Aida’s Secrets


Two brothers meet for the very first time.

(2016) Documentary (Music Box) Shep Shell, Izak Sagi, Aida Zasadsinska, Giora Sagi, Melanie Shell, Dr. Erik Somers, Alon Schwarz, Laurence Harris, Janice Rosen. Directed by Alon Schwarz and Shmaul Schwarz

 

The end of World War II found Europe in shambles. Millions of people were displaced, often their families scattered all over hell and gone. There are some parallels to the refugee crisis currently facing Europe and the Middle East.

Izak Sagi lived in Israel. As a young boy, he believed that his parents were his biological parents. When local kids taunt him by telling him that they are not, Izak confronts his parents who reluctantly admit that they aren’t. His biological mother is Aida, a beautiful blonde from Poland who now lived in Canada. Aida comes to visit and then returns several times afterwards. She is oddly reticent to tell Izak about his birth father whom she’ll only identify as a “good man.”

In 2013 when Izak is 67, he learns that he wasn’t an only child. It turns out that Aida had a son just ten months younger than Izak. His name is Shepsyl and he lives in Winnipeg (great choice!); he lived there with Aida’s ex-husband whom Shep (as he now calls himself) doesn’t have fond memories of – in fact, Greg had cut Shep completely out of his will when he died in 2008.

Izak is overjoyed to meet the brother he never knew he had; Shep is willing to meet but a little more cautious. Izak is a heart-on-his-sleeve kind of guy to begin with; Shep is a little bit more world-wary given his background. The two men have a joyful union at the Winnipeg Airport – I don’t know if “reunion” is the operative word since the two had been separated since Izak was three – but Izak is clearly over the moon and can’t stop calling Shep “brother.” It takes a little longer for Shep to warm up to Izak.

Still, the emotional reunions aren’t over yet. It turns out that Aida is still alive and at 89 years old living in a Montreal assisted living facility. Izak conducts Shep to the facility and for the first time in his memory, Shep has a mommy. He is hoping that Aida is happy to see him and she truly seems to be.

But there are some nagging questions and Aida isn’t very forthcoming about them. When asked directly, she claims she doesn’t remember or doesn’t wish to discuss the matter. Laurence Harris, the online genealogy researcher who helped Izak and his family find Shep, helps locate other relatives and friends of Aida who are equally vague. It seems that Aida has secrets that she’s not willing to part with, not even to set the hearts of her children to rest. However Laurence finds one more revelation that shocks both of the brothers.

Alon and Shmaul Schwarz are the nephews of Izak making their feature film debut and the story is so powerful and emotional that the somewhat prosaic style the brothers have in shooting the movie can be forgiving. I would have liked to have seen a more deft touch on the editing; it felt that certain scenes went on a bit too long, others felt rushed. At times that can be frustrating.

If you come to this film expecting every question to be answered neatly with a ribbon tied around it, you are going to be very disappointed. Aida died shortly after her first meeting with Shep – the film opens and concludes with footage from her funeral – and took with her to the grave the answers to many of the questions the two men really needed to know. Why did she seem to favor Izak over Shep? Why keep the brothers’ existence secret from each other but tell other family members who eventually spilled the beans? Who was the mysterious man in a photograph on a riverside beach that Aida identified as Izak’s father – but wasn’t her husband who appears in another photo on the same beach apparently taken on the same outing? Why did she and her husband divorce? Why was she so reluctant to talk about those events even though it would clearly ease the minds of her children to know these answers?

Some questions are never meant to be answered and the only people who can answer these questions are gone now. As frustrating as that is for the viewer, one can only imagine how frustrating it is for the two men who have to live the rest of their lives with those nagging questions hanging over their heads. However, they can take solace in knowing that their family circle has grown more than a little bit larger – and anyone will tell you that you can never have enough family love.

REASONS TO GO: The film is very powerful from an emotional standpoint. Izak and Shep are compelling subjects and very different men, understandably.
REASONS TO STAY: This feels very much like a missed opportunity.
FAMILY VALUES: The movie’s themes are pretty adult and there’s some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons camp is now a military base and off-limits to the public.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/2/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sky and Ground
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Jane

Past Life


The sleuth sisters.

(2016) Thriller (Goldwyn/Orion) Nelly Tagar, Joy Rieger, Doron Tavory, Evgenia Dodina, Tom Avni, Rafael Stachowiak, Muli Shulman, Katarzyna Gniewkowska, Gilat Ankon, Oma Rotenberg, Lenny Cohen, Avi Kornick, Keren Tzur, Aryeh Cherner, Nitzan Rotschild, Aliza Ben-Moha, Yannai A. Gonczarowski, Tamir Shinshoni. Directed by Avi Nesher

 

For those of a certain generation the question “What did you do in the war Daddy?” was neither a frivolous nor easily answered inquiry. For some, particularly in Axis nations, the answers weren’t particularly savory or honorable. There is no shame in survival, but let’s face it; survival can come at an extraordinarily high cost.

Sephi Milch (Rieger) is a young musician and singer who yearns to be a composer. As part of a tour that the choral group at her Israeli arts academy is undertaking in Europe in 1977, she takes part in a performance in West Germany. In the audience is acclaimed composer Thomas Zielinski (Stachowiak) and his mother Agnieszka (Gniewkowska). The older woman grows more and more agitated, unable to stop staring at the photo of Sephi in the program.

At a reception following the concert while her son is receiving an invitation from the choral master to come to Jerusalem and fill the artist in residency program, the mother accosts Sephi and accuses her of being the daughter of a murderer. Thomas is forced to physically drag his mother out of the room. Sephi is quite naturally disturbed by this but rather than tell her father Baruch (Tavory), a well-respected gynecologist in Israel, she confides in her sister Nana (Tagar) whose relationship with her father is strained to say the least.

Nana works with her husband Jeremy (Avni) on a publication that publishes opinion pieces highly critical of the Israeli government as well as nude photo layouts of Israeli models. She has a temper and often argues loudly with her husband in front of co-workers. When Nana hears about the incident from Sephi, she determines to launch an investigation into her own father’s wartime activities. When Baruch gets wind of it, he decides to read his wartime diary to his daughters – he doesn’t have the diary but claims to remember it word for word.

Now the focus turns to the diary and whether Baruch’s memory is as sharp as he claims. That will bring Sephi back to Berlin and to Poland as she attempts to uncover the events of a horrifying night – and discover if her father is the man she thought she was.

This is reportedly to be the first in a planned trilogy of similarly themed stories from Nesher and it is based on the memoirs of the actual Baruch Milch (although it is a fictionalized version). Now, I will grant you that movies with Holocaust themes are many and there aren’t many more ways to explore it without essentially repeating themselves but this is quite different. For one thing, it implies that for the sake of living through the ordeal some Holocaust survivors did things that were terrible, which they undoubtedly did. It also looks at how these terrible acts can affect the lives of not only those who committed them but their families as well.

Rieger and Tagar are believable as sisters. Often in films the tendency is to give sisters very similar personalities; anyone who knows a pair of sisters knows that’s rarely the case. Often sisters have wildly divergent personalities and that is the case here; Sephi is quiet and a bit mousy while Nana is loud, abrasive and self-confident. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a closeness between them; it just means that the two react differently to the same stimulations and while there are those differences between them, they are more alike than even they realize.

The performances here are sterling throughout which helps keep the movie from settling into cliché; the people in the movie all feel real, whether it’s from the stressed out mother (Dodina) to the angry and stubborn Agnieszka. Thomas is a bit of a romantic foil for Sephi but there isn’t a lot of romance in the movie other than between the two sisters who learn to respect and relate to each other through their shared experience. Tavory also gives a fearless performance as Baruch, making him a most unpleasant man much of the time (you can see why Nana despises him) whose daughters grew up being physically assaulted by their father. Baruch does love his daughters as best as he can but he is extremely damaged by what happened during the war and he’s not inclined to share that with his girls until they finally corner him.

The choral music featured in the film is strikingly beautiful. Nesher also captures the era of the 70s well and while there are some missteps when it comes to pacing – the movie takes a long while to unfold which may cause problems for some younger Americans – he does allow the story to unfold very nicely. Like the espionage movies of the era in which this is set, nobody’s motives are above reproach and the audience is left feeling slightly off-balance in a good way.

The family dynamic is what elevates this movie above other movies that have themes involving the Holocaust. I can get why people are a little weary of movies with that theme but this one is definitely one worth taking note of. It’s difficult for those of us who didn’t live through the Holocaust to really understand what survivors endured and had to live with. This movie will at the very least give you an idea of that and maybe a little understanding at how far the damage went beyond those that didn’t survive the war.

REASONS TO GO: The film is brilliantly directed by Nesher. You’re never sure of anyone’s motives which heightens the suspense. The choral music is gorgeous.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story that Nana tells about urinating on her sister was something that the actress that plays her, Nelly Tagar, actually did. She told the story to director Avi Nesher and he liked it so much he put it in the script.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Debt
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Hero