Mending ‘Broken Branches’

Filmmaker Ayala Ben-Nachum Sharot brings her grandmother’s memories to life in colorful animation as part of this week’s Animix Festival.

SCENES FROM Ayala Sharot’s animated short ‘Broken Branches’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
SCENES FROM Ayala Sharot’s animated short ‘Broken Branches’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Ayala Ben-Nachum Sharot tends to do things in twos. Thus far she has given birth to two boys, and as an animator she has created two films. The latter of the second pair is called Broken Branches and will be screened at this year’s Animix International Animation, Comics & Caricature Festival, which takes place at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque today through August 9.
It is a very personal work. The film, which is in the running for this year’s Ophir Award for Best Documentary, is based on the life of Sharot’s nonagenarian grandmother Michal Rechter, who came on aliya from Poland at the age of 14. Rechter came here alone and all the other members of her family perished in the Holocaust. Sharot uses a unique fusion of animation and live action to relate Rechter’s story which touches both on the emotional side and the historical facts.
Sharot’s debut effort was of a very different venture. It went by the name of Foreigners, and she made it while she was a master’s degree student in London. The film fed off the experiences, and cultural baggage, of her fellow non-British students and what life in the UK meant to them.
“There is a great difference between people talking about waiting for the Tube, getting to work late, going to the pub and what they don’t like about English food, and making a film about someone who was torn from her family at the age of 14,” notes Sharot. The filmmaker’s emotional input in Broken Branches is palpable, and is visually and emotionally evident throughout the 25-minute work. “This is my grandmother we are talking about,” says Sharot. Foreigners may not have been such an intimate work but it was clearly a job well done. It won an international competition and was taken on by MTV.
Although the main character in Broken Branches may be someone very close and dear to the filmmaker, Rechter’s delivery is surprisingly unemotional. That sparked part of Sharot’s approach to the film’s visual design. While Rechter dispassionately relates the events of her early life, and her relocation here and thereafter, Sharot imposes her own emotional viewpoint of her grandmother’s experiences, both through the questions she poses and the artistic representation of Rechter’s tales.
There is an anecdotal slot, for example, in which Rechter talks about her time at the Ben Shemen youth village, where she was sent immediately after arriving in Palestine.
Rechter recalls a woman there by the name of Hava Lubianiker, who was a sort of house mother who took good care of the children but was also quite firm with them. She recalls a 15-year-old boy there, who was not particularly fastidious about personal hygiene, and how Lubianiker literally took him to the shower and unceremoniously scrubbed him down. Rather than relating to the possibility that the youngster may have found the whole experience humiliating, Rechter chuckles and simply praises Lubianiker for her warmth and courage. Sharot took a different perspective on the incident. She portrays the boy as a great bear which sheds a tear as it is being washed.
When Rechter talks about saying goodbye to her family as she left for Palestine, again she does not express much emotion, only noting that “I was stupid enough not to realize I wouldn’t see them again.” Sharot follows that seemingly matter-of-fact response with some charming painting-based animation which leads the viewer to this part of the world before the animated action segues into a photograph of Rechter and her friend Sara, in a group photograph taken on the ship which brought them to the Middle East. Immediately after that we meet Sara, and the documentary moves smoothly on, both in terms of content and style.
The subject matter of Sharot’s sophomore effort also dictated a change of visual tack.
Foreigners was based on an animation technique called rotoscoping, in which the animators trace over the film footage, thereby obscuring the original visuals. But Sharot did not want to conceal her own grandmother while she told her story.
“This is a person’s story, and I wanted to show her emotions, and the various nuances,” she explains. “I used a lot of techniques in Broken Branches, some of which I invented specifically for the film. My grandmother is a very strong character.”
The result is a charming film which despite Rechter’s mainly deadpan delivery stirs the emotions and tells the tale of yet another Jewish family lost to the Holocaust.
And there were a few surprises along the way. One was when Rechter produced letters she’d received from her parents and siblings, all written in perfect Hebrew. Sharot has the letter sent by Rechter’s younger brother read out by a young narrator, and adds animated illustrations to the subject matter. Here, too, Sharot feels the need to deftly amplify the desperation Rechter’s sister voices in her letter, with dark animated figures. The senior citizen also sings a song from an old notebook, transcribed by her father, which she says she hasn’t sung for 70 or 80 years. Rechter’s vocal performance is impressively mellifluous but, again, there are no tears of nostalgia for her long-lost dad.
Sharot put a lot into Broken Branches, both in the actual creation and also in getting the project up and running on a financial level.
She had to submit three proposals for the film to get backing from one foundation, and it took quite a while to get the thing done and dusted.
“I came up with the idea for the film six years ago,” she says. “It is much more difficult to make a film than to have a baby. It certainly takes a lot longer!”
Broken Branches will be screened at 10:30 p.m. on August 7, as part of the Three Premieres slot. The organizer of the festival have affirmed that Tel Aviv Cinematheque screening halls are fully protected, acting as huge bomb shelters.
For tickets and more information about the Animix Festival: (03) 606-0800 and