There are currently two reality shows that exploit the basest stereotypes of the Roma, TLC’s Gypsy Sisters and My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding. To be fair, the inspiration for the latter began on Channel 4 in the U.K., but the Americans brought it over and managed to make it even more of a gross spectacle than the original. There are countless stereotypes about the Roma—the sexy young maiden, the evil crone and her curses, the thieving men, and so on. Although most people would never use the phrase “Jewed them” to indicate they’ve been ripped off, plenty still use the term “gypped” without thinking twice.
A People Uncounted is a counterpoint to the mainstream cultural stereotypes about the Roma. It’s a crash course in Romani history, from their ethnic roots to the many ways they have been, and continue to be, subjects of political prejudice and violence in an increasingly unstable EU. Approximately 500,000 Roma were killed during the Holocaust, a statistic driven home by the wrenching testimony of survivors who describe horrors ranging from cannibalism to experiencing the cruelty of Dr. Mengele firsthand. Footage of recent genocides, such as those in Rwanda and Bosnia, are used to demonstrate how easily such brutality can become the norm. The growing marginalization of the Roma as described in A People Uncounted shows just how close the tipping point is.
However, there’s a reason Shoah is upwards of nine hours long, depending on which cut you watch. The filmmakers here rightly assume that most people don’t know a lot about the Roma aside from what’s seen in the movies and on TV. The breadth of information that Uncounted presents is overwhelming, and the movie sometimes strikes an uneven balance between the past and present. Perhaps it’s that the testimony of the survivors is so raw that it feels longer; the camera doesn’t look away, and the space that each person is given to speak and grieve and work through shame simply aches. On the other hand, the eventual circling back to the present doesn’t provide much of a conclusion. Thanks to extensive interviews, footage, photos, and illustrations, it’s a compelling documentary, but some passages still feel as if they’ve been given short shrift.
It doesn’t help that A People Uncounted has been making the rounds at the festivals for a few years, so the information isn’t quite up to the minute. The modern violence A People Uncounted shows has only grown since the film’s U.S. premiere in 2011. It also feels like some information about the subjects themselves is lacking. For example, there’s a series of interviews with Holocaust survivor Ceija Stojka, who is sometimes shown holding or pointing out paintings in a book; it’s later mentioned that she’s a well-known artist and published author, and it’s her artwork the viewer is seeing. What isn’t mentioned is that she died in 2013. Hopefully, A People Uncounted will inspire many more projects that illuminate the history and modern-day reality of the Roma, at least as a corrective to what’s been propagated through reality TV.