The Movie Waffler New Release Review - MY FATHER’S SECRETS | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - MY FATHER’S SECRETS

My Father's Secrets review
Two young brothers learn about their father's past as an Auschwitz survivor.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Vera Belmont

Voice cast: Elliott Gould, Miriam Margolyes, Tracy-Ann Oberman, David Baddiel

My Father's Secrets poster

The most powerful invention of mankind is the story. Stories are constructed for us and by us to enable understanding of who we are, and who we need to be (look, like them or not, there's a reason why superhero narratives are so popular). As a vehicle for information or a decanter holding history, the story affects because its craft, its inherent personalisation, communicates with an immediacy that the objective material of bald facts and figures cannot. Refracting the Shoah through an anthropomorphic lens, Art Spiegelman's Maus recast Weimar Germany as a menagerie of cats, pigs and mice and reframed suffering and the prejudice which begat it with a distinction that gave painful imminence to historical material. Stories must be told, requiring a storyteller to mould the narrative data into shapes which fit into the imagination, the hearts and the mind of the listener. Spielberg (cinema's greatest storyteller, even in the name etc) retold the same history through a distanced gauze of monochrome, recognising that certain narratives need to be handled with due care and circumspection to support the telling.

My Father's Secrets review

In Véra Belmont’s animated My Father's Secrets (scripting assistance from Valérie Zenatti and based on the graphic novel memoir by Michel Kichka), Jewish father of five Henri doesn't tell stories. As per the title, Henri shuts himself away in a locked office chronicling the past while his children, specifically Michel who narrates from an adult perspective as David Baddiel, live a halcyon life in a 1950s Belgium straight out of the pages of European comics: all soft line work and pastel shading.

The lads are blissfully unaware of the implications of their heritage, and idiotically imagine that the figures tattooed upon certain members of their close community are phone numbers. When their ethnicity is brought to the fore in school sanctioned apartheid, Michel is actually pleased that he is sent outside to play football rather than listen to boring old history. This moment, played for poignant laughs in this mainly gentle children's film, is a nonetheless telling contribution to the film's themes regarding narratives and their power: the stories we experience depend on who is authorised to tell them. Henri is not as amused, and the boys are sent to a boarding school which provides education but is exactly as foreboding as you would expect such an institution to be in a film for children, while furthermore underlining how enforced segregation is symptomatic of being Jewish.

My Father's Secrets review

The details of the death camps weren't properly communicated until many years after the war (a fact that still blows my mind) with the trial of Eichmann in 1960. In My Father's Secrets this event proves to be duly pivotal. Up until the trial Henri has kept his counsel regarding his internment, but, the film suggests, the trial, which is broadcast on television, gives him a moral imperative to share his story, and over time he becomes an advocate for Jewish history. Michel's feelings surrounding his father's aloofness and his difficulties in communicating with his children are given further emotional complications, and the two become estranged, a development which anchors the bittersweet narration.

As biography, and one which entails a conscientious fealty to fact, My Father's Secrets does present as episodic, a series of events that coalesce as lived experience but not connective narrative (a tragedy towards the end of the film which is senseless and entirely unrelated to the otherwise focus on the events of 1940s Europe is indicative of the structure), and at times does lack the causal imperative of stories intended for young ones. Nonetheless, it is difficult to imagine children not being engaged by this pacey film with its warm characterisation and essential ideologies.

My Father's Secrets review

Henri comes to realise the importance of telling stories as a way of re-establishing history and communicating lessons. The Holocaust was something human beings did to other human beings, a genocide which was observed by Europe yet unacknowledged until much later because it didn't fit the prevalent hegemony. In a world in which the narratives of war are weaponised and obfuscated, the stories of the people who are directly affected by conflicts beyond their control are as vital as ever.

My Father's Secrets is on UK/ROI VOD from November 27th.

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