“I am the champion of champions,” Uncle Refet said, the 70-something self-proclaimed “King of Disco” and citizen of Shutka, a tiny Roma town in Macedonia. Aside from being the champion dancer, Refet also fights for the titles of best dressed and most cultured, wearing French suits, sipping espressos and kissing women a quarter of his age. Refet is in constant competition with a man named Alfonso, who renamed himself and his wife after characters in a South American soap opera. The self-professed greatest lover of Shutka, Alfonso just fathered a son at age 75 and is determined to finally take Refet’s title of best-dressed by wearing military uniforms that he claims belonged to the deposed Yugoslavian dictator Josip Broz Tito.
Refet and Alfonso are only two of the innumerable personalities featured in the film, “The Shutka Book of Records,” a documentary about these vibrant Roma people living in the margins of society. Every citizen of the town claims to be the champion of something – their social lives are dominated by cheerful but fiercely competitive rivalries.
The Roma people (also known as Gypsies) are one of Europe’s most prevalent and overlooked ethnic groups. Spread across the entirety of the continent, living in small, sometimes nomadic communities, the Roma have historically been swift to adapt the languages and religions of their neighbors. They have also recently adopted much from the increasing influence of American culture (one woman in the film names her son, the town butcher, “Elvis”). But despite, or even because of the hodgepodge of influences, the Roma people build and maintain a dynamic and complex range of cultural practices. There is nowhere where this is in stronger evidence than the community of Shutka, also called the “Happy Valley.”
And the people of Shutka are champions in just about everything. From geese fighting to canary breeding to record collecting and exorcism, each and every citizen seems obsessed with domination of increasingly obscure areas of competition. One man featured in the film, who steals offerings from graves in the town cemetery, even proclaims himself “the champion of graveyards.” But even more fascinating than the achievements themselves is the folklore and history surrounding them. The town’s resident vampire killer tells us that cigarettes can drive off vampires, and that they can only be seen by wearing your clothes inside out and looking under another man’s arm; the town’s finest drummer, who compulsively raps on anything near him, claims he gained his talent and obsession when a genie possessed him as a child.
“The Shutka Book of Records” is a virtually unknown film, and feels more like a television special then a movie, coming in at a brisk 78 minutes. The whole event has the feel of a pageant put on by the townspeople, and the narration and interviews by Doctor Koljo, self-proclaimed town prankster and the viewers’ guide to the colorful personalities of his city, are intimate and clever.
Just like the town’s champions, “The Shutka Book of Records” is unique among documentaries. Although the poverty of the people of Shutka is always evident, it is never addressed; similarly, issues of religious and cultural assimilation abound but are never argued. It is a wonderful thing to find a documentary without any bones to pick or overtly polemic storytelling, which is a breath of fresh air. And that does not mean the film is without substance; this film is one of the simplest and most effective investigations of people – simply people – to reach screens in a long time. Like the people of Shutka’s unforgettable community, “The Shutka Book of Records” is content to be the champion of telling its delightful story.
“The Shutka Book of Records” will be screened next Wednesday, May 31, in Campbell Hall as part of the Arts & Lectures program. Tickets are $5 for students.