When Cher playfully sang about “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” back in 1971 there’s no way she could have known that despite the colourful depictions of the Romani people we’re used to seeing in film and on stage, they’re a people that have quickly become the most persecuted in the European Union.
The film, which screens as part of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, tells the story of the monumental tragedy suffered by the estimated half million Roma who were systematically murdered by the Nazis during WWII. Through harrowing accounts by the survivors (one by a man who suffered terrible medical experiments at the hands of the infamous Nazi “doctor” Josef Mengele is especially heart wrenching), director Aaron Yeger pieces together the Roma history and aims to show the rest of the world that despite the past and on-going racism and genocide they endure, the culture is determined to persevere.
As well as being an eye-opening look at the many human rights violations inflicted on the Roma in recent years, Yeger takes great pains to thoughtfully recount the history of the culture, from their migration to Europe from India during the Middle Ages, to the root of their transient image coming from the fact that they were forbidden to settle or own property to their exile, persecution and murder by historical figures such as Vlad the Impaler and Henry VIII. It’s horrifying and mind-boggling that few of these facts are common knowledge. It’s also maddening to see how the stereotypes of the Roma being either lazy thieves or footloose, hippie-like wanderers have persisted through the centuries to the point that many right-wing politicians and ethnic nationalist groups believe it’s entirely acceptable to preach about their undesirable status and encourage hate crimes against them.
The many interviews with Holocaust survivors, Roma historians, academics specializing in the sociology of genocide, and human rights activists are woven through archival footage taken during the war, driving home the fact that the Roma and Jewish people have much in common.
Yeger also explores the intriguing idea that human atrocities only take place when the community allow them to and he draws comparisons to the more recent tragedies in Cambodia, Rwanda and Darfur. He also hypothesizes that what happened in the “˜40s could very well happen again and that the Roma people would be the most likely targets. The academic discussion is all skillfully intertwined with the personal stories of the survivors, creating a deeply moving mix of both the emotional and analytical realities facing one of the world’s largest minority groups or as the film reminds us, a people uncared for, un-noticed…uncounted.
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