The Feather Gatherers is a Yugoslav movie of Serbian director Aleksandar Petrović from 1967. It is one of the six Yugoslav films nominated for the Oscar, and the first in the world that explicitly depicts the life of Roma in Romani language. Most of the characters in the film are Roma, and apart from Bekim Fehmiu and a few more actors, movie shots mostly present non-professional actors, along with their difficult living conditions.
The story is located in the south of Vojvodina, and the main character is the merchant Bora, the feather-gatherer (Bekim Fehmiu) who earns money by buying and reselling feathers. His main rival is Mirta (Velimir Bata Živojnović) and they split the villages and are both careful not to run into each other.
In rare cases when film critics approach this film, they usually emphasize the richness of the ethnic and linguistic diversity of Vojvodina, as well as the fact that apart from the Romani and Serbian language, we hear many other neighboring languages, but we can present The Feather Gatherers from completely different angle which is emphasizing similarities between the Roma and the majority population of Serbia.
Namely, Petrović peels the layers of the kitsch decorating the majority population which they use in order to distance themselves from the Roma and to put themselves above as civilized subjects, depicting the Roma as irrational savage. So a nun, the pillar of moral purity of a white Christian society, easily accepts Bora’s way of doing business, as if bargaining is part of a normal business relationship, and when Bora wants to baptize and bury a dead Roma child, the nun does so despite the laws prescribed by the church because she owes him money. The director tells us that money has become God, and that the Roma are the only ones who are fully aware of this, while the majority population is still living in the mythology of their own superiority. A monk named Paul (Mija Aleksić), also a moral fiber of Serbia, tries to sell feathers to Bora from the duvets of former monks, telling him at the same time that he is a bad man because he has not married in the church but, as he calls it, lives in a wild marriage. Then Paul asks Bora if he drinks, and without even waiting for his answer he comments that he is probably guzzling, not drinking. At one point he warns him not to swear, only to mention Bora’s “Gypsy father” in the next one. From the above we observe the empty rituals that position the majority population as dominant thus justifying their privileged socioeconomic position.
Paul then explains to Bora that he is selling ex-monks’ feathers who, in his words, have become Gypsies and left the order, and at the end of the dialogue he himself confesses that as soon as he sells that feather, he will go to work in Germany. Monk is no different from Bora, but it is constantly positioning himself as a guardian of true values. This emphasizes already mentioned kitsch which the church uses adorning itself offering the illusion of superiority to the majority people and the stigma of uncivilized, wild and discarded to the others.
The idea that money has become God is confirmed by Paul’s constant reference to goose feathers being just like angel wings, and this metaphor is repeated several times during the film.
Yet another example of the Roma as those who see the world as it is actually is the sequence of the funeral in which Bora tries to buy goose feathers from the deceased father’s sons. In the funeral procession Bora asks a man where are the deceased heirs, and the man corrects him by telling him that he probably thinks of the sons, not the heirs.
Bora is not familiar with vocabulary using diminutives for the economic reality that is present around him and other characters, he observes the world by following the money.
Since the actors are mostly non-professionals, The Feather Gatherers leave the impression and have elements of a documentary film. The tantalizing reality of the low socioeconomic position of the Roma is depicted by indigenous settlements and people, and the reason justifying it is obvious in the already mentioned way of speaking that mythologizes the majority people as superior via secular and spiritual institutions. The only important stylization in this realistic approach is a white feather that simultaneously symbolizes the otherworldly and secularism equating them.
The room in which Mirta, Bora’s rival, processes feathers is completely white, and the director always uses artificial illumination when the two of them meet to make the room look like heaven. When at the end of the film they fight with knifes and Bora kills Mirta they are completely covered by feathers, completely white, full of divine greed. Petrović plays with white color as a symbol of innocence, while selfishness is the main feature of both characters in the room as well as the world that shaped them that way. Money and property connect God and people, the Roma and the white.
The white color also represents the notion that all the ugliness of this world is hidden behind, so Bora hides Mirta’s dead body in a frozen lake, and this sequence is accompanied by church choir music, a symbol of morality and otherworldly.
This film is at the same time a faithful representation of Roma reality in the context of unfair socioeconomic status as well as a strong criticism of the dominant ideology of superiority of the majority population over the minorities. At the same time, it represents the Roma as completely different, because a specific social context has made them so, and exactly the same as majority population.
Although the film did not win Academy Awards Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, it won the Grand Prix of the Jury at the Cannes Film Festival and thus deserved to become part of the movie canon.
The Feather Gatherers is one of the world’s most important films representing Romani culture and an important part of it.