The scandal that forced Austria to examine its complicity in the Holocaust is revisited three decades later in The Waldheim Waltz, a new documentary by Austrian Ruth Beckermann that’s being screened during the 21th Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal (RIDM) documentary film festival from Nov. 8-18.
When former United Nations secretary general Kurt Waldheim ran for president of Austria in 1986, the World Jewish Congress accused him of committing war crimes while he was serving with the German army in Greece during the Second World War.
Austrians rallied behind him, denying the past and unleashing a barrage of nationalist propaganda.
At the time, Beckermann was one of the activists who was trying to stop Waldheim. She filmed much of the opposition and the backlash against it, which sometimes descended into anti-Semitism.
From the perspective of 30-plus years later, Beckermann analyzes this turning point in Austrian political culture and its whitewashing of history.
“Austria was highly successful in practising the deception on itself and the world that it had been the first victim of the Nazis,” says Beckermann. “When I looked at the material I shot 30 years ago, I was shocked.”
She believes that what happened then, how politicians stirred up people’s emotions, provides a warning about the dangers of today’s rising populism.
Another Holocaust-themed film at this year’s RIDM is Quebec director Catherine Hébert’s Ziva Postec: The Editor Behind the Film Shoah, which is making its world premiere.
Hébert profiles the little-known but indispensable colleague of French director Claude Lanzmann. Postec worked with him on his monumental 1985 work, Shoah, for six years, bringing order to 350 hours of footage on the Nazis’ extermination of the Jews.
In fact, she spent decades by Lanzmann’s side.
Postec recalls the immense and painful task of making Shoah, an experience that had a profound impact on her personally.
The film, which includes previously unseen images from the production process, is presented in collaboration with the Montreal Holocaust Museum.
In the German film, Victory Day, director Sergei Loznitsa looks at the commemoration held every May 9 by thousands of Russians, who gather in Berlin to celebrate the Soviet Union’s triumph over the Nazis.
In a colourful, noisy display, they place flowers at the monument in Treptower Park that honours the 80,000 Red Army soldiers who fell in the battle for Berlin.
Memory is Our Homeland, by Montrealer Jonathan Durand, looks at the more than 30,000 young Poles who were deported to Siberian labour camps and then exiled to Africa.
In this very personal work, Durand features the recollections of his own grandmother, who spent years in a Tanzanian village in the 1950s. This is also its world premiere.
In the festival’s National Feature Competition is A Sister’s Song by Israeli Danae Elon, who now lives in Montreal.
Elon looks at the divergent lives of two Israeli sisters who, as teens in the 1990s, visited a Greek Orthodox monastery in Jerusalem. Against her parents’ wishes, one of them later joins a convent in Greece and remains estranged from her family for two decades.
Elon follows the older sister’s journey to the convent, to try to convince her to come home. At last, they speak frankly to each other about their different views on faith, family and the very meaning of life.
Walaa’s ambition is to join the Palestinian security forces, which she sets out to achieve when her mother returns home after serving eight years in prison.
Several films at the festival deal with the Palestinian experience, including Samouni Road by Stefano Savona. Through documentation and animation, he gives a picture of the impact of Israel’s 2009 Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.
Savona trains his lens on the agricultural community of Zeitoun and, specifically, the Samouni family. The conflict cost them family members and their livelihood.
Two other films have unusual perspectives on the region. The British entry, Salarium, by Sasha Litvintseva and Daniel Mann, laments that the terrain around the Dead Sea is deteriorating, leaving what was once a lively landscape barren and impassable.
A mysterious incident inspired The Apollo of Gaza by Nicolas Wadimoff. In August 2013, a purported ancient bust of Apollo was found in the Mediterranean, off the Gazan coast. A few days later, it disappeared. Wadimoff takes on the role of detective as he combs the streets of Gaza City and Jerusalem, to find out where it went, or if it was all a hoax. In the process, he captures the region’s tensions and ambiguities.