Displacement, Hope and Acceptance
“Red Trees” is a documentary about director Marina Willer’s family, one of only twelve Jewish families to survive the Nazi occupation of Prague. Willer uses her father Alfred’s memories as the basis from which to begin this personal look at the Holocaust. Alfred was a child back then and somehow, he and his family survived the darkest period of human history.
Later, as a master chemist, Alfred went on to co-create the formula for citric acid (from a recipe that he hid from the Gestapo in his wife’s recipe book) and we see that it was his scientific achievements that afforded them the opportunity to survive. Later they moved to Brazil under the guise of a research project into improving the taste of soya for use to produce food.
Willer and Oscar nominated cinematographer César Charlone, retrace her father’s journey Prague to Rio, traveling from industrial and drab Eastern Europe to colorful and very much alive Rio. Alfred is an architect and the film reflects his love for his profession that began back in Prague by using spaces and buildings to create a sense of both awe and hope. Here architecture becomes a way to save memories. If you really think about how we live today, you understand the importance of buildings in our lives and see how the nature of place influences memories of events we have lived through. There is a very memorable scene in Prague in a building known as the Old New Synagogue, where the names of all the Jewish people who died in concentration camps are written. I found myself comparing the historic grandeur and importance of that place with another scene that was shot in the Thereisenstadt Concentration camp where more than 150,000 people were held during the Nazi occupation.
Alfred was color-blind and from this the title “Red Trees” comes. As a child in Czechoslovakia, he drew trees that were covered with red leaves. Willer tells us that the title of the film also refers to the celebration of color in the film and how color often makes a difference.
Through watching what we have about Alfred, we understand that the basic theme of the film is about displacement and we understand that the concept of displacement has taken on a new relevance due to the present refugee crisis.
I have always though of documentaries as cinematic essays and that is exactly what “Red Trees” is. Unlike other films that have messages to deliver to audiences, documentaries can be bold and show us exactly what we are to learn. Here Willer wants us to learn about the refugee experience and to see that two somewhat opposing factors, opportunity and tolerance are very important to finding a home and a sense of belonging. If you have ever moved to a place where you know no one before arriving there, you understand this. I distinctly remember that when I moved to Israel, I really only know one person well. It took a bit of time but I was able to build a new “family” and this repeated itself when I moved to Boston. What we must not forget that tolerance and acceptance are important for both the refugee and the host.
If you have doubted the importance of color in our lives, try imagining living without it. Here we see color as a metaphor for accepting culture and people and we really see that as we watch Alfred’s journey. Tim Pigott-Smith is the voice of Alfred and he takes us through the hard years in war-torn Czechoslovakia to Brazil telling his story through architecture and this is as if we are looking through Alfred’s eyes; seeing what he sees as he sees it. Alfred had so much to deal with including the horrors of war, bureaucratic nightmares, transportations and suicides yet he managed to survive and to build a post-war life as an architect in Brazil.
I have seen many films about the Holocaust but I must say that I have never seen one quite like this. Most Holocaust films are quite dark and tend to concentrate on pain and loss of life. “Red Trees” is a film that is filled with color and light and in its celebration of survival, we get a film that reflects hope throughout.
What many do not realize that today almost one of every hundred people has experience violence and persecution in some form. These are those who are either displaces completely or are seeking asylum. We are too well aware that governments continue to turn away from people who have nowhere to go. I am constantly reminded of the St. Louis and what happened to those on board who thought they were sailing for freedom but were sent back to the countries they left and to face death. In “Red Trees” we get a look at the fear and hope that refugees experience and this allows us to see a bit of the human stories behind the statistics.