Czech director, Pavla Fleisher, decides to embark on a trip with a man she hardly knows to find out who he really is. That man is the larger than life DJ, actor and lead singer of the gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello, Eugene Hutz. He is a seriously charismatic guy. And if you’re partial to a moustache, as I am, then he’s definitely going to float your boat. Gogol Bordello make you happy you’re alive at the exact same time this raucous mess of hip-hop, punk and gypsy exists. This is a documentary with real spirit and personality that will, at the very least, get your toe tapping. In fact, I defy anyone not to feel like dancing at some point while watching it.
The vehicle through which Fleisher gets Hutz to open up is the passion they both share for traditional Romani gypsy music. Fleisher puts together the funding to allow Hutz to take her on a journey through Hungary, Ukraine, Russia and Siberia in search of grass roots gypsy music as well as more established performances by his musical heroes.
They meet in Budapest and embark on the first leg of the journey by rail, the countryside of Eastern Europe rolling gently by. Hutz’s excitement begins to build as he accompanies the sounds of the tracks on his guitar. His excitement is infectious. He is taking Fleisher to a gypsy camp he visited as a child, isolated in the Carpathian Mountains. It feels like an immense privilege to be able to glimpse a community and a life that is rarely seen by western eyes. The poverty is striking but the people are stoic and the warmth the outsiders are greeted with is beautiful. As soon as the guitar comes out, the dancing begins and people of all ages gather to celebrate. Hutz’s passion for gypsy music and the Romani life is clear and he describes it with eloquence,
‘You start realizing that you’re dealing with some of the most hurt people in the world. Right away it’s so striking that they are so sad. And that sadness is so overwhelming but there is this shot of optimism that makes them stand out from all the other people in the world.’
In contrast, the pair also travel to Kiev to visit the director of the Gypsy Theatre there. This is an institution founded to preserve the traditions of Romani life and culture and the director is uncompromisingly orthodox. It is painful watching him tear apart Hutz’s work as the kind of thing that destroys gypsy music but Hutz is utterly philosophical about the encounter.
As the journey continues and Hutz becomes more and more excited about all the new discoveries he is making, Fleisher manages to peel away the layers of his personality. It is evident from the start that he is a tricky character, never giving straight answers to questions, always joking around, easily distracted. But Fleisher does manage to catch him in a couple of reflective and honest moods and that’s where things get really interesting. She manages to get him to open up and there is a fleeting glimpse of a totally different side of him. It can’t have been easy to coax that out. She is very honest about the fact that she nurtures romantic feelings for him and it becomes clear to her early on that he has no intention of returning them. At times she is so self sacrificing and amenable that you just want to shake her and tell her to man up. It’s obvious that Hutz is accustomed to a more street-wise and less emotionally available breed of female. But I admire her for being so honest. She has a lot riding on this project and every time Hutz is awkward, spiteful or un-cooperative it feels like a slap in the face for her. It’s like we’re watching her get her heart trampled on over and over again. It would have been very easy for her to edit that all out. But in being so honest, she is doing what she set out to do and showing us exactly who Eugene Hutz is, warts and all. We can all relate to her experience on some level. We’ve probably all been infatuated with someone who is unreachable at some point in our lives.
The film ends with footage from a Gogol Bordello gig in London, six months later. Eugene is in his element. Hundreds of kids dance to the rhythm of the music and throw up their hands in praise of their idol. While it is clear that Hutz is trying to bridge a gap between two cultures and introduce the frustrated punk kids of the world to the gypsy spirit, it also made me feel uncomfortable watching these middle class British kids hungrily consuming a type of music that is rooted in a culture they have little interest in engaging with directly.
However, Fleisher does sum up what Hutz is trying to do perfectly when she says,
‘I could see in him the boy from Kiev, desperately fighting the boredom of high-rise buildings. I could also see in him the gypsy spirit, which he is and feels connected to. And I admired the way he put the two worlds together to make a new world, unlike any other.’
It’s a documentary with two, equally fascinating strands to it, all brought together with Fleishers concise narration. There are moments of sadness and moments of silliness. The music is jubilant, enlivening, brilliant. And Hutz, despite some moments of chauvinism, is hilarious. (I recommend watching the mini doc in the dvd extras purely for Hutzs plan to wrap a Siberian waitress in a table cloth in order to smuggle her back to America. It’s priceless.)
Interestingly, the Bechdel test does not apply to documentaries……