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Filming memory – Israeli documentary filmmaker brings Six Million and One to Wesleyan

By Cindy Mindell

 

NEW HAVEN — David Fisher is an Israeli documentary film director, producer, lecturer, and mentor to up-and-coming filmmakers. His documentaries are hailed for their deep, thorough investigations, revealing new aspects of life in Israel and the Jewish Diaspora. Fisher is perhaps best known for his critically acclaimed family trilogy: “Love Inventory” (2000), “Mostar Round-Trip” (2011), and “Six Million and One” (2011), as well as his tenure as director general of The New Fund for Cinema and TV in Israel, from 1999 to 2008.

This semester, Fisher is Schusterman Visiting Artist at Yale, where he is a professor in the Film Studies Program.

Six Million and One premiered at the Haifa International Film Festival in 2011 and the feature-length competition at IDFA, 2011, where it was one of the top 10 in the Audience Choice category. The film has won several awards throughout the world.

Fisher will present the film on Thursday, Feb. 27 at the Ring Family Wesleyan University Israeli Film Festival.

From “Six Million and One” – Filmmaker David Fisher (far right) and his siblings, (l to r) Gideon Fisher, Estee Fisher-Heim, and Ronen Fisher.

From “Six Million and One” – Filmmaker David Fisher (far right) and his siblings, (l to r) Gideon Fisher, Estee Fisher-Heim, and Ronen Fisher.

Inspired by his late father’s memoir about surviving the Holocaust – and the only one of his family willing to read the account – Fisher convinces three of his four siblings to travel with him to the former site of the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp in Austria and the tunnels of a planned underground jet-production facility, dug by camp prisoners. The film chronicles the four as they trace their father’s life during the Holocaust, grappling along the way with questions of meaning in their personal and family histories.

“I feel like many of the films I made before the trilogy were like a preparation,” he says. “The family trilogy took me on both channels: researching and investigating the past into hidden corners of our society in Israel and beyond, and the sense that it was also a personal film that had to do with me and my family.”

Fisher says that his earlier films concentrated on political and social aspects of life in Israel, which gradually led him to confront very personal issues and the “mystery” of his own family. His mother approached him in the late ‘90s, asking him to find his older sister, who was allegedly taken from his parents at birth. The search by Fisher and his four siblings was chronicled in the film, “Love Inventory,” released in 2000.

“That project was engaging all my experience in research and at the same time, I was starting to have my own fingerprint as an artist on my films,” Fisher says. “I think it was the first milestone on a very new road I took from then on. I started working on Mostar Round-Trip and Six Million and One at the same time – one with my son, Yuval, who was studying at United World College in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the civil war was very much present in the life of the city. I was talking to him and we have very candid conversations during the shooting, and at the same time I started my research and trip to Austria for the next film. I embarked on the Six Million and One mission to find who my father was, with the understanding that I have to give my son the opportunity to know who his own father is, while I’m still alive.”

The Fisher siblings had discovered their father’s memoir after his death, when they were clearing out their late parents’ home. He had written the account of his survival decades after the Holocaust, as a “companion” during the two years between his wife’s death and his own. “I found the memoir in one of the drawers, and it was obvious that he wanted us to find it,” Fisher says. “He wrote it because he thought, ‘This is the only thing I can leave for my children.’ He didn’t want to share so much and sometimes he was very concise and accurate in the way that he didn’t want to put anything above his own memory. He told us many times that he escaped from death and survived by his will to live. But I understood that the father I knew was not the father I discovered from his memoir. All my life, it seemed like I underestimated him – he was a very simple worker; to provide for his family, he had to work on water pipelines, digging and making roads to remote army bases, and would only come home once a week. So I didn’t have a father growing up or later. I found out that he was an intelligent guy, not a scholar, but the way he wrote the memoir was very precise and I felt like the way he described his life in the forced labor camp and what he endured was like nothing I had written or read before. The most interesting part was that he was struggling for his sanity all his life and was able to hide parts of his life from us.”

Joseph Fisher wrote the memoir simultaneously in two timelines, both recalling scenes, images, and stories from the past, while also commenting on how easy it was to write while he was writing. “You enter his mind about Shoah life and life afterwards, and the struggle for him to leave something for his children and grandchildren,” the filmmaker says. “To be honest, I felt a little stupid not to recognize the merit of his personality and character – something he could have shared with me when he was alive.”

In making Six Million and One, Fisher struggled to bring the audience close to his family and make the story watchable without crossing over from intimacy into voyeurism. “I had to fight not to be over-emotional, to touch people but not burn them from so much close fire that we had. It’s a big question when private meets public, how to expose it and lead your audience by the hand to understand the story, keep the tension high but not too high so that they’re embarrassed to be exposed to family matters that they shouldn’t be exposed to.”

Fisher also spent more than a year researching the American veterans from the 71st Infantry Division who liberated the concentration camp and interviewed several of them in the film, bringing two together for the first time in more than 60 years. The soldiers’ emotional accounts served to fill in the scenes that Joseph Fisher found too difficult to describe during his lifetime or in his memoir.

With the film completed and out in the world, David Fisher has been constantly surprised by how it resonates with audiences from many cultures. “It reaches people in different layers of understanding life, from personal and historical, to what is a memoir, to questions about memory,” he says. After a screening in Taiwan, several women came up to Fisher and asked if they could hug him, an experience he describes as “the most surprising and flattering moment of my life, when I understood how universal these films can be.”

While films are not therapy and cannot change the world, Fisher says, “they can open a little window for understanding humanity and human beings, including our parents.”

For the Fisher siblings, the filmmaking experience forced them to think about those things one tends to ignore or deny. “On the trip, we could share moments of grief and humor, and we understood how strong and special our bond is, among us and with our parents,” he says. “For me, this isn’t a film about the Holocaust, because we spent most of our time laughing and there is nothing funny about the Holocaust. It’s about a rare kind of intimacy and brotherly bond that replaced pain with bittersweet humor. We felt like it was our lucky day: we had this opportunity to find out more about ourselves and about who we are and why we are the way we are.”

In the end, the lingering question for Fisher is how one creates a legacy. “I always say that it’s a process of learning and one of the issues of learning is to be patient,” Fisher says. “The trip takes time to digest because we’ve been in surprising and conflicting moments among ourselves and other people. Each of us takes it in our own way; some of the experience will go further with us in our lives and some of it will be part of our lives but we will fight not to pass it on. We will each struggle, like my father did, about what to pass on.”

 

Six Million and One with filmmaker David Fisher: Thursday, Feb. 27, 8 p.m., Wesleyan University Center for Film Studies, Goldsmith Family Cinema, 301 Washington Terrace, Middletown. For information contact Dalit Katz, adjunct assistant professor of religion and Israel studies, dkatz01@wesleyan.edu, (860) 685-2297.

 

Comments? email  cindym@jewishledger.com.

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