The World Premiere of On My Way Out: The Secret Life of Nani and Popi was presented at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 8.
The 40-minute documentary chronicles the love story of 95-year-old Holocaust survivors Ruth and Roman Blank, known affectionately to their family as Nani and Popi.
Growing up in neighbouring small towns in central Poland, they met at a Zionist youth group and correspond with one another by writing letters and poems in Polish and Yiddish, until the war broke out. After the trauma of losing family in the Holocaust and being banished to Siberian work camps, they found each other after the war, got married and settled in the United States, where they raised their two daughters and built a successful business.
Nani and Popi are admired for their joie de vivre – singing Jewish songs, dancing together and, most of all, their love for one another.
As the family prepared to celebrate Nani and Popi’s 65th wedding anniversary, Popi revealed a secret that shocked the family and shattered the facade behind which the couple hid for decades.
“This is the most painful testimony that I am willing to reveal to you about my life. In the early age, I discover that I am loving males. At that time in my life, to be gay was a crime and condemned to choose either to commit suicide, or to live in a closet. I decided to live,” said Roman in the film.
‘The secret ripped open a painful wound that Nani had suppressed, pushing her into physical decline’
First time directors Brandon and Skyler Gross are brothers, as well as Nani and Popi’s grandsons.
“We made the film first and foremost as a tribute to tell the story – the true, real story of our grandparents’ lives and the unthinkable sacrifices they made for their family – and to encourage others to live their truth,” said Brandon.
“I’ve been filming my grandparents for years. When the news unfolded within my family, it was a ‘aha’ moment to me – a curve ball that was illuminating.”
Comedian Howie Mandel, who’s a family friend, was moved when he heard the story and reached out to his friend and colleague Barry Avrich. Together, the pair, who are listed as executive producers of the film, brought the project to fruition.
Mandel told The CJN that, “This movie is the epitome of holding in a secret – not being true to who you are and how painful that is. I think as humans, we can all relate: putting up a facade and not allowing people to see who you really are. I think this is one of the most important films of our times that we have to share.”
Documentaries are generally informative, educational and entertaining, but rarely are they so jarringly emotional.
“Capturing the truth literally means putting the camera right in the centre of the conflict, the centre of the drama, which Brandon did. Those very raw moments of his grandparents fighting, talking and disputing – the camera was right in the middle, in what we call a cinéma vérité style.
“I loved both of them as characters; they are right out of a Woody Allen film, beautifully cast. It’s a tough film and I think people will debate this couple and their lives for a long time to come,” added Avrich.
Roman loves Ruth as a brother would love a sister.
“I think Popi felt enormous guilt,” said Brandon.
What about Nani, how did she cope?
“It was a tremendous strain. Her chutzpah, ingrained with the stories she told, like as a young girl approaching a Russian officer and singing a song to get her family moved from one place to another. That is the sort of spirit that is so deeply embedded in who she is. That made it possible for Nani to persevere,” said Brandon.
Coming out as a gay man at the age of 95 has complications. The secret ripped open a painful wound that Nani had suppressed, pushing her into physical decline.
Their daughters, Lili and Susie, struggled to understand their parents in this new light and tried and accommodate Nani and Popi’s new situation, needs and desires as best they could. Lili showed acceptance when she lovingly helped Popi get ready for a LGBTQ senior prom.
“Popi told me it was the greatest day of his life – a true coming out. To have his daughters there and be celebrated was pure elation,” said Brandon.
On My Way Out peels back the layers of humanity and shows us that love is love.
Watch the trailer to On My Way Out here.