agency for coming up with a national strategy without consulting them. I couldn’t face going to another Roma conference where the main Roma leaders just argue with each other. I’ve been there, done that and got the T-Shirt.
But I felt a slight frisson of guilt about doing nothing about the Roma on their big day, even though it was ignored by the media and the general public. I then saw an email from someone called Alina Serban inviting people to a documentary film screening, a debate and a Roma music night at an alternative club on strada Coltei. There was an energy and freshness about her email that you don’t see in the boring and legalistic messages sent out by the Roma NGOs. The tone of her email suggested a curiosity and confidence that is unusual in Romania and I decided to go.
The event itself was a bit of a shambles. It started an hour late, thanks to a third rate punk band that wouldn’t stop playing, and the “Underworld Club” is what the English would call “a dive”. After lots of fumbling around with projectors, cables and computers a boring slideshow was projected onto a dark red wall (someone needs to show the girl how to use Power Point). But the music was great, the atmosphere was happy and Serban was surrounded by an intelligent-looking bunch of Romanians – presumably her friends and supporters.
What really caught my eye that night was the way she took charge. I was part of a crowd hanging around outside the club waiting for the punk band to shut up and the Roma event to begin. I looked at everyone in the crowd trying to guess who is Alina Serban. Then I saw a big unruly mop of curly hair, on a very small body, moving fast between the groups of waiting people, saying a few words to each (she smiled at us and said “Don’t leave. It’s going to start soon”).
Alina Serban exudes a sense of confidence that doesn’t seem to cross over into the unattractive (but closely related) territory of arrogance. She knows who she is, she seems to be doing exactly what she wants to do and she’s going places. Watch her trajectory.
Rupert Wolfe Murray lives in Bucharest and can be followed on Twitter @wolfemurray