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An IU alum spends his summer filming the lives of Europe’s Roma people

Brad Coffman image

Brad Coffman, a graduate of the IU School of Journalism, spent three months in Europe interviewing Roma people for a documentary film project.

When Brad Coffman set out to spend a semester studying in Budapest, Hungary, he didn't know much about the Roma people of Europe beyond the myths that surround them. He thought of these people -- who are often referred to as "gypsies" -- as romantic and mysterious.

"Embarrassingly, I still carried those stereotypes at the beginning of the project," Coffman said.

Coffman was one of two recent graduates to win the Indiana University School of Journalism's Ross Hazeltine Traveling Scholarship. The $7,000 scholarships are for graduating seniors from the IU Bloomington campus to travel or study outside the territorial limits of the United States, Canada or Mexico. After completing the trip, each recipient must write an article describing his or her experience for the School of Journalism's alumni publication.

After his experience in Budapest, Coffman proposed a documentary film project about the differences between the gypsy myth and the social, educational and human rights issues facing Roma people. There are about 8 million to 10 million Roma people, and most live in Europe. Roma people are a heterogeneous ethnic group who are believed to have originated mostly from India.

While studying in Hungary, Coffman said he met people who, though kind, would make racist remarks when talking about Roma people. He also discovered that Roma people have trouble finding adequate housing and attaining a good education.

"Their lives are often very difficult," Coffman said, adding that some Roma people are amazed to learn that many Americans don't know anything about them and the issues they face. "Some live in condemned buildings. It's the misinterpretation of how they live. Roma people have been in Europe for centuries, but they don't have a homeland, a state, so many Europeans think these people are just passing through to suck up all their natural resources and leave."

To dispel the myths surrounding the Roma people, Coffman set out for Europe with a colleague, IU graduate Andrew Hart, on the three-month shoot. The two had previously worked together at IU Student Television.

"He was critically important," Coffman says. "I couldn't have done it without him. He's brilliant, and he captured amazing footage."

They filmed in France, Germany, Belgium, Hungary and Romania. The pair went from city to city based upon information fed to them through a network of non-governmental organization guides who led them into Roma communities. An NGO is a nonprofit group or association that acts outside of institutionalized political structures and pursues matters of interest to its members by taking direct action or lobbying.

"Sometimes our contacts would say we were at risk and our safety was an issue, and others said we were completely safe," Coffman said. "Some Roma communities are very suspicious of outsiders and particularly of journalists who they think will exploit them and make money off of their story. It was a rough trip. It wasn't always fun. There were a lot of times when I thought maybe it was overwhelming, but looking back on it I'm really proud of how it turned out."

Although most communities allowed Coffman and Hart to conduct interviews, there were occasions when their guide escorted them out because the climate became unsettled.

"People were gathering around us, and our translator said 'they don't want you here,'" Coffman said. "No one would ever say 'they are going to attack you.' They would just say 'we have to go now.' In the end we really didn't have any bad experiences in that regard, but I won't say we always had unfettered access."

Coffman was happy with the progress they made abroad though. They interviewed the premier politicians and intellectuals about the Roma people. Coffman had contacted one top official in Europe before embarking on the journey. That contact led him to their initial guide. That guide then referred them to another guide, who in turn sent them to another guide so they eventually met Roma people in cities all over Europe. They slept in hostels or camped and traveled by train.

Because they wanted the documentary to be as thorough as possible and didn't want to be influenced by others' agendas, Coffman and Hart eventually began making their own contacts. They conducted interviews concerning the stereotypes surrounding the Roma people and how those stereotypes result in segregation in schools, particularly in Hungary and Romania. They worked their way into people's homes and communities to see how they live and learn about their daily lives.

"It was like peeling an onion, and we were always trying to peel down and get to the core," Coffman said.

After dozens of interviews, the focus of the documentary shifted because the realities of life for Roma people in Europe was much bleaker than Coffman anticipated. Expecting to find a vibrant culture, he uncovered racism and poverty.

"We would hear over and over the injustices that they face every day," Coffman said. "What surprised me the most is what I learned about the mainstream European people -- most are still very racist against the Roma people. It's ingrained. They have this idea that they are nomadic criminals that wander through their communities and destroy everything. What we learned is that Roma people are often very patriotic and proud members of their communities. They are not these shiftless vagabonds. They are just struggling to have normal lives."

On their own, Coffman and Hart sought out successful Roma people who had bucked the trend by obtaining a decent education. After capturing 40 hours of footage, Coffman and Hart headed home at the beginning of August.

"Working on this project was a great challenge and wonderful introduction to the world of independent film making for a post-graduate," Hart said. "Travelling abroad is always exciting, but working while traveling added meaning and clarity to the adventure and that is a new feeling for me. I have high hopes for the project, and I know that many people Brad and I met along the way do, too. Roma issues are a nonexistent factor in the European equation from the perspective of an average American. Perhaps this documentary could start to change that just a little bit. If we increase awareness for the humanitarian issues alone, then I have something to be proud of."

He estimates that the editing process will take a year to complete. Before the film is finished, Coffman and Hart will need to find translators for some of the interviews as well as someone who can score the film.

Coffman hopes to take advantage of the resources available to him in New York City, where he now lives. He hopes to persuade an organization that sponsors New York-based documentary filmmakers to sponsor the project once the film has a first run that can be screened. Eventually, he'd like to see it screened at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. He also wants to write freelance articles on the Roma people and help make up for the absence of U.S. journalism on the issues they face.

"We do have the capacity to create something that has meaning even without a huge budget or a huge crew," Coffman said. "If you're resourceful, you can still make a quality film."

For more information about Coffman and his work, visit his Web site at