CRITIPEG: Aida’s Secrets

Plays April 1 to 28 at Cinematheque

Aida’s Secrets is another entry in the genre of “long-lost family” documentaries that have seen a recent explosion in popularity. Like Tasha Hubbard’s recent Birth of a Family, which explored family reunion (or rather, union) through the lens of 60s Scoop survivors, the Winnipeg-centric Aida’s Secrets reckons with historical crises to tell a story far richer than the genre’s typical basic-cable offerings.

The story focuses on Izak and Shepsel, brothers born 10 months apart to refugee parents in the Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons Camp in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.

As a toddler, Izak was given up for adoption and sent to Israel. Shep wound up in Winnipeg with the boys’ father, by then separated from their mother, Aida. Shep’s relationship with his father is troubled. Aida makes periodic trips to Israel to visit Izak. Neither boy knows anything of their birth family beyond their respective single parents.

Directors Alon and Saul Schwarz follow Izak and Shep through their reunion in Winnipeg, Izak’s discovery of his family history and Shep finally meeting the mother he’s always longed for.

There’s an almost symbolic quality to how the brothers’ reactions to the meeting differ. Izak, coming from the figurative and literal warmth of a large adoptive family in Israel, is overjoyed to meet his brother and introduce him to their elderly mother. Shep, a self-professed loner from wintry Winnipeg, is wary of the hurt the whole affair makes possible.

While the present-day human story is compelling on its own, the historical questions raised in Aida’s Secrets are its most intriguing bits. How and why were these boys separated and the truth of their family kept secret from them? Why did Aida, living in Montreal, travel across continents for Izak but never attempted to find Shep? When pressed on the issues, Aida is stone-faced and inscrutable.

The film also examines the camp in which the boys were born. It may come as a surprise to many that the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was converted into a refugee camp after being liberated by British forces.

The lives of displaced people after the end of the Second World War isn’t often explored in film or education. The directors uncover through historical research the life and culture of refugees awaiting resettlement in Bergen-Belsen, painting in vivid detail the economies that spring up within the camp and the social lives of its residents, which involve dance nights and passionate romance.

There is a family connection between the directors and the subjects here (Alon Schwarz’s father is Izak’s adoptive brother). While that can often be a recipe to make a documentary feel like a very expensive home movie, the filmmakers here mostly avoid it.

Aida’s Secrets understands that its strengths come from elsewhere. The film reveals truths about the legacy of historical trauma. The spectre of their father’s time in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, or their mother’s as slave labour for Nazi wives, reaches far beyond liberation. It can’t be erased by the immediate post-war prosperity in the camp, nor life outside it, and their sons still wrestle with its shadow.

Shep Shell will endeavour to be at most screenings, except on March 30 and 31.

Published in Volume 72, Number 23 of The Uniter (March 29, 2018)

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