When Roma actress-turned-director Alina Șerban reflects on her life, rising from an impoverished background in Bucharest to become an acclaimed and groundbreaking force on stage and screen, she describes it as “an urban Cinderella story.” A review from one of her first stage shows, she says, sums it up best: “Roma actress beats the odds.”
As a multi-faceted artist, Șerban has dedicated her life and career to reframing the narrative about her marginalized community. Now she’s developing her feature-length directorial debut, “I Matter,” a deeply personal story about a young Roma woman studying to be an actor who, faced with the threat of being kicked out of her orphanage, must suddenly confront the reality of making it through life on her own.
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“I Matter” is among the projects being pitched this week at the Crossroads Co-Production Forum, which takes places Nov. 5 – 9 during the Thessaloniki International Film Festival. Written and directed by Șerban, it’s produced by Ada Solomon of Bucharest-based microFILM, whose recent credits include Radu Jude’s Locarno winner “Do Not Expect Too Much From the End of the World” and his 2021 Berlinale Golden Bear winner “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn.”
“I Matter” is based on the 2021 short of the same name, whose festival run included New Directors/New Films, the prestigious fest organized annually by Film Society of Lincoln Center and New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). In it, a poor but promising Roma student is forced to overcome her insecurities and fears while also dealing with racism and prejudice at a Bucharest theater school.
Șerban’s short — as well as her acclaimed stage work — was inspired by a childhood spent in poverty in Bucharest, where she confronted daily the discrimination against Roma people that is deeply ingrained in Romanian society. The experience, she says, had a profound and lasting impact on her ability to believe in herself.
“I remember that I wanted to be whiter. I remember not fitting in. I remember being rejected, made to feel that [I was] inferior,” she says. From an early age, however, Șerban used her imagination as a means to escape, dreaming of greater possibilities than the impoverished world around her afforded. “I didn’t accept fate. I didn’t accept the reality that was surrounding me as something I’m meant to have all my life.”
By the time she became the first member of her family to graduate from high school, Șerban was living under the care of Romania’s child protective services in a state-run orphanage in Bucharest. She was accepted into the city’s Academy of Theatrical Arts and Cinematography, where she says the racism she had grown accustomed to in her everyday life was accompanied by a withering sense of class privilege from her well-off classmates.
“I thought I didn’t deserve to be there because I didn’t do violin. I didn’t do ballet. I didn’t have parents in the arts,” she says. It was a difficult time. Her mother — who she describes as her “pillar” and “guiding light” — was incarcerated, and when her father died, Șerban didn’t have the money to give him a proper burial. “My life was in crumbles,” she says. “I had to save myself — to understand that no one was coming to save me.”
In short order, she did just that, not only graduating with a drama degree in Bucharest but attending NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and earning a master’s degree from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. When she returned to Romania, she mounted an acclaimed one-woman performance about her life’s journey. By her 30th birthday, she had written and staged a number of pioneering plays that championed a radical, feminist, Roma perspective.
Șerban soon turned her energy to the screen, playing across Benedict Cumberbatch in a supporting role in the BBC’s “The Last Enemy” and later getting her first lead role in director Marta Bergman’s “Alone at My Wedding,” which played in the ACID sidebar in Cannes in 2018. For her performance in Hüseyin Tabak’s German drama “Gypsy Queen” the following year, Șerban won best actress at the German Actors Guild Awards. She recently appeared in Goran Stolevski’s “Housekeeping for Beginners,” which premiered in Venice Film Festival’s Horizons section. Focus will be distributing the film in the U.S. with Universal Pictures handling international distribution.
She made her directorial debut in 2020 with the short film “Letter of Forgiveness,” the first film about Roma slavery written and directed from a female Roma point of view.
With her first feature, Șerban wants to channel her struggles into a film that will bring a bold and fresh perspective to the Roma experience — and also serve as an inspiration for others. “I want to turn what used to be pain and loneliness and darkness into light and togetherness. I want to empower the young people I work with, the young people that share the same background, the young people that are at risk and go through the same fear,” she says. “I want to instill in them the belief that they matter.”
She continues: “Last but not least, in a world full of exotic stories about Roma people, but very few told from our perspective, ‘I Matter,’ I hope, will present the humanity of Roma girls — will create and claim space for us.”
The Thessaloniki Film Festival runs Nov. 2 – 12.
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