Ella’s story: So near and yet so far

98-YEARS-YOUNG: Holocaust survivor Ella Blumenthal. Photograph courtesy youtube

BEHIND THE FEISTY face and wry sense of humour of 98-year-old Capetonian Ella Blumenthal is a history that underpins the life of many European Jews who lived through the scourge of the Holocaust, bereft, broken and with scant wherewithal to pick up pieces and start life all over again. I Am Here, a film directed by Jordy Sank, features on this year’s Encounters International South African Documentary Film Festival, which runs from 10-20 June 2021, online and at the Bioscope in Johannesburg.

The work has some beautiful moments, but alas these feel like chance encounters of juxtapositions that work. In many respects it seems as though the director in his earnest desire to do good, has used every colour in the proverbial crayon box – from animation to drawing, graphics tricks to heavy timelines and music dripping with Fiddler on the Roof schlock. In many ways, this syrupiness hurts the fabric of Blumenthal’s extraordinary story.

The cartoon work, which takes you back to Blumenthal’s childhood, and through the drama of persecution, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the concentration camps Majdanek, Auschwitz, and Bergen-Belsen, extreme privation and massive loss which Blumenthal suffered, is wooden. In many respects, it evokes the type of approach that gave Johanna Spyri’s Heidi TV life in the 1970s, overlaying painted backgrounds with bland anime characters, directed by Isao Takahata. The blank-faced characters that segue into the words of Blumenthal’s story lack the Japanese anime sophistication of 50 years ago, however. Rather, they insult the story, hurt the film’s intentions and taint you, the viewer, with their dearth of nuance.

If you look, for instance, at the animation of Naomi van Niekerk, you find the essence of a tale, a poem, a reality, that doesn’t need to be slavishly rearticulated. The nature and notion of loss and cruelty has sadly become universalised in our world, and what I Am Here loses is that edge that makes Blumenthal’s story special. Animation is an art with its own sense of narrative thrust, idiosyncrasies and intellect. Forcing this animation into this story is crudely like commissioning a painting to complement a preestablished colour scheme.

The interplay of graphics and real time narrative is clumsy. In Sam Mendes’s 1917, there is a similar kind of problem, where the film takes on the notion of a computer game and loses the monumentality of the story it is trying to tell, so thoroughly is it seduced by the dazzling possibilities of CGI. This happens so often in I Am Here.

Interviewing a person is admittedly a complex and difficult task. But in giving an interviewee’s story the credibility and dignity it warrants, in a filmic medium, it is necessary. Consider, for instance, the extraordinary work of Johnathan Andrews in his research on Veronica Phillips, Lina Amato and Mordechai Perlov, which painstakingly draws out important histories without the audience of friends and loved ones who can trigger tears that blur the story. The narrative is about the intimacy and dignity of an interview between a professional and the person. In I am Here, the camera and by implication, you, are thrust into a private family account, where Blumenthal speaks to her children, and unpacks the horror of a life that she closed the door on, in the 1940s. She may, indeed, have willingly brought the camera into the midst of this unpacking, but the director needed to show more critical muscle. A similar ostensible breach of dignity was apparent in I am Greta, the documentary on the young environmentalist.

But there’s another problem. With a powerful prologue, evocative in some ways of the epilogue in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, this is a story about hate and love and forgiveness. This prologue lends contemporary context to the rising hatred and the revival of antisemitism in the 21st century. It’s a major drawcard for this film and for an understanding of Blumenthal’s story for viewers of today. However, it’s never followed through. Blumenthal’s tale ends with a happily ever after (as much as this is possible), a new life in Israel and South Africa and Jewish schmaltz all the way through. It seemingly forgets the premises established at the beginning, and the resurgence of the kind of hatred to which Blumenthal was subject, 70 years ago. Not to mention, Blumenthal’s significant gesture in contacting a Holocaust denier looking her in the eye with compassion.

This film has been lauded by the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival and in many respects, this hurts the director: it’s one thing to acknowledge the importance of a topic dealt with in a documentary film, but quite another to be able to critically examine the film’s success as a film, as well as a documentary.

I Am Here is directed by Jordy Sank. Produced by Gabriella Blumberg and Jordy Sank, it features creative input by Edward George King (music), Rick Joaquim (cinematography), Esther Badenhorst (editing) and Greg Bakker (key animator), it features on the Encounters International South African Documentary Film Festival which runs from 10-20 June 2021, online and at the Bioscope in Johannesburg.

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