Is a new TV show in Serbia really challenging Roma stereotypes and discrimination, or is it just ratings bait?by Uffe Andersen 3 July 2012
BELGRADE | When Sejfula Berisa invited Serbian fashion model Tijana Stajsic to live with his family in the Belgrade suburb of Kumodraz for two days, Stajsic had her doubts.
“One of the reasons I hesitated was the unhygienic conditions they live in,” she tells a television reporter at a Belgrade boutique in an episode of the reality TV show Satra (Tent).
The Berisas are Roma, Europe's largest, poorest, and arguably most discriminated-against minority. Stajsic had never met the family. But she was invited to stay with them for Satra, a new show on Prva Srpska Televizija (First Serbian Television) that claims to challenge the very prejudices that the model’s knee-jerk reaction reflects – a reaction all too familiar in Serbia.
When former model and fashionista Olja Crnogorac receives a similar invitation, she recalls living next to Roma as a child. “They gave me lice,” she says. “All of my childhood, I had lice."
In the end, Stajsic and the actor Sergej Trifunovic stayed with the Berisas for the show’s May 1 debut episode. With seven editions aired so far (six original episodes and a “best of” compilation), Satra grandly purports to show “how two famous personalities manage in the unusual environment of sharing good and evil with a Roma family.”
The show’s producers and even some rights activists and Roma call Satra a revolutionary endeavor to upend entrenched stereotypes and promote acceptance. Berisa himself is full of praise, saying strangers now approach him in the street to compliment his family. But critics – and there are many – see a cheap ratings ploy dressed up as altruism on the airwaves.
“Today, it’s fashionable to flirt with poverty and prejudices in the public sphere without making any serious effort to define what the problem really is and build a strategy to solve it,” said Djokica Jovanovic, a sociologist at the University of Belgrade. “It's hard not to be cynical and notice that the more ‘fight against poverty’ there is, the more poverty there is.”
“BASICALLY, WE'RE RACISTS”
From Belgrade to Paris to Prague, Europe's roughly 10 million Roma, sometimes called Gypsies, often live on the literal and figurative margins of society, in ghettos without health care, formal employment, or political representation. Ninety percent are impoverished, according to a recent European Union-backed survey of 22,203 Roma. More than 30 percent are jobless, and many go to sleep hungry or live in homes without indoor toilets and other amenities.
Europe's Roma face “social exclusion,” the survey team concluded. Discrimination is widespread. In Serbia, 30 percent of non-Roma wouldn't want a Roma neighbor, according to a 2011 University of Belgrade poll. Two-thirds wouldn’t marry a Roma.
“Basically, we're racists,” Trifunovic says in episode one of Satra. “Not one of us white people would like our daughter to bring a Roma home with her, however European or cosmopolitan we claim to be.”
But for two days this spring, Trifunovic and Stajsic got to see how the other half lives, so to speak, along with millions of Serbian viewers. While staying with the Berisas, the celebrities cooked, collected and sold scrap metal, took the children to school, fetched meals from a soup kitchen, and did other daily tasks.
As with most reality shows, Satra is a competition. The “head of the family” selects a winner: the person who adapts best, helps most, and with whom the family feels most comfortable. Sejfula Berisa chose Trifunovic.
The show’s producers canceled a scheduled interview for this article, but episode one came with something of a mission statement.
“After merely two days ... the prejudices have disappeared,” the narrator concludes. “These people, the Roma, are our neighbors. They fight for their own spot under the sun, and, therefore, they deserve respect."
Network pap? Not to Slavoljub Djordjevic of the Roma Information Center in Kragujevac, central Serbia. Roma himself, Djordjevic asserts that Satra upends the traditional dynamic between Roma and larger society. For centuries, Roma have been the ones required to adjust to majority culture, but the role-reversal might open eyes and encourage acceptance.
That's just one reason the show is a breakthrough, he said.
"When you see on TV that even well-known people are able to eat at the same table as Roma and sleep in their beds, then the prejudices telling you to avoid contact with Roma are torn apart.”
WHO ARE THEY KIDDING?
Many observers aren’t buying it. First Serbian Television’s self-proclaimed honorable intentions notwithstanding, sociologist Jovanovic said, the station is after viewers first, and Satra “won't have any impact worth mentioning on prejudices in the public.”
For that Jovanovic blames TV as a medium, but also the “profile” of First Serbian Television, which broadcasts Turkish and Indian soap operas and adaptations of Western reality shows like Survivor and Extreme Makeover. The station has a 16 percent market share, the third highest in Serbia, but it is not known for serious, impactful programming.
The network “has many shows like Satra – a bit staged and a bit artificial," said Boba, a retired radio journalist and one of numerous people TOL interviewed randomly about the program on the streets of Belgrade.
“Those kind of programs don't interest me,” said Boba, who declined to give her surname. “It's a very lowbrow kind of television in very bad taste.”
Speaking to both this point and Jovanovic's concerns about exploiting poverty, episode one shows the Berisa children eating in slow motion to a classical soundtrack after Trifunovic brings home take-out pizzas. This is “the most normal thing for most viewers,” the narrator says, “but not for these children.”
At times, Satra also seems to play to the very stereotypes it aims to undermine, as when Berisa is caught struggling to remember the names of the children in his extended family, echoing the notion that Roma have many kids to exploit social welfare systems.
“It's no joke," Berisa says on the show. “When there are so many children, the names just tumble around in your head: Aca, Alen, Nikola, Cica. I've got three children myself, my brother five. And imagine when every uncle has five, six, nine children – that adds up.”
Satra is in bad taste, according to another Belgrade woman asked in the street about the show.
“I've seen the trailer but not the shows,” said the woman, who declined to give her name. “It seems quite unpleasant, as if they're making fun of the Roma.”
“THAT SHOW HAS REALLY HELPED ME”
Among Roma, Berisa has taken some flack for publicizing his family's poverty. A boxer, he earns a living coaching "anybody from skinheads to criminals" in the ring, and from collecting scrap metal. But he cannot afford to heat his home in the winter, and the family eats at a soup kitchen every day.
“Some people watch [Satra] to laugh at the Roma,” Berisa said in an interview at his home in Kumodraz. But he believes most viewers “watch to get to know the Gypsy culture and the Gypsies' mentality in general. Maybe they haven't had the opportunity or courage to interact with Gypsies. So it's easier for them to see on TV what Gypsies are like.”
Berisa prefers “Gypsy” to “Roma,” the term favored by activists, which he deems disingenuous. In agreeing to do Satra, he said, it was more important that the picture of his family – and, by extension, that of Roma – be accurate than pretty.
“Nothing in the show is staged,” said Berisa, who received no remuneration for his part in the show. “Otherwise, I wouldn't have agreed to take part.” And it’s why he believes the show has a positive impact.
“Many strangers have wanted to shake my hand in the street, or to take a photo of me, and have just been incredibly enthusiastic,” he said. “They tell me, ‘You’ve got a fantastic family!’ or ‘You’re all right, you know!’ So that show has really helped me.”
“NO MAGIC WAND”
Still, critics emphasize that a reality show cannot change entrenched prejudices or, critically, the plight of Europe’s Roma, a view echoed by some random interviewees.
“We non-Roma already know how Roma live,” said a middle-aged man who asked not to be named. “And while Sergej [Trifunovic] and the others may have good intentions, when they go home things stay the same. It doesn't help that we watch. What we need is action.”
He continued: “Instead of [celebrities], people with real power – ministers or the president – should visit Roma families. When they return to their offices, they can say: ‘How can people possibly live that way? We have to do something!’ ”
The Roma Information Center’s Djordjevic, though a supporter of Satra, faulted it for exclusively featuring poor Roma rather than including middle-class families. And he conceded that the show is “no magic wand.”
“For anything to really change, we Roma must change ourselves,” the activist said. “We have to go to work and educate ourselves like everyone else. Because what should be preserved is our culture, not our poverty.”
Still, Djordjevic insisted Satra is revolutionary.
“We in the RIC work to break prejudices, but we've never had as powerful a medium as TV at our disposal,” he said. “The show could be the first step on a long road. If only 1 percent of the population changes its stance on Roma a little bit, then it'd be a huge success.”
For Stajsic, the model and runner-up of episode one, her two days with the Berisas seem to have been revelatory. The children cry when she leaves, and she expresses the hope that Serbians share the realization she and Trifunovic came to: “that we must work a bit harder to help these people.”