POV: What was the genesis of this film project?
Menachem Daum: This project started out with me trying to understand faith after the Holocaust. And to that end I’ve interviewed at least 100 or so Holocaust survivors over the years, trying to get them to explain to me how you can still believe after all you’ve gone through. I’d always hoped that I’d find that one survivor who had this magical explanation. While we were working on this film, Oren was brutally honest and said, “You know, this may be a great book, but it is not working as a film.” And in a way he pushed me out more and more from behind the camera. I didn’t see myself even being in this film, much less being the main catalyst in what’s going on. So I have to give credit to Oren — he had the vision a lot sooner than I did.
Oren Rudavsky: What really made the film gel for me was watching Menachem after 9/11. He was very depressed in a way that I had not seen him before. He had spoken about his problems with his community, his issues with the ultra Orthodox. But it was mostly grumblings. After 9/11, we started talking about what was going on. In my mind, it was his own need and inability to confront his sons and the world they were living in. I mean, Menachem had been writing letters to the editor to the papers that are in his community, and people weren’t publishing them because they were too radical. People don’t like to rock the boat in that community.
I come from a very different Jewish background than Menachem — although my father’s a rabbi, he’s a Reform rabbi. My mother, however, grew up in an Orthodox home and her father was Hasidic. She grew up in Poland, and she left in 1939, right before the War. I’m very attracted to the world of the Hasidim and Orthodox Jewry, even though I’m not of that community. There’s so much that reminds me of my grandfather, who was an incredible role model for me, and my mother. She passed away in 1978. So I’m drawn to this world at the same time that I can’t and don’t want to be a part of it.
POV: Can you tell us more about how Menachem’s family became the centerpiece of the film? Did it feel like too much exposure?
Daum: There was one rabbi who saw the film and he said he was horrified to see such disrespect on the part of children to their father. He asked me if I wasn’t embarrassed to show the way my children mock me? I’m sorry that he didn’t get the point: when my children are mocking me, they’re doing this out of love. They can’t figure out where I went wrong. They’re really trying to save Dad’s poor lost soul and trying to get me to see the light. I’m kind of touched when they try to bring me back to their point of view. So I don’t see this as being disrespectful. We have a very strong relationship that transcends the fact that we differ on some very important issues.
There’s one scene in the film where my two sons confront their grandfather about his lack of acknowledgement to the people who risked their lives to rescue him over 60 years ago. He could have made excuses but he doesn’t do that. He just is totally honest and says, no, we didn’t treat these people the way we should have, we didn’t treat them right. And had this situation been reversed, I wouldn’t have done what they have done. I think his honesty and willingness to admit his shortcomings is exemplary. If we’re going to learn how to get along with each other, we have to begin to acknowledge our own shortcomings and also see the virtue in “the other.” Some people are critical of my father-in-law — they want to know why he didn’t do more, and so forth. I can’t go into his mindset 60 years later, but I do admire his ability to confront his mistakes.
Rudavsky: This is basically a story about families interacting. It’s more about the psychology of family and community dynamics than anything else. You see the love and affection of Menachem and his sons, his father and his wife, unfolding on film. That intimacy is what I really cared about showing.
POV: What role does history play in the film?
Rudavsky: This film is about history — the history of a family, the history of a community and the historical relationship between Poles and Jews. We used archival footage very sparsely in the film. In some current-day places, you feel the history. The synagogue that’s ruined, it speaks to you about generations of Jews who prayed there. One of the most powerful moments in the film for me is when Menachem is walking on a street with no sign of anything that has to do with history. It’s a bland, semi-urban street, but it’s where his father witnessed the hanging of one of his friends during the war. We were able to find footage of a location right nearby where a hanging was filmed — the Germans filmed everything. And so we see Menachem on this street where people are walking home from work and then we cut to footage of people lined up along a similar street, forced to watch a group of Jews about to be hung. When you walk around Gettysburg, you get that same strange feeling — there’s nothing there, it’s just a field, but there is so much history there. We feel that way about these odd locations in Poland. Menachem and I feel more connected to our relatively immediate history in Poland than we do to the western wall in Jerusalem. Our relatives came from Poland, and who we are is so much in that Polish soil.
POV: What was the biggest surprise in making the film?
Daum: I read a quote from Alfred Hitchcock, where he says that in a fiction film the director is God, but in a documentary, God is the director. And in a way we saw the hand of God in this film because we could have gone to Poland, wandered around, found nothing and nobody, and we wouldn’t be sitting here having this discussion. So I have a sense that we were led here, we had some unfinished business that had to be concluded, and that itself was a surprise.
POV: What was hardest for you in making the film?
Rudavsky: First I’m going to say what was wonderful about making the film rather than what was the hardest. Because when Menachem and I made A Life Apart (watch clips) together, we fought a lot. We fought about how much criticism to make of the Hasidic community, and whether to interview certain people who might say negative things. We had some famous screaming matches. In this film, we were in harmony and we had the pleasure of working with a wonderful editor, Zelda Greenstein, who was able to meld our visions. Even though we come from very different places religiously and politically, we really saw eye to eye on this film in just about every way.
The difficult part about making this film was interweaving all these various themes. Tolerance and intolerance, a family portrait, this picture of Polish-Jewish relations and the whole story of the Muchas, this Polish family. Putting all those pieces together in a way which works was the most difficult thing.
Daum: Making a story that people care about is difficult — or I find it difficult. It’s easy to preach. In our previous film, A Life Apart, if anybody started preaching, we cut them out. Once people start preaching, we all kind of tune out. So you have a message, but you have to be very careful to embed it in a good story. And that’s something I find a little difficult. “Hiding and Seeking” deals with very important, profound ideas, but it embeds them in an inter-generational story. The story takes you into a world that you’re not likely to encounter on your own and you meet people who are not the kind of people you would often meet. In a way, it’s an intergenerational post-Holocaust road movie.
POV: Tell us a little bit about the end of the film, especially the scene where you ask your son Akiva what he learned from the ceremony for the Muchas.
Daum: We had a debate about that scene, just as we are driving away from the Righteous Among Nations ceremony, where my son makes this sarcastic remark: “Okay Dad, so you showed me an exception to the rule, but given the opportunity they [the Poles] would probably do it again.” Oren and I debated; do we want to throw the ice water on this film? It’s building to this warm, fuzzy ending and why dampen it? But the truth is that’s the way it is. I have to acknowledge, though, that despite my son’s remarks, I think before we took him to Poland he would not have acknowledged the possibility of righteousness among Poles. So even just acknowledging that there was an exception is already beginning to open up his mind. And I’m not trying to tell him that all people are good. What I was trying to tell him is that all people have a potential to choose goodness. I think that much he picked up on. Unfortunately there is evil in the world and there is hatred in the world. I’m not trying to blind him to that or to tell him to drop his guard. But I really think that what is important is acknowledging the potential for goodness in the “other.” And I think that process has started.
POV: What audience do you envision for the film?
Rudavsky: For me there’s more than one audience for the film. I’ve made two films with Menachem, about the Hasidim and now about his ultra-Orthodox family. They’re both loving portraits, but they also have a critique implicit in them, and in this film a stronger one. So the film is for the religious world, of all religions, but I think that’s too easy. It’s too easy for people from my world who consider themselves very open-minded and tolerant to pat themselves on the back and say, “This film isn’t for us, we know this lesson.” And the fact is the world I live in is just as intolerant — they may be intolerant of religious people, or they may be intolerant of people who think differently than they do. And that is as much the audience for the film.