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identity Vs. Imagined Communities: The lure of the Unknown

This essay was part of a series I wrote which focused on cinematic depictions of a modern Europe struggling to deal with a new-found pan-Europeanism. In it, I wanted to explore Bendict Anderson’s theories on ‘Imagined Communities’ through the personal crises of identity experienced by two young Western European men as they interact with and incorporate non-traditional identities – as depicted in Gadjo Dilo and The Spanish Apartment. Interestingly, note that both Xavier and Stephane are played by the same French actor – Romain Duris – probably due to his awesome hair (see below).

Benedict Anderson has described national cultural identities as ‘imagined communities’. Explore the concepts of ‘place’ and ‘displacement’ in relation to an imaginary ‘home’. How does such displacement affect our understanding of national and European cultural identity?

Gadjo Dilo (Tony Gatlif, 1998) and The Spanish Apartment (Cédric Clapish, 2002) explore the effects and processes exerted on identity when it is ‘displaced’ from an imaginary ‘home’ to a new, unknown ‘place’. Through the experiences of both Xavier and Stephane, the films offer insight as to the personal, national and cultural actualities that exist on the outskirts of what Benedict Anderson calls ‘imagined communities’. A framework for the inspection of the themes present in Gadjo Dilo and The Spanish Apartment will be provided by first expanding on Anderson’s taxonomy of nations, allowing for a clearer classification of the notion of ‘imagined communities’. Next, cinema theory will be called upon to explore the idea of the other in the form of the abject, and how this relates to both films. In addition, the linguistic interplay present in both films will be explored to highlight how cultural identities are based upon language differences. Ultimately allowing for a investigation into the struggle for an individual, non-aligned identity by Western Europe’s young adults, as portrayed by Xavier and Stephane.
Communal identities
Anderson’s assertion about an ‘imagined political community’ is further clarified by expanding on three aspects of such communities; the imagined cohesiveness, the limited nature of its constituents and the sovereignty of its actions (1991, 5-7). Encompassed by a flexible yet finite demographic, imagined communities create simple characterisations of the other against which the importance of sovereignty can be measured. Whether a community is made up of tens of millions of people or by the population of a small village, that community is ultimately predicated on the fundamental sameness of identity of each member, regardless of actual differences amongst the individuals (ibid.).
Thus, the apartment in The Spanish Apartment is a direct allegory of the EU and its multifaceted and multileveled machinations (this will be expanded upon later). In other words – when viewed through Anderson’s framework – the apartment holds a finite number of ideologically and culturally non-identical people, all of whom have accepted a combined imaginary identity that then forms the projected identity of the entire group. Viewed as an imaginary community, the students’ ability to coerce the landlord into maintaining their apartment lease can be seen as enactments of the group’s sovereignty. Finally, the group’s community is based upon an understanding of itself, imaginary or not. This is manifested in the difficulties the students have in incorporating Wendy’s brother into their group. In reality, Wendy’s brother is no more different to them than what any one of them is to  another – yet, as an ‘imagined community’ within the apartment has already been established, the intrusion of an outside element is seen as unwelcome.
To fortify, or not to fortify
The European Union (EU) has expanded the ‘imaginary community’ of Europeans into the hundreds of millions, creating a vast amalgam of fundamentally different cultures under the umbrella term of Europe, with the community in this sense being not one of a particular nation but of a continent. Indeed, ‘Fortress Europe’ is often cited as the negative extreme of this unification process (Gebrewold-Tocholo, 2007: 10). Due to the EU being made up of countries of varying socioeconomic potentialities and ultimately self-centered national ideologies, a combined effort to redistribute and allocate incoming refugees or immigrants unceremoniously fails. Leading to the development of border-sensitive foreign policy implemented by individual countries veiled under the guise of aiding all EU members. However, Fortress Europe not only locks out, it also contains within.
On a metaphorical level, when the ‘home’ becomes a ‘fortress’, those on the margins or those seeking an individual identity may see the home become a self-propagating ‘prison’ of identity, leveling in ‘horizontal comradeship’ an Us vs. Them discourse (Anderson, 1991: 7). Suffocated and stifled in the metaphysical no-mans land, those individuals who wish to break free must do so at their own behest and must actively find the edge of the unknown to discover different actualities. Xavier turns to the ‘Auberge Espagnol’ to discover the limits of the fortress from within. Stephane examines the confines of Europe and thus european cultural identity by associating with Europe’s traditional Other, the Roma (‘Roma’ is the hegemonic descriptor for Gypsy people and culture), from outside the fortress. Only by the displacement of their physical selves from their ‘home’ and comfort do they realise the possibilities open to them. They become aware of the walls surrounding their identity through contact with the unknown.
The excitation of the Unknown
The unknown presented in the films is fundamentally cultural, not psychological, and allows Xavier and Stephane to appreciate other national and European cultural identities. Film theory provides us with the theory of the abject (Kristeva, 1982: 4), which describes the attraction of that which is different, perverted, manipulated, inverted and disturbed. The ‘abject’ is therefore that which may do one of three things: firstly, through the process of destabalisation, the abject allows a critical discourse to develop through which the familiar can be analysed and scrutinised. Secondly, in coming into contact with the familiar, the abject destabalises order and boundaries, producing malleability and disturbing notions of what is accepted and non-accepted, hence the abject creates the possibility for change by making the unfamiliar familiar. Lastly, coming into contact with the abject allows for a reaffirming and restating of that which is finally deemed familiar, as opposed with that which is ultimately unfamiliar.
Gadjo Dilo and The Spanish Apartment deal with the themes of cultural uncertainty and the struggle for identity within an firmly European cultural milieu. It is within this narrow perspective that the abject shall be applied.
Considering this narrow perspective where that which is different, as in Gadjo Dilo, is simply another culture, or as in The Spanish Apartment, where it is the result of many different cultures, then we may say that the abject is the excitation of the unknown, the reaffirming or the reshaping of one’s identity through contact with the Other 1.  In this space of meta-physical displacement, identities are fluid and cultures collide (Kristeva, 1982: 6). In this sense, both Stephane and Xavier are drawn in by the pull of the Other in an unconscious attempt at challenging their current notions of self or to reaffirm their past ideas of identity.
Gadjo Dilo and The Spanish Apartment therefore present two different interactions with the Other. Stephane is plunged into the Roma culture – the traditional Other of Europe – while Xavier’s encounters in pan-European Spain is modern, and reflects the changing cultural sterility paradigms precluded by the establishment of the European Union. Both men’s experiences reflect this underlying difference and so both will be examined individually.
Gadjo Dilo portrays Stephane’s transformation from displaced outsider amongst the Roma –  to his final integration and assimilation into the Roma clan. In the process the film suggests that losing one self and finding another self are simultaneous processes. It is by recognising the other as another self that one’s imagined community is finally recognised for what it is: a mental construct. Guided by his father’s recordings, Stephane is initially obsessed with retracing and recording the sound of ‘pure’, untouched Roma music. However, Stephane’s relationship with Sabina is, among other things, a symbol of his gradual shift of identity. She has been to Belgium and can speak French, and this makes her embody Stephane’s cultural future. In being attracted to her, he proves his attachment to the quest he is undertaking – a quest initially personal since he is trying to find his father by following his footsteps, but which then becomes cultural as Romain discovers Sabina, his female alter ego, and Izidor, his displaced father. His quest comes full circle and jumps back to the personal when Stephane finally feels entitled to bury his father at the end of the film in a Gypsy fashion with a ritualistic dance of vodka and emotion. Stephane goes beyond simplified cultural visions of the other – such as the fetishisation of the song on his father’s tape – or the ideal of a “pure cultural artefact” – which he initially displays when he stops Sabina from getting vocally involved during a recording session. By going beyond these imagined realities, Stephane realises he had been imagining his father, his nation, the gypsies and himself – rather than accepting them for what he knew or did not know of them. In finding the Roma, he loses some of his delusions and finds both his missing father and himself. Releasing himself of the burden of his pre-conceptions, his final burial dance symbolises the burning of his French identity, as Stephane discovers and assumes his new Roma persona.
The process of identity upheaval presented in The Spanish Apartment is fundamentally one of re-discovering for Xavier; and therefore differs from Gadjo Dilo in its reading of the results gained from the chaotic plunge into the Other. Xavier remembers his childhood passion for writing, reconnecting with a long-dormant identity hidden by years of cultural insulation and suppression. Xavier’s ‘displacement’ provides his artistic childhood identity with a metaphorical home-coming – allowing him to then fully comprehend his physical place in the new home presented by the apartment. Thus, by experiencing the possibilities at the edge of the unknown, Xavier can identify with everyone in the apartment by rejecting his prior French bourgeois mentality.
Language as Identity
Both films preset much of their cultural commentary through the importance placed on language and dialogue. The original French title for The Spanish Apartment is L’Auberge Espagnole, essentially translating to ‘Spanish Pudding’ or ‘Spanish Melting-Pot’. The title’s original meaning more adequately highlights the environment presented within the film; the teeming, bubbling brew of culture clash; the hodgepodge soup of composited identities. When Xavier first enters into this world he is immediately struck by the linguistic interplay of the various housemates. The charmingly pointless initial argument concerning Xavier’s peculiarities endears his future flatmates to him. The multilingual discord only increases his willingness to stay, as he finds a reflection of his own mind in this international cacophony. The Spanish title for the film, Una Casa de Loco – literally, ‘A Madhouse’ – places further emphasis on the make-up of the house.
In a similar way, Gadjo Dilo literally means ‘Crazy Stranger’ – by the films climax, Xavier is no longer the stranger but rather a member of the Roma clan. This is shown through his gradual appreciation for Romany swearwords, and then his use of Romany expressions of love, as taught by Izidor. Deconstructing Stephane’s own notions of cultural sterility, the direct and at times graphic dialogue present in the film eventually finds its way into Stephane’s lexicon. Phrases such as ‘suck my cock with polenta’ or ‘eat my pussy’ are at odds with Stephane’s initially polite, Western European identity. Yet he utilises them with a very Roma-like social abandon – even to directly insult Izidor – as a means and representation of his ever strengthening new-found identity. Deconstructing Stephane’s pre-conceived notions of European social and cultural norms, the film’s dialogue highlights the need for understanding and acceptance of uncommon verbal constructions and encourages Stephane to learn from that exchange in much the same way as Izidor learns from him.
In much the same way, Xavier learns more and more Catalan, English, German and Italian, enabling him to liberate himself from the restraints of his French identity and assume a more pan-European notion of self. Ultimately, Xavier identifies with everyone from within the apartment: ‘I am French, Spanish, English, I am not one but many, I am like Europe, I am all of this…Fuck, I’m a real mess’. Stephane identifies with Europe’s traditional Other, assimilating into the Roma clan, becoming Izidor’s ‘son’ and Sabina’s lover. Both escape the shackles of established national identities and struggle to create their own. Through their displacement each reacts differently, providing a different insight into the struggle for individual identity within an ‘imagined community’.
Gadjo Dilo and The Spanish Apartment both exemplify how, with displacement, ‘home’ – a condensed version of one’s imagined community – ceases to be an overarching, invisible mental framework and becomes a visible (and therefore controllable) part of one’s identity. The white noise of cultural identity must be tackled, as does Xavier with his changing behaviour towards his mother and his girlfriend. In Gadjo Dilo the process is less explicit since Stephane does not have to cope intermittently with his home. As a result, the process is internal to the character and can only be deduced from his ability to let his old ways of being vanish in favour of a more local life style.
As they leave the delusion of their imagined community, Xavier and Stephane find an opportunity to lose themselves just long enough to meet their cultural other. Both, at first, adopt a rather neutral attitude to the world they dive in and only after a while do the regain a personality. In Gadjo Dilo, it starts with Stephane creating a gramophone, while in The Spanish Apartment, Xavier slowly finds his position in the group, learning from some (such as Isabelle) and teaching others (such as Wendy or Anne-Sophie).
Eventually a new home is found, with its idiosyncrasies and invisible habits, but the cultural illusion of a one-dimensional community is forever gone, as is the confusion between one’s personal quest with one’s cultural identity. However, this process is strongly connected to the deep-seated nature of west-European identities: the complete absence of cultural insecurities allows the displaced to separate him or herself from it. Conflicted, mixed or “young”  identities will surely experience displacement in radically different ways, possibly having to find the personal through the cultural rather than through the disruption of the cultural. Ultimately highlighting the actualities at the edge of the unknown.

Anderson, Benedict, 1991, ‘Introduction’ in Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Verso, 1-9
Gebrewold-Tocholo, Belechew, 2007, ‘Threats From Africa’ in Africa and Fortress Europe, Ashgate Publishing, 1-21
Kristeva, Julia, 1982, ‘Approaching Abjection’, in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Columbia University Press: New York, 1-32

Gadjo Dilo (Tony Gatlif, 1998)
The Spanish Apartment (Cédric Clapish, 2002)


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