'A People Uncounted': Film Review

A People Uncounted Film Still - H 2014

A People Uncounted Film Still - H 2014

This moving documentary provides a much-needed account of its little-known subject.

Aaron Yeger's documentary tells the story of the historical persecution of the Roma people.

The subjects of A People Uncounted are the Roma, better known as Gypsies, who have suffered endless prejudice, poverty and genocide over the centuries. Aaron Yeger’s enlightening, globe-trotting documentary -- it was shot in 11 countries -- brings this little-known story to light in powerful fashion, with a strong emphasis on the Nazi genocide in which an estimated 500,000 Romani people were murdered. Receiving its U.S. theatrical premiere after a lengthy run on the festival circuit, the film subtitled The Untold Story of the Roma is a valuable addition to the canon of Holocaust-themed cinema.

As the film makes clear, the Roma have been subjected to brutality for hundreds of years, suffering abuse at the hands of historical figures ranging from Vlad the Impaler to Henry VIII. The object of prejudice thanks to their dark skin and stereotypical portrayals of them as thieves and vagabonds, their suffering continues with the rise of ethnic nationalism in Europe and current lack of financial opportunities. The film includes a segment devoted to one Slovakian city in which its Roma population is 90 percent unemployed.

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The film meanders at times, touching on such subjects as the Roma’s treatment in popular culture, ranging from Bizet’s Carmen to pop songs by the likes of Cher and Shakira to their depiction as villains in an episode of Criminal Minds to such little-known historical tidbits as the fact that Charlie Chaplin was descended from British Roma.

But its chief subject is the European Roma population’s decimation during the Holocaust, with vivid testimony by many survivors whose stories are indeed horrific. An elderly woman breaks down while describing how she had to resort to cannibalism, while another survivor delivers a hair-raising account of being personally subjected to medical experiments by the infamous Dr. Mengele as a child. We learn that two concentration camps were built especially for the Roma in Czechoslovakia, with one of them now the site of a pig farm.

The film strains at times to link these horrific events with such modern-day episodes as the U.S. civil rights movement and the 1994 Rwandan genocide. And its portrayal of modern-day Roma going about their daily lives often has an awkward, ethnographic feel. A climactic montage depicts many of them smiling and dancing, heavily hammering home the point that their essential joyousness remains undiminished.

Opens May 16 (First Run Features)

Production: Urbinder Films

Director/screenwriter: Aaron Yeger

Producers: Tom Rasky, Marc Swenker, Aaron Yeger, Stephen C. Whitehead

Executive producers: Lenny Binder, Tom Rasky

Director of photography: Stephen C. Whitehead

Editor: Kurt Engfehr

Composer: Robi Botos

Not rated, 99 minutes