The Double Life of Vera Bila

There have been few less likely singing sensations than Vera Bila, the Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn of gypsy music. The subject of this intimate documentary about an artist trapped between her Romany roots and artistic potential, Bila is a golden-voiced and fascinatingly unhealthy-looking Slovakian Gypsy. She shares a modest flat in the Bohemian village of Rokycany with her beloved yet cranky invalid husband (“I trim his toenails with my teeth,” she admits adoringly) and an adopted son jailed for robbery. The film’s title works on two levels: Bila is Czech for “white,” while her band’s name, Kale, means “black”; a repeated song bemoans the “black-haired woman” rejected by the white world.

Contradictions abound. Celebrated in Paris and Prague, where we see her perform, Bila complains constantly about press that makes it appear as though she’s rich when she clearly is not—not if scenes of her haggling over secondhand clothes or pawning her stereo for what she claims is the 18th time are any indication. (The end of the film finds her indicted for illegally receiving state support, a charge that was eventually dropped.) Likewise, Bila wants to remain true to her Slovakian heritage but is appalled by the poverty she encounters upon returning to her native village to purchase a wife for her son. Her associates lead double lives, too: Her exasperated manager sells sausage on the side, and her drummer appears white but takes pride in being “100 percent Romany.”

“I just sing about the troubles I have,” states Bila, whose utterly blues-worthy life is remarkable to behold. And the same goes for the wildly kinetic Bulgarian Gypsy wedding band seen in Ziganska Musica. Where Black and White depicts one poignant scene after another, the short film accompanying it captures a single highly emotional wedding and the feverish music that drives it.

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