Finally addressing at length the issue of an estimated half million Romani people killed by the Nazis during WWII, “A People Uncounted” joins “Paragraph 175” (about homosexuals) and the myriad documentaries related to Jewish persecution in illuminating another facet of Hitler’s Final Solution. The first nonfiction feature dedicated to Romani victims, this globe-trotting debut effort by helmer Aaron Yeger and his producing team offers a vivid mix of visual evidence, historical commentary and survivor testimonies. It’s less successful trying to integrate the struggles of today’s Roma, which merits a docu of its own. Broadcast and educational sales are likely.
Known by various names, many of them derogatory, in different territories, Roma people migrated northward from India during the Middle Ages, landing everywhere from Russia to the U.K. In some places they were forbidden to settle or own property (hence the transient image); elsewhere, they were segregated into ghettoes. Vlad the Impaler, Henry VIII and Maximilian I were among those who authorized their exile, persecution or outright murder. Yet somehow, a romantic popular stereotype of footloose freedom persisted, amusingly sketched here in a kitschy clip montage that stretches from 1944 Maria Montez vehicle “Gypsy Wildcat” to Shakira’s heavily Autotuned “Gypsy” musicvideo.
Currently Europe’s largest minority as well as the European Union’s most discriminated against, Roma are widely associated with theft and miscellaneous other misdeeds. That gives right-wing politicians and ethnic nationalist groups a license to brand them undesirables and encourage hate crimes against them. One woman is so afraid her educated, successful children will be tainted by association that she’ll only discuss her heritage while being photographed in silhouette.
Darker skin and social isolation made Roma an easy target for the Nazis, who sought to rub out the “gypsy scourge” in every nation they invaded or held as an ally. Many perished in concentration camps, while countless others were simply shot or starved to death in their homelands. Survivors of this holocaust, which claimed up to 90% of Europe’s Roma population, tell some hair-raising stories here, including one man who was subjected as a boy to Mengele’s experiments.
Yet this catastrophe was little recognized after the war. No Roma testified at the Nuremberg trials, and the minority’s lack of prominent academic and political voices (at least until recently) further obscured a tragic historical chapter. “A People Uncounted” draws parallels to other 20th-century genocides, though it somewhat belabors comparisons between Roma struggles today and the U.S. civil rights movement. The midsection’s emphasis on WWII makes the pic’s late return to current activism seem like an underdeveloped afterthought, raising so many more questions than it answers that one hopes Yeger devotes a subsequent feature to that subject alone.
That structural awkwardness aside, longtime docu editor Kurt Engfehr does a fine job shaping the pic’s narrative flow in both informative and human terms. Other notable contributions include Robi Botos’ original score, a very good standalone animated sequence, and glimpses of Auschwitz survivor Ceija Stojka’s striking paintings of her wartime experience.