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Speaking up for The Queen Of Silence

  • Wide Angles panel

Our expert panel discussing The Queen of Silence

April 2016 | Picturehouse Central

The British Council continued our Wide Angles: Docs and Debates series in partnership with Picturehouse Central on April 13 with a screening of Agnieszka Zwiefka's The Queen of Silence, followed by a passionate discussion about ongoing issues of discrimination and exclusion faced by Roma people in Europe. Ian Sandwell reports on the panel.

Following last month's screening of Zanbo Zhang's The Road, British Council and Picturehouse Central were proud to present the UK premiere of Zwiefka's feature-length debut to continue our documentary screening strand designed to showcase outstanding works from around the world that inspire conversations about global issues.

The Queen of Silence is a unique music-driven documentary that offers an insight into a Roma community in Poland through the eyes of 10-year-old deaf girl Denisa, who cannot speak as she's never had her hearing disability diagnosed. The discovery of a pile of Bollywood DVDs leads Denisa to escape into fantastical choreographed dance sequences, all the while struggling to fit in with her already discriminated-against community.

Pooja Naidu Kingsley, Civil Society & Governance Advisor, British Council, moderated the post-screening panel, noting how the film reflected the wider issues facing the Roma people in Europe.

Kicking off the discussion, Dr. Will Guy, Research Fellow, SPAIS, University of Bristol, explained why the Roma community - not normally nomadic - decide to migrate from their home countries. "They did have jobs under the Communist regime, but many of them lost them afterwards. Like non-Roma people, especially in Bulgaria and Romania, they migrated westwards for work," he outlined.

"The other motive was to escape racism, persecution and discrimination which they have suffered with. This is now getting much worse, with even leading politicians happy to come out with racist statements. One became Mayor of his town for throwing the Roma out, saying we've got to rid ourselves of this ulcer."

Access to healthcare and jobs 

Candy Sheridan, Gypsy Council - Eastern Counties and Irish Traveller Spokesperson, praised the "beautifully shot" film and explained why it affected her: "Why it made me cry is that what you saw across every stage, especially with the health practitioner, mirrors exactly my own personal experience and my whole community. It's very difficult to access healthcare in this country."

"Right across Europe, the Roma people are the group with the lowest rate of access to health insurance where it's required," expanded Margaret Greenfields, Professor of Social Policy and Community Engagement, Buckinghamshire New University. "Once they come to the UK, it's also increasingly difficult to access anything other than emergency healthcare."

Greenfields revealed that life expectancy for Roma people across Europe is 12 years lower for women and 10 years lower for men, compared to any other community.

Sheridan noted that she's faced such healthcare difficulties in the UK, with people having to travel across the country to see a doctor even for a minor condition, simply because they wouldn't be treated in A+E, even if it's just because of their Irish accent.

Discussion turned from health to access to economic opportunities. Alan Anstead, Founder and Chief Executive, Equality, was keen to point out that unlike the informal community in the film, many communities are "much, much bigger and the conditions are worse" and they're in places where "there are no job opportunities for anyone, let alone the Roma".

Sheridan explained that official paperwork is a "huge problem" for Roma communities, despite the fact that they come from Romania and therefore "should be able to work anywhere". Greenfields added: "Nowadays, we're expecting people to be IT literate as well, so people are starting off with their hands tied behind their back and on one leg already in attempting to get a job."

However, more positively, Anstead explained that research his company has carried out showcased that education is improving for Roma children in the UK: "In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, they were sent to a special needs school because they were Roma. When they came to the UK and go to school, it's not easy but the research showed that the average attainment, despite all those barriers, was only just below the national average."

The panel did agree that there are programmes in place for better Roma integration across Europe, praising the Roma Education Fund and the European Union. According to Guy though, the issue is there is currently "no political will to do anything about it".

Denisa update

To end on a lighter note, Kingsley read out a statement from Zwiefka, who couldn't be at the screening, which gave an update on Denisa. The director noted that she's since received a new hearing aid thanks to one viewer of the film, and will soon start at a special boarding school.

Zwiefka also said that the film was "the most chaotic and cheerful experience of my life" and outlined what it taught her. "The whole community live in the present tense, not like the Western society always planning for the future or remembering the past but forgetting the here and now," she explained. "This ability to try to be happy no matter what life has to offer is something I've learnt from these kids."

Our Wide Angles: British Council Doc Debates strand will continue once a month to champion both international and UK-produced documentaries at Picturehouse Central, the state-of-the-art flagship venue in Piccadilly Circus. Each screening will be followed by live debates featuring expert commentators and audience engagement. For updates on titles and speakers each month, stay tuned here or check Picturehouse's monthly brochures and website.