An Interview with Hamze Bytyci

On the occasion of his latest visit to Budapest, the Romedia Foundation team met Hamze Bytyci, a Kosovo-born Roma activist and actor from Germany on February 3rd, 2016. We had an opportunity to talk with him about various topics including his background, current European immigration politics, his art projects, initiatives and new interests.

In the current political context, where anti-immigration rhetoric is becoming stronger and stronger and where EU policies set “migrants” in contrast with “refugees”, creating a discourse that puts emphasis just on the rights of the latter group, Hamze Bytyci’s voice is an important one challenging anti-immigrant and racist political practices. Hamze was born in Kosovo in 1982 and went to Germany with his family in 1989, before the fall of the Berlin wall. The family lived in different refugee camps until 1996. Their last stop was at a refugee camp in Freiburg, where the family stayed for six years. It was only after this that they attained a permission to get a flat. It is in Freiburg that Hamze studied acting until 2001, after which he had a one-year commission at Theater 58 in Zürich, Switzerland. After the commission, Hamze moved to Berlin with his wife, where he performs and produces at Ballhaus Naunynstraße, Maxim Gorki Theater and at smaller theaters. His personal history of mobility and struggle as well as being part of the critical art culture in Germany defines Hamze’s works.

Hamze Bytyci has been involved in multiple artistic initiatives. One of the projects, Hilton-Zimmer 437, a so-called interactive talk show curated by Hamze Bytyci and TAZ magazine journalist Gaby Sohl is based on Austrian contemporary artist Joachim Eckl’s installation series. Starting from 2002, seven hotel rooms from the Hilton hotel in Vienna, bought by the artist, were dismantled and rebuilt at different places. These include Die Station, a former agricultural storehouse turned into an art venue in Neufelden, Austria [1], the apartment of a Chechen migrant family in Linz and Adria Wien, a glass pavilion on the Danube Canal in Vienna. In 2011, after exhibiting one of the Hilton rooms in Adria Wien for five months, Eckl published a call for applications to reuse it by other artists and Bytyci and Sohl’s project proposal for using it as a travelling theater was chosen as the winner. [2]

Bytyci and Gaby Sohl’s traveling theater is for Roma and non-Roma, creating the space for performance in multiple locations and contexts. Hilton-Zimmer 437 celebrates Romani identity and creates an important platform for intercultural discussion, contributing to social change in a creative and engaging way. In each episode of his series of talk shows, Hamze invites a prominent Roma personality to talk about issues they deem important. At the shows, the audience can ask questions and offer commentary. The performances are also aired as live radio shows, with the possibility of call-ins from listeners. Recently, guests included civil rights activist Rudko Kawczynski, who was invited to reflect on the impact of immigration policies on the Roma, and British artists Damian and Delaine Le Bas with whom the host addressed issues related to identity and body politics, including the taboos of transsexuality and homosexuality within Roma communities. [3] Hilton-Zimmer 437 first appeared in the summer of 2013 as a part of Filmfest Cineromani (Collegium Hungaricum Berlin), where Hamze Bytyci discussed with Gaby Sohl the role of the media in the production of prejudices about Roma. Since then, the show has been performed at Galeria Kai Dikhas, Berlin, at the art festival 48 Stunden Neukölln, Berlin and at Maxim Gorki Theater, Berlin. [4]

Hilton-Zimmer 437 at Maxim Gorki Theater, Berlin. #Antiziganist _ IN Hilton for Berliner Herbstsalon 2015 with Hamze Bytyci, Damian Le Bas & Gianni Johannes Jovanovic. Picture © Nihad Nino Pusija. Photo Shared by PRISaC Performing Romani Identities: Strategy and Critique

Hilton-Zimmer 437 at Maxim Gorki Theater, Berlin. #Antiziganist _ IN Hilton for Berliner Herbstsalon 2015 with Hamze Bytyci, Damian Le Bas & Gianni Johannes Jovanovic. Picture © Nihad Nino Pušija. Photo Shared by PRISaC Performing Romani Identities: Strategy and Critique

Moreover, Hamze Bytyci is a founder of an intercultural youth organization of Roma and non-Roma, Amaro Drom (Our Way) e.V. The goal of the organization is to create a space for political and social participation for young people through their empowerment and mobilization. [5] One of its projects is a two-year initiative JUROMA, which supports young Roma in the transition from school to work. [6]

Another organization that Bytyci has founded is RomaTrial e.V., a transcultural self-organization and interactive platform, which brings the complex issues of antiziganism on stage, screen and radio. The initiatives of the organization include Journey/Drom, in which a group of artists travel from the northern Serbian city of Novi Sad and Budapest back to Berlin researching true stories of Roma asylum seekers from the Balkans. The journey aims to expose stories of those who travel in overcrowded and unsafe vehicles or even on foot, leaving their families and roots. The collection and performances of these stories aim to go against the stereotypical and dehumanizing depiction of refugees. [7]

RomaTrial e.V. participated in six events in cultural programs of this year’s International Roma Day in Berlin. The series of events included the three-day program #ЯOMADAY at Maxim Gorki Theater [8], curated by Hamze Bytyci, as well as a rally for solidarity with the Roma and Sinti, with introductory notes by Aydan Özoğuz, Minister of State in the Federal Chancellery and Federal Government Commissioner for Migration, Refugees and Integration, a speech by Sinto Holocaust survivor Zoni Weisz, a performance by Shermin Langhoff as well as a work-in-progress presentation of the theater piece Journey / DROM mentioned above.

International Roma Day Rally 2016 in Berlin. Photograph by © Nihad Nino Pušija, Shared by RomaTrial Facebook Page

International Roma Day Rally 2016 in Berlin. Photograph by © Nihad Nino Pušija, Shared by RomaTrial Facebook Page

In addition to his theater productions and projects, which already bring together diverse artistic practices, Hamze Bytyci is an emerging filmmaker. Since 2014 Hamze has been studying documentary film at the self-organized film school Filmarche Berlin. He starred in several films, including the documentary Rosas Höllenfahrt (History of Hell, dir. Rosa von Praunheim, 2009), and Leyla (Martin Weinhart, 2003), an episode of the TV-series Tatort [9]. Morover, he directed a documentary film, Gyrbet wo ist Heimat, in 2007. Hamze is also a member of the International Romani Film Commission, which is a platform for the representation of the common interests of Romani filmmakers worldwide established after a group of independent Romani filmmakers from five different countries and their fellows met in the context of the Berlinale 2012. Hamze Bytyci takes interest in exploring how media production can expand the possibilities of storytelling and visibility of minority voices: “The camera can be one of the important weapons…to show a situation, a meaning, with our eyes. We must use this gun more often.”