The opening of the museum complex Ballinstadt this year in Hamburg initiated the idea for the organizers, Albert Wiederspiel and his team, to select films dealing with migration as Hamburg has always played an important role in the life of emigrants. From 1850 to 1934 about five million people from all corners of Europe emigrated through Hamburg’s harbor, often spending weeks in primitive barracks at Ballinstadt before they could board a steamer to the Americas. They left for various reasons: to flee from famine, for political reasons or just to search for a better quality of life. Films with an emphasis on life in a foreign country were screened under the section “out of suitcases”.
Besides the much celebrated premiere of the film version of Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical novel Persepolis, a total of ten films gave very personal accounts of migratory stories, including Vienna’s Lost Daughters (director Mirjam Unger) and A Hebrew Lesson (directors David Ofek and Ron Rotem).
With her graphic novel Persepolis the young Iranian, Marjane Satrapi, tells of her family life in Iran during the time of the Shah of Persia and after his fall when the Mullahs gain power. She describes the changes in politics, the hardship of the war with Iraq, but also the energy and attitude of a lively girl growing up in these circumstances. As life becomes more dangerous, her parents send her to Austria where she completes her schooling. She remains a stranger in Europe, misses her family and her country. When she returns to the Islamic State of Islam she discovers that she does not feel at home there either. After a lot of soul searching, Marjane returns to Europe, but this time to France (where she still lives).
Marjane Satrapi’s black and white drawings and text were published not only in France but were translated into many languages. This is her first film as director and writer resulting in an unconventional comic-strip movie. (See festival review) The French version has been very successfully translated with the voices of Jasmin Tabatabai, Nadja Tiller, Hanns Zischler and others.
Jasmin Tabatabai, the German voice of Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) was born in Tehran, where she went to the GermanSchool before her parents moved to Germany (today she lives in Hamburg). She is a well-known actress and singer with three CDs to her name. Her most popular films are Der Eisbär, Late Show, Gripsholm, Ein unmöglicher Mann and FremdeHaut. With her Iranian background, her temperament and her husky, cheeky voice she fits the role of the adolescent Marjane perfectly. She knows what it is like for a rebellious young girl to live with the restrictions applied by the government to any social life, but also the importance of a warm and unfaltering support the typically large and extended Iranian family offers.
Vienna’s Lost Daughters is a documentary by Austrian Mirjam Unger. She accompanied eight 80-year-old women through their daily life in New York. They have not always lived in the U.S. but were born in Austria. When the Nazis occupied Vienna, their Jewish parents found them foster mothers in Great Britain and sent them to safety. Soon England was threatened as well and the children – between 12 and 15 years old – were sent as refugees to America. Most of the women never saw their mothers or any of their relatives again.
Despite their uprooting, these women (Anita, Dorit, Eva, Hennie, Lizzy, Susanne, Susy and Rosalie) are the “lucky ones.” They took the chance of building a new life, a new family in a new country, reminiscing about a beautiful childhood they enjoyed in their beloved Vienna, remembering birthday parties with Sachertorte and singing the songs of the 30s. We are most welcomed in their homes to meet their husbands, daughters and grandchildren.
Elegant Rosalie lets us listen in on the conversation with her South American hairdresser, smartly dressed and her new hairstyle stiffly sprayed into place. Both are immigrants, each speaking with their distinct foreign accents, mulling over the pros and cons of life in New York, both having made their home there.
We join Lizzy on the sofa in her living room with her daughters and teenage granddaughter. The family is discussing the psychological damage of the Holocaust survivors, the burden that is carried over to the next generation. Lizzy seems to be even more balanced about this issue than her grown-up American daughter who gets aggressive and angry. The scene and tone of the conversation change completely when Lizzy’s best Viennese girl friend visits. The two women chat about their Jewish neighbourhood, wonder about having a new love in old age, praise the good looking and fit men and giggle good-humouredly about their friends.
Eva is single and lives on her own in the Bronx. This resolute, sporty woman regularly takes the subway into Manhattan for her Yoga classes. With her open friendly attitude she spreads an optimistic aura around her. Hennie is married and has two grown-up sons. On the top shelf of her wardrobe she stores a shoe box with memorabilia of Vienna and titbits of her childhood. It is touching to see how she carefully unwraps each item for the camera, smiling and wondering who would want to look at these “silly” things after she is gone.
The director, Mirjam Unger, shows us, without any sentimentality or voyeurism, how eight Jewish women from Europe not only survived the difficult years of 1938/1939 but have found new roots on a different continent. Their old roots are not cut off, they shine through in their love for Operettenmusik (traditional musicals), in their language – which often becomes a mix of German and English – in their bridge afternoons and in cherishing their traditional recipes, like baking the best Sachertorte in New York. There is no dividing the past from the present: the past is always part of present life, it has formed each individual in a different way.
„Did you have difficulties in talking to these women about their past?” was the question from the audience.
- Some women we spoke to did not want to be seen on film and found their experiences of the past too painful to talk about, a few were very bitter and angry. The majority of women interviewed were glad to share their experiences; they loved to introduce us to their American family and were proud of their new home country.
“How did they react when you took them to visit their old home country, when they travelled with you to Vienna?”
- Most of them loved being back and were thrilled to recognize many places as Vienna was hardly damaged by bombs and a lot of the beautiful old buildings were saved. It was the second and even third generation that suffered the trauma. Towards the end of the film you could see the grandson breaking down in tears on a sight-seeing tour, being consoled by his grandmother, the old lady originating from Vienna hugging him to her bosom.
“Ms Unger, thank you for a very informative film, which doesn’t lecture us by but instead leaves room for contemplation and at the same time encourages each and everyone to look forward and live life in the present.”
A Hebrew Lesson (Ha’Ulpan) is not only a language lesson but a lesson in humanity, in friendship between strangers struggling with the rules and regulations in a foreign country. The students have come to Israel with their hopes and dreams as different as their nationalities. In the class room they meet for their daily lessons, patiently encouraged by a very imaginative lady teacher who tries to ease their way into an unfamiliar environment and for them to understand not only the language but also the culture of her home country.
After lessons, out of the classroom, they have to face the hard reality of finding work, getting permission of residency and fitting into a society that at times seems only to be demanding and even hostile. The class represents a typical microcosm of the whole country with a variety of nationalities and different religions. A young German woman had followed her boyfriend to Israel hoping to get married; a Chinese woman left her home and daughter to earn some money. She finds a cleaning job as well as her man for life. A Russian followed his estranged wife and wants to be near his little girl. Through all the difficulties that the protagonists are facing, the mutual goal of learning a language and the longing for acceptance unites them, even if not all their dreams are fulfilled.
In this documentary the directors David Ofek and Ron Rotem take a very fresh and realistic look at their own country through the eyes of foreigners. This human melting pot brings up some comical situations but also very sad and frustrating ones. This film has been shown at various film festivals around the world, receiving Awards at Jerusalem and Amsterdam.