Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship: Catalina Tesar

In 2007 Catalina Tesar received a Wadsworth International Fellowship to aid training in social anthropology at University College London, supervised by Michael Sinclair Stewart. After completing her Wadsworth Fellowship Dr. Tesar received a Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship to aid filmmaking on “O Taxtaj: The Chalice”. We are proud to present the following trailer and blog post.

TAXTAJ TEASER from Ciprian Cimpoi on Vimeo.

O Taxtaj: The Chalice

Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship

Romanian Cortorari Gypsies from Transylvania convey a strong commitment to the possession of specific putative objects, namely chalices (sg. taxtaj, pl. taxtaja) which were bequeathed to them by their ancestors and passed on from father to son. Though chalices are permanently tucked away in the granaries and houses of neighboring Romanian peasants, and thus invisible in everyday life, they are in fact an ubiquitous topic, stirring up passionate talks and feelings. Like the hereditary regalia of medieval European nobility, chalices are symbols of the prestige of a family, instigating machinations, theft, fights among brothers and matrimonial strategies to keep them inside the family. Chalices are central to the arrangement of marriages which is the Cortorari’s chief preoccupation at all times: parents of girls seek to marry their daughters off to grooms who own a valuable chalice, while parents of boys demand big cash dowries from the bride’s family to offset the value placed on their chalice. In reality, people are continuously challenging the hierarchy of chalices which, far from being objective, depends on their owners’ ability to boast their value. On the occasion of a marriage arrangement, the groom’s chalice is pledged to the bride’s family and will remain entrusted to them until the young couple beget a son — the ultimate guarantee of the endurance of a marriage. Therefore, there is a yearning among young couples to bring forth a baby boy to weld them together.

My PhD research — which was funded by a Wadsworth International Fellowship — resulted in a thesis titled ‘Women Married off to Chalices’: Gender, Kinship and Wealth among Romanian Cortorari Gypsies that I defended at University College London in 2013. Focusing on the articulation of gender relations with the flow of chalices in the process of marriage, the thesis adopted the stance of the generation who arranges the marriages of their children or grand-children. At the time of my PhD fieldwork, namely between 2008 and 2010, I was in my early 30s, an age at which a Cortorari woman is in the prime of her motherhood, if not already a grandmother. I was thus embraced by women of my age, which pointed my research in the direction of their understandings and representations of gender issues in relation to ceremonial wealth.

The documentary I have made as a Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship recipient gives voice to the generation that had been almost entirely left out of my PhD dissertation, namely the newly wed and especially the women in this life stage. Upon marriage, women go to live with their husbands’ families. As young daughters-in-law (bori), most of the chores in the household become their responsibility. Moreover, until they give birth to a son, newly wed women live under the continuous threat of being forsaken by their husbands and their families. They live in a limbo and often seek refuge from the harshness of their marital family into their parental family. Daughters are not desired because they bring for their parents and grandparents the prospects of paying big cash dowries to marry them off. The young couple who have already brought forth a daughter live under the pressure to bring forth a son. It is a pressure which is laid on the couple by the older generations in the extended family and equally internalized as a longing by the young couple. The son is seen as the essence of the family; he ensures both the succession of generations within the household and the passing on of the chalice to future generations. If they have a daughter and a son, parents can arrange a marriage by exchange (of daughters), and this kind of marriage ideally results in the writing off of the dowry. In case a female baby comes after a first-born daughter —and they use ultrasounds to find out the sex of the foetus — the couple resort to pregnancy termination.

The documentary follows the couple Peli and Nina, both in their mid-20s, parents to a five-year old daughter, as they strive to bring forth a son to redeem the chalice belonging to Peli’s family from the trust of Nina’s parental family. The viewer is taken along on the rough journey that the couple and their families must make as they negotiate the twists and turns of  Cortorari marriage making and breaking and engage in passionate arguments over the chalices.

In making this documentary, I took on at least three challenges: 1) I wanted it to reach beyond an anthropological audience; 2) I wanted to avoid the use of authoritative voice-over and allow the characters to speak for themselves instead; and 3) I wanted the film to help clarify and offset preconceived notions or prejudices about the Roma, so I used an inside perspective to convey the broader picture of how they live. The result is a documentary deeply grounded in anthropology yet creative. The film opens and ends with scenes featuring ceremonial events, involving big gatherings of people, a wedding and a discussion about chalices respectively. Both of these scenes stage Cortorari central cultural tropes, namely  marriages, wealth in chalices, and dowries. Between these two big scenes, we get a chance to have a close look at how the couple Peli and Nina live and experience these very cultural tropes in their everyday lives.

‘The Chalice’ is a feature-length observational and participatory documentary. Pure observational scenes entwine with non-conventional interviews in which the characters tell their private stories to the camera and to me while minding their own business. One of the secondary characters, Peli’s sister Băra – who is married to brother of Peli’s spouse (a marriage arranged by exchange of daughters) – confides her own experience as a daughter-in-law expected to bring forth a son to the camera and recounts the story of her brother’s marriage. She does so while reflecting on idioms that are central to the Cortorari universe, such as family, household, arranged marriages, and the lived condition of women. All her appearances in the film consist of indoor footage in the form of confessional interviews – in choosing this, I wanted to convey that this particular character is representative of (almost all) Cortorari women of her age and marital status. The camera never follows Băra outside of her house – as the house, and its nearby surroundings, is anyway the space to which newly wed women are confined.

Peli and Nina live under the same roof as Peli’s parents, Costică and Uca, and a sense of transience and uncertainty looms over their household, both in regard to material possessions and to human relationships. Their main source of income is the money earned by Costică and Uca begging abroad, which is little and unpredictable. Peli trained as a clown selling balloons on the streets in Italy, but the urge to conceive a son to redeem his family’s chalice has kept him coming and going between Italy and his home village. Nina’s parents have supplied livestock to her marital household, and most of the time Nina is busy looking after them. Five years have passed since Peli and Nina were matched, and Costică is impatient to get back his family chalice. He thus periodically lashes out against Nina for not having conceived a son yet, and to her family who hold his chalice. When Nina finally gets pregnant, the foetus is a baby girl and she has to go through pregnancy termination. We learn about the termination of Nina’s pregnancy from her five-year old daughter Rada who is a witness to all of her mother’s pregnancy ultrasounds. Similarly to Băra, yet less articulately than her aunt, Rada is there to make the viewer aware of the condition of women in Cortorari society. She is the symbol of the next generation of Cortorari women who will follow a life-trajectory punctuated by similar events, namely they will have their marriages arranged for them and then give birth to a son and/or resort to pregnancy termination in case they bear a girl. The arguments over chalices relentlessly bursting through the fabric of the Cortorari everyday lives – as shown in the prologue to the film – is the very source of the predictability of scripted individual life courses.

The shooting started in December 2016, when the pressure on Nina and Peli to bring forth a son turned into a genuine battle ground for their respective parental families, and stopped in November 2017, when the couple learned the sex of their baby and resorted to pregnancy termination. Throughout 2017 shooting sessions alternated with editing sessions. At the beginning of 2018 I completed a rough cut with the story line of the film.

In October 2017 I pitched the project at the ‘Romanian Docs in Progress’ Industry Section at ASTRA International Film Festival in Sibiu. My film was awarded entrance to the 2018 Outlook International Market by the head of the Industry program at Visions du Reel International Festival. This will be a great opportunity to find co-producers and distributors for my film. The documentary will be launched in the fall of 2018.

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