Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A People Uncounted (August 1st and 2nd at the Cleveland Cinematheque)

[A PEOPLE UNCOUNTED screens Friday August 1st at 5:30 pm and Saturday August 2nd at 6:45 pm at the Cleveland Cinematheque.]

Review by Pamela Zoslov

I took a trolley tour recently of Cleveland's historic Riverside Cemetery, which has a section occupied by members of the city's small Roma, (“gypsy”) community. The cemetery tour guide, wearing a tall top hat, described the gypsys' traditional burial ceremony, an hours-long rite with festive music and a lengthy procession in which the casket is repeatedly placed on the ground, then lifted, on its journey to the grave.

Such colorful lore is noticeably absent from A PEOPLE UNCOUNTED, the 2011 documentary by Canadian director Aaron Yeger about the Roma. The well made documentary's purpose is to dispel stereotypes and to tell a larger, universal story about intolerance and persecution. The filmmakers visited 11 countries, collecting personal narratives from Holocaust survivors, historians, and activists that illuminate, in fascinating and deeply disturbing detail, the little known and poorly understood history of this nomadic people who for thousands of years have endured horrific abuse. The Roma were executed by Turks during World War I, and in World War II, more than a million gypsies were murdered. Others were herded into concentration camps and subjected to hideous medical experiments. One elderly survivor emotionally recalls, in horrific detail, his torture at the hands of the sadistic Nazi doctor Josef Mengele.

The scapegoating of the Roma people persists today. Two years after this film was released, a Roma couple in Greece were accused of kidnapping a little girl, who was thought “too blond” to be their child. DNA tests confirmed that the child was Roma, and the couple had adopted her from another Roma family who were too poor to raise her. So commonplace are such accusations that a Romany writer was compelled to publish a piece in Time titled, “Actually, Stealing Children Isn't Our Favorite Pastime.

Thought by many to have originated in Romania or Hungary, the Roma actually came from the Punjab region of Northern India. (The nickname “gypsy” comes from the word Egyptian; the Roma were at one time thought to have come from Egypt.) They migrated to Persia and Armenia, then the Balkan Peninsula before splitting into smaller groups and spreading throughout Europe and Northern Africa. Roma groups now live all over the world. Marginalized and prohibited from owning property, they lived by their wits and made their livings in the trades (metalworking, woodworking) and entertainment.

The film glancingly touches on the Roma influence on popular culture (Bizet's Carmen) and the many famous entertainers of Roma origin, mentioning jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, though there are many more, like Joe Zawinul, Robert Plant, Yul Brynner, Bob Hoskins and even Adam Ant. The Roma are also well represented in the worlds of scholarship, politics, sports, art and literature.
The persecution of Roma dates back to the 15th century, when Vlad Dracul (“Vlad the Impaler”) and his son, the historical Dracula, in 1456, who used the Roma as soldiers and slaves, torturing and murdering them. Extermination of gypsies continued in the 16th century under Henry VIII and the 18th century under Holy Roman Emperor Karl VI. The savage history demonstrates the film's assertion that no group has suffered more discrimination in Europe than the Roma.

The film's primary focus is the relatively unknown story of the Nazis' program of extermination of gypsies during World War II (their solution to what Heinrich Himmler called “The Gypsy Question”). The Roma suffered alongside the Jews (“our ashes were mingled in the ovens,” says a Romani proverb), homosexuals and other “undesirables,” with mass deportations in boxcars to Auschwitz and other death camps; torture, death by mass shootings and gas chambers. Even after the war ended, many stayed in the concentration camps, having nowhere else to go. Many were forced into settlements by Communist governments.

The Roma's Holocaust agonies, which they call Porrajmos, is not well known because at the time, there were few Roma journalists, writers and filmmakers to tell their story. No Roma witnesses were invited to testify at the Nuremberg trials, and there are no Holocaust memorials for the Roma. This film, with its stark first-person narratives and historical photographs and film footage help fill that memory gap.

The Roma's persecution has persisted. The fall of Communism led to an increase in violent attacks against gypsies in eastern Europe in the 1990s. The spread of democracy, ironically, opened a fresh wave of anti-Roma sentiment, scapegoating and “Death to Gypsies” slogans sprayed on walls. Contemporary Roma families in Hungary suffer high unemployment, living in squalid tenements, 13 or 14 people in two bedrooms and water only two hours a day. And somehow, after 1,000 years, the people without a country survive. Says one woman matter-of-factly: “We're still here.” 3 3/4 out of 4 stars.


  1. A commendable memorial intent behind this film, but it told me almost nothing about "gypsy" lifestyle, social structure and beliefs. It seemed to define the Roma and Sinti almost exclusively in terms of 20th-century victimization. At least filmmaker Tony Gatlif didn't show up in the gallery of kitschy gypsy stereotypes.

  2. I agree with you, Charles; as I noted, in its effort to avoid stereotypes about gypsies, the film omitted their unique culture, which I would have enjoyed hearing about.


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