Monday, May 12, 2014

Aaron Yeger's A PEOPLE UNCOUNTED: The Untold Story of the Roma opens in New York City

The Roma -- or Gypsies, as you've probably heard them referred to through most of your life -- have a long and generally unsung place in world history. If you've any interest or desire to learn what this is, and to simultaneously debunk some of the factoids and clichés you've been inundated by over the decades, the not-so-new documentary (it was made in 2011), A PEOPLE UNCOUNTED: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE ROMA, should be a good place to begin. Early on, we're shown an old photograph of a beautiful young girl seen as the doors of a crematorium in the Holocaust were closing on her. It was long imagined, we're told, that the girl was Jewish. 
Turns out she was Roma.

The Holocaust, and the place of the Roma within it, proves an important part of this movie, in which we see various Holocaust survivors, their tattooed numbers still intact and hear their stories, every bit as horrible and specific as that of the Jews, about the depravity and abomination of it all. In fact, there is a little too much of this. Filmmaker Aaron Yeger (shown at left) might have either lessened the number of Holocaust tales or threaded them a little more cleverly throughout so that, midway, we don't start tiring and/or OD-ing on their horror.

In addition to helping us see the Roma in a new and different way, the movie also confronts racism of all kinds, and asks us pointedly, where does this come from? The answer is: humanity. And as is pointed out a couple of times during the course of the documentary, we must not allow ourselves to see the Holocaust and other genocides as something perpetrated by inhuman monsters who were the embodiment of evil. No, these were allowed and often helped along by the general populace who lived where the genocide occurred.

Late in the movie, one of the interviewees tells us, "Humanity is always looking for a scapegoat on whom it can blame its own shortcomings." Amen. Still, as the movie explains, statistics show that, in the European Union, the Roma is the group most discriminated against. So we get some of the reasons why this is so: for one thing, their constant movement from place to place (turns out, in certain countries, the Roma were never allowed to own any land, hence they had to keep moving).  

The talking heads range from those Holocaust survivors to writers, activists, attorneys, artists, musicians and men/women on the street. Their message, and the message of the movie-maker, is to be watchful. Racism is on the rise again, they tell us, and the best hope is to act locally because persecution begins on the local level. If it can succeed there, it moves onwards until it becomes something national. So it is up to the localities to defend those who are persecuted. 

Along the way, we get some odd, interesting bits. Did you know, for instance, that not one Roma was called to testify at the Nuremberg trials, even though half a million were slaughtered. (Well, they had no spokesperson, no organization.) Re Auschwitz: "The crematorium didn't look like a murder camp, rather it seemed like a large swimming pool." And we learn yet more of the infamous Dr. Mengele's experiments (shades of the current The German Doctor) -- which took place heavily on the Roma children. One of these kids -- now an old man (above) -- recalls what was done to him and describes it in the kind of compelling detail that renders it an out-and-out tale of torture porn.

There's a lot to be gotten from A People Uncounted, and perhaps the most important is that after viewing this movie, it'll be difficult to look at or think about "gypsies" in anything like the same way again.

The film -- another worthwhile documentary from First Run Features and running 99 minutes -- opens this coming Friday, May 16, in New York City at the Quad Cinema. Elsewhere? I don't know, but eventually, as with most if not all of FRF's films, it, too, will be available on DVD/streaming.

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