Saturday, October 03, 2009

NY Roma-Gypsy Film Fest ’09: Holocaust documentaries

Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List was undeniably a landmark film, but it was predated by several other significant films primarily documenting the Jewish Holocaust experience, like Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog, Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, and NBC’s Holocaust miniseries. However, films examining the Sinti-Roma Holocaust experience have yet to penetrate the public’s consciousness to a comparable degree, which is why the NY Roma-Gypsy Film Festival always dedicates a significant portion of their programming to this important subject.

Produced in 1989 for the BBC’s Inside Report, George Case’s The Forgotten Holocaust (which screened last night) still holds up remarkably well, despite the Communist era travel restrictions and resulting access limitations faced by the filmmakers. Its early narration reaffirms the extraordinarily unique nature of the Jewish Holocaust, asserting that also observing the Roma experience does not diminish the former. Rather, it only compounds the guilt of the National Socialists.

Forgotten remains an important film document thanks to the testimony it recorded from survivors, many of whom are most likely no longer with us. Particularly memorable are the experiences of two assimilated Sinti brothers who were summarily discharged from the German military and shipped directly to Auschwitz. Forgotten’s historical consultant Prof. Michael Stewart also gave an informative address following the screening, sharing further stories of Sinti survivors.

Screening Tuesday (10/6), Alexandra Isles’s Porraimos takes its name from the Romany word for “devouring,” which some have adopted as an equivalent term for “Shoah.” It also provides an informative overview of the 1938-1945 period, during which time at least 600,000 Roma and Sinti individuals were murdered by the National Socialists. Isles emphasizes the twisted interest in eugenics shared by Menegele and his protégés that motivated scores of senselessly cruel experiments. The evil doctor evidently had a particular obsession with the Romany people, despite as Isles points out, his own dark, somewhat Roma looking features.

Like Hilary Helstein’s recent As Seen Through These Eyes, Porraimos interviews two significant artist-survivors. Karl Stojka, born into a Roman Catholic Roma family, survived Auschwitz to record his experiences on his canvass. Dina Gottliebova Babbit, later a Hollywood animator, speaks of surviving through her artistic skills, painting Roma portraits as part of Mengele’s bizarre research.

Far more specific in scope, Michelle Kelso’s Hidden Sorrows (screening tonight, 10/3) concentrates on the Romanian Roma, giving special attention the survivors’ current living conditions. With little fanfare, the German government and a Swiss banking consortium announced a narrow window for Romanian Roma survivors to claim, not reparations, but humanitarian assistance. Director Kelso documents her efforts to find survivors and help them prove their eligibility for the paltry funds. The figures involved were $770 from the Swiss and $500 from the Germans for years of slave labor in the Transistria concentration camps.

It is disturbing how many wish to minimize, obscure, or even outright deny the events that took place in Transistria and the rest of Nazi-dominated Europe during the Holocaust. One hopes more festivals will program these documentaries championed by the NY Roma Gypsy Film Festival, which continues through Friday (10/9) at the Mehanata Bulgarian Bar.