Friday, August 17, 2012

A Filmmaker In The Family

The standard advice for aspiring authors is to "write what you know." For a peculiar subset of documentarians, however, having a camera at their disposal gives them license to pry into what they don't know. Or, in some cases, what their parents never wanted them to know.

As I watched several documentaries during the recent San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, I was struck by the dogged determination of filmmakers who wanted answers from an older generation about what happened to their family and, of equal importance, why certain events happened. A curious dynamic occurs in each film as the older generation opens up (not necessarily because they are eager to talk about events long gone by, but because they feel unable to refuse a request for an honest look at history from those who came after them).

The reason this type of documentary is more frequently found at Jewish film festivals is simple. Whether one looks at the flight from ancient Egypt, the pogroms that occurred during the late stages of the Russia Empire, or the Holocaust, Jewish families have often been forced to leave their homes and flee for their lives. The homes that were left behind, the loves that were never fulfilled, and the mysteries that were never resolved are all shrouded in an unbearable sense of loss.

While viewers can sense the uneasiness of elders being put on the spot by young, somewhat self-righteous filmmakers, what these aspiring documentarians usually discover are examples of human weakness in moments of distress -- when there was little or no time to think about the future.

Sometimes the future was horrifying, sometimes it was meant for someone else to enjoy. As the old saying goes: "Life's a bitch and then you die."

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Arnon Goldfinger's documentary, The Flat, finds its story in an event that confronts many families: having to clean out the home of a recently deceased relative. While getting rid of pots and pans requires few wrenching decisions, dealing with old photo albums, letters that have not been read in decades, and works of art that have been in the family for years can open new wounds and rub salt in old, long-forgotten ones.

In Goldfinger's case, the death of his grandmother opened a shocking can of worms. After leaving Nazi Germany in the 1930s, his grandparents settled into an apartment in Tel Aviv. Kurt and Gerda Tuchler kept their apartment furnished very much as they had in Berlin, with bookshelves filled with German literature, fox furs, and tchotchkes that evoked memories of happier times.

Because Goldfinger's grandparents had never discussed what happened during World War II with their children, there was a sizable information gap in the family history. Although willing to indulge her son in his research, Arnon's mother, Hannah, had no emotional attachment to a past about which she knew nothing. Even after his shocking discovery, her eagerness to delve further into the family's history was minimal.

The film -- and the personal investigation into his family's past that Goldfinger documents -- was inspired by hints of an unsolvable mystery. As the filmmaker explains:
"My mother never told us about her childhood, her education, or the world in which she was raised. Now I know that she, too, was rarely told things by her parents. In keeping in accordance with the yekkeh [German Jew] tradition, the parent-child relationship was based on separation and distance. And this is how we were raised. Like a tree that does not even think about the importance of its roots. If my grandparents had not been so good at keeping things, there is a good chance that I would not have changed my view of their lives as superficial and dull. 'The flat' has always been there. I visited it from as far back as I can remember; the heavy European furniture, the paintings, the porcelain collectibles -– it was like a well-preserved installation from another world. But it was only after my grandmother’s death that I realized that the flat contained a treasure -– one that could illuminate the present as well as the past.

I have never gone through anyone else’s pockets, or opened up someone’s secret drawer. Moreover, I have never even opened a letter that was not addressed to me. Yet all of a sudden, and against my will, these norms of proper yekkeh etiquette melted away, and I found myself unable to relinquish even the smallest piece of paper. Forces that were stronger than me compelled me back to the many piles of papers in the hope of finding more and more information to help shed light on the connections and clues to the story that was rapidly unfolding."
Filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger

Like a deep-sea treasure hunt, what Goldfinger and his mother discovered in a box of documents was almost beyond their comprehension. First was a bunch of newspaper clippings, including a 1934 front-page article from a Nazi newspaper, Der Angriff, entitled "A Nazi Goes to Palestine." Mixed in with the clippings were some papers on which both a swastika and a Star of David had been drawn.

The article identified Leopold Von Mildenstein (a member of the Nazi Party who eventually became a senior SS officer and worked closely with Adolf Eichmann). The man who had been von Mildenstein's guide during his tour of Palestine was none other than Goldfinger's grandfather.

Pictures and letters that were saved by Greta Tuchler

Goldfinger discovered that, not only were his grandparents friends with the man who gave Eichmann the idea to export Germany's Jews to Palestine, after World War II ended, the Tuchlers and von Mildensteins resumed their friendship and would often vacation together. Goldfinger's research led him to von Mildenstein's daughter, whom he interviewed on camera as they perused some of the memorabilia from her family.

Kurt and Gerda Tuchler in later years

The Flat gives audiences a chance to watch what happens as two sets of adults unravel a past that was unknown to their families. As the filmmaker explains:
"On the surface, my film seems to be trying to find the answers to one family’s mysteries. We find ourselves in a conflict between our familial heritage and our personal identity; a conflict between forces that are pulling us forward and those who call upon us to pause and look back for a moment. It is a struggle between a yearning to understand our story of origin and the desire to get rid of all that, and to just take a blank piece of paper and write our own history. This is a film which attempts to endow your family history (even if it is not a simple history) with a meaning that is significant to you. It is also an investigative expedition into the depths of denial and forgetfulness. Yet, at the same time, it is a film about human friendship that crosses enemy lines and a love -- from which you cannot shake free -- for the fatherland."
As one watches The Flat it will be easy to feel annoyed at the filmmaker's tenacity, astonished by his discovery, and fascinated by what happens when he arranges to meet von Mildenstein's daughter. The Flat is a far cry from the standard Holocaust documentary. Here's the trailer:

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When interviewing guests on Inside The Actors Studio, James Lipton frequently noted that one of the most profound influences on anyone's life seemed to be the separation or divorce of one's parents when a child was very young. Gypsy Davy tries to untangle the many loves of flamenco guitarist David Serva and the bizarre way in which one of his estranged daughters was drawn back into his messy (but intensely musical) life.

As filmmaker Rachel Leah Jones recalls:
"After 30 years of not knowing what to do with a man I didn’t really know, and didn’t especially like -- but the only one in the whole wide world who would ever be my father ('whose goyish name and pale genes I carry') -- the time had come to break the impasse. And so, I set out to know (and like) David Serva Jones. It was an unspoken deal, the kind where we both knew that this was also my 'compensation' (he says as much in the film).

But how do you tell the story of a man who has spent most of his life onstage? Well, if you’re his abandoned daughter, from behind the scenes, of course. And so, from the outset, a few things were clear. This would not be, could not be, a portrait of an accomplished artist (and accomplished, he is). The feminist in me wants to say: 'Behind every great man there’s an even greater woman' but another version, 'Behind every great man there’s a woman rolling her eyes' feels more apt. The eye-roller was me. However, all eye-rolling women are stuck somewhere in their teens, and one of my motivations for making this film was to no longer be 'a 30-year old bitch armed with a camera and ready to shoot.'"

Hailed by Guitar Player magazine as one of the world’s top flamenco guitarists, Berkeley native David Jones began playing blues, bluegrass, and folk music until, at age 16, he discovered flamenco music in some Mission District bars. Over the next few years, he performed in North Beach nightclubs, entertained audiences in Greenwich Village, and assisted composer Mitch Leigh and the stage guitarist in the 1965 and 1992 Broadway productions of Man of La Mancha.

In her first treatment for the film, Jones wrote that “Gypsy Davy will not be another hunt-down-the-absent-father movie because the fact that Jones abandoned me as a baby is not the overriding factor that lends meaning to either of our lives." As she elaborates:
"I went on a crusade of transference, visiting everybody else’s pain but mine. I sat down with (almost) each and every woman and child, and, with one exception, they all cried. I cried with them, and for them. When I visited all my father’s women and children, calling them in as character witnesses, I didn’t want them to testify merely as his 'victims'; we are also 'partners-in-crime.' David Serva Jones, like any man, myth, legend, does not exist without the people who co-constructed and thus empowered him. If he came and saw and conquered, we were conquerable. Without assuming a 'blame-the-victim' approach, I see his women, our mothers, and to some extent us, his children, as holding our share of responsibility for the collective saga. This 'agency' is also informed by a feminist approach to storytelling."
While Gypsy Davy is awash in some wonderful music-making, the film's attempts to detail the impact this man had on his women and children veer dangerously close to an angry daughter's attempt to get back at her father and have the final word. In doing so, however, Jones succeeds in painting an remarkably honest portrait of a man whose first love (and most jealous mistress) is his music.

The women and children who follow Serva around may nurture his soul, but they are not guitars. Although her relationship with her biological father may still be difficult, Jones is clear about Serva's contribution to flamenco music:
"My father’s claim to fame is the art of accompaniment. In flamenco, a good guitarist doesn’t take center stage, he sets the mood wherein the primary performer, be it the bailaor/a (dancer) or cantaor/a (singer), can best 'do their thing.' When David Serva Jones went native as a flamenco guitarist, he did so with the objective of fitting in, not standing out or upstaging anyone. In the politics of cultural appropriation, my father’s life and musical career is an homage to this centuries-old Gypsy-Jewish-Moorish art and a tribute to its masters."

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While The Flat and Gypsy Davy can, at times, be quite depressing, How To Re-Establish A Vodka Empire is far lighter fare thanks, in large part, to the goofy ebullience of its director, Daniel Edelstyn, whose father died when Daniel was only three years old. Growing up in a non-Jewish household in Northern Ireland, he only heard snippets about his grandmother, Maroussia Zorokovich.

Daniel Edelstyn's grandmother, Maroussia Zorokovich

A whole new world opened up to Edelstyn after he discovered his grandmother's journals in the attic of his family's home. As he explains:
"The pre-Bolshevik Revolution Ukraine was populated by increasingly desperate dashing French officers and swooning young women in the first throes of adulthood. Amongst this melée were my relatives –- chief of these Maroussia Zorokovich, writer, dancer, painter and romantic. In reading my grandmother's journals, I was immediately whisked away into a world full of atmosphere, drama, and cataclysmic events unfolding in rapid succession against a décor of chandeliers, ballrooms, and elegant drawing rooms soon to be destroyed. I determined to resurrect the life and times which exerted such a powerful influence over me, and in doing so have created a sort of time travelling vehicle reconnecting me to my roots and happening upon the family's vodka empire -- still (just) in business.

The film combines three narrative techniques: the authentic documentary action of me trying to re-establish a vodka empire, the investigation of my family's history set against the great historical events of the 20th century, and the re-creation of the world and life of Maroussia. I needed an engineer and partner on the adventure and didn’t have to look far. My wife, Hilary Powell, is an artist who created powerful visions of Maroussia’s world based on her writings. In making this film I discovered not just the truth about my past, but also have unwittingly stumbled on my future.

Daniel Edelstyn's wife, artist Hilary Powell

Whereas Fiddler on the Roof and other stories about pre-revolutionary Jews often focus on a life of poverty in a traditional Shtetl, the Zorokovich family was part of the Jewish merchant class. As a result, Maroussia was well educated, came from an affluent family that mixed with the aristocracy, and was able to pursue her artistic passions.

What makes Edelstyn's first full-length feature film so fascinating is the parallel tracking of the story.
  • In one track, the filmmaker uses archival footage which captures the frenzy of the Bolshevik Revolution.
  • In another path, Hilary Powell impersonates Edelstyn's grandmother, Maroussia Zorokovich.
  • In a third track, Edelstyn travels to the tiny town in the Ukraine where he discovers his great grandfather's distillery is still producing vodka, but is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.
  • In a fourth track, Edelstyn tries to find a way to re-brand his great grandfather's vodka as 1917 Zorokovich Vodka and introduce it into the cutthroat market for British drinkers.
Throughout the film there is a delightful mixture of historic footage, romantic re-enactments, whimsical animation, and the harsh reality of modern life in the Ukraine. There are times when the filmmaker's naiveté about the business world is like watching a hipster who has entered a den of wolves.

Ultimately, Edelstyn's determination to find a way to align his past, present, and future makes How To Re-Establish a Vodka Empire a highly entertaining film. Andrew Skeet's original score is a total delight. Here's the trailer.

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