Two documentaries at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival tell stories about families torn apart – one during the Holocaust, the other during what has been called the first genocide of the 21st century. Themes of courage and bravery are common to both films, as are a desire on the part of the films’ subjects to educate the public.
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Shield of Solomon
The first documentary, directed by Igal Hecht and Lior Cohen (also written and produced by Hecht), is a visually and emotionally stunning recounting of the plight of Sudanese refugees in Israel.
The world has taken little notice as black Christians from southern Sudan have been attacked, raped and murdered by Arab groups called Janjaweed. Some would-be victims decided to act, by setting out on foot across the Sinai desert towards the nearest democratic country, Israel.
More than 2,000 refugees arrived in Israel during 2006 and 2007, some of whom were deported back to Egypt, some were sent to jail, and many others were left to fend for themselves on the street.
The film spends equal time examining Israeli volunteers who work to find food, shelter, medical assistance and jobs for the refugees, and the history and life stories of the refugees themselves.
Included are bleak scenes of men displaying their scars, both physical and emotional, that they received both at the hands of the Janjaweed and from Egyptian police. Equally heart-wrenching is the sight of women and children playing together in the yard of an Israeli prison, their only offence being that they crossed illegally into the country.
Interspersed are interviews and scenes taken from rallies and demonstrations, as the Sudanese and Israeli activists try to spread information about their plight, and pressure the government to stop deportations.
One social activist, Elisheva, reports that as the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, she feels bound to help people who have no other safe haven. Without government funding, Elisheva and other volunteers scrounge for basic necessities for refugee families, but admit that even Israeli jails and cramped apartments are better than what these men and women left behind.
No government responses to criticism over the handling of the crisis are included in the film. The only official statement included is two excerpts from speeches Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave in the Knesset, in which he says that the refugees are not Israel’s responsibility. It would give the film more balance to have included an interview with a government official.
May 6, 2:30 p.m. and May 8, 3:30 p.m. at the Al Green Theatre.
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My Opposition: The diaries of Friedrich Kellner
This documentary, directed by Fern Levitt and Arnie Zipursky, also focuses on themes of courage in the face of deadly risk.
Friedrich Kellner, a World War I veteran, was a mid-level official in a small district courthouse in Nazi Germany. He had read Mein Kampf, Hitler’s book detailing his dangerous views, and tried to warn others against the Nazis, to no avail.
While resisting joining the Nazi party, at risk to his life, Friedrich wrote diaries documenting events and the dangers of totalitarianism, as a warning to future generations. He was unable to fight the Nazis in the present, so worked to oppose them in the future. Some of his diaries were destroyed out of fear that they would be discovered when he was called before a tribunal to explain his opposition to the Nazis.
Kellner’s only child, Fred, became influenced by the Hitler ideology, and the family decided to send him to America. There, Fred married a Jewish woman, and they had three children together. The marriage was shaky and soon Fred returned to Germany. Their mother left the children at a Jewish orphanage.
After being raised in the orphanage, Friedrich’s youngest grandson, Robert Scott Kellner, joined the U.S. Navy. After two years of being stationed in Virginia, he was sent to Saudi Arabia, with a stopover in Frankfurt, Germany. He wanted to learn more about his grandparents, so he went AWOL to visit his grandparents’ town.
He eventually found their town and then met his grandparents for the first time. He was given the diaries and was relieved to learn that his grandparents had not been Nazis and had in fact resisted the regime. Thirty-five years after their deaths, Kellner seeks to publicize the work of his grandparents and document their lives.
The film mixes interviews with Kellner and historians, footage and photographs that illustrate the lives of the Kellner family in Germany and in the United States and startling footage of the events of World War II. Some of the explanation of historical events in the film, for example Kristallnacht and Hitler’s rise to power, are unnecessary for most audiences and distract from the unique story being told.
May 6, 7:30 p.m. Al Green Theatre. Robert Scott Kellner will be in attendance. For tickets and other information, visit www.tjff.com.