Film review: I Am Here, Ella Blumenthal, directed by Jordy Sank

What: I Am Here– animated documentary –portrait of 98-year-old Holocaust survivor Ella Blumenthal who lives in Cape Town- directed by Jordy Sank
When: Joint premiere at the Encounters South African International Documentary Film Festival (June 10 – 20 June) and the Durban International Film Festival (July 22 to August 1)
Encounters virtual: R60. Direct booking link Trailer link: Durban International Film Festival. Bookings for the screenings will open at a later date  

“There is more that unites us than divides us.” That is the response of 98 year old Ella Blumenthal who “reaches out” to a Holocaust denier. This comes at the start of the I Am Here, which portrays ugly footage of anti-sematic rants and hate speech. Ella Blumenthal, Holocaust Survivor is known for her positivity, sassiness and sense of humour and the film is a celebration and a tribute to her resilience; the fact that she retained her humanity, after losing over twenty members of her family and surviving three concentration camps in Nazi Europe. She is an inspiration for all of us. The film embraces the joyous, positive Ella Blumenthal who loves living in Cape Town. She opens her curtains in her apartment, every day, to let the light in and relishes each moment of walking along the Sea Point Promenade. However, I Am Here, goes way beyond linear Holocaust testimony film, setting up a captivating and powerful dialogue which grapples with multiple layers – including memory, grief, loss; exile, home, family. I found it a beautiful film and also a harrowing film. The film has already won awards and deserves to pick up more and be recognised for what I consider to be a ground-breaking film which provides a compelling record of a remarkable woman’s life but in tandem with that, it is a film which is unflinching in giving space for grief and loss to occupy the same frame.

How does one image the un-imaginable? The late Neville Dubow, a South African professor of art, compiled a series of lectures on holocaust art and architecture, in a book, under the tile, Imaging the Unimaginable. There was no Instagram or social media to image what happened to Ella Blumenthal. Instead of simply tracking her story, her testimony and watching her interact with her family at her 98th birthday celebrations, director Jordy Sank brought on board animator Greg Bakker. He has woven in drawings with footage of Ella now; archival footage and family photographs. The film segues from “reality” to drawing and a combination of drawing and “reality”; fragments, shards of memory. The drawing provides release and moments of whimsy. Ella Blumenthal went through un-imaginable horrors. The drawings give us the opportunity to become immersed in the story, without looking away. In a sense it is magical realism – but “magical” not in a nice way. By magical realism, I mean transcendental realism which evokes her ability to transfigure beyond the horrors she was faced with and find moments of wonder in the landscape of death. For instance, in a camp, she found a scrap from a Haggadah (the book read on Passover/Pesach) and that was a sign of hope for her- a sign of Divine intervention; protection, that Hashem (God) was with her. Blue butterflies (drawings by Bakker) flutter throughout the film – signifying for me the life force that Ella clutched onto – throughout the fear and death around her. Interestingly, in the film, Ella talks about being a “dream” – obviously in a bad way in the camps -and in a good way when they were liberated and she found love and happiness through marriage and family. She doesn’t use the word “nightmare” – again testimony to her positivity and determination to look for the good in every situation; to be happy and not miserable.

Here we have the true story of Ella Blumenthal who was a young “naughty girl”, as she puts it, living her life in Warsaw. She loved swimming. Water is recurring image in the film- evocatively rendered through her immersion in a spa pool in Cape Town. Look out for poignant scenes, tenderly rendered by cinematographer, Rick Joaquim. Ella’s carefree life in Warsaw came to an end, when the Nazis came. Most of her family was rounded up. Somehow Ella, her father and her niece, Roma were able to go underground in the Warsaw ghetto and then after the Ghetto Uprising, it was all over and to the death camps. Ella last saw her father when he was selected to be gassed. As he turned back to look at Ella and Roma, his hat fell on the ground. He was bashed on the head for looking back at his loved ones. That was the last time Ella saw her father. The drawings by Greg Bakker capture the despair and loss of that moment as the hat falls. Another drawing which brings chills is watching Ella’s arm being branded with her number (in Auschwitz). On that note, the number on her arm is a leitmotif in the film. We see Ella deflecting the advice of her husband’s family in Johannesburg to erase her number. It was suggested that she forget and get on with her life. Ella’s’ son Alvin recalls how when he was growing up he asked his mother about “the cut on her arm” and she regaled him about a car mounting the pavement and glass shattering the arm. The full story came out years later. One can see the family, listening to the reconstruction of family memory and sifting through the family narratives. This is narrative documentary which is intensely raw. The family knows that the camera is there and there they are watching their beloved matriarch – at once grateful to be surrounded by love but also admitting that she dialed back aspects of her life because she wanted to keep her children safe. She was scared that the Nazis would take them away. She is grateful what she has but mindful of what she can never can get back. She has no graves visit, not even ashes. The family from her pre-Holocaust life, except Roma, are gone. It is heart breaking to watch. Then the birthday candles are blown out and the light shines through.

Surviving the Holocaust was one aspect. After Liberation, it was surviving being a survivor – and that is another story. Survivors were displaced, stripped of family, property possessions, language, culture, identity. There was no WhatsApp or Facebook to find surviving family or friends. In the film. We see Ella – imaged through Greg Bakker’s drawings -returning to Warsaw- scrapping through the rubble- searching – for anyone. With Roma, she ended up in British mandated Palestine, where she met a South African. They married shortly afterwards and went to live in Johannesburg. We hear how they operated a department store in Brakpan, a reef town, mining town, on the outskirts of Joburg. There was Ella who grew up in cosmopolitan Warsaw with its café society transported to Brakpan- flat landscape- flanked by mine dumps. She had to learn a new language. Her family had been murdered. How did the young Ella Blumenthal, new bride in her mid-twenties manage to hold it together –somehow able to carve out a happy and positive life in that landscape? I shake my head in wonder. Many Holocaust survivors were unable to adjust to radically altered lives. They were damaged and wrecked by what they went through and understandably so. There was no hashtag mental health in the picture.

In the film, Ella doesn’t lament the losses that I am pondering- language, home, cultural milieu. Jewish mourning rituals are very much about comforting the bereaved. Ella Blumenthal not only healed herself but has become known as someone who comforts others – with hugs and blessings. I find this film astonishing in the way it is layered with multiple aspects of an extraordinary woman and how it provides insights into the complexities of survival, grief, hope, thorough stirring images (drawings), testimony and archival footage – seamlessly braided together- a journey from Poland to Africa – and celebrating 98 years of a life.

 I Am Here, Ella Blumenthal- animated documentary (South Africa, 2021)

Language: English, Yiddish, Hebrew (subtitles) Duration: 73 minutes Director and executive producer: Jordy Sank Producer and assistant director: Gabriella Blumberg Animator: Greg Bakker Director of photography: Rick Joaquim (SASC- The South African Society Of Cinematographers)   Music: Edward George King Sound design: Morné Marais  

Imaging the horrors of Ella Blumenthal’s journey in three Nazi concentration/death camps, through the 3D animation by Greg Bakker. Still from I Am Here. Supplied.

Holocaust survivor, Ella Blumenthal of Cape Town – immersing herself in water. Still from I Am Here, documentary, directed by Jordy Sank.