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Guest Post: How I Met My Mother By Making My Family History Doc ‘Farewell Herr Schwarz’

Guest Post: How I Met My Mother By Making My Family History Doc 'Farewell Herr Schwarz'

After two hours of interviews, the
cinematographer signals that the battery is running out and that we need to
stop. Thank God. I have been interviewing my mother for what feels like an
eternity now, and I have no idea how to put an end to it. My mother is the worst
interviewee imaginable. I’m beyond exhausted. This was obviously a very
bad idea. 

“At least my DP doesn’t understand
Hebrew,” I try to console myself, sitting at the kitchen table in my childhood
home, staring at the sandwich my mom made for me, not forgetting to cut off the
crusts. There’s still a chance he doesn’t realize I’ve dragged him all the way
from Germany only to film the most boring, useless interview ever to take
place. Perhaps he can’t see that the moment the camera started rolling, my
otherwise reasonable mother instantly became amazingly awkward and fully
incoherent, suddenly slipping in to the role of every director’s nightmare
subject with excruciating ease. 

Of course, the real problem wasn’t my
mother. The problem was me.

After years of writing and pitching
and begging film funds and producers to believe in Farewell, Herr Schwarz,
I was finally directing my first full-length film. It was just just the second day, but I was slowly but surely  losing face. My head was
spinning with thoughts of self-doubt. How could my film crew not notice
how horribly unprofessional I was acting? That I had no idea what I was doing?
That I wasn’t in any way ready to direct a film? Could they not see how
impatient and snappy I was with my interviewee, even rolling my eyes at her? How
hard she was trying to please me with her answers, and how difficult it was for
me to even let her finish her sentences?

Sitting in my parents’ living room
and acting like a teenager — this was not how I imagined being a professional
film director would look like.

Four more years went by, and better
filming days came. The family mystery I was following was unfolding in the most
amazing way. I was circling around a missed meeting in Poland in 1945, when one family, one story, suddenly split in two. My grandmother and her brother,
both Holocaust survivors, decided not to meet — she went to Israel to start a
new family there, and he returned to the place of the catastrophe, to the
village next to the camp he was imprisoned in. I was lucky — the gods of
documentary filmmaking stood by my side: What I thought was our family
mythology was disassembled and put together again and again.

It was a
mind-blowing journey, filming strangers in Germany and Poland and Lithuania and
back in Israel again. My confidence as a director grew, but there was one thing
I still avoided like the plague — another interview with my mother. “You have
to go back and talk to her,” my producer and cinematographer would tell me. “It
will create a real hole in the film,” the editors warned. “She’s just not good for that,” I would
answer, and that pinch of shame would come back for a moment.

I knew it was me,
not her. But I just couldn’t. It was the limit of my ability as a documentarist — there was something about my mother, perhaps the person I know best in the
world, that was too close. It required a certain distance that I just couldn’t
create.

Still, at the beginning of 2012, the
time inevitably came. We had all but completed our journey, and it was finally
time to collect our years of filmed material and head into the editing room.
The film was now in the hands of two very competent editors in Israel and
Germany. Still, every time the interview with my mom would come up on screen, I
would find ways to avoid watching it.

Finally, I asked the Israeli editor to
watch it without me. “Just in case there’s anything there that could be used,
although I really don’t think so and it’s probably a waste of valuable editing
time,” I apologized, knowing what lay ahead.

A few hours later I received a short
message form the editing room in Israel. Two words: “Pure gold.”

To my disbelief, it quickly became
clear that this one interview, and through it my mother as a character, was
going to be the emotional pillar of the film. She shone. My mother was smart,
sharp, precise, exposed, emotional, funny, and tough. This interaction, which I
hated so much while sitting there in my childhood home, did not paint a dull
portrait of my mother. Instead, it was a clear mirror of our relationship. The
presence of the camera had revealed the delicate connection between mother and
daughter. Two people who understand not only each other’s words, but also know
each other’s pauses and sighs.

What I had thought of with such
certainty as a testament to my own inability turned out to be the interview
every director prays for. But more importantly, for me, it was a moment of
growing up. It was the moment I met my own mother. A person who in a way, I had
never really met before.

Winner of the Best Documentary Prize at the Haifa International Film Festival, director Yael Reuveny’s Farewell Herr Schwarz (out Jan. 9 in NYC) is a cinematic journey about buried family secrets, the Holocaust (from a third generation perspective), and how it is never too late to reclaim your heritage. Siblings Michla and Feiv’ke Schwarz survived the Holocaust but never reunited after the war. Michla moved to the soon-to-be-founded Jewish state in the Middle East and started a family there. Her brother Feiv’ke, considered dead, returned to East Germany, married a German woman, and inexplicably lived amidst the concentration-camp ruins where he was once a prisoner. The Israeli and German sides of the family lived unaware of each other for half a century until first-time filmmaker Yael Reuveny probed exactly what happened to her family in 1945. 

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