Wednesday, 31 July 2013

A PEOPLE UNCOUNTED - Review By Greg Klymkiw - The most vital portrait of genocide since Lanzmann's SHOAH.

A People Uncounted (2011) ****
Dir. Aaron Yeger

Review By Greg Klymkiw

That genocide continues to be perpetrated in the modern world seems almost unfathomable and yet the 20th Century and now, as we move into the new millennium, we still bear witness to the seeds of hatred being sown to continue the wholesale slaughter of people in the millions - based solely upon race, ethnicity, religion and even economics (the latter typified by the aggressive military actions of Western regimes as they pillage the Middle East in the name of a purported "war on terror").

After the Holocaust had been perpetrated against European Jews by Hitler during World War II, we often encountered the phrase: "We must NEVER forget, lest it happen again." Yet we do FORGET and in many cases, "we" do not even know or adequately acknowledge the existence of genocide being perpetrated against so many groups throughout the world - the Turkish genocide of Armenians, Stalin's purges and Holodomor against 10,000,000 Ukrainians, the recent and various "ethnic cleansings" within the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda's decimation of Tutsis by the Hutus - to name but a few.

The most egregious myopia of genocide continues to be the murder of up to 1,500,000 Romani people by the Nazis.

Aaron Yeger's A People Uncounted is an important film - the most vital documentary on the subject of genocide since the groundbreaking Shoah by Claude Lanzmann. Yeger's superbly researched and emotionally wrenching film focuses upon the racism and genocide against the Roma Nation - commonly and disparagingly referred to as "Gypsies." This distinct cultural group originally migrated from Northern India to the rest of the world - primarily Europe - over 1000 long years ago. They are, as the title of this film states, a people who have been "uncounted".

My response to Yeger's film included, I must admit, a deeply personal connection to the material that only managed to strengthen my belief in the film's unquestionable artistic achievements as I was reminded, once again, that the best cinema must always maintain a passionate voice that speaks to viewers emotionally on a variety of personal levels. A People Uncounted has this strength in spades.

I had always been sensitive to a myriad of repressive and racist attitudes to "gypsies", but it really hit home for me - personally - during the mid-1990s. This was when I first became aware of the racist policies towards the Romani people in Romania. They stemmed officially from the dictator/butcher Nicolae Ceausescu, then continued in a vaguely unofficial fashion after his death.

One of the results of Ceausescu's legacy was an almost nationwide hatred of the Roma with vigourous campaigns to drive an already impoverished minority ethnic group (the poverty not their choice, nor, as was commonly assumed, of their own doing) into a position of even greater desperation. A combination of death by starvation (parents sacrificing food to feed their children) and the belief that their children would be better off in the care of orphanages, led to the almost unbelievable situation where 80% of the orphanage populations in Romania were comprised of Romani children.

My wife and I were so appalled by this that we targeted Romania and began the arduous process of international adoption with the hopes we might make a difference in the lives of one or two Romani kids. After a whole year of endless bureaucracy on the Canadian side to receive the official go-ahead on behalf of our own government, we began the process of moving further with the assistance of agencies specializing in Romanian adoptions.

After attending several orientation sessions with a variety of agencies we were shocked to discover that the racist attitudes towards the Romani extended even to Romanian-Canadians who presided over the adoption facilitation. Whenever we expressed our desire to adopt children of Roma background, our requests were met with - at worst, derision and at best, lies. "Oh no," we'd be told, "There are no Romani children in the state orphanages of Romania." The lies seemed almost more despicable than the open hatred when, after considerable research we discovered that orphanages in Romania would go so far as to hide all the Romani children when westerners came to visit the orphanages.

The few who were sympathetic to our desire - those doing mission work as opposed to straight-up adoption agencies - corroborated the research. They would cautiously admit it was not impossible to adopt children of Roma heritage, but that in reality it would be near-impossible. They painted a portrait of endless bureaucratic gymnastics, coupled with forking over insane amounts of bribe money and then - more often than not - still the possibility existing of ending up childless or being offered non-Romani children.

It was even suggested that orphanage officials might falsify medical records in order to offer a non-Romani child that was stricken with some debilitating ailment that would be enough for our own government to reject the child on medical grounds. This, of course, would be done out of spite that someone from the west would dare be compassionate towards children viewed as little more than cockroaches.

That put an end to that and we moved on, but a day doesn't go by that the thought of all those children forced to suffer in state-run orphanages doesn't hang over me - a living death perpetrated on innocents whose only crime was to be hated.

Seeing Yeger's film opened the floodgates of those haunting personal memories and in a way, opened an even deeper wound within me. I had always felt an added affinity to those in Eastern Europe and the Balkans who suffered from racism, oppression and systematic genocide and culturally, as a Ukrainian-Canadian, I felt closer, for example, to the Roma and Jews than Russians, even though the language, cultural traditions and religion of Russia was oddly closer to that of Ukrainians than the others, but those similarities were surface only. The weight of one thousand years of Russian (and occasionally Polish, Mongolian, Turkish and Austro-Hungarian) tyranny almost forces one to inadvertently choose sides with those whose collective suffering match one's own.

And what degrees of suffering Yeger's film exposes!

He introduces us to a variety of Romani Holocaust survivors and children of said survivors amidst commentary from a number of scholars, artists and experts who paint a portrait of a people who were continually hated and on the receiving end of prejudicial acts based upon utterly idiotic sterotyping. The most common is that "gypsies" were liars, cheaters and thieves and that these traits were somehow genetic. This not only led to a history of persecution in every country in which they settled, but often resulted in wholesale slaughter.

The other common stereotype was the itinerant nature of "gypsies". Well, I'd be "itinerant" too if I was forced to either live on the fringes because of my race or worse, forced to ALWAYS be on the move as no town or country was amenable to having me live there - again, because of my race. These stereotypes were often enforced in the literature, art and popular culture of the "dominant" societies/races - mostly in blatant negative terms.

Typically, when artists chose to paint positive portraits of "gypsies", it almost always fell into the "noble savage" stereotypes (similar to those popularized in North American cultures with respect to Aboriginal peoples). In these works (which included even the likes of Victor Hugo) we were presented with a downtrodden people who cavorted about their den of happy thieves in brightly coloured costumes - infused with a "life force" of cheap alcohol, lively dancing, fiddle-playing, sooth-saying and almost childlike superstition. (Michael Ignatieff, Canadian politician, privileged egghead and grandson of a Russian Count once described Ukrainian culture in terms of "embroidered peasant shirts" and "the nasal whine of ethnic instruments.")

In addition to the Nazi atrocities perpetrated against the Roma during World War II, Yeger presents a variety of horrendous actions and violence from ALL European peoples - not just Germans. We are even introduced to contemporary actions of racism - some of which seem all too believable in a kind of almost unbelievable fashion: entire political parties devoted to eradicating and controlling the "scourge" of "gypsies", huge ghettos to keep Romani in their place (not unlike reservations for North American First Nations peoples) and overall hatreds intense enough to inspire those Roma who can, to escape European persecution and emigrate to countries like Canada where they can live free and decent lives.

The core of Yeger's film, however, are the war crimes against the Roma during World War II. Yes, "gypsies" got their own special "final solution". Hitler wanted them to be obliterated as passionately as he wanted to rid the world of Jews and homosexuals.

The witnesses presented to us deliver acts of cruelty so sickening that the film is another vital, important document of the utter inhumanity of these actions. We see an entire people who are stripped of their humanity (where it might even be grudgingly acknowledged as such) and subjected to torture and extermination. Death squads that don't even bother to round people into boxcars, drag them out into the streets and execute them, or force them to dive into huge pits where they're machine-gunned to death and appalingly, in non-German countries, the actions of the Nazis are seen as accepted by local communities - a welcome extermination of little more than pests.

Finally, though, as the title of the film suggests itself, we are presented with the reality of the fact that the suffering of the Roma is unknown and/or unacknowledged. These people were considered so inhuman that proper census records were never even kept to be able to place a remotely accurate count of how many Romani people existed to be fodder for Hitler's final solution. For many years, an image of a young woman looking out from a boxcar had become a symbol specifically of the Shoah until she was eventually identified as a "gypsy".

Not that it ultimately mattered. One Roma survivor describes the mingling of Jewish ashes with those of the "gypsies," suggesting that all who died before, during and after World War II, did so in the name of what must surely be the most heinous human act. Ultimately, genocide, based as it is in both ignorance and hatred, is what surely binds all of us as victims or potential victims.

And yes, we MUST remember. As people, the count is what roots genocidal actions in reality and it is thoroughly and utterly unacceptable for any people to remain "uncounted" in the past, present and future histories of mass murder of staggering proportions.

To think any of us is immune from being either the target or perpetrator of genocide is to ignore how much work our species still needs to do in order to ensure it never happens again.

For me, it always comes back to the children. Children are the future and when they are not spared these indignities, we might as well be killing ourselves. One of the survivors in Yeger's film describes the actions of Josef Mengele upon him. Mengele not only conducted medical experiments of the most insane variety, he took special delight in carving up children with no anasthetic. The screams of the children not only gave him pleasure, but he was not immune to torturing a child so high-ranking Nazi colleagues could take his place in the room and rape the children while, as the survivor describes his own torture to us, he presents the soul-draining experience of having a long metal spike inserted into his groin and shoved up deep into his body until it rests precariously near the heart - still beating. And he screams as he feels pain so intense he feels like he will die - as he is raped by a sweating, grunting, pleasure-twitching Nazi.

And the pain, and the shock, and the realization - as a child - what one human will do to another is but one example of one human being's bravery - to survive, to never forget the pain, to relieve it again and again and to tell us, so that we too, will never forget.

"A People Uncounted" is in theatrical release via Kinosmith."