Family archival documents play a key role in Arnon Goldfinger's THE FLAT.
Documentary filmmaking often means opening wounds. And that means wrestling with moral dilemmas. For documentary filmmakers, those issues can be the most unsettling.
Israeli filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger recently spoke to a USC School of Cinematic Arts non-fiction theory class about ethical dilemmas in making his award-winning film The Flat. Goldfinger began with the idea of making a documentary about the clearing out of his deceased grandmother’s flat. During production, he found newspaper clippings that showed his grandparents had been close friends with a high-ranking SS officer. And the families were still close friends.
“I felt an urge to document the emptying of the flat, because I felt in some way connected to it,” said Goldfinger. “For any documentary filmmaking this is the classic question: If you see something awful do you shoot it or not?” Goldfinger told the class that on many nights while making the film, and even after he screened it, he couldn’t sleep.
He explained that it seemed wrong to release revelations that would be hurtful to his family’s friends. So he asked his mother—on camera—how he should confront this friend with an unthinkable truth. “What for? It’s not our business,” said his mother. He went ahead and showed his friend the documents that proved her father was in the SS. Then at a fine cut screening he was told, “Don’t be a wuss!” There was no way he should keep those moments out of the film.
Goldfinger edited the scene back in.
Critical studies professor Michael Renov, who is also vice dean of the School of Cinematic Arts, led the conversation with Goldfinger at USC. Renov described ethics as a trade off: “It is usually not a good thing versus a bad thing. It is a good thing in some circumstances, and sometimes in others also.” Renov told Goldfinger, “You push, you give us insights of what is going on in your mind, you go to experts, and push your mother… and you are causing pain.” Yet he further explained: “But you need to do that… to help us with that ethical dilemma… that is what movies and documentaries ought to do.”
“I had to have the guts,” Goldfinger answered. “I don’t think [my mother and I] ever spoke as deeply as we spoke in the film, never in our life. The film is about understanding what happened in the past, and about history, but mainly about this connection between the denial of the past and the denial of feelings.”
“She is a child survivor,” Renov remarked. “She didn’t survive quite as unscathed as she thought. That is part of the revelation for the audience. It is great, dramatically speaking, that she is as tough as she turns out to be. If she were an easy pushover you wouldn’t have the film you have. Even at the end, that she is brave enough to say, ‘This is as far as I go.’ You opened a wound. And I have a feeling that many people feel that wound in themselves.”
Goldfinger said that while editing the film he started to treat the people on screen as characters, even though they were family. After the first screening, they told him, ‘Oh it’s a very interesting film’ and then vanished. “I couldn’t sleep that night,” he recounted. “At five to eight the phone started ringing and one after another they were calling to say they couldn’t sleep. They had to digest it. From that moment on, with some of them, the relations [have] really changed. But none of them are interested in family history, and none will go to the family archive. Each has a different explanation. With my mother—we really got more close but we don’t speak about it yet.”
Though his family remains tight-lipped on the topic, it’s no secret how critics reacted to the film.
American critic Roger Ebert called The Flat “spellbinding” and critics Yehuda Stav of Yediot Ahronot, the leading Israeli newspaper, and Avner Shavit of Achbar Ha’ir both said the film is one of the most important Israeli documentaries in recent years.
“Goldfinger is a shrewd interviewer who allows his sources to talk themselves into inadvertent truth-telling,” wrote George Robinson in The Jewish Week. “His own low-key presence on-camera helps ground the film in a deceptively casual register that allows the secrets that emerge to make their own impact without unnecessary hype from the filmmaker… And it’s an effective reminder that despite one’s fears there are still stories of the Shoah that haven’t been told yet, some of them quite unexpected.”
Goldfinger told the USC students that at the first international screening at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival, “the reaction was the same as in Israel. But the German screening was different to every other.” Distributor IFC Films insisted that German audiences needed to be forewarned about the truths they were about to be exposed to.
Sue Fishkoff of the J Weekly, saw these differences as a unifying factor, writing: “It is a German film as much as it is Israeli, examining the traumas, secrets and unanswered questions of the second- and third-generation, psychic wounds that bind both countries together in uneasy alliance.”
“After seeing the film, I couldn’t sleep,” Renov admitted. With a laugh of shock, Goldfinger said, “But this gives me the strength when again and again I tackle those moral issues: The fact that it touches so many people.”
Goldfinger told the students that after seeing the film, he has heard that some people run back to their flat and rearrange things so no secrets will be uncovered. “I understand why my mother wanted to throw [the past] away and have freedom. But my point of view is you can never have freedom from your past, or your parents.”
Goldfinger is not the first documentarian to confront the dilemmas of prying into family secrets, and the daunting task of documenting one’s own family for the world to critique. Documentaries such as Don’t Fuck With Me, I Have 51 Brothers and Sisters, Life with Murder, and Feltrinelli delve into family histories and taboos with on-screen revelations ranging from the subtle to the scandalous. In filming Decoding Deepak and Ethel, filmmakers Gotham Chopra and Rory Kennedy, respectively, also faced tough choices of how to represent their famous parents and document their parent-child relationships, with starkly contrasting but riveting results.
While the The Flat’s ending leaves more questions unanswered than it raises, Renov told Goldfinger, “You don’t try to tie things up in a neat bundle. When the door closes to the flat it is not the end.”
The long-running film, playing for more than 56 weeks now in Israel, will some day be history, but Goldfinger’s family history has already been rewritten, revealing how his filmmaking affects the actual story, and how much filmmaking has, in turn, influenced his life. “To be honest, if I was not a filmmaker, I would not be doing it,” he said.