"The Day I Am Free": Actress, Writer, Civil Rights Leader, Swedish Romany Activist
By Christina Schultz
Katarina Taikon is not a typical candidate for our Women in Film series, and that is precisely why I wanted to include her. Read on to see if you agree with my choice.
I was first inspired to include Katarina Taikon because she is the subject of the documentary film Taikon from 2015, directed by Gellert Tamas and Lawen Mohtadi. I had the pleasure of seeing this film back in May as part of the Kinothek Asta Nielsen's film series entitled "Revision. The Romany Civil Rights Movement and Fight Against Antiziganism" and I found it to be a loving tribute to such a vibrant and determined woman. If you would like to learn about Katarina Taikon's life - through film footage, news clips, and interviews with Katarina, her sister Rosa Taikon and everyone who played an important role in Katarina's life - this is a great place to begin. But here is some information you can read right now to get you acquainted with this incredible woman.
Katarina was born on July 29, 1932 in Almby, Sweden into a Romany family from the Kalderash caste. Having spent her childhood living in camps and moving from place to place, Katarina lacked the stability of her own four walls and schooling. She learned to read and write in her teens, and once she was literate, it did not take long before Katarina had begun reading law books in order to fuel her fight with the Swedish government - she was determined to improve the living conditions of the Roma people in her home country. Her tireless efforts on that front, combined with her career as a (minor) actress and successful writer of children's books, made her into a national celebrity and champion of the Roma not just in Sweden, but in Europe as well.
Katarina Taikon was at the heart of every protest, civil rights demonstration and political debate, she asked the right questions, challenged the right people and pushed the right buttons to involve seemingly all of Stockholm in the fight for change. What makes this even more special, is that she did it all with such wit, charm and intensity, never resting, as if her very life depended on the fight for Roma rights.
She rightly earned the title "the Martin Luther King of Sweden."
Perhaps she eventually did pay with her life. After her decades of incredibly hard work as an activist, she tragically suffered from cardiac arrest, which resulted in severe brain damage in 1982. She eventually fell into coma and passed away 13 years later, on December 30, 1995 in Ytterhogdal, Sweden. It is hard to believe that a woman filled with such passion and vivacity could have been stopped from continuing her work at the young age of 50.
Knowing virtually nothing about her before entering the cinema that day, the film Taikon made me fall in love with Katarina. Watching her sad end, even on the big screen, I felt the pain her husband Björn Langhammer experienced as if I, too, had lost someone I dearly loved. This is what makes the documentary different from any others I have seen - or perhaps that is just the magic of Katarina Taikon.
A magic that one cannot deny in any of her endeavors. Watching her speak with Swedish politicians, and listening to her feisty interviews was a true delight. She was able to make her audiences, both big and small, laugh, hang on her every word, applaud her and, in the end, agree with her arguments. Her small roles in several Swedish films - Uppbrott (1948; click to watch the short film), Singoalla (1949), Motorkavaljerer (1950), Tull-Bom (1951), Marianne (1953), Åsa-Nisse på semester (1953), Sceningång (1956) - also leave a lasting impression because of her mesmerizing looks, her divine dancing and even her lovely singing. I also find it magical that she wrote about her upbringing in a series of autobiographical children's books, Katitzi, that teach readers self-pride (but not arrogance), dignity and compassion, important lessons at any time and place, while focusing on a group of people so often overlooked and cast aside in the world. She did not feel ashamed of her background, and because of this, the Roma had a hero in the real-life Katarina Taikon and the young girl Katitzi of her stories. She showed the world that Roma (and Sinti) women are more than just objects of desire, that they can use their intellect and fight against the injustices of the world. If that's not feminist, I don't know what is.
And by writing about Katarina Taikon, I hope to raise awareness for the issues Roma and Sinti face in the world today, to contribute, in some small way, to combating stereotypes about them, and to spread the incredible story about an incredible woman.
Taikon trailer (in Swedish)