In his feature directorial debut A People Uncounted, director Aaron Yeger sheds light on the story of the Roma, commonly referred to as Gypsies.
While the Roma have been romanticized in popular culture, the real-life intolerance and persecution, both past and present, inflicted upon them has been largely ignored. With his documentary, Yeger explores the rich culture of the Roma, linking their present state to the tragedies of their past, most notable among them the murder of an estimated 500,000 of the Roma during the Holocaust. In making the film, Yeger interviewed dozens of the Roma, among them historians, activists, musicians and Holocaust survivors, in order to bring the history of this neglected people to life and inspire those who view the film to “stop and think before they make judgments about other people.” A People Uncounted had its U.S. premiere at the Hawaii International Film Festival in 2011 and continued its festival run with screenings at the Starz Denver Film Festival and the St. Louis International Film Festival. MM caught up with Yeger to discuss A People Uncounted, what he learned about the Roma while making the film and the difficulties of shooting in just shy of a dozen countries when your credit card stops working.
Kyle Rupprecht (MM): Why did you decide to make a film about the Roma—the story of whom, until now, hasn’t been very widely known?
Aaron Yeger (AY): This is a story that desperately needed to be told. The political situation for Romani people in Europe and the obstacles they face in day-to-day life are actually on the increase. Better knowledge of history could help combat this. It’s also an injustice that Romani people have been merely a footnote in Holocaust history; their story ought to be raised to a level of dignity. Producer Tom Rasky and executive producer Lenny Binder are both musicians and friends with the exceptionally talented Robi Botos, a Roma musician and composer who came to Canada from Hungary as a refugee a number of years ago. As both Tom and Lenny are children of Jewish Holocaust survivors, they were saddened to learn that Robi had also lost family during the Holocaust. Yet the story of the genocide of Roma is not well-known. This was the impetus to make a documentary film on the subject. I was already working with producer Marc Swenker and cinematographer Stephen Whitehead, and the three of us joined forces with Tom, Lenny and Robi to tell this story. I had always hoped for an opportunity to make a film that could have a positive and meaningful impact on society, so this project was a dream come true.
MM: You shot the film in 11 countries. Were there any major obstacles you came across while shooting?
AY: First off, the logistics of pulling this off were immense. Our crew consisted of six people in total, and we had to cover a lot of ground in a relatively short amount of time. There were travel-related obstacles at every turn. For example, our bank cards stopped working, and Marc struggled to make sure we had money to eat, with Tom helping to deal with those financial issues back home. At the Ukrainian border, we were held up for more than 12 hours and only got through because Stephen was able to carefully negotiate our passage in Russian. Michael Heathcote, our Steadicam/camera operator, 1st AC Robert Tagliaferri and sound recordist Adam Parsons all had to deal with numerous technical issues as the rigours of non-stop shooting in the field caused equipment to go down piece by piece. The RED camera and prime lenses provided stunning image quality; however, I did find using them cumbersome in interviews where our shooting time was limited. Lastly, when we would go into Roma neighbourhoods, they would become very excited with the prospect of being on camera, especially the children. Often very large crows would gather. Marc Swenker is very good with children and has grace under fire, so he made sure even the most hectic locations were a positive experience for both subjects and crew.
MM: How were the Roma as interview subjects? Some, such as the Holocaust survivors, have obviously led incredibly difficult lives. Did you find them forthcoming and eager to tell the truth about their people?
AY: As interview subjects, all the Roma were absolutely brilliant. Even those people who had never been in front of a camera before were very comfortable and brought a tremendous energy to telling their stories. The Holocaust (or Porrajmos, which is the Romani word for the genocide) survivors were absolutely forthcoming and received us very warmly. Of course, many of them had already told their stories to children in schools and members of their own community, so the opportunity to spread the truth to a much wider audience is something they seemed to very much appreciate. The Romani scholars and activists really opened up to us when they saw the caliber of our crew and equipment and the seriousness with which we were treating the subject.
MM: There are, of course, many myths and misconceptions about the Roma. Did you have any personal misconceptions that were cleared up in the course of making the documentary?
AY: Only that I assumed they might be reluctant to tell their personal stories and trust outsiders. Much of the research Marc and I did prior to the major trip to Europe further reinforced this idea. In truth, we found that the Romani people we met were all too pleased to bring us into their communities and trust us with their stories once they saw our sincerity. Given how they have been treated for centuries by others, it would have been very justified for them to mistrust us, but that simply wasn’t the case. They’re eager to build bridges with other people.
MM: Ultimately, what do you hope audiences take away from A People Uncounted? How did making the film affect your own life?
AY: First and foremost, that the Romani people are just people. Many may live in poverty, but they share the same hopes and dreams as everybody else. They were ravaged by the Porrajmos, and the descendants of the victims and survivors are the Roma of today. They deserve respect. One phrase that we have used amongst our crew is that this—racism and genocide—is a human problem. It is not specific to any one group. Anybody can be a perpetrator of crimes against humanity, and anybody can become a victim. Making this film affected my own life in the sense that I recognize the importance of digging deeper when it comes to studying history and observing what happens in the world at present. I hope other people will stop and think before they make judgments about other people. MM
For more information about the film, and to view the trailer, visit www.apeopleuncounted.com. A People Uncounted opens in New York’s Quad Cinema today, Friday, May 16, 2014.