Discover more from Shadows and Dreams
Now playing: In search of lost time
Anna Rezan's documentary My People beautifully intertwines family, memory, and history.
“Their story is my history,” says the young woman, forlorn and still, her lovely face framed against the window interior as her bus navigates the somber Polish landscapes.
The voice belongs to the magnetic Anna Rezan, an actor and filmmaker of Greek descent.
Thanks for reading Shadows and Dreams! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Her beautiful, tentative and lyrical opening has a natural and open freedom that suggests a work capable of going in multiple directions.
Her feature documentary debut, My People, is a haunting and frequently shattering social and cultural portrait about family, identity, history and unsealing the emotional wreckage of trauma.
The movie is hand-made in the best sense, skillful and professional, but also messy, complex, engaging and often emotionally devastating. She excavates a lost time with a particular toughness, honesty, humor and grace.
Rezan binds the personal to the political, the family memoir to the larger historical record. It’s not a work of abstraction, or anger, or regret. The work is tempered and alive, interweaving feeling and humor, grace and wonder.
“Most of the people in my family have uncommon names that don’t sound Greek,” she says. It has some awkward moments toward the final third, but that is almost to be expected given how raw and open the material.
My People is sharp, direct and urgent.
I first caught it last spring when it played at the Chicago Jewish Film festival.
The movie has its New York premiere on Sunday, October 2, 6:30 p.m., at the Village East Cinema, under the auspices of the Hellenic Film Society USA.
Rezan deftly combines memory, history, family and biography into a vivid and emotionally involving tapestry.
What begins as a deeply personal family exploration of her own Jewishness becomes a meditation on the history of the Greek Jews, and the extraordinary valor, toughness and bravery of the Greek resistance to the Nazi occupation during the Second World War.
The framing device is something fundamentally unanswerable in exploring the fate of her great-grandmother, Rachel. She was arrested in Athens in 1943, and deported to the death camps at Auschwitz.
The question of her great-grandmother provides the larger entry point of valor, toughness, pride and defiance. In the process, Rezan captures something deep and fundamental.
In discussing the Holocaust, questions about guilt, memory, time and closure are finally too imprecise and porous to have any significant meaning.
My People is about preservation, and giving voice, sounds and meaning to those who were witnesses to the personal tragedy.
The heart of the movie are the Jewish Greek survivors of the death camps that Rezan has gathered. She never sentimentalized or cheapens the material.
She gives sufficient time and breathing space for these participants to tell, in plaintive, direct language, about Jewish culture in Greece before the war, and their stories of resistance, guile and bravery.
Rezan works in different blocks and stylistic contours that intertwines contemporary interviews with archival footage and direct address remembrances.
The themes are malleable and fluid, touching on not just the incredible bravery of the Greeks who bravely resisted the Italian invasion. One of the first casualties of the campaign, Rezan points out, was a Jewish commander.
The Jewish diaspora in Greece dates back to more than 2,000 years. Salonica (now called Thessaloniki) was called “the mother of Israel,” with more than 50,000 Jews living there before the Nazi invasion of Poland, in September 1939, that brought about the European outbreak of the Second World War.
The Greeks stared down and outmaneuvered and outfought the Italians, forcing Hitler to dispatch several of his elite divisions to crush the Greek rebellion. The Nazis achieved their immediate military objective at great future costs.
The use of men, personnel and equipment to pacify the Greeks delayed Hiter’s Barbarossa campaign in the Russian invasion by several critical weeks that significantly altered the war on the Eastern front.
Rezan is Jewish on her mother’s side. She honors the bravery, skill and tenacity of the Orthodox and Greek Christians who also stood up valiantly agains the Nazis.
Unlike many church figures in France and other occupied countries who quickly capitulated to the Nazis, the Greeks refused to accommodate the racist demands of the Third Reich.
The Archbishop of Athens flatly refused the orders of the local Nazi command to identify and separate the Jewish citizens. Threatened with death, the man bravely responds to his interlocutor. “Greek religious leaders are not shot, they are hung,” he says.
Rezan’s grandfather was one of many Greek Jews who was able to ascertain false papers and fake birth certificates. He avoided capture from the Nazis, and took to the mountains to take part in guerilla insurgency.
Of the six survivors, my favorite is Nina, a firecracker, a beautiful, radiant woman who is both serene and tough. She has a remarkable memory and personal recall. She becomes the ideal doppelganger of Rezan’s great-grandmother.
Nina’s stories are unflinching, overpowering, and alive to a particular possibility. That is not to say the movie turns away from the suffering, the loss, and the sense of lives irretrievably broken or lost
Rezan is drawn to the necessity of hope and rebirth. The story of her great-grandmother that provides the entry point to the larger material remains an open text.
One of the most harrowing moments in the film features one of the witnesses talking about returning with his father after the war to reclaim their house. They discover it is now inhabited by another family living there.
What begins as something very personal and specific deepens into a national portrait that moves beyond class, race or religion. My People is stirring but not false or reductive. It honors the few survivors, and laments and honors the dead.
Like the larger work, the quiet silences and pauses are a knockout.
Photo at top: Filmmaker and actor Anna Rezan, director of My People. Courtesy of Anna Rezan.
Thanks for reading Shadows and Dreams. Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.