Floating with Walter
- Posted in Blog Post
In memory of Walter Schaffir 1921-2016,
The Ripple Project has been, to put it mildly, a war of attrition on my soul. During my 5 years with the project I have seen with my eyes, heard with my ears and felt in my chest the pain and loss so many have suffered. Yet, I did not start this venture because I specifically wanted to learn about pain and its’ direct effect, I wanted to explore the after-effect of the trauma. The “ripple” of trauma is what has constantly catches me off guard, I have seen it pass through time, generations, cultures and even dimensions.
In the course of my journey, exploring the creativity of my subjects as a tool to deal with pain, I have met one Nancy Gershman, a third generation painter. What’s unique about Nancy, is her artistic work in relation to personal memory, a subject I visit often. Nancy is described as a “memory artist.” Her skill helps her create specific memories for the ones who wish they had them, memories which never existed. These created memories are meant to help fill gaps in her subject’s life, a gap that due to trauma will never be otherwise filled. When I sat down with Nancy, my immediate suspicion materialized, she is a daughter of a parent exposed to a great ordeal, she is a daughter of a holocaust survivor.
Nancy is one of these “memory detectives” i’ve been meeting more and more of. “Memory detectives” are people who try to solve gaps of memory in their own mind or in others, by any means. A memory gap in a loved one is especially frustrating, because their memories are sometimes collectively ours, and when they have gaps, so do we. Here is where Walter comes in. After finding out Nancy was a daughter of a survivor, we both agreed that there is a special story to be told here. I saw Nancy’s monumental efforts in solving people’s memory gaps in parallel to the pursuit of finding the details of her father’s life.
I wanted to meet Walter and was kindly introduced by Nancy to him. I asked to shoot a video interview with him as a prep for a film about Nancy and he kindly agreed. I thought he didn’t know that my ultimate goal was to create a film that would cross reference his life with his daughter’s. But Walter was always a step ahead of me. When I spoke to him I was immediacy struck by his positive descriptions and attitude about his future, present and most surprisingly his past. only in the editing room, after hours of listening again and again I began to “feel” what Walter has seen or experienced. I can only imagine the trials and tribulation he went through at a young age, ones that I hope none of us know in a lifetime. To my constant surprise, Walter attributed that period in life as one of adventure and nostalgia. Walter had an unavoidable strength, he was speaking to me from a stage, performing an orchestrated theatrical retelling of a life. Between his numerous paintings, drawings, sculptures, writings and a meticulous soldier collection sits a man who has a story bigger than any ordinary life. Yet, he carefully chooses how to share it. He is always in control of the situation. He did share memories, drawings of his past, and even wrote a memoir; the bricks of life were seemingly there, but the mortar was magically missing. That excitement and frustration I felt was only magnified once I started thinking about Nancy growing up trying to get to know her dad. Walter took my brother (the cameraman) and I on an amazing journey of stories and music during our time with him, he left us asking for more. The further I listened to his interview the more I wanted to spend more time with him and re-ask my questions, re-shape my attempt to connect with him. I wanted to know the memory that’s in between the words. By the time I met Walter he had lost his sight, but I know he could see me, he knew what I was after and he controlled the situation from start to finish. When the day was over I realized I witness a performance, it had truth, it had drama, but before I could look for the plot holes I found myself in a living room sofa, listening to a musical concerto played by a man who could barely see.
Like in us all, the ripple of events and time passed through Walter, but unlike many, he mastered its frequency.
This is where what I do is most cruel, it takes time, it takes money and the two don’t always play well together. I missed my chance to tell the story I wanted about Walter and Nancy through the eyes of a father and daughter, but I gained the pleasure of again floating helplessly on the not so lucid river of life.