“I don’t like to diss people,” filmmaker Larry Weinstein remarks as he settles into an interview at the Fifth Avenue Cinemas. “But sometimes I think Hitler was such an asshole.” Such is the director’s ability to fuse seemingly contradictory elements and to balance humour with the horrors of humanity. Weinstein’s latest film, Inside Hana’s Suitcase, which opens in Vancouver on Friday (November 13), mixes animation with dramatic reenactment and tragedy with hope. The documentary tells the story of Hana Brady, a Czech girl who was murdered by the Nazis when she was 13 years old. And it tells a parallel story that started nine years ago in Japan, where Hana’s history was rediscovered by Fumiko Ishioka, the director of the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Centre. Ishioka became obsessed with a suitcase that arrived on loan from Auschwitz with the girl’s name painted on it. Although she would never be able to reach Hana, many coincidences and successes led her to George Brady, Hana’s older brother, who had settled in Canada.
Watch clips from the film Inside Hana's Suitcase.
Toronto-based Weinstein never thought he’d make a film about the Holocaust. “I thought it was a heavy-handed, dramatic, difficult thing,” he says. Although his previous films The War Symphonies: Shostakovich Against Stalin and Beethoven’s Hair have touched on the Second World War, most of his film career has been devoted to musical legends ranging from Kurt Weill to Maurice Ravel to Andrea Bocelli.
When he came across Karen Levine’s children’s book Hana’s Suitcase in 2001, he was profoundly moved by it. The book’s success (it has been translated into 40 languages and adapted for the stage) inspired Weinstein’s decision to use children as the film’s storytellers. “Thousands of children had sent letters to Fumiko and George,” he says. “When we started to read them, we thought they had to narrate the story. They are the omniscient narrators.” Against tragedy, he saw the hope in Ishioka’s determination, and in how her students have embraced its incredible sadness with an understanding of pluralism and acceptance. “They seem to have learned the lessons,” he says.
Some critics have taken issue with of the film’s sepia tones and memory sequences, but Weinstein is quick to defend what he calls the film’s artifice. “I had to lecture to journalism students once. They were horrified by the re-creations and the dramatizations [in the film]. I kind of attacked them: ”˜I spend”¦years on a film, trying to figure out the best way of getting at storytelling, and you tell me your way is more true?’ ”
In fact, for Weinstein, layering drama with vérité is part of the storytelling experiment. He took special care selecting music for the film, acquiring a string-trio composition by Gideon Klein, who had lived in Terezín—the Czech concentration camp where Hana and her brother lived before being sent to Auschwitz—and who had also been sent to his death at Auschwitz.
“To tell you the truth, I’m very aware of the amount of artifice in the film. Any time you use music, it’s kind of a weird thing. We don’t actually walk around to music in real life. Using photos and making them into 3-D spaces is artifice, re-creating some events. I watch the film and wonder if this going to alienate audiences. Certainly none of the audiences have ever reflected that.” In fact, the popularity of Inside Hana’s Suitcase with festival audiences has led distributor Alliance Atlantis to contact Canadian 1,000 schools for educational presentations to coincide with the film’s theatrical release.
“People see the film and they say, ”˜It has to get to the schools.’ It’s sort of an answer to the George W. Bush world, where we were taught to fear and distrust. This is about the opposite of that. It’s about the tolerance and the hope.”