Stephen McGrath
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A decades-old paper war: how the Roma are fighting bureaucracy

Romania still hasn’t come to terms with its role in the Holocaust.

Less than a mile from the trendy bars of central Bucharest, Florica Stuparu is gently ushering out the four small children who have gathered around her bed. This is where the 78-year-old sits now, day in, day out, since she had a stroke. “I have nothing to give to the children, they are starving and I have nothing for them,” she says. “I am a lost human.”

In 1942, under the military dictatorship of Ion Antonescu, roughly 25,000 Romanian Roma – about half of whom were children – were deported to camps in Romanian-controlled territory that is now part of Ukraine. Approximately 12,000 are thought to have died. Stuparu’s memories of the Holocaust are thin. She was only two years old when her family was forced to travel hundreds of miles in train wagons designed for cattle. She spent the next two years in the camps. However, her memories of the struggles to get justice since then are anything but thin.

Stuparu is one of only two hundred Roma Holocaust survivors left in Romania. Half of them are still fighting for their rights over 75 years later.

By law, survivors are entitled to the equivalent of a £75 monthly pension, a free burial plot, and fast-tracked health care. However, campaigners say that a combination of widespread anti-Roma sentiment in the country, stifling bureaucracy, and unreasonable official demands – such as needing two witnesses to testify to both your deportation and return – are denying them their rights.

“Victims are old, vulnerable and in need,” says Petre Matei, a project manager for the Roma Survivors of Deportations to Transnistria group. “They are dying without getting their rights, even though they are legally entitled to them.”

Roma Holocaust survivors are an extremely vulnerable group: all are elderly, and they are often illiterate, poor and severely ill. The £75 monthly pension – in a country where a full-time salary can be as low as £250 a month – could help lift many out of abject poverty.

“We were treated like animals, with no toilets or source of water,” says Ioan Constantin, an 80-year-old survivor and distant relative of Stuparu’s perched on the bed next to her, holding a handful of time-yellowed documents. “My whole family died in Transnistria, except for my father and father’s mother. I can’t even begin to explain the filth we lived in.”

Like many Roma Constantin is suspicious of most forms of officialdom. He was deported to Transnistria on the same train as Stuparu. He succeeded in securing his pension, and now spends his time trying to help others.

Details of the “forgotten holocaust” are disturbing: some pregnant women were killed because they were unable to walk fast enough while being deported and many female Roma victims suffered horrific sexual abuse.

For centuries, Romania’s Roma minority has been serially persecuted by the state. There is little trust remaining. Long-standing and systemic failings in the process of identifying victims and handling archival documents have also hampered the restitution process.

“Some local authorities have investigated less than 1 per cent of the archival documents in 75 years, which would help verify victims,” Matei says. “On the one hand, state officials admit a sort of guilt, but on the other hand – besides official speeches and promises – little is done to solve the problems.”

Some state agencies request documents that have not yet been processed; others expect witnesses to have been at least ten years old at the time of their deportation (most survivors were babies or small children in 1942). Furthermore, the police did not record the names of everyone deported.

And according to Matei, the situation isn’t helped by the Romanian authorities’ refusal to accept documents produced by international bodies tasked with supporting Holocaust survivors.

Romania has long struggled to face up to its role in the Holocaust. For much of the Second World War Romania was allied with Nazi Germany. Between 280,000 and 380,000 Jews were killed in the Nazi genocide in Romania. The government rarely raised the topic during the four decades of harsh communist rule that followed. It wasn’t until 2009 that Romania even had an official Holocaust memorial.

In recent weeks, campaigners have set up an online petition addressed to the ministry of labour and social justice, hoping to provoke the government into action and remove the “abusive measures” blocking justice. The petition has some heavyweight signatories: the award-winning Romanian film director Radu Jude, Vintila Mihailescu, a leading anthropologist, and several prominent historians of the Holocaust.

Those who are part of a younger Roma generation also feel the issue weighs heavily on their people.

“For all of us this is a shameful stain,” says Alina Serban, a 29-year-old Roma actress, playwright and director. “I do not want to celebrate the International Day of Roma, or any other national day as a Romanian citizen, until we respect our past by telling the painful stories of slavery and the Holocaust in the history books.”

In her cramped house, Stuparu rocks back and forth, breathing heavily and occasionally sipping water from a tiny, yellowed milk carton. In not granting her what she needs for a more dignified life, the Romanian state ensures that the Holocaust continues to blight her life.

“My brothers were taken, my mother, my father and my five siblings . . . I am better off dead.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

Photo: Warner Brothers
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Why superhero films should follow Wonder Woman’s lead and have female villains

Bring on the bad.


In films, as in real life, the villain is rarely a woman. There are several reasons for this. One is believability. Women just don’t commit heinous crimes as much as men, so a film has to work very hard to convince the audience that a female baddie could do whatever terrible things we have no problem believing men capable of. There’s no such thing as a bogeywoman because society isn’t afraid of women. As Gillian Anderson’s serial-killer-hunting detective Stella Gibson says to her colleagues in the BBC’s crime thriller The Fall, “is anyone in doubt as to the gender of the killer?”.

A recent Empire Magazine piece entitled The Greatest Villains of All Time featured just one woman out of twenty evil characters, Nurse Ratched from 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The article gleefully quotes Jack Nicholson’s character calling Ratched “a c*nt”, but doesn’t stop to analyse why the sole woman in the list (no, I don’t count the Alien xenomorph) is so bad. She, along with Misery’s Annie Wilkes, are popular villains because they betray a heavily gendered caring role. Around 90 per cent of nurses in the UK and USA are female, so Nurse Ratched’s subversion of her woman’s work - her female caregiver duties - is one of the worst lady crimes Western men can think of.

When women are allowed to be baddies, they’re usually one of a handful of female archetypes. The sadistic nurse, the crazed mother, the vain witch, the jealous lover, or the black widow. Rarely are female baddies allowed to be motivated by something other than the emotional or personal, while male baddies are obsessed with power, money, sex or politics, or just plain evil for evil’s sake.

Another reason filmmakers (93 per cent of whom are male) shy away from the female villain is because the hero is usually a man. To defeat a female antagonist, at some point our hero dude is going to have to punch her, shoot her, explode her, or drive a stake through her evil black heart, and most people are uncomfortable with that even when she really deserves it. Indeed, if the main baddie is a female, she’s often presented as victim herself (think Dredd’s Ma-Ma, Kill Bill’s O-Ren-Ishii, Audition’s Asami Yamakazi, or Mama’s’ But most female baddies are sidekicks, afterthoughts to the main man, to be dispatched by her equivalent female hero sidekick in a setup so common, it has its own TV Trope, the Designated Girl Fight.

This trope is seen frequently in comic books and therefore superhero films, but only because those films are way ahead of the curve in terms of female villainy. Superhero films have no duty to reflect real life. Superheroes can be anyone, from the underdog nerd to a billionaire, and so too can their nemeses. Superpowers are an equalising force. It’s okay for Toad to fling Storm through a glass display case in X-Men, because Storm is a superhero with mutant powers.

But still, these are supporting characters. Female leads even in comic book films are rare. One major exception is of course 2017’s Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, whose protagonist is both exceptionally well trained for combat, and endowed with a few handy supernatural abilities (plus a gadget or two to help out in a plot jam). She’s a badass, and deserves an enemy just like her.

The main antagonist in Wonder Woman is of course a man, first fiddle to a female supporting character, Dr Maru, a sadistic chemist who straight up wants to kill as many people as possible, Nazi-style. She is played with chilling grace by Spanish actress Elena Anaya (in contrast to her comic book counterpart who was originally depicted disguised as a man, to better fit in with her evil allies. Baddies skew male, remember). But to truly belong to women, Patty Jenkins’ world shouldn’t be afraid of the big bad female. And so it isn’t. This weekend, Patty Jenkins announced that the main villain, the “big bad” of Wonder Woman 2 will be the Cheetah, played by Kristen Wiig. In the comics, the Cheetah has always been Wonder Woman’s archnemesis, part of the original canon. Her most popular incarnation is as alter-ego Dr Barbara Ann Minerva, a brilliant archeologist, although we don’t yet know if that’s the version of the character we’ll get for the film. Two evil women with PhDs in a row, can Hollywood be that progressive?

But still, however the Cheetah’s character plays out, this is a big deal. A female hero and a female baddie in a mainstream blockbuster film. It’s no coincidence the film is directed by a woman. More female filmmakers means more female characters and fewer lazy stereotypes, motives and archetypes. Those baddies who break the mould are often the brainchild of women. Kingsman 2’s psychopathic drug lord Poppy Adams is the co-creation of screenwriter Jane Goldman, Harry Potter’s Dolores Umbridge, representing the banal evil of unchecked authority, is of course the creation of JK Rowling, the screenplays of Maleficent and Alice in Wonderland were written by Linda Woolverton. A new study by digital movie network Fandago shows that 82 per cent of cinema-going women are more inclined to see a movie with dynamic female characters, and 75 per cent want to see more female ensembles. MPAA data shows women are consistently 50 per cent of moviegoers, and in 2016 were even slightly in the majority. The market is there, and we want our representation.

When women are involved in a film, female characters are allowed to be complex, including in villainy. It may sound like a weird feminist goal, to be allowed to express the full range of evil characters alongside the good ones, but when it comes to superhero movies, where anything is possible and art is escaping life, rather than reflecting it, there really is no excuse. Bring on the bad.