Finding Fukue follows Jessica Stuart’s journey to Japan to find her childhood friend.
To what lengths would you go to find a childhood friend whose letters stopped coming decades ago? When online searches proved fruitless, Vancouver-born, Toronto-based musician Jessica Stuart headed back to Japan, and her journey is recorded in the CBC Short Docs film Finding Fukue, which was produced with Real Stories. Since posted to YouTube last November, the charming and moving documentary has been viewed more than 3.6 million times to date.
“When I was 9 years old, my parents got English teaching jobs and moved us all to Japan for a year,” shares Stuart as the film starts. Among the images we see are clips of home movies from that year, 1988. “I was a blond kid, and that made me of interest to all the Japanese people because they had never really seen a blond-hair person before,” she says. “They would point at me or my sister, touch my hair, talk at me; I didn’t understand anything yet. The day after we arrived, I went to school for the first time and then that was crazy. I didn’t feel that anyone was interested in getting to know me, except for one person, and her name was Fukue, and we became best of friends.”
The Stuarts – Wendy, Ron and daughters Fiona and Jessica – settled in Saku, then a small rural village with no foreigners. Now, however, Stuart has to start looking for her friend Fukue in a city of 100,000 people. She visits the elementary school they attended and gets a yearbook, where she gets Fukue’s father’s name and an address from the year 2000, but this leads her to a new development, where she and her translator (for the more complex encounters) meet some women who remember her family but can’t help with finding Fukue.
At Saku City Hall, a press contingent meets Stuart and she gets the word out on television and in print. Finally, a clerk at City Hall manages to find a phone number for Fukue’s sister, who connects the two friends. The reunions – first by phone and then in person – are quite emotional. The two fall into a familiar comfort and get reacquainted. They have kept in touch since.
Celebrity sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer started life as Karola Ruth Siegel in Weisenfeld, Germany. (photo from Mongrel Media)
Before she rocketed to 1980s TV fame as sex advisor Dr. Ruth, she was simply Ruth Westheimer. And long before she was Ruth Westheimer, she was Karola Ruth Siegel of Weisenfeld, Germany.
It is those formative early years that provide the most resonant and affecting passages in Ryan White’s solid documentary Ask Dr. Ruth, which is scheduled to open in Vancouver May 10. I’ll go even further: They provide the film with its raison d’etre.
Sure, lots of people were helped in ways big and small by Dr. Ruth’s high-profile acceptance of (almost) every form of sexual behaviour and by her uninhibited, direct language about intimate acts and love relationships. But what lifts Ask Dr. Ruth above a “where are they now” profile of an old-media, pop-culture celebrity is Karola Ruth Siegel’s experiences before, during and immediately after the Second World War.
Most audiences, especially non-Jewish viewers, will come to Ask Dr. Ruth for the sex. The mitzvah of the film, as it were, is that they will get the Holocaust.
To be clear, Dr. Ruth doesn’t see herself as a Holocaust survivor. She is “an orphan of the Holocaust,” which is the most poignant and wrenching phrase you’ll encounter all week.
Born in 1928, Karola Ruth was the sole child of observant Jewish parents. She was too young to fully understand when the Nazis sent her father to a labour camp in the 1930s. And, as bright as she was, she couldn’t fully grasp the long-term implications when her parents put her on a train to Switzerland with a group of Jewish children.
Placed in an orphanage, Karola Ruth and the other Jewish kids were handed housekeeping duties and some responsibilities for caring for the Swiss kids. They received food and shelter, but zero love and little compassion. A natural ringleader – on the train, she’d organized a sing-along to distract the homesick youngsters – Karola Ruth figured out ways to educate and entertain herself.
She discovered boys, of course, and the film accompanies her abroad to a warm reunion with her first boyfriend, Walter Nothmann. It’s pretty chaste stuff, presented by Westheimer with nostalgia and charm, which conveys universal attitudes of adolescence.
At the same time, though, Karola Ruth was devouring and savouring every letter and poem she received from her mother and father – until weeks, and then months, passed without any communication. (She preserved and protected these treasures throughout her travels, and keeps them in plastic sleeves in a notebook.)
The animation style used by filmmaker White to illustrate Karola Ruth’s Swiss period is annoyingly juvenile, unless one presumes that children are one of the intended audiences of Ask Dr. Ruth. Admittedly, those experiences are as accessible and relevant to today’s children as Anne Frank’s, if not more so, but parents and guardians would need to know that the focus of a documentary about a sex therapist isn’t, uh, sex.
At some point after the war, Westheimer accepted that her parents had been killed by the Nazis, but she never sought out the details. All these years later, while visiting Israel during the filming of Ask Dr. Ruth, she goes to Yad Vashem and learns that her father died in 1942 in Auschwitz. The notation for her mother is “disappeared/murdered.”
Ask Dr. Ruth skilfully weaves three threads and three distinct time frames: its subject’s biography from the 1930s to the 1960s, her high-profile heyday in the 1980s and 1990s, and her peripatetic schedule of speaking engagements and family contacts, climaxing with her 90th birthday last June.
The trek to Israel, fascinatingly, includes a visit with a friend from Kibbutz Ramat David, where Ruth Siegel – persuaded that Karola was too German, she dropped it – landed in Palestine at age 17. This remarkable chapter of her life includes ceding her virginity, being trained as a Haganah sniper and, on her 20th birthday during the War of Independence, being injured so badly in a bombing that there was a question whether she’d be able to use her feet again.
The next 70 years of Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s life, spanning Paris, New York, three husbands, two children, a doctorate at age 42, a radio show, household name recognition and four grandchildren, are acutely interesting. But the imprint of coming of age during the war, without her parents but with determination, resourcefulness, intelligence and humour, defined Karola Ruth Siegel and infuses Ask Dr. Ruth with timeless importance.
“From my background, all of the things I’ve survived,” Westheimer declares, “I have an obligation to live large and make a dent in this world.”
Michael Foxis a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
Ai Weiwei is among the artists featured in Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies, a documentary by Larry Weinstein, which will screen twice during DOXA. (photo from DOXA)
This year’s DOXA Documentary Film Festival lineup includes Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies, which “explores a diverse range of mediums, from well-recognized symbols of fascist movements, to more subtle forms in political satire and online slander.” Ahead of the festival, veteran filmmaker Larry Weinstein spoke with the Jewish Independent. Propaganda screens twice during the festival, on May 9 and 10.
JI: Can you share a bit about your background a few key moments on your path to being a documentary filmmaker?
LW: I’ve been directing for 35 years and have made close to 40 films in that time. But I actually started in high school and especially became interested in documentary (and propaganda) when I made a film about a slaughterhouse soon after I had become a vegetarian. It was the usual stuff – slow-mo shots of slit jugular veins and unborn calves being ripped from their slaughtered mothers all set to the music of Debussy.
After the film screened in my school, a good percentage of the students became vegetarian and I realized that, with this power to persuade, I wanted to make more documentaries. But, my first professional film 10 years later was quite different and a bit more subtle – Making Overtures: The Story of a Community Orchestra was a film which seemed like a home movie but it did very well, including an Oscar nomination. It set me on the road to a long series of music films, especially those about composers like Ravel, Schoenberg, Falla, Rodrigo, Weill, Beethoven and Mozart. It’s hard to refer to key moments. Each of the films is special to me. I’ve been very lucky.
JI: The topics you’ve covered are wide-ranging, from music and the performing arts to global politics to Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas and the documentary on Maya Farrell. How do you choose your subject matter?
LW: Originally, all my films were music based but, more recently, I’ve made three sports-based films. The latest, The Impossible Swim, is on three generations of marathon swimmers and was co-directed with my filmmaker daughter, Ali – something very special for me.
Our Man in Tehran is a documentary about the 1979 hostage crisis that corrects the inaccuracies of Argo; Inside Hana’s Suitcase is [a] Holocaust film. But, to tell you the truth, many of the music films also deal with history, with science, with politics, with culture and they are quite varied in form as well as content. Many of the films have come out my own dreams and interests. Many have been suggested by broadcasters and other sources, but those must also become internalized and feel like they come from me before I can really proceed with them.
JI: Propaganda has existed since humans appeared on earth. The DOXA blurb asks, “How do we know what we know?” But is it possible to not sell a specific perspective, if not a lie. Someone’s truth is another’s lie? What’s your diagnosis of the problem and do you have a suggested remedy? Or is propaganda a problem that can never be solved?
LW: Propaganda has indeed existed from the beginning. It was born along with the birth of art, of language, of spiritual thought. Orwell said that all art is propaganda. That’s debatable but probably accurate.
Propaganda is mind-control. It’s not necessarily sinister but I subtitled the film The Art of Selling Lies because I was in a bad mood, often reading Trump’s tweets first thing in the morning, fed up with his lies. Nothing he says is the truth; seeing that he was directly inspired by rhetoric of Stalin and by the speeches of Hitler. But propaganda is everywhere – it surrounds us and seems to be flung at us exponentially with social media – whether politically, socially, economically, religiously, too. We are fed lies and untruths from the moment we are born. Coke tastes good. You want a Barbie doll. You want a Corvette. This political party will save you; that one will destroy you. Religion is your salvation. There is an omnipotent, omniscient God who loves you but you’re [screwed] if he’s angry. All that stuff. Lies. Propaganda.
The remedy? Think about what you are being force-fed. Be rational about it. Propaganda feeds on emotion, on your fears, on your anxiety, on your superstitions. Resist and don’t accept crap just because somebody says it’s true, when it’s obviously questionable.
Propaganda screens May 9, 8:30 p.m., at SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, and May 10, noon, at Vancity Theatre. The May 10 screening is part of Rated Y for Youth and includes a post-film discussion. Tickets to DOXA can only be purchased online: doxafestival.ca. For more information about the festival, which runs until May 12, call 604-646-3200.
Auschwitz survivor Eva Kor forgives former SS officer Oskar Gröning. (photo from TLNT Productions)
The Accountant of Auschwitz is more than the latest documentary to successfully convey the horrors of antisemitic genocide to an audience 75 years removed from those events. It exemplifies the emergence of a coterie of young filmmakers eager to tell the stories of the Holocaust to their peers and to future generations.
For Toronto director Matthew Shoychet and producer Ricki Gurwitz, the trial of nonagenarian SS officer Oskar Gröning in his Lower Saxony hometown in 2015 provided the entry point to explore an ambitious array of historical, legal and moral concerns. The approach they chose for their debut feature documentary, however, was as important as the facts and the message.
“The way we put it together with the editors, we knew we didn’t want to play it chronologically,” the 32-year-old Shoychet explained. “The film opens with fast-paced, happy music with animation, then right into the trial, then back. You’re challenging the audience, but in a fresh, exciting way. You don’t see many Holocaust films that are told that way.”
The Accountant of Auschwitz screened at the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival last fall and is part of the Seattle Jewish Film Festival, which opens March 23.
Shoychet’s path to The Accountant of Auschwitz was unusual in that his family was not directly affected by the Holocaust. He was interested in films about the Holocaust, but he wasn’t instilled with the kind of painful personal history that was (and still is) the catalyst for many filmmakers.
In 2013, Shoychet went on the March of the Living to Poland and Israel, where he received his first close-up exposure to the Final Solution and Holocaust education. A friend he made on that trip went to work for the Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre in Toronto, and that contact led to Shoychet directing the short film Anne Frank: 70 Years Later (2015), which screened at Auschwitz-Birkenau and the University of Warsaw.
Shoychet joined that year’s March of the Living as a chaperone, where he met Bill Glied, a Serbian native who’d been deported from Hungary to Auschwitz in 1944. When Glied remarked that he was going to Germany to testify at Gröning’s trial, Shoychet and Gurwitz put a pitch together to the Government of Ontario, the Rogers Documentary Fund, CBC’s Documentary Channel and a couple of private investors.
“It came together fast,” said Shoychet, who arrived on the scene in Lüneburg, Germany, in the midst of the trial.
Gröning’s job, as The Accountant of Auschwitz makes clear, wasn’t loading Zyklon B into the gas chambers or machine-gunning Jews. Thanks to a change in German law, it is no longer necessary to prove that a Nazi pulled the trigger. His presence at the scene and involvement in crimes is sufficient to decide guilt.
“Oskar was on the ramp [when the trains arrived and where selections occurred], taking suitcases and calming chaos,” Shoychet said. “But it was all part of the mass murder operation.”
Among the issues that The Accountant of Auschwitz takes on is the purpose and value of trying a 94-year-old man for war crimes. The film makes a convincing argument on multiple grounds, beginning with the extent of the cover-up that took place in Germany after the war.
“Ninety-nine percent of the judges in West Germany from 1945 to 1967 were members of the Nazi party,” Shoychet noted. “Hardcore believers. Of the 800,000 SS officers, 100,000 were investigated between 1945 and today, just over 6,000 were brought to trial and 124 received life sentences.”
That paltry number minimizes the scale of the crimes and serves to bury the past. The film asserts that Gröning’s confirmation under oath of his work at Auschwitz was a public and irrefutable rebuttal to Holocaust deniers and other antisemites.
“Even if you say he’s too old – and even the survivors say they don’t care if he goes to prison – for history’s purposes, the fact that a Nazi perpetrator is sitting in a German courtroom with German judges, saying, ‘Yes, these things happened, I was there,’ that makes the trial worthwhile,” Shoychet said.
A loquacious interview subject, even on the phone from Israel, where he had presented The Accountant of Auschwitz at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival a few months ago and was presently working on a project of the One Family Fund (he’s a board member), Shoychet confided that the process of making his feature doc debut was one of learning as he went. For example, until he went to Germany, he had never heard of John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian who had been convicted of crimes at Sobibor yet consistently denied any involvement. Demjanjuk’s tangled tale, which, among other things, raises the subject of putting an elderly man on trial, ended up being a 20-minute segment in the film.
The Accountant of Auschwitz is rife with revelations and messages, but one gets the sense in talking with Shoychet that his main goal was conveying his own experiences of discovery, discussion, inspiration and outrage – with respect to Nazis and survivors, as well as contemporary justice-seekers and neo-Nazis – to viewers his own age.
“There may not be an ISIS fighter who will be deterred by a 94-year-old Nazi being prosecuted,” Shoychet allowed. “It’s making the connection of the past to the present. Trying to take a younger person and put them in the shoes of the survivors.”
Shoychet’s affinity for provoking questions and debate among the audience bodes well for his next efforts behind the camera.
“I never actually thought I would make a documentary,” he said with a trace of bemusement. “My passion is scripted narratives.”
One of the apartment buildings at the
HKP complex. (photo from Richard Freund)
Nearly three-quarters of a century after the Shoah ended, we are still learning about aspects of what happened. For example, the documentary The Good Nazi tells the little-known story of a Nazi from Vilna who tried to rescue more than 1,200 Jews. It airs on VisionTV Jan. 21, and again April 29.
In 2005, Dr. Michael Good sought out Prof.
Richard Freund of the University of Hartford to tell him about Maj. Karl
Plagge, a Nazi who oversaw a military vehicle repair complex that was used as
cover for 1,257 Jews in Vilnius (Vilna). Good described how his father, mother
and grandfather were saved within this complex, and later wrote about it at
length in his 2006 book The Search for Major Plagge: The Nazi Who Saved Jews
(Fordham University Press).
While interesting to Freund, who works within a
department known for its Holocaust studies, nothing further came of that
meeting. That is, until 2015.
By then, Freund had directed six archeological
projects in Israel and three in Europe on behalf of the university, including
research at the extermination camp at Sobibor, Poland. In 2015, he was in
Lithuania doing research on a Holocaust-era escape tunnel, adjacent to the
Great Synagogue of Vilna. He and his team had brought with them specialized
equipment that enabled non-invasive examination of the ground and walls, and
they offered it to anyone wanting to do such research. The Vilna Gaon State
Jewish Museum came calling, and brought Freund to a site on the outskirts of
Vilna, where he was told about Plagge.
Of that moment, Freund told the Independent,
“I’m sitting there and I say, ‘Karl Plagge? I know that name!’”
Freund connected with survivor Sidney Handler,
who was 10 years old when he hid from the Nazis in the work camp. After the
Nazis left in July 1944, Handler was forced to move dead bodies, and could
point out decades later where 400 Jews were buried.
“We could have gone through the entire 20 acres
and not located exactly where that was,” said Freund.
Using scanners, thermal cameras, radar and
other methods, Freund’s team discovered and recorded the various hiding places,
also called malinas. Under Plagge’s plan, Jews had built malinas in building
crevices, behind the walls, to keep out of sight when Nazis came to “liquidate”
The garage (repair shop) was dubbed HKP. It was
on Subocz Street and is likely the only Holocaust-related labour camp left
completely intact. Until recently, people had been living in the two six-floor
buildings, which comprised 216 apartments.
Freund reached out to filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, telling him how important it was to document the site, the story, and reveal it to the world. Things were made all the more pressing when Freund and Jacobovici discovered that developers were going to demolish the site. Fortunately, before this happened, Jacobovici took a film and photographic crew to HKP, in January 2018.
The Turning of Plagge
In 1941, Karl Plagge was placed in command of
the HKP 562, a unit responsible for repairs of military vehicles damaged on the
eastern front. Plagge experienced something of a pang of conscience – he hadn’t
signed on to genocide. He made the decision to leverage his position and use
Jews as “slave labour” for HKP, pleading the case to his superiors that, if
Jews didn’t work there, there would be no one to fix the vehicles.
Virtually none of the 1,200 Jews was knowledgeable
in fixing cars; they were accountants, lawyers, hairdressers, academics, cooks
and others. They all learned various HKP tasks on the job, and Plagge somehow
convinced the Nazi SS that every single one of them was necessary for HKP.
Even though the entire charade was met with a
barely tolerated wink and nod by Nazi brass, Plagge had a deep (and correct)
hunch that their patience would eventually wear thin.
Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS,
announced, in the summer of 1943, that he wanted every Jew in Eastern Europe
eliminated, irrespective of whether they were contributing to the war effort in
a work camp. So, with Plagge’s approval, his workers carved out malinas in the
walls of the buildings and in attic rafters.
As the Soviet Red Army approached the outer
edge of Vilnius in June 1944, it was a sign that the Allies were nearing
victory. In this context, on July 1, 1944, Plagge made an impromptu
announcement in front of an SS commander and the Jewish workers, who gathered
to listen. He explained that his unit was being transferred westbound and,
though he requested his labourers be allowed to join, his superiors wouldn’t
permit it. All of this was code for the Jewish prisoners to take cover. Roughly
half of the workers – some 500 of them – hid away in malinas or ran from the
camp, while others decided to stay.
When Nazi troops took over the camp two days
later, 500 Jewish workers appeared for roll call, and were killed. It took the
Nazis three more days to comb the camp and the surrounding area for any
survivors, eventually finding roughly 200 Jews, all of whom were shot.
When the Soviets finally took over Vilnius
later that week, approximately 250 of HKP’s Jews in hiding emerged.
When the war was over, Plagge returned home to
Darmstadt, Germany, where, for the next two years he lived quietly, until he
was brought to court as a former Nazi. Somehow, word traveled to a displaced
persons camp in Stuttgart, a three-hour drive away, where many survivors of HKP
had ended up. In Plagge’s defence, the survivors sent a representative to
testify to the court in the hopes the charges would be overturned.
The testimony resulted in a favourable judgment, and Plagge received the status of an exonerated person. In 2005, after evidence and survivor testimony, Yad Vashem: The World Holocaust Remembrance Centre posthumously bestowed the title Righteous Among the Nations on Plagge.
The Good Nazi was produced in Canada for VisionTV by Toronto-based Associated Producers. Jacobovici was writer and executive producer, Moses Znaimer executive producer, Bienstock producer and co-director, Yaron Niski co-director and Felix Golubev line producer/executive producer.
Dave Gordonis a Toronto-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in
more than 100 publications around the world.
גשם של חפצים ניתך על עוברי אורח מקומה תשעה עשרה של אחד הבניינים בווסט אנד. (צילום: Victoria Nguyen via cbc.ca)
הסצנה לקוחה מסרט – לא? מדובר בסיפור אמיתי לחלוטין. עוברי אורח שהלכו על המדרכה ברחוב הארו שבשכונת הווסט אנד, באחד מימי שבת האחרונים, בסביבות שלוש אחר הצהריים, נדהמו לראות פתאם ים של חפצים עפים לעבריהם, מאחד הבניינים (מספרו 1650). מהמרפסת בקומה תשעה עשרה נחתו החפצים אחד אחרי השני. תחילה נזרקו עשרות דפים שהתנפנפו להם להנאתם ברוח. לאחר מכן הגיע התור של החפצים הכבדים ורהיטים בהם כיסאות שעפו ללא רחם מהקומה, ונחתו במהירות על המדרכה. הרעש היה גדול ושברי חפצים וזכוכיות של רכבים עפו לכל עבר.
עוברי האורח חששו מאוד מהמראה הביזרי וחלקם אף צעקו “או מיי גוד”. ובנס אף אחד מהם לא נפגע. אך חפצים כבדים שנחתו על מספר מכוניות שחנו במקום גרמו להם נזק לא קטן. כמה מהאזרחים המבוהלים התקשרו למשטרה וניידת עם שוטרים הוזעקה למקום. השוטרים פתחו בחקירה מואצת ועצרו את הגבר (בן 56), שהשליך את החפצים מדירתו החוצה. התברר להם שהאיש היה תחת השפעת סמים קשה. לכן הוא הועבר תחילה לבדיקה מקיפה בבית החולים הסמוך. לאחר מכן הוא הוחזר לידי המשטרה ונכלא למעצר. המשטרה החליטה להגיש נגד האיש כתב אישום שיכלול מספר סעיפים, בהם גרימת נזק לרכבים ולבניין עצמו.
העורב שמשגע את ונקובר עומד להיות אבא
העורב קנאק שזכה לחשיפה גדולה לאור מעשיו יוצאי דופן, עומד להיות אבא. כך מדווח שון ברגמן שהוא חברו האנושי של קנאק. לדברי ברגמן קנאק ובת זוגתו ססייר שומרים על הביצים בקן שלהם, ויושבים עליהן לסרוגין. ברגמן לא יודע כמה ביצים בדיוק יש לזוג העורבים. הוא משקיף על הקן בפריסקופ ומשקפת שקיבל משכניו שגרים לידו במזרח ונקובר. ברגמן פרסם את המידע על קנאק שעומד להיות אבא בדף הפייסבוק המיוחד שפתח עבורו “קנאק אנד איי”.
בראשית השנה קנאק הפריע לדוור של קנדה פוסט לחלק דואר בקירבת ביתו של ברגמן. כיוון שהעורב הטריד כל הזמן את הדוור החליטה רשות הדואר להפסיק את חלוקת הדואר באזור. הדוור מצא אז דרך לשמח את קנאק והוא התחיל להביא לו בוטנים. ומאז השניים הפכו להיות חברים והדואר שוב מחולק כבעבר.
סרט תעודי שהכין ברגמן על יחסיו עם קנאק (במימון טלאס) הוקרן בפסטיבל סרטים בניו יורק בראשית השנה.
לפני כשלוש שנים בהיותו גוזל קנאק נפל מקן ונמצא על ידי ילד שגידל אותו בביתו. ברגמן שהוא דייר בביתו של אב הילד הלך ביום השחרור לטבע לצפות בעורב, ואז הציפור עפה הישר אליו והתיישבה על כתפו. מאז הם חברים ומבלים שעות. קנאק רגיל לחברת בני האדם, אינו פוחד מהם והם יכולים ללטף אותו ולגעת בו כמו כל חיית מחמד אחרת.
ברגמן התקין טבעת פלסתיק אדומה על רגלו השמאלית של העורב. עשרות אלפי גולשים עוקבים מקרוב אחרי מעשיו שמתועדים בתמונות ובסרטי וידאו. גם אמצעי החדשות מסקרים את מעשיו של העורב שזכה לחשיפה עולמית.
העורב זכה לחשיפה ראשונה בעת שהתיישב על צוואר של צעיר שרכב על אופניים בקרבת ביתו של ברגמן, שהחליט מאז לתעד את מעשיו בפייסבוק. קנאק צולם כשהוא גונב מפתחות, גונב כרטיסים של הגרלה בפארק שעשועים, נוסע ברכבת קלה ומבקר במקדונלד’ס. הוא אף גנב סכין מזירת פשע ותמונתו כשהוא עף עם הסכין והדם עליה נעוצה בפיו זכתה לסיקור עולמי.
Fish Soup, a 10-minute documentary by Vancouver-based filmmaker Rami Katz, screened at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival last month.
The film is an exploration of Katz’s family and their cultural traditions through the making of a fish soup. He has also submitted the documentary to the Vancouver Jewish Film Centre for consideration in its annual festival, which takes place in November.
“It was this program that motivated me to go on to film school at Simon Fraser University,” Katz told the Independent. “At the time, there were no documentary courses being offered, so my undergraduate film school experience was mostly in narrative filmmaking. But, in my third year, I interned for John Zaritsky, a veteran documentary filmmaker, and he ended up hiring me after I graduated. He has kept in touch as a friend and a mentor ever since, and has definitely been a huge inspiration to me.”
In addition to the industry itself, Katz has been influenced by professors, peers and his studies at the University of British Columbia.
“It has been an enriching experience to spend time with like-minded individuals who share similar passions for documentary film,” he said. “In 2014, I decided to go back to school to pursue an MFA in film production at UBC, which would allow me to grow and develop as a filmmaker, creatively and intellectually, and dedicate myself more fully to my own personal work. I made Fish Soup in a documentary class at UBC, taught by Cari Green and Bruce Spangler, both nurturing and supportive teachers.”
Fish Soup was developed after Katz told his partner, Sarah Sheridan, a humorous story about his father. After hearing the anecdote, Sheridan suggested that Katz make a film about it. He liked the idea of working on a personal project, as he had never before even considered making a documentary about his own life.
“I think everybody has a family recipe and everyone has a family story, so this film kind of taps into that and, hopefully, gets people thinking about their own stories they want to share. For me, this was also a way for me to connect to my own grandfather, whom I was named after but never got a chance to meet because he died before I was born.”
At the Toronto Jewish Film Festival screening of Fish Soup, Katz was able to include both Sheridan and his brother Raphael in the event. After the screening at the Royal Ontario Museum, Katz and his family were treated to a Shabbat dinner at the Free Times Café.
Though highly inclusive of both his family and his colleagues, Katz said creative control was paramount to successfully completing the documentary.
“I think, for a personal film, creative control is hugely important. It’s especially important if it’s a passion project, if you’re not getting paid to make it. It’s important to note here that my crew wasn’t getting paid as well, and they are putting in a lot of hours and energy and were hugely influential in the creation of the film. Sarah helped a lot with the initial concept and project logistics. She truly was a driving force behind the film and I couldn’t have made it without her help and support.”
Katz also expressed his gratitude to Ben Leyland, William Drobetsky and Felix Oltean.
When asked how Fish Soup touches on the importance of upholding familial traditions and values within the larger Jewish culture, Katz said, “I’m not very religious, but a lot of the cultural aspects of Judaism and some of the traditions are important for me. I like to celebrate the holidays and, for the past eight months or so, I’ve been observing Shabbat in my own way. Sarah and I recently hosted our first Passover seder, and we’re starting to do Shabbat dinners every now and then with friends. I think this film helped me to connect with my cultural roots and observe aspects of Judaism that are most meaningful to me.”
Katz is currently filming his master of fine arts thesis film at UBC – a documentary on the life and work of Vancouverite Jack O’Dell, 93, who was an influential figure within the African-American civil rights movement.
Jonathan Dickis a freelance writer living in Toronto. His writing has appeared in the Canadian Jewish News, and various other publications in Canada and the United States.