Hiding and Seeking
review by Elias Savada, 27 March 2004

The central character in this new film from the makers of the Emmy-nominated A Life Apart: Hasidism in America is Menachem Daum, who with co-producer-director-writer Oren Rudavsky, has sculpted a touching self-portrait of his family, one he believes is in need of some spiritual healing. Following its world premiere at the New York Jewish Film Festival in January, the film has a small pre-Passover window opening at Washington's Avalon Theatre, where the local community can learn about faith and tolerance after the holocaust, a suitable subtitle descriptor. It is the middle film of a planned trilogy dealing with the theme of "Barriers and Boundaries" in the Jewish world.

The filmmakers have actually crafted two films over the course of a single 85-minute sitting. The first and shorter, which bookends the other, concerns a father's strained relationship with his sons and his attempt to reconcile what he believes to be their unworldly views with his own brand of "secular humanism." Daum, whose bearded, teddy bear appearance reminds one of a subtler variation of Francis Ford Coppola, has the camera follow him on a journey of discovery that evolves into an inner film seeking resolution to a half-century-old secret. One hidden in a barn under a pile of hay. This portion of Hiding and Seeking dives straight into a hidden ancestral history that Daum hopes will solve his family's present day problems.

Daum's sons, Tzvi Dovid and Akiva, are fulltime Talmudic scholars who have made aliya to Israel from their native Brooklyn. They live to study the Torah and Talmud, and remove all secular interests from their lives. Their father's concern is based on an audiotape of one of their sect's scholars, proclaiming vehement hostility toward all non-Jews. He fears that his own father's belief "not to trust the gentiles" has skipped a generation -- as if a recessive "isolationist" gene might now be bearing fruit. Confronted with the audio clip, the boys downplay their mentor's ideology as somewhat removed from their own, but the troubled parent believes an excursion into the family's historical roots will help softened their views.

Daum, the son of Holocaust survivors who landed in Schenectady, New York, in 1951 before moving with his parents to Borough Park, is married to Rifka, who, from appearances, barely puts up with her husband's filmmaking study and keeps her screen time to an unfortunate minimum. Her aging, infirm father, Chaim Federman, was one of three brothers secreted away by a gentile Polish family during World War II and his story, ultimately, plays out as the most memorable. It is the Daum (mother, father, and two sons, but not the many grandchildren) family's trip to the back streets of Zdunska Wola and the dirt roads of Dzialosyce, a small town near Krakow, that dovetails the father's views so succinctly -- that a gentile world, even one of promised (but ultimately not delivered) financial riches, can save a Jewish soul or two or three during one of our planet's darkest hours. Ultimately, a soul-filled restitution is made, even of the treasure delivered is figuratively a non-tangible asset.

The film's drawbacks are few, but obvious. The female side of the family, save Rifka, whose original appearance finds her in the kitchen, seems relegated to second class status, glimpsed in still photographs or 8mm home movies. Perhaps the ladies were busy with other tasks, but their absence is regrettable. We never see the sons' wives; their sister makes a brief appearance, I think. A single granddaughter (one of 14 grandchildren) becomes the sole connection of the future generation to its past as the film draws to its emotional climax.

The film, shot on digital video, is also narrated by Daum, while Rudavsky worked exclusively behind the camera as director of photography. John Zorn's modest score perfectly supplements the music of the late Shlomo Carlebach, a humanist who greatly influenced Daum. Carlebach's treatise of hope and tolerance for all mankind is noted briefly in a 1989 concert of him performing before a receptive, vastly non-Jewish audience in Warsaw. I saw him once, back in the 1960s, at a summer camp, and the experience was magical.

If the film is a humanist's vision ("No one faith has all the answers," Daum reminds us.), it is also is a genealogist's dream come true -- of spiritual and historical discovery despite insurmountable odds. There is a higher power at work here that allows snippets of memory to blossom into a tearful reunion. Having traced my family roots for nearly a decade (and I have more "cousins" on my wife's side than my own), the ancient discoveries found in a forgotten cemetery (located with the assistance of Kamila Klauzinka, a non-Jew who has been helping people like the Daums find their ancestors) overgrown with decades of decay and neglect, are worth the viewing alone. That there are living remnants that are just around a dusty bend in the road make Hiding and Seeking an even better study of both personal discovery and religious intolerance. Perhaps after watching, you'll agree that "whoever saves one life, saves the world."

Written and
Directed by:

Menacham Daum
Oren Rudavsky

Rated:
NR - Not Rated.
This film has not
been rated.

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