Monday, July 15, 2013

NICKY'S FAMILY: Matej Mináč & Patrik Pašš bring us feel-good Holocaust -- that works

You may try to resist, but I would suggest giving up fairly quickly and simply going along with this multi-award-winning 2011 Czech documentary just now reaching our shores. NICKY'S FAMILY tells the very fine story of a young British man named Nicholas Winton, back in 1938, when Europe was gearing up for World War II and the Jews of Germany, Austria and nearby countries were fearing for their lives -- and especially for those of their children. Instead of going on his planned skiing trip, Nicholas was corralled by a friend into coming to Czechoslovakia, where he learned first-hand what was happening and what Germany had planned for one of its next-door neighbors. So Winton immediately began working toward getting as many children of Czech Jews out of the country as quickly as possible.

The reason it is so easy to fall into the swing of this film is that the documentary -- directed, co-written and co-produced by Matej Mináč (at right), and edited, co-written and co-produced by Patrik Pašš (below) -- is quite beautifully organized. It incorporates, and near seamlessly, archival footage and photos with present-day (or thereabouts) material, while its re-enactments thankfully are only visual, with none of the thudding dialog that so often weighs down these re-creations, making them seem more important (but less well-done) than the actual documentary footage.

Why did Winton undertake such a mam-moth effort? This is a good question, and it's one that the film only partially answers. Perhaps, 70 years later, the man himself -- now 104 years old and still going relatively strong! -- barely knows. At the time however he saw what needed to be done and simply set about doing it. As he tells us, in one of his more famous quotes: "Anything that is not actually impossible can be done, if one really sets one's mind to do it and is determined that it shall be done."

In any case, the filmmakers detail how the job was planned and then accomplished (hundreds of children were saved, though most of their parents died in the concentration camps); what happened to the children (Britain was the only country at the time that would accept them); what all this cost in terms of time, effort and money; and how, decades later, the survivors actually, and for the first time, learned who Nicholas Winton was and what they owed to his efforts. (That's Nicholas, below, seated at right in the foreground, with some of his "survivors.")

The film does not dwell on the horrors of the Holocaust but instead concentrates on the saving of these kids. You can fault it, I suppose, for that, though by this point in time, we've certainly gotten plenty of the other kind of documentaries and narratives. (We do hear one awful anecdote about the gas chambers new to me: "When you take your children into the gas chamber, sing with them. If you sing, you will inhale the gas faster and will die more quickly.") At times these grown and now elderly survivors do talk about their parents and must stop to wipe away their tears and wait for their composure to return. But mostly they, along with their own children and grandchildren, want to show their appreciation for Winton's good work.

Although this might seem like an old and one-off kind of situation (a "Schindler" in Britain, as Nicholas has been described), there appears to be a large and strong movement of young people dedicated to emulating the work of this man, keeping alive his and their own desire to help the helpless. Seeing this movement come into focus, which ends the movie on a very "up" note, is bracing and stirring indeed. (That said, all this feel-good-cum-lighted-up-cell-phones does go on a little too long: Less would have meant more.)

There appears to be an effort afoot to see that Mr. Winton is a contender for the Nobel Peace Prize. Why not? If that idiot committee could bestow its 2009 prize on Barack Obama for doing absolutely nothing at that point in time (you can bet they'd never give it to him at this point!), why not on a man who accomplished what we see in this excellent documentary? (Shown below is the young Mr. Winton with one of the Czech children.)

Nicky's Family, from Menemsha Films and running 96 minutes, opens in New York City this Friday, July 19, at five venues in the New York area (The Quad, the JCC, Kew Gardens, Malverne and Soundview) and four in Los Angeles (Laemmle's Royal, Town Center 5, Playhouse 7 and Claremont 5). See all the current, past and upcoming playdates by clicking here and then scrolling down.

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