Why Charlie Chaplin’s Dictator resonates with Roma refugees in Ukraine today
In the final scene of the great dictatora Charlie Chaplin dressed as a mocking Hitler speaks to a crowd: “I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be emperor.”
He continues: “It’s none of my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I would like to help everyone, if possible: Jew, gentile, black, white. We all want to help each other. Human beings are like that “We want to live from each other’s happiness, not from each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise each other. In this world, there is room for everyone.”
Eighty years later, the film by the British-born comedian resonates with the same force as when it was released in October 1940, when Nazi Germany launched its attack on Western Europe. Now, as Vladimir Putin continues a campaign of terror in Ukraine, Chaplin’s speech continues to present itself as a call against tyranny and in defense of democracy and humanity.
“The dictators free themselves but they enslave the people! said Chaplin. “Now let’s fight to keep that promise!” Let us fight to liberate the world, to eliminate national barriers, to eliminate greed, hatred and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will bring happiness to all men. Soldiers! In the name of democracy, let us all unite!
In the great dictator, Chaplin portrays a barber living in a Jewish ghetto. But he himself actually belonged to another minority: one of the largest and oldest in Europe.
Roma filmmaker: “We never started a war, yet we suffered”
Award-winning Spanish-Roma director Pablo Vega believes Chaplin’s most acclaimed film is directly derived from his own experience as a member of the Roma people, themselves “a nation without borders” oppressed for centuries.
Vega is the creator of a short film, commissioned by the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture (ERIAC) as part of its Proud Roma campaign, which seeks to shed light on Chaplin’s own Roma origins. In Chaplin’s film, he told Euronews: “All his characters send a very Romani message.
“He stands alongside the most vulnerable and oppressed. It’s from there that he draws all the values of his characters, which are shared by Roma people. In the end, the film is about love against hate. The concept of race is an invention: a fascist invention.There is no other race than the human race.
Chaplin, says Vega, “always knew” he was Roma: “But he was afraid to say so, because he was afraid that people would underestimate him. And here you can see the discrimination suffered by the Roma, simply because they belong to a certain ethnic group.”
Vega’s short film highlights the argument, advanced in the great dictator, that the most disadvantaged suffer the most horrific consequences of war. It notably features Roma actress Alina Serban, who declares: “We are peace. We never started a war, but we suffered.
“We have seen hundreds of thousands of our sisters, brothers and children die in wars started by others. Throughout our own history, we have stood up to the worst injustices. Chains have been put on our hands and feet We have been enslaved, tortured, murdered, and persecuted”.
Lessons for a contemporary conflict
Today, with the fighting in Ukraine showing no signs of abating, Roma activists and civil rights groups warned of the high cost to already disadvantaged minority groups like Roma Ukrainian citizens, who would be already victims of discrimination and prejudice within the country.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, Fernand de Varennes, recently expressed grave concerns about the plight of minorities affected by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the treatment of those fleeing the conflict.
“What worries all Roma around the world,” Vega told Euronews, “is that when you are Roma, you are refused at European borders. As Ukrainian citizens, Roma men are sent to the front lines, but their families are turned away. It’s terrible; there is a “color chart” [at the border]. This is something that should not be accepted.”
According to some reports, those at the border are sometimes made to wait longer and are often placed in separate buses and lines. Some report being labeled as “economic migrants” instead of asylum seekers, which puts them under closer scrutiny from border guards.
Roma advocacy groups monitoring the situation on the ground also report discrimination at the Ukrainian border, in access to humanitarian aid and even in shelters in refugee-hosting countries.
Anzhelika Bielova, a Roma volunteer with the European Roma Rights Centre, told Euronews: “Many Roma-Ukrainians who are still in the country do not have access to help. Sometimes they don’t know where to go to get supplies. Some do not have internet access to follow the information shared online and rely on the help of Roma volunteers. There have also been instances where residents have refused Roma aid because they assumed they did not need it and just wanted to ‘take advantage’ of the situation.”
Oleksandra Koriak from the Rights Center added: “Unfortunately there is a common idea that Roma should go through a different channel, that Roma should be cared for only by Roma volunteers and organisations.”
The ERIAC and other similar organizations have launched their own fundraisers for humanitarian support to Roma and other vulnerable victims of war. The greatest challenge remains to make the public understand that the suffering of the Roma is also their suffering.
It was also the essence of Pablo Vega’s short film. “The Proud Roma campaign is not only about empowering Roma people,” he said, “but also about our non-Roma brothers and sisters getting to know us, and the fact that we are an essential part of the European identity.
Watch the video above for a preview of Pablo Vega’s short film