Shadows | A murder in Mansfield
Noa Aharoni | Barbara Kopple
Israel | United State 2017
“Welcome to the heart of darkness.” With these words Yigal Schwartz introduces us to what remains of his former childhood home, now an overgrown ruin, to which he refers as a sadomasochistic prison. It is the place where his, let’s say, “dysfunctional” family resided. The stables are where his father used to beat his sister up. Shadows is a film about second-generation Holocaust survivors, an identity apparently so strong that the film mentions it after introducing each of its three protagonists with their (former) job and family status.
Shadows shows three second-generation survivors who not only bear the scars of the traumas of their parents, but in turn are sources of scars on their own children. Yigal Schwartz’s mother took part in the death marches and was abused and raped. She was the only one in the family to be part of these marches and Schwartz struggles to understand how this was possible. At a family gathering the taboo of the issue is evident. The history is too painful to be recounted and a satisfactory answer is not really provided.
Eitan Michaeli, a retired security officer, has a problem dealing with any authority and with his mother, Hava. She is on oxygen permanently and very fragile. He visits her dutifully but is unable to express even the slightest form of affection. While his mother tries to open things up and discuss their mutual feelings before she leaves this world, Michaeli feels it’s too late for that and frankly looks forward to the relief her passing will bring.
«Shadows shows three second-generation survivors who not only bear the scars of the traumas of their parents, but in turn are sources of scars on their own children.»
Miri Arazi, a legal psycho-graphologist and unwanted daughter, recounts how her parents always tracked what she was saying and doing and made sure she understood what a disappointing good-for-nothing she was. While revisiting the apartment where they lived and the building from which her father jumped, she recounts her father’s abuse. She also listens to her father’s recordings of his war experiences – apparently what he could not share with people he could share with a machine.
A third generation suffers
It is not so much these stories that make Shadows worthwhile, as there have been other documentaries about second-generation survivors, including The Price Of Survival (Louis van Gasteren, 2003). Rather it’s the extension of the second-generation to the third that makes this film particularly powerful. Schwartz tries to protect his young daughter Zohar from the horrors of his family’s history, thereby prolonging the silence. Michaeli, in a short telephone conversation in the film, commands his son Roy to look after his grandmother while he and his wife are travelling, even when the worst may happen. He will not tolerate contradiction. Most explicitly Arazi’s son Avi recounts his memories: “You would walk around the house like a discipline sergeant, screaming…” It is obvious that the collateral damage of violence reaches beyond the children to the grandchildren.
«It is obvious that the collateral damage of violence reaches beyond the children to the grandchildren.»
Shadows relies heavily on the stories told by its participants and the visual language is in service to the narration of these accounts. But there is something to be said for the amount of talking heads in the film: stories like these need a face-to-face encounter to be told and to be listened to. Family pictures are also included and show apparently happy parents and children in sharp contrast to the stories. The score is more problematic as it emphasizes the victimhood of the three protagonists. The film thereby reinforces that victimhood rather than empowering these people.
A murder in Mansfield
A different kind of collateral damage underlies Barbara Kopple’s new film A Murder in Mansfield. Kopple depicts Collier Landry’s efforts to find closure with respect to his family history: his father allegedly killed his mother and as a 12-year-old Landry testified against his father in court. Now 38 years old, he seeks to reunite with his family, both sides of which have abandoned him – one for resembling his father too much, the other for betraying him. Landry is marked by the loss of his mother, family and community, and hopes that finally his father will admit his guilt. But he doesn’t. Unlikely as it seems, his father keeps denying to have killed his mother and repeats that it was an accident.
Landry seeks only to have his version of the truth confirmed and is not open to alternative readings. In the end, he realizes he needs to come to grips with the loss of his father as well as his mother. More problematic is the fact that the filmmakers blindly follow Landry’s version of history and at no point question his memory or his testimony as a young boy. Landry is a cinematographer by profession. It seems like the closeness of the subject stood in the way of an investigative approach.
«Both films show us how violence not only affects those who were directly inflicted with it, but also secondary victims, the third-generation or the witness.»
Both films show us how violence not only affects those who were directly inflicted with it, but also secondary victims, the third-generation or the witness. Landry’s counselling has taught him that to forgive means to let go, to accept that whatever happened is not your problem any longer. Unfortunately, in most cases this will be easier said than done.
Editor was unable to confirm the spelling of the character’s family names discussed in the film Shadows – there are no reference to their family names on the internet.