The Funny Side of the Tragedy By Thomas Rothschild

in 9th Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival

by Thomas Rothschild

If there is such a thing as a “Jewish Character”, then Shahar Cohen’s father Sleiman certainly is one of its exponents. The Yemenite Jew fought in the little known Jewish Brigade in World War II. In a conversation, the 82 year old man mentions that he had affairs with two Dutch girls in that period. They might have become pregnant.

The thought of possibly having siblings he didn’t even know about disturbs Sleiman’s son. He wants to find out but his father doesn’t seem intrigued by this perspective. So Shahar suggests he would like to travel to Europe with his father to make a film about the Jewish Brigade. Father and son buy a car and drive all the way to Holland . There they actually meet one of Sleiman’s former lovers for a night and find out the truth.

The documentary that comes close to a feature film works mainly thanks to the charisma of Sleiman. One is reminded of Alan Berliner’s great film Nobody’s Business. It’s the fact of a film developing in spite of its main character not wanting to play its role that makes Souvenirs (Suvenirim) funny and interesting at the same time.

Some of the best documentaries manage to mingle a very personal story with general history. That is the case here too. As comical as the search for long gone lovers might be, the past isn’t funny at all. When Shahar and his father cross a memorial stone for the Jewish Brigade the father suddenly breaks out in tears. His son takes him in his arms. The father is ashamed for crying. What a difference to the murderers of that period we see in other documentaries. They have a thousand reasons to justify what they did.

But although this scene recalls the tragedy of the Jews in the 20 th century, the film never becomes sentimental. History is present all the time, but Souvenirs is a comedy of our age and maybe a proof that among the young Israeli generation there are artists that have a personal and non-conventional approach to the Holocaust on the one hand without following the path of a nationalistic glorification of their country on the other. Maybe it is also because Sleiman is a Yemenite and not a European Jew that his view on the Jewish history in Europe is different to the one that has become a cliché quite often in film and literature.

Souvenirs obviously doesn’t have the ambition of developing a new visual language. But it has a truly original plot, a convincing structure and the kind of humor that should make it possible to win even Woody Allen fans for the genre of documentary film. The FIPRESCI jury rewarded Souvenirs with its prize at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.