Alina Serban: The fight for Roma equality and representation will never truly end

Alina Serban: The fight for Roma equality and representation will never truly end

Actress Alina Serban recently became the first Roma woman to receive the distinguished Order of Cultural Merit, awarded by the President of Romania. This award recognises her contributions to the arts, her advocacy for Roma identity, and her stand against racism.

Alina’s journey from the outskirts of Bucharest to the spotlight of Romania’s cultural scene is a testament to resilience and determination. Her life, marked by personal challenges from a young age, has fuelled her advocacy and storytelling, shining a light on the Roma community’s struggles and triumphs. Her portrayal of Ali in Gipsy Queen earned her the title of Germany’s Best Actress in 2020, highlighting her exceptional talent.

With an academic background that includes studies in New York and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, Alina has used her platform to challenge stereotypes and inspire change. Her work in films like I Matter and Letter of Forgiveness continues to push for representation and narrative inclusivity.

Join us as we explore the life and work of the inspirational Alina Serban, fighting for a world where diversity is celebrated.

For International Roma Day, read our exclusive interview with Alina, in which she shares insights into her journey, the impact of her recognition, and her vision for diversity, equality, and inclusion in the arts.

Can you share with us a bit about your journey to becoming a celebrated actress and filmmaker? What inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?

Alina Serban: Obviously, these are very complex questions. But just trying to answer them in a short way. I grew up in a world where I didn’t see myself represented. I dealt with and I am still dealing with feelings of inferiority and self hate, due to the bullying and discrimination I have faced,  due to the poverty and the traumas that I have dealt with in my life.

I really wanted to give healing, first of all, to myself. I wanted to answer this lack of knowledge that unfortunately still exists today. In the last 15 years, I tried to build a bridge between us so that we can see that we have more things in common than what differentiates us.

As a Roma woman in the film and theatre industry, how do you navigate the challenges of representation? What changes do you hope to see in the industry regarding the portrayal of Roma people?

Alina Serban: I am still a work in progress as a human and an artist. I don’t have all the solutions, but I continue to face overwhelming challenges. I try not to give up despite feeling vulnerable as a Roma woman, director and actress, especially as I grow older. I’m 36 now, and I can see that age will also play another vulnerable point in my navigation.

I definitely dream of the moment when we see a diverse representation of Roma people, not only Roma but from all the communities that are passing by on the street, whom we may struggle to empathise with, unfortunately, because we don’t know them. So, hopefully, I just wish for better access to resources for many more artists, so that the stories that we hear will be diverse.

Winning the Order of Cultural Merit is a prestigious honour. How do you feel this recognition has impacted your career and advocacy for Roma inclusion?

Alina Serban: It’s very early to say what impact it will have on my career or mission. It just happened three weeks ago. I just hope it holds meaning beyond symbolism and that it will further my goals in a meaningful way. I am proud and honoured by this recognition and it makes me more responsible.

Of all the projects you’ve worked on, is there one that you feel most proud of or that you believe has had the most significant impact on Roma representation in the arts?

Alina Serban: I don’t think there is one specific project that stands out above the rest. Each project is important in its own right, with its unique story to tell and share. I couldn’t choose between the theatre play The Best Child In The World, which is performed at The National Theatre of Bucharest or the projects on the theme of slavery: the theatre play called The Great Shame or the film Letter of Forgiveness.

These are just the beginnings of the stories that I didn’t get to see the world as I wished. I am looking forward to sharing these projects with the public, especially Gypsy Queen, which holds great importance for me. Despite not having had the chance to meet the public in Romania due to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the positive feedback from the international audience gives me the energy and inspiration to continue fighting for this project.

Looking ahead, what are your main goals or visions for the future in terms of your career and your activism for Roma rights and representation?

Alina Serban: To be honest, the fight for equality and representation will never truly end. I may need to rest along the way, but my goal is to continue working towards these causes for many years to come. I aim to approach my work with more wisdom. After 15 years of struggles, I feel the need to find some sustainability in my work, to gain better access to resources and by building stronger allies, I hope to make a greater impact with my work.

]Securing sponsorships, I hope to bring Gipsy Queen to Romania in the near future. I hope to bring it to schools, to universities, to orphanages. I hope to have tears of joy at the premiere of Gipsy Queen in Romania. I also aspire to direct my first feature film. I hope at The National Theater to be eligible for other projects, not only as a Roma, because sometimes this is very limited as an artist. Hope I will be taken into account. I hope I will get more allies, so I can reach more people.

From your experience, what are the key barriers to equality, diversity, and inclusion in the creative industry, and how can they be overcome?

Alina Serban: The creative industry is a reflection of society. Because we suffer from systemic racism and inequality, there are significant barriers that prevent many young people, especially from minority backgrounds, from accessing education and opportunities in the arts. The arts is still an elitist world, created for people who can afford it. Hence my struggle to enter the artistic world and remain an artist. There is still much work to be done to break down these barriers and create a more inclusive industry.

By recognising the power of storytelling to bring people together and combat bullying and discrimination, we can use the arts as a tool for positive change. It is essential for the industry to acknowledge its lack of diversity, in the sense that they are majority white, upper class, middle class and they should take active steps to be more inclusive.

There is a collective responsibility to work towards a more equitable and diverse creative landscape and I invite you to join us as allies in this important journey.

What advice would you give to young Roma and other minority artists who are just starting out and hoping to make their mark in the arts?

Alina Serban: I would say that there is still much work to be done to create a more inclusive creative arts space. However, it is now a bit easier than it was 15 years ago when I started, thanks to the internet. Artists no longer need as much institutional invitation to showcase their work. Now, you can reach more people more easily.

I have seen many talented voices making a significant impact. My advice would be to stick to your uniqueness, your unique voice, your unique mark and continue to explore and investigate it until you fully understand it. Share it with the world and strive for finesse. And most importantly, never stop, keep pushing forward.

Are there any artists, filmmakers, or activists you are keen to collaborate with to further the cause of diversity and inclusion in the arts?

Alina Serban: I have collaborated with several artists from different domains who have truly inspired me and made my vision broader. Currently, I am participating in the European Young Leaders program, as one of the 40 selected young leaders. It has been an amazing experience to be in the room with people who, as well, are passionate about addressing issues in their communities.

I am eager to continue working on my first feature with talented artists who challenge and inspire me. During the last years, collaboration with other female artists has greatly influenced my work and helped me grow as an artist. There are a lot of people I dream of working with, so, wish me luck!

How important is it for you to incorporate elements of Roma culture and heritage into your work, and how do you balance this with a desire to reach a broader audience?

Alina Serban: This is a crucial question and I appreciate it. As a director and storyteller, I strive to share stories that are close to my heart and reflect my Roma culture and experiences. This is what I need, this is what I know, this is what is missing. While my focus is on Roma stories told from Roma perspective, without the exotification the non-Roma are sometimes looking for, I have found that these stories resonate with a wider audience because they speak to universal human experiences.

I am working at telling my stories in a universal way. I have performed in various places around the world (from Congo last year, to New York, San Francisco, Paris, Berlin, UK) and have seen how people from different backgrounds connect with my work. This is me as a storyteller and my commitment to putting Roma stories in the world. As an actress, I am open to playing diverse roles that may not necessarily be connected to the Roma community.

As an actress, I am constantly seeking new challenges and opportunities to grow as an artist. I am looking forward to working with directors that push me in directions that I don’t even know.

Can you give us a sneak peek into any upcoming projects you’re working on that continue to promote the themes of equality, diversity, and inclusion?

Alina Serban: These themes have been present in all my projects. It is a crucial part of my work and mission, so it’s not even questionable that I start with this mission in any project that I do. I hope to invite you all one day to the Gipsy Queenpremiere in Romania, I am currently campaigning to raise funds in order to pay for distribution rights so I can showcase it in cinemas and reach as many people as possible.

I am also working on my first feature film. And I have a theater play that is performing at the National Theater of Bucharest, I invite you all to see The Best Child In The World. Lastly, on the 1st of June, which is the National Day of Children, I am organising my third Gala for Institutionalized Youth. The kids I work with, who come from orphanages, will be performing a theater play written and performed by them. At the Gala, you will also watch a film about the experiences of girls who have been in institutional care. I am excited to invite you all to join us there.