I Am Here, a debut documentary film by South African filmmaker Jordy Sank, tells the remarkable story of holocaust survivor Ella Blumenthal. Sank grew up alongside Blumenthal and would often hear her harrowing stories of survival and resilience. He saw the power in Blumenthal’s strength and ability to find joy and remain optimistic in the world and felt inspired to create this film. Her incredible spirit is on full display in the film, during Blumenthal’s 98th (Blumenthal is now 100) birthday party, surrounded by family and friends, recounting her memories.
Sank uses animation and documentary footage to illuminate Blumenthal’s story of growing up in Warsaw, Poland, in the 1920s, where she and her family hid during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. She then went on to survive three concentration camps: Majdanek, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Many times, Blumenthal came close to death and somehow managed to escape but her memories are incredibly detailed and vivid. She tells the camera that she shares her story now so that history hopefully will not be repeated.
After the war, Blumenthal lived in Paris and Tel Aviv before marrying her husband, Isaac, a Jewish South African and moving to Brakpan, and later Cape Town, where she now resides.
I spoke to Sank about his first encounter with Blumenthal during childhood and how her story stayed with him. We also discussed his choice to use animation to illuminate her story.
Risa Sarachan: Ella is such a magnetic person. How did you first hear about her?
Jordy Sank: I was privileged enough to grow up in the same community as Ella. I will never forget the night that I first met her. I must have been around 14 years old. One fateful Friday night, we were at dinner together, and she stood up and started recounting harrowing memories of survival during the Holocaust. Everyone around the table was sobbing and heartbroken. Then something remarkable happened. It was like someone flipped a switch because she was dancing, laughing, joking around and playing with the young children. I was shocked. I looked at this woman who has survived one of the darkest moments in history and thought to myself, how can she live life with such zest and be the one lighting up all of our lives? From that moment on, I knew that I needed to befriend her, and I have spent many years getting to know her and learning from her incredible outlook on life.
Sarachan: What made you want to create this film?
Sank: I wanted to make this film to share important life lessons from Ella, so that all who watch it can learn how to live a meaningful life in spite of our traumas or challenges. If Ella can have an indomitable spirit at 98 years-old after all that she has been through, then surely we all can too.
I also created this documentary as something that I would have wanted to watch growing up. To me, learning about the Holocaust at school was just like learning any chapter of the History book. I wanted to create a film where we could truly empathize and connect with a survivor and that is palatable to a younger audience, which is why we chose to recount Ella’s stories through the medium of animation. It is so important for the younger generations, who may never get the opportunity to meet a survivor in a few years, to have a resonant piece of work that speaks to them.
Sarachan: I know your film, The Locket, was also a story about the Holocaust. What connects you so strongly to this topic?
Sank: The Locket was my University Graduation short film about a love story between a German boy and a Jewish girl set during the Holocaust. Spending so much time with Ella, hearing her stories of survival and the extreme hatred that she experienced under the Nazis has made me incredibly passionate about telling stories with themes of justice, belief, hope and humanity.
I think I am so drawn to these stories because I believe that as filmmakers, we have a responsibility to tell stories that can create a better world. Spreading messages of love, understanding and tolerance are of prime importance, especially in the world today where you just have to look at the news to see just how much hatred there is in the world.
Sarachan: What have you learned from Ella?
Sank: Words are truly not enough to express just how many profound lessons I have learned from Ella, but she has completely changed my outlook on life. My wife and I, whenever we are dealing with challenges or hardships, often look at one another and say, ‘what would Ella do?’ This always gives us the strength to deal with and overcome any obstacles. I try incredibly hard to live each day with the appreciation and joy of being alive.
Sarachan: What was your experience of filming in such an intimate setting as her birthday party with her family?
Sank: It was such a privilege to be a fly on the wall watching Ella’s family celebrate her 98th birthday and speak to their mother and grandmother about what happened to her in detail. Us filming really allowed a dedicated time for the family to ask questions they had never thought to ask and to cathartically express their thoughts and memories of being the family of a Holocaust survivor and how difficult it has been for them. It was an incredibly intimate setting, and you could really see the strong values and legacy that Ella has passed down to her future generations.
Sarachan: Has Ella screened the film? What does she think of it?
Sank: Ella has seen the finished film many times and absolutely loves it. Every time I update her on where it is playing next, or who watched it or any feedback we have received, her face lights up. With this documentary, I wanted to do her extraordinary life-story justice, and knowing that she is proud of the film has been extremely rewarding and gratifying for myself and the team.
Sarachan: What are you working on next?
Sank: My next film is an Afrikaans short film, called Leemtes en leegheid, that was commissioned by South African broadcaster kykNET. It is about loss and love – an elderly woman who is grappling with the passing of her husband creates an imaginary version of him so that she will never be alone. It will premiere at kykNET’s annual film festival Silwerskerm at the end of the month and then will hopefully make its way to other international festivals.
You could say that this short film was also inspired by Ella, who had a wonderful marriage to the late Isaac Blumenthal.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I Am Here opens in theatres March 11th.
I have a BFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where I discovered my love of writing in a roundabout way while creating my own work as an acting student. My original show ‘Inconvenient Interviews with Risa’ was picked up by Zooey Deschanel’s HelloGiggles website as a weekly feature. In it, I interviewed celebrities from Kristen Wiig to Questlove to The Rockettes, all at awkward times for comedic effect and spontaneous moments. The show generated invitations to red carpets at Sundance and Tribeca Film Festivals, The Tony and Drama Desk Awards. It gave me the opportunity to travel to London for National Geographic and HelloGiggles to interview Malala’s father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, about their important documentary ‘He Named Me Malala.’ My writing and videos can found on HelloGiggles, Yahoo Lifestyle and RisaSarachan.com.
Posted at Forbes