Friday, September 23, 2011

Gabor Kalman's THERE WAS ONCE... is a Holocaust documentary worth keeping

If the job of a good documentary is to document, then Gabor Kalman -- the director and co-producer (and also one of the subjects) of the very fine Hungarian Holocaust film THERE WAS ONCE... -- has done his job, and then some. His film tells of how Gyöngyi Mago, a present-day Catholic school teacher in Kalocsa, Hungary, discovers an interesting, some might say, shocking, part of her local history: a thriving Jewish community was once part of Kalocsa but has now vanished entirely.

As she researched, Ms Mago came upon Kalman's name and contacted the man (shown at right), who -- as have done literally all the Holocaust survivors from this town -- had gone on with his post-trauma life completely away from Kalocsa and even from Hungary itself. Kalman turned out to be a documentary film-maker, and so, as soon as Mago and he connected, this film began its formation. And while the film-maker may not be a grand stylist, he knows how to assemble a movie in which the facts stand out and the story comes together in a manner that grabs and holds you.

I say Kalman is no stylist -- yet even in this area, he has managed to give us a few memorable flourishes that should remain with your for a long while.  One of these, shown above, is a photo of an elementary school classroom in a Jewish school in which the lighted figures (five of them) are the only survivors. The rest, including the teacher, were lost to the Nazis. Kalman comes back to this shot, again and again, playing with it in ways that connect the figures and bring additional meaning, memory and poignancy to the proceedings.

As for school-teacher Mago, shown above, she keeps at her task of uncovering and exploring until she has unearthed and interviewed a number of survivors -- whose feeling about their "home town" range from angry to heart-breaking.  Ditto those of the non-Jewish townsfolk she interviews, many of whom claim there was no anti-Semitism experienced in pre-WWII Kolocsa. This seems an exaggeration; in any case, as we learn, there is plenty of it afoot currently, as a rock pierces the heads of one of the women at the present-day memorial service.

We get a good dose of Jewish-Hungarian history here: How the Jews first came to Kalocsa and slowly assimilated. We get reminiscences, some of which are hard to hear and even harder, one realizes, for the speakers to bear. We see what "objects" (a Herend porcelain figurine, for instance) mean to a survivor. Finally, the movie asks a pertinent question -- What is home? -- and allows one of the survivors to ruminate on the total dissolution of family ties that was brought about by the Holocaust.  "We were supposed to be living -- and dying -- in Kalocsa," he tell us.  This documentary is one for the books, an important addition to the historic record, and a moving account of discovery, memory and setting up safeguards.

There Was Once... opens today, Friday, September 23, or a one-week run in New York City (at the IFC Center) and in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Sunset 5.


Anonymous said...

Why does this film have a one week run - the week before and during Rosh Hashanna making it difficult for a jewish audience, the audience that's so so interested in this topic, to attend.

James van Maanen, said...

Interesting point, Anonymous, and I really can't say why. But these days, when between 20 and 25 movies are opening up in New York City from week to week -- mainstream blockbusters, docs, independents, foreign films -- and many of these are being screening only once or twice per day (sharing their time with another new film, also begin screened once or twice), this particular week may have been the only time available, so the distributor grabbed it. Or maybe, the distributor figured that more Reform Jews, rather than Conservative or Orthodox would attend screenings. Or maybe the movie was simply booked into the theater so far in advance that nobody even thought about this. But your question is worth considering. In any case, Jews will have up until the end of today to see it -- which constitutes five of its seven day run.

Anonymous said...

loved this movie..brilliant

James van Maanen, said...

Thanks, Anon (and I am assuming you are not the same Anonymous as above). This film is indeed worth seeing, so I hope it gets picked up for some more theatrical play around the country.