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Sunday, May 11, 2014

Film Review: A People Uncounted

A People Uncounted documents the rarely told story of the Roma, with a focus on the Holocaust as well as on more recent events. I knew very little about the Roma before watching this documentary. There was an episode of The Practice that dealt with arranged marriages within the Romani traditions, but most of what we hear about them in popular culture is that fanciful image of them as “Gypsies.” Rarely do we hear about the realities of their struggles and the discrimination they face.

The film opens with small portions of interviews, including one woman who shows the tattooed number on her arm. She tells us: “‘Z’ for ‘Gypsy,’ 6399. I stood in front of the crematorium twice myself. But the Zyklon-B they needed was empty.” And we see a famous photograph of a girl on a train just before the door is shut, and learn that she wasn’t Jewish but a Gypsy. When we think of the Holocaust we tend to focus almost entirely on the atrocities committed against the Jewish people. And sometimes we forget there were other groups the Nazis wanted to wipe out.

We then are taken to a district in Kosice, Slovakia, where Roma currently live, and it’s a horrible area, full of trash. Jaro Kerner, the public relations officer of the city of Kosice, explains that the people living in these buildings have water only twice a day for a total of four hours. The problem is unemployment, and the discrimination the Roma people face. And not just there, for we learn that the vice mayor of Milan declared Milan a “Gypsy-free zone” in 2010, where many Roma were evicted from their homes. (I would have liked a little more information on this.)

The film delves a bit into the popular images of the Roma in films and music, where they are seen as musicians and dancers. (Singer Shakira, in her song “Gypsy,” sings “I might steal your clothes and wear them if they fit me.”) Bill Bila, a Romani activist, explains that “gypsy” is a misnomer, derived from “Egyptian” because Europeans believed the Roma had migrated from Egypt. The film is kind enough to provide definitions of both “Roma” and “Sinti” as well. The Sinti are the subgroup of Romani people living in Germany and surrounding areas (and were people who were rounded up and removed from Berlin before the 1936 Olympics).

Regarding the dominant image of the Roma as nomadic, Bill Bila points out: “In the Austrian part of the empire, Roma were not allowed to own land, so they had to travel. They went from town to town looking for work.” But not all Roma traveled. He says, “In Hungary, they were required to be settled.” What strikes me is that in both cases they were told what to do by law, not by their own choice.

As I mentioned, a good deal of this documentary focuses on the destruction of the Romani people during the Holocaust. There are interviews with several Holocaust survivors, and some of the details these folks provide are shocking (yes, even now, even after hearing of Nazi crimes for decades). The material on Doctor Mengele’s experiments on Roma children is horrifying. One survivor describes his experience. (Though I really wish the interviewer had pressed the issue a little more, and asked just exactly what was done, and how he managed to survive.) Likewise, the stuff about Eva Justin (and her studies on Romani children) is incredible. I knew nothing about that before, and the fact that she continued working until her death in 1966 is appalling.

The film really focuses on genocide (the term “genocide” was coined by a Polish lawyer in 1944 to describe the Holocaust). This is, for me, when the film becomes really fascinating, when it points out the signs that lead to attempts at genocide, and ties in what happened during the Holocaust with what is happening in Hungary and other places today. There is a political campaign ad from 2010 in which someone asks, “Are Gypsy criminals allowed to do whatever they want?” More disturbing is footage of a political speech in which is said people “should not endure the Gypsy terror.”

The film focuses on the persecution of the Roma, but does not provide much in the way of details on their beliefs or practices as a culture. Though that information seems outside the intended focus of the film, I think a little more would have helped my understanding of the Roma, and certainly would have been appreciated.

A People Uncounted was directed by Aaron Yeger. It opens in New York City on May 16, 2014. 

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