A tale of light out of darkness
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One of the highlights of the Durban International Film Festival that launches this week is the award-winning documentary I Am Here.
It tells the story of feisty and spirited 99-year-old Capetonian Ella Blumenthal, one of the few remaining Holocaust survivors.
Blumenthal, who will celebrate her 100th birthday as the film opens next weekend, recounts the harrowing tale of her family in Warsaw, Poland, as the German army invaded when she was 18.
It is a tale of surviving the Warsaw Ghetto, three concentration camps, and a narrow escape from the gas chamber. Of her 23 family members, shown in the only surviving picture from before the war, taken at a family party, only Ella and her younger niece Roma, who she protected through all the horrors that confronted them, survived.
The film opens with Blumenthal at her 98th birthday celebration where she shares her story with close friends and family. Her memories and story are depicted in animation, giving an unusually personal picture of her astonishing endurance. Woven into her narrative of overcoming trauma are uplifting stories of courage and light. She never lost hope, not even in the darkest of times.
“Ella encompasses remarkable resilience, boundless energy and unwavering determination ‒ her personality is remarkable not because of what she has been through but in spite of it,” says producer Gabriella Blumberg. “We hope the film can be a catalyst for speaking about all forms of discrimination in a world that still defines itself by what is other.”
Directed by South African filmmaker Jordy Sank, 29, in his debut feature film, he describes meeting Ella for the first time in Cape Town at a Friday evening dinner of family friends.
“I had interacted with Holocaust survivors before, but none were quite like this. I knew that the world needed to learn from Ella’s stories and the awe-inspiring way she lives her life today.
“What struck me about her is she stood up to speak and started telling of her experiences, about surviving the holocaust. She appeared saddened and traumatised and a few moments later she would switch to this energetic grandmother, playing with the kids, dancing. I was amazed at how someone who had been through such darkness brought such light into the room,” he said.
It was a film that had to be made. “I thought I must jump on it now. Time is of the essence.”
The idea of animating her story was to explore other avenues of telling it effectively. “We looked at stock footage, but it didn't capture her story. We liked animator Greg Bakker’s style. It allowed you to be affected by what happened and see it through Ella’s eyes,” says Sank.
“It depicts events that aren’t in stock footage,” says Blumberg. “It also adds a touch of magic realism when their imagination takes them out of the camp.” One moment that comes to mind is when Ella finds in the camp a single page of a Jewish prayer book, a page she still treasures today.
The film shows her return to Auschwitz with her grandchildren in 2004. “It’s a testament to her character. No-one would have blamed her for not wanting to go back. It was her taking ownership of her story,” said Sank.
“It’s a story she initially tried to hide. She told her children the scar on her arm, there to cover the tattoo of her concentration camp number, was from a car accident. But she slowly started opening up. In many ways the 98th birthday party was the first uninterrupted time with her family where she really opened up. Where she answered so many questions. It was a privilege to be there.
“Ella had spoken at schools, that's one thing, but to family members it is much more difficult.”
Filming it was extremely sensitive. “We just tried not to get in the way of the family and tried to be a shoulder for her to lean on,” he said.
For Blumberg, 26, who has a masters in film and TV from Wits and who has worked on a number of short films, the power of Ella’s story is that “she sees people on a very individual level ‒ no colour, no creed. And it is important that humans have to comprehend what humans can do to other humans”.
She met Sank at a Jewish youth group in Johannesburg, and when she heard of the story, “I had to be involved”.
“I want the film to have an educational impact,” she says. “To be shared in museums and schools, to speak not only about the Holocaust, but all discrimination.
“Ella lives every day to the fullest,” says Sank. “In troubling times, or when things aren’t going to plan, I ask myself, ‘What would Ella do?’ She gives us motivation to hold on.”
Blumberg tells how during filming Ella’s personality shone through. A keen swimmer, the only other picture that survives from Warsaw is Ella in a bathing suit swimming in a local river. She still does laps in the pool. “We set up just to film one lap and didn’t want to waste time, but she wouldn’t stop and did 10, the camera crew tripping all over each other trying to keep up with her. If only we could live each day with this energy she throws at life.”
“She took time to connect with crew members,” says Sank. “She would give them nicknames and get to know them on an individual basis.”
Her relationship with Roma is as strong today as it was back then, despite the fact that Roma lives in New York. The two women are in regular contact, the film poignantly documenting a video call. “Ella was everything to Roma, a mother, a sister and at times her saviour,” says Blumberg. “But Roma also gave Ella purpose and a reason to persevere. For Roma to survive, Ella had to survive.”
I Am Here was successful at the recent Encounters Documentary Festival. The film won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival and was also screened at the Miami Jewish Film Festival earlier this year. Catch the Durban International Film Festival free at https://filmfreeway.com/DurbanFilmFest
The Independent on Saturday