I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors

Ann Marie Fleming. photo: Wendy Dallian

Sitting in a small organic cafe tucked away at the end of a quiet street near a forest in North Vancouver, I had the great pleasure of talking to award winning filmmaker and writer Ann Marie Fleming, about her latest film, I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors, due to screen at VIFF this month.

WD: What brought you to this story?

AMF: The NFB approached me. Michael Fukushima was in Montreal while I was there and asked if I'd seen this book called “I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors” by Bernice Eisenstein. It's an illustrated memoir and the illustrations are gorgeous and moving, very evocative. He said, “Why don't you read it” and so I did.

I thought it was an amazing book. It was completely arresting and so innovative with its narrative and take on these issues. He said, “We'd like you to pitch this. We'd like you to put forward a proposal.”

It wasn't just me. It was a few animators that they asked to come forward with a one page treatment and so I really didn't have any idea that I wouldbe chosen. I do my own work. I don't usually adapt other people's stories, and also this is a Jewish story and it's a first person account, so I was very uncomfortable with speaking, as a non-Jew.

They assured me that that wasn't an issue for the film board and that it wasn't an issue for the author. I landed up putting forward a proposal that they liked. In the end it spanned almost four years, from inception to completion, for a fifteen minute film.

WD: What was the most challenging thing you faced?

AMF: I think it was two-fold. One was the process of adapting someone else's project: as I said, I usual write my own. But also adapting a 200 page illustrated novel into a short animated film: how to do that, what to show.

I did sort of have cart-blanche with my presentation and originally it was going to be a mixed media documentary, sort of along the lines of Long Tack Sam. I think that's why they approached me in the first place: that it wasn't just going to be animated, it wasn't all going to be based just on Bernice's drawings, which is what it was in the end.

The good thing about having it take so long was that it had the time to evolve into what it needed to be and what it was going to be. And of course this is a very surprisingly humorous take on, not on the holocaust, but on interpersonal, particularly family, dynamics.

It's very bitter-sweet. There are a lot of universally relatable horrors of our own mind and our own ways that we communicate with close family members. It was hard to keep the balance... to keep the humour that was there in the book and to make talking about the Holocaust bearable.

I can't believe how many people said, “There's Holocaust fatigue. Oh, you're not making another film about the Holocaust.” You would never hear that comment in another art form. Nobody would ever criticize you like that.

So I realized that I was entering this arena that had been mapped out very thoroughly before me, and what was it that I would have to offer that would add to the conversation. How could I do that and be respectful for everything that happened before, but also be able to have my own voice in adapting someone else's first person story.

WD: What is the most significant thing that you've learned from the making of this film?

AMF: Well you know, one of the reasons, and it sounds weird, that I decided to take on the challenge of this project is because I'd never adapted anybody else's work, and I wanted to know what that would be like: who would I be as a creative person when I am trying to work with someone else. And also to do it with the NFB where the producers brought the project to me.

Filmmaking is always a collaborative process but there were a lot of approvals that I'm not used to having to deal with. It was like learning to play well with others. I know that sounds stupid and not what you'd expect me to say but it was learning about a different type of process. And obviously part of that, even though it came quite late in the game, was collaborating with Bernice. She agreed to do the narration, so she had to approve every word.

She was quite brave and very open. There were a lot of discussions and she was very forthright in her opinions in where she thought I was going down the wrong track, but she was also respectful of me as an artist and allowed the film to become something different than the book.

I learned that in fact you can endure (laughs) and art does come out of darkness and sometimes that darkness is just that painful creative process.

WD: Was there anything that surprised you?

AMF: I think what's innovative about the book and what attracted the producers to it was that it makes the postulation that the Holocaust is a drug and that people are actually addicted to it.

This isn't a survivor story. This is a child of a survivor story. There are generations of people now who know what this means, where you haven't gone through the experience yourself yet you identify yourself through the experience of others. This sounds like an odd comparison but it's kind of like in Breaking Away, that biking movie from the late seventies, where they call themselves the Cutters. This guy's dad goes, “You're not Cutters, we're the Cutters” (laughs) like that.

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