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A Lesson in Civility: Courtesy of Frederick Terna

Last week I was fortunate enough to be invited to an art opening of one of the most talented, absurdly under-recognized, smartest and kindest person I know, Fred Terna (Recent BOMB article on Fred). On it’s own, this is already an exciting enough event. The fact that Fred’s important, and rarely seen in public, work being exhibited in a formal space is a great gift. Add to that, the chance to see and hear Fred in person and you get a night to remember. Speaking to Fred, one always faces an opportunity to hear words of enlightenment. Which, just like his art, are filled with secret textures, meanings and colors that are not immediately apparent, it’s an effect that is both illuminating and sometimes confusing. This is a feeling I’m very familiar with, one I felt multiple times while working on the film I made about Fred (Shared Memory). I started The Ripple Project with a pre-conceived notion of how to portray the social scar caused by trauma, particularly the Holocaust. As the project progressed I realized that in fact, it’s not a scar but rather an open wound.

This idea started to crystallize after spending a few days with Fred. As, so many times with him, you learn that things are not always as they appear. Fred’s words and art gave rise to the idea of fluidity of memory and acceptance of inevitability. He proudly, shows me two, seemingly, completely different paintings. He explained to me that the two are of the same horrifying event he witnessed during the Holocaust. The abstract paintings were painted in different eras, nearly thirty years apart, and their stark difference of color, brush stokes and composition reflects the way the “feeling” towards the memory has changed. The most recent of the two paintings is poignantly labeled: “Shared Memory.”

An idea, that might have been instinctively present in my subconscious has been put on display in front of my eye so clearly. A memory of an event, as horrific now as it was then, but the artist’s attitude towards the memory of the event has drastically changed. Memory is fluid; constantly shifting and moving.

The other revelation I had while working with Fred, was an acceptance of the inevitable. On the last day of the shoot, Fred dropped a verbal “bombshell;” He proclaimed, with pride, that had he been given the opportunity, he would not have chosen a more “ordinary” life. According to Fred, had his life been an “ordinary” one, he would have ended up as a: “Crotchety old university professor for historical geography or geographical history.” Fred has no anger, no remorse, no regrets, life has a forward momentum that needs to be lived and experienced with all its twists and turns. My first instinct was one of disbelief, why would someone “choose” to go through the pain, suffering and loss that Fred experienced? My skepticism turned to understanding, when I later heard this idea echo through the words of another grand personality I interviewed (Itzhak Arad). It’s the journey taken which creates the rich tapestry of life which makes it all worth while. This is a profoundly human and humane idea.  It’s these conversations with Fred which helped me see and deal with the trauma of loss from the Holocaust, in a different way, including lessons applicable to my own life.

So when I saw Fred last week, I was hesitant about asking any questions, concerned this is not the time or place to search for “pearls of wisdom” which would again add a whole new dimension to my take on the Holocaust. But, thinking and doing are two different matters and considering these opportunities are far apart the moment just begs for a question to be asked. This was a special evening for Fred. He was outside of his studio, surrounded by his work lovingly hung for people to enjoy (rare) and smartly curated by his son Daniel, who’s an accomplished artist in his own right (http://www.danielterna.com). The place was full of friends, loved ones and admirers, just begging for another chance to see and speak to Fred, who was in top form, but visibly tired. After we embraced and chatted about mutual work, out of the blue, I asked a simple, even banal question: “What do you think about the election…?” I don’t know why I asked him this question or what I was expecting the answer to be. I just really wanted to know what Fred thought. The election left people on both sides of the aisle confused, angry, bitter, frightened and suspicious of each other. It exposed the sharp divide in American society and revealed the thin wires which hold it together. As a person who tells stories of genocide it left me scared that once again, irrational fear and anger can shatter a fragile society. Fred smiled at me, the kind of smile that says “you asked for it kid…”

He closed his eyes for second, as he often does before he begins to speak, as if to enhance the drama. Tilting his head right and with a wry smile said: “I’m disappointed, confused, and surprised but not worried. Dictators don’t last, it’s against human nature. We just need to keep our civility.” I looked at Fred with puzzled eyes, where was the anger? The fire? So I followed up with another question: “Civility? At this time? Who cares about that? People are angry now.”

Fred responded in a deeper tone, the smile was gone: “When we were in the camps, facing death, humiliation, starvation, anger, not knowing if we will live another 10 minutes… we still kept our civility. We always knew the Nazis wouldn’t last, it’s against human nature. It doesn’t matter what the Nazis did to us, how much they screamed and yelled at us. When we were alone in the room, at night, we were civilized. We knew that our civility is the key to survival, our humanity and civility will outlast the Nazis. It might take a month, a year or ten, but it will outlast them.”

Fred did it again, in three sentences he was able to refine, and perhaps redefine my perception of civilization and humanity in a time of crisis. It allowed me to put my fear, anger and confusion in check. It’s not just about the survival of the body, but one of soul, this is a lesson that transcends something larger than our imagination, as the Holocaust, but is also valid in our everyday struggles.

That night I went home, hugged sarit, the kids and found some serenity.

Floating with Walter

In memory of Walter Schaffir 1921-2016,

watler

 

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.

 

Liron

 

Walter Schaffir

Walter Schaffir

Walter Schaffir

Walter Schaffir

Walter Schaffir

Walter Schaffir

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Herman Taube (1918-2014)

I know I’m writing this entry a year too late, but last Saturday I had great screening of one of our Ripple films so I’ve decided to thank a man I owe much of it to…

“You die twice, once when you pass away and once when you are forgotten.”

Deceivingly simple words, which had a life changing and profound effect on me, these are the words of poet and writer Herman Taube. Words which echo through my mind as a reflection of a past, strength of a present and hope for a future.

Herman Taube was (is) known around the jewish community in Rockville, Maryland. as the inquisitive, loving and ever curious writer and keeper of jewish stories and folklore, which one can read here. But to me the connection was more personal. My memories of Herman are through his conversations with my grandfather…

My grandfather was introduced to Herman by my uncle Yankel Ginzburg. The introduction was a natural one, Herman was a well known writer in the Maryland and DC Jewish community, my uncle a famous painter and sculpture, known very well in the area for his modern and his Judaica work. My grandfather, whose just arrived from Israel with my grandmother to settle in my uncle’s house for their golden years, found America to be a lonely place. Even though he was surrounded by family, the language barrier has created an almost impenetrable wall to society. He began to slowly drown in the daily routine of golden age and suburbia, accompanied by the growing pain of survivors’ guilt. He found solace in the typewriter and daytime TV. Smiles became less frequent. The introduction to Herman changed that…

Living at my uncle’s at the same time, I can still recall the endless chatter, the laughter, the tears and giggles I would hear coming from my grandfather’s room. Initially I would knock on the door expecting my grandmother to be there, but what I found was him chatting on the phone. “They are like teenagers,” My grandmother would say. He was on the phone with Herman.

Herman could do what so few could, he found entries into people’s soul. He’s gentle smile, inquisitive nature and incredible attentiveness is a comfort impossible to explain unless one experiences it. Yet, there is a true complex story behind the soft eyes and loving embraces. Herman has seen the darkness of men, has suffered losses that are unimaginable to me, and I’m sure to most who read this, yet he was there to listen, to smile and most importantly to WRITE. He wrote and wrote until his last day. Between the book publishing, the poems, the anecdotes and words of wisdom, he spent his time listening to others and recording their stories. He was able to look beyond the pain and anger of his personal loss to push forward with one most the important duties we have as a society and that is to learn and remember. I admire Herman for that and until this day, I’m inspired.

I also had the honor to work with Herman on the first film in The Ripple Project, where I filmed him listening to his closest friend, my grandfather, recorded memoirs. What started as an experiment in cinema and story telling became a life project.

Thank you popsi.

Liron

Herman Greets us at home for the screening

Herman Greets us at home for the screening

I  leave you with a poem published by Herman after my grandfather’s death.

TEARS…

I feel a dull ache this morning,
my friend Itzhak Ginzburg died.

Unaware of it at a tender age,
we grew up in the same city,
lived through identical wounds of war
and shared the tragedy of family loss.
Thank God – we both survived.

On polar sides of the ocean,
we established new families,
raised children and grandchildren.

We were both able-minded,
through our mutual love of words and stories,
we formed a friendship and a formidable bond.
We shared a past, concealed in a sad memory.

The grief of our unassailable misfortunes
took a tragic and heavy toll on his health.
Stubborn nightmares and memories
of those who perished persisted to haunt him.
He died in the arms of his Lida,
his saviour, friend and spouse.

I feel a dull ache this morning,
my friend Itzhak Ginzburg died.

The pain I feel this morning,
the tears I am shedding now,
aren’t for my wonderful friend.
Let us admit it ,Yitzhak is gone,
he is no longer exposed to pain,
the tears are mine; I lost a friend.

I feel helpless.. I can’t stop crying…

Herman Taube.

The "Living Room" scene

The “Living Room” scene

Shooting the Living Room scene

Shooting the Living Room scene

The "Park" scene

The “Park” scene

Make up for the "Typewriter" scene

Liron Lerman, applies make up for the “Typewriter” scene

Shooting The "Morning" scene

Shooting The “Morning” scene

"Resting" after a long shoot

Tal and Enrique, “Resting” after a long shoot

"The Mirror" scene

“The Mirror” scene

The crew

The crew

A farewell shot, after the film was completed.

Tal, Liron and Aviel; A farewell shot, after the film was completed.

Preparing for the screening, with Susie

Preparing for the screening, with wife Susie and my cousin Aviel Ginzburg

Presenting Herman with the DVD

I am presenting Herman with the DVD

binding of isaac dvd jpeg

The Binding of Isaac DVD cover

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