June’s Online Short: In Retrospect…A Heroine

JFI is thrilled to present In Retrospect…A Heroine as June’s Online Short, directed by JFI Filmmaker in Residence Marc Smolowitz.

In Retrospect…A Heroine is a profile of Rachela Melezin — a centerpiece character in the feature film, The Lonely Child, which Smolowitz is directing during his residency and co-producing with the writer Alix Wall, Rachela’s granddaughter. The project examines the lasting impact of The Lonely Child, a lullaby written by poet Shmerke Kaczerginski in the Vilna Ghetto, about Rachela and her daughter Sarah, who is in hiding with her nanny, and all children in hiding during the Holocaust.

Marc Smolowitz, 2018, USA, 6 min., English

Read a Q&A with director Marc Smolowitz below:

JFI: What inspired you to make this film?

Smolowitz: This online short is film about Alix Wall’s grandmother Rachela. Alix is my filmmaking partner on a larger feature documentary called THE LONELY CHILD — a film about a little-known Yiddish lullaby written in Vilna during the Holocaust and the unexpected life that it is finding today. That lullaby is also about Alix’s grandmother and mother, who was a hidden child. Both were Holocaust survivors. Initially, we spent a lot of time and creativity focused on a new generation of younger musicians and contemporary characters who have discovered this lullaby and the new life they are bringing to it at this very powerful moment when we are losing the last living Holocaust Survivors.

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In fact, our first trailer for the film was all about this approach. And, while that impulse hasn’t changed (we will in fact focus on the song today and contemplate its contemporary power and relevance), we have connected deeply to the importance of placing Alix’s grandmother’s story somehow at the center of the film… not as an adjacent backdrop to the film. It’s tricky. We’re trying very hard to be additive when it comes to telling Holocaust stories. While it’s very important that families have a voice if they choose to tell their story, we decided early on that this film was going to be about the song today. That the song would be our main and magical protagonist. That its journey around the world would be our guide. Yet, the song also has an origin and a lineage. It began in Vilna under very specific and powerful circumstances, and we’d be remiss if we didn’t highlight the role that Rachela played in that. Those circumstances involved resistance and heroism, and this, for me, is totally inspiring.

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JFI: What was your greatest challenge during the filmmaking process?

Smolowitz: The greatest challenge — which in my view was also our greatest opportunity — is that in this particular short we were working only with archival content. Except for one key interview with Alix Wall shot for our first trailer in 2017, all of the images and interviews are “found footage” or historical and/or personal media assets. At this early stage of our feature documentary project, we’ve only just begun to shoot original material. It was actually quite an important and creatively empowering choice to make this second short with these sorts of assets. It’s very freeing at the end of the day. It also establishes some very important visual tropes that advance the overall story and direction of the project. And, it’s especially nice to be able to spend meaningful time developing a style early on with an editor that is poised to work on the film for many months to come.

JFI: Any thoughts you’d like to share about screening this film in a Jewish context?

Smolowitz: Jewish stories are great stories. When we screen Jewish themed films for a largely Jewish audience, we’re able to experience a common sense of knowing and experience at times that is truly joyous, even empowering. I’ve had the pleasure of screening prior Jewish theme works of mine at both Jewish festivals and Mainstream festivals. The same film can feel so different across these various settings. It’s hard to pinpoint, but Jewish festivals manage to have an energy that often feels like “old home week” to many of us. Yes, we often disagree on many things we encounter on screen, just as we do in life. But, this is part of the unique gestalt that we all know and love.

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JFI Filmmaker in Residence Mark Smolowitz

JFI: What film/media has inspired you lately?

Smolowitz: 2018 has been one of those years when I have been so busy making films, I haven’t taken the time I would like to see enough films in the actual cinema. I did fairly well with watching most of the Oscar nominated films from last year, and it’s fun to do that. But, much of that viewing was on VOD. I also travelled to both Berlin and Cannes this year for work, but largely to pitch and find financing for projects. I only managed to squeeze in just a few screenings. In general, it’s often too easy for me to fall into a pattern of business, business and more business. It’s verifying as a producer to track my progress, set goals and meet them. But, I think it is so important for those of us who make movies to budget time to sit down and watch movies. Producers of culture should consume some of it from time to time. Maybe we get sidetracked because we’re consuming so much content in smaller amounts all the time. But, I know that when I am amazed by a well crafted narrative feature film, there is nothing better. Finally, I will say that the most inspiring thing I’ve experienced lately was Sam Green’s live documentary A THOUSAND THOUGHTS, when he presented at the Castro as part of SFFILM.

JFI: What do you do when you’re not filmmaking?

Smolowitz: Spending time with my wonderful husband. Looking out the window at our beautiful view. Trying hard to stay involved in my communities as much as possible. Cherishing friendships near and far.

JFI: Lastly, gefilte fish: delicious, or disgusting?

Smolowitz: OMG! D-E-L-I-C-I-O-U-S !!!

Each month, the Jewish Film Institute presents a new free short film to watch online from emerging voices in Jewish documentary, narrative and experimental filmmaking, accompanied by an interview with the film’s director. To watch more JFI Online Shorts, visit the archive of free films here.

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