New film adds hope to Hana's suitcase, The Star, Apr 29, 2009
April 29, 2009
`I always talk too much, but I can tell you stories," George Brady explained yesterday while chatting about Inside Hana's Suitcase: Larry Weinstein's wonderfully resonant, bittersweet film, which will have its world premiere tomorrow at the Winter Garden Theatre on opening night of Hot Docs.
Brady is the 81-year-old surviving brother of the young Holocaust victim whose memory has been kept alive by the tale of her suitcase. This soft-spoken grandfather, a retired plumber, can indeed tell stories, although he pretty much kept them to himself for more than half a century. Now his understated charm and decency light up the screen.
The story of Hana's suitcase has been told in so many forms and has become familiar to so many people that the question has to be asked. Was it really necessary for Weinstein to make the feature film?
The answer, it turns out, is a resounding yes. Inside Hana's Suitcase gives the material such a complex, creative, inventive and emotionally potent spin that, from one moment to the next, the movie holds you with what feels like a series of fresh revelations.
Whether you've encountered this story before, on radio or TV, in Karen Levine's bestselling book or the play based on it, this new film is un-missable. That is partly because of Brady, who quietly projects star power.
"I am a logical person, but this story defies logic," Brady explained while he and Weinstein were interviewed at the downtown office of Rhombus Media.
For years he said little about his horrific past, even to his children. After enjoying a very happy and secure childhood growing up in a loving family in Nové Mesto, a town in what was then Czechoslovakia, he watched his parents being arrested and taken away after the Nazi invasion, never to be seen again.
He and his younger sister, Hana, were sent to Theresienstadt (a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia), but separated when he was sent to Auschwitz. He survived the Nazi death camp, but Hana, who was sent there a few months later, did not.
After returning to their hometown, George eventually moved to Toronto, because his grandfather's brother lived here. For decades, he rarely spoke about the Nazi horrors he witnessed.
"I couldn't get away from my terrible memories, but I didn't want to inflict them on my family."
But then something miraculous happened. He got a letter from Fumiko Ishioka, who runs a Holocaust education centre in Tokyo. She and her students seemed to have received the suitcase that Hana left when she died in Auschwitz.
Thus began an astonishing dialogue between Hana's brother and a group of children in Tokyo (Ishioka's students) who felt an intense bond with Hana. Brady and his daughter flew to Tokyo to meet them.
Ishioka and those kids play a major role in Weinstein's movie, along with other children in Toronto and the Czech Republic.
"To me it was clear that the strongest possible film would be a hybrid," says Weinstein, who has previously been known for documentaries about music.
"People thought it was odd I would suddenly be making a movie on this subject, and that made it hard to raise the money. But this is not like other Holocaust films. It is narrated by idealistic children, and it's all about hope and tolerance."
What he has produced is far from a conventional talking-heads doc. It weaves together many elements: animation, magic realism, dramatic recreation and those irresistible child narrators.
Ironically, it turned out that the suitcase that caused a stir in Tokyo was not the original but a replica. The real suitcase, on loan from the Auschwitz Museum, had been destroyed by neo-Nazi hooligans in Birmingham, England. That act of vandalism gives this story a dark postscript. Yet despite the horrors it depicts, Inside Hana's Suitcase is a richly rewarding experience.
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