Black and White in Colour

by Michael Abernethy




era Bila is small in height, but gargantuan in girth. A singer of Romany folk songs, she has a talent that matches that girth. Yet Mira Erdevicki-Charap’s disturbing documentary reveals Vera as a woman of immense—one could say gross—appetites that threaten to destroy the instrument (her body) that is the source of her unique sound. Black and White in Colour lacks a definitive narrative structure; rather, through a fly-on-the-wall technique, it presents a series of scenes that show Vera coping with the pressures of her multi-faceted life as a Czech Romany, as a popular singer, as a mother and wife, and as someone wracked by the excesses of her life. Paradoxically, however, this technique never relieves the viewer of the feeling that Charap, or possibly Vera herself, is manipulating the images.

cover art

Black and White in Colour

Regular airtime: Thursday, 4 January 2001 11.20pm


This is most apparent in a scene obviously staged and choreographed, Bollywood-style, featuring Vera and the women and children of her childhood village. Its artifice makes the rest of the documentary appear almost as a promotional vehicle for the singer and her backing group, Kale. This and other episodes cannot be seen merely as documenting an event, but as bearers of hidden meanings whose interpretation depends on discovering why they have been chosen. The images seem at times arbitrary and therefore, disorientating.

I am particularly disturbed that the film glosses over Vera’s comment about not feeling personally oppressed as a Romany, and it affects all of my subsequent responses to the film. Given the upsurge in neo-fascist groups across Europe, but especially in former Eastern block countries such as Czechoslovakia, it is surprising that Vera makes only passing reference to how she, as a Romany, does not feel in any way discriminated against or persecuted. The history of Nazi oppression against the Romany people, in percentage terms, equalled, if not exceeded, that against the Jews in the 1930s and ‘40s. The recurrence of intolerance in parts of Europe is highlighted by the fact that Czechoslovakia’s “democratic” neighbour, Austria, now has a fascist head of Government; yet, Vera implies that because she has not been affected by racism, it is not a problem. And she makes no further comment, which leaves me wondering why she raises the issue of discrimination in the first place.

Contradictions pervade the documentary. Vera continually pleads poverty whilst Charap perversely shows her performing one song while dressed in money, literally: notes are pinned to her clothing. Given her immense size, it takes a great deal of money to cover her. Again and again, images and words appear carefully selected in opposition to one another, and one scene clashes up against another. At one point, Vera imposes on her backing group, Kale (made up entirely of her family members), to pay her debts. We cannot be sure if she actually needs the money or if this is an act, designed to convince everyone that she is penniless. We later learn that she faces the possibility of prosecution for benefit fraud, which again casts doubt over her attitude toward money and her honesty in financial dealings. Still, judgment of Vera—whether she is a calculating manipulator or someone who shrewdly does not broadcast her wealth—is left entirely up to the viewer, who creates meaning from the prejudices, beliefs, and knowledge he or she brings to the text.

The film’s ambiguity also affects how we view Vera’s relationships with her husband and adopted son, both named Frantisek. She bemoans the fact that her son is in prison serving a sentence for petty crime. She cannot wait for him to come home. She longs to find him a wife who will bear him many children and force him to settle down. Whilst it is likely that this emotion is genuine, there is still the possibility that it is exaggerated for the benefit of Charap’s lens. Vera appears to be a woman who would do anything for her family. She even admits to a practice that is at least unhygenic, and at most, a form of sexual perversion, when she says that she trims her disabled husband’s toenails with her teeth: we are left wondering if her sacrifice is more self-serving than altruistic.

With other members of her family, she is less self-sacrificing and overtly emotional. We are shown Vera distanced from her father, as they argue obliquely about past conflicts. She also raises questions about her relationship with her mother, who allegedly only gave her time to develop her singing and little else in the way of attention. These estrangements from her parents do not fit easily with Vera’s professed love of family. Moreover, these scenes take place in her childhood home, a Slovak village, which she visits with Kale. In the village, we find clues as to what might be driving Vera to her many excesses. The village can only be described as wretched, with small shacks made of waste materials thrown together, with little or no sanitation, and open sewers running in the streets. This image of deprivation contradicts Vera’s earlier declaration that she is not oppressed, and it offers a motivation for her current dependencies on food, people, cigarettes, and prescription drugs, as well as her determination to protect what is hers.

She escapes from her past life through gross over-consumption, and at the same time, the film suggests, her former poverty informs Vera’s drive to perform. She bursts into song at various moments throughout the film, and is at her glorious best when singing of the everyday experiences that shape her life. She sings of an old mother’s tears, courtship and love, and alienation. Even without subtitles, Vera’s singing affects the viewer deeply. Her art is a flower that has risen out of the excrement of her village.

Given the conditions of her early childhood, it is possible to accept both her over-consumption and her overwhelming desire to communicate. Even so, I cannot but be critical of the abuse that she inflicts upon her body, the instrument of her art. Her weight, arising from her continual craving for food, makes her unable to stand for any length of time. She cannot undertake simple tasks without having to sit or lie down. She claims to have collapsed at a concert and to have died for an instant before being revived. The abuse that she does herself is also an abuse of her art, yet the song also seems a product of the abuse.

For me, the meaning is complex, suggested through juxtaposition rather than didacticism, and is undoubtedly capable of being reinterpreted. This makes me wonder at whom Mira Erdevicki-Charap is aiming the documentary. Its screening on British television’s art channel, BBC 2, suggests that programmers considered it suitable for the more “elite” end of the market. Similarly, its run at New York City’s Film Forum during December 2000 suggests that its fate is to be shown on the esoteric art-house circuit. The exotic nature of Vera Bila, as a minority voice from the old communist block countries, together with her excessive behaviour, marks her out as a romantic icon of difference in Western societies. She provides difference for those societies and it acts as an antidote to their alarming propensity to homogenise due to market pressures. The film’s enigmatic view of the performer, therefore, questions conventional definitions of popular and high art.

In Black and White in Colour, Vera slips easily from popular performer at home to respected artist abroad (allegedly she has been offered citizenship in Canada and has toured successfully with Kale in America and Europe). The film’s ambiguous depiction keeps open the potential for Vera to be appreciated both as a voice of her people in Czechoslovakia and as subject of Western intellectual interest and consumption. Charap has fashioned a thought-provoking study that is both visually stunning and visually repulsive. I would recommend the film to anyone with an interest in the popular culture of other countries, as well as in its appropriation by Western media. I would also recommend it to anyone who appreciates vital artists, for Vera Bila certainly is such a creature.

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//Mixed media