Film Notes

Festival Features Trek With Indian Nomads

The documentary
The documentary "Jaisalmer Ayo! Gateway of the Gypsies" follows nomadic castes in India. (Copyright Melitta Tchaicovsky)
By Christina Talcott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 6, 2006

Through Sunday, the National Geographic Society (1600 M St. NW) is hosting the third annual All Roads Film Project, which is dedicated to showcasing the work of minority cultures around the world. On a six-city tour, the festival features works from India, Finland, Chile, Tibet and other countries.

The All Roads schedule includes movies, photography, live music and an art market. On Saturday afternoon, a quartet of films by and about women carries the program title "Women Hold Up Half the Sky." One of the most colorful in this group is "Jaisalmer Ayo! Gateway of the Gypsies" (2004), a 54-minute piece by documentarians Melitta Tchaicovsky and Pepe Ozan.

The pair spent seven months traveling with members of nomadic castes in Rajasthan, in northwest India, filming as they trekked to the capital, Jaisalmer, a 12th-century fort city on the edge of the Thar Desert. The documentary is an exploration of the challenges these people face, as well as the ethnic and cultural link between these Indian nomads and the Romany (Gypsy) peoples of Europe and around the world.

On the phone from her San Francisco Bay Area home, Tchaicovsky describes her first encounter with an Indian Gypsy: In 2001, she and Ozan were in India shooting "Ganga Ma: A Pilgrimage to the Source," about the sacred Hindu rite of traveling from the mouth of the Ganges to the Himalayan glaciers where the river begins. One day, Tchaicovsky says, "I saw this incredible woman walking by. She was wearing different clothes from the other Indian women around, different posture." The filmmaker soon discovered that the woman was part of a nomadic group that makes a living painting people's hands with henna.

Intrigued, the Brazilian-born photographer-director spoke to ethnographers and other cultural historians, all of whom believe that nomadic tribes left India about a thousand years ago -- perhaps because of war or famine -- migrating in waves throughout Asia and Europe. Jaisalmer, it is argued, was the last stop in India for migrants setting out on the Silk Road.

Tchaicovsky and Ozan filmed members of different groups whose strict adherence to the Indian caste system has, over the centuries, allowed each group to develop its own art form. Each group's specialty is the key to its livelihood, such as entertainment (storytellers and magicians), toolmaking (metalworkers) and fulfilling spiritual and cultural needs (snake charmers and henna painters). Then there are the dancers, who swivel and twirl to the sound of castanets and stringed instruments. When you see the Indian dancers, Tchaicovsky says, "You can see that they're really Gypsy."

Finding these nomadic groups was the hardest part of filming, but once located, Tchaicovsky says, "they were very open, because we were just two people traveling with two cameras, not with a crew or a lot of equipment. So the relationship and the connection was different because we were just like them." She explains that she and Ozan traveled the dusty roads atop donkeys or camel-drawn carts, sleeping on mattresses in temporary camps.

Tchaicovsky could be speaking about the mission of the All Roads festival when she explains why she makes movies: "People don't know what's all around the world. Things could be different. There are other ways of living."

See Repertory (Page 46) for a schedule of films; visit; or call 202-857-7700 for tickets and more information.

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