After Alaska, North Dakota and France, moviemaker Serena Dykman made her way to Pittsburgh. Between April 8 and 12, Dykman visited four schools, one theater, a library and even a house of worship, all with the purpose of sharing her 2016 documentary film, “Nana.”
“This has never been screened in a synagogue,” Dykman said prior to the April 8 showing at Rodef Shalom Congregation. “It’s an honor to screen it in such a beautiful place.”
Dykman’s Steel City tour was facilitated by Classrooms Without Borders, an organization founded and directed by Tsipy Gur.
After discovering the feature documentary, which centers on three generations of one family’s response to the Holocaust, Gur decided to expose Pittsburgh’s students, educators and public to the young filmmaker, explained Melissa Haviv, CWB’s assistant director.
Gur’s decision to welcome Dykman was less a courtesy to a neophyte than a communal gift to learn from a burgeoning talent. At only 25 years old, the New York University Tisch School of the Arts graduate has collected more than 40 awards in the past three years. Her films (“The Doorman,” “Bed Bugs & Company” and “Welcome”), which span multiple formats and genres, have been selected in more than 80 film festivals globally, including the Cannes Film Festival.
But it is the work of “Nana” that has captured Dykman’s recent attention. Shot in March 2015, the 100-minute work took less than a year and a half from “idea to finished product.” Since then, Dykman has been incessantly touring and promoting the film, which not only tells her grandmother’s survival story, but also Dykman and her mother’s grappling with this familial truth.
“The goal is to get as many people as possible to see it,” she said before noting that her Polish-born grandmother, Maryla Michalowski-Dyamant, “went to schools tirelessly” to tell her story of survival from Ravensbruck, Malchow and Auschwitz, and to advocate against intolerance. Michalowski-Dyamant died when her granddaughter was 11 years old.
“‘Nana’ is my effort to bring her back to the classroom,” said Dykman. “I made the film so it would get to the youth and schools. It’s the whole reason why I did this.”
“The trauma of the Holocaust is always present,” explained Dykman. “It’s with us whether we talk about it or not.”
The ability of films like “Nana” lies in offering viewers an “easy way in” to an unspeakable tragedy, she added. “There’s something about recorded testimony. The medium of film captures a survivor’s story like no other. It’s a great way to keep the memory alive and make it attainable to most people.”
“Nana” has made its way along the festival circuit, netting prizes at the St. Louis International Film Festival, the Fargo Film Festival, the Palm Beach International Film Festival, the Mexico International Film Festival, the Chagrin Documentary Film Festival and the Harlem International Film Festival. With each viewing, the documentary generates greater discussions on trauma, memory and generational obligations. Such is the reason why Dykman’s work is so forceful, said Gur.
“As the population of survivors decrease, the responsibility of teaching the lessons of the Holocaust passes to the second and third generations,” she said. “Serena has picked up the torch and continues her grandmother’s mission to bear witness and fight intolerance.”
There is a recognizable heaviness to the work, and the documentarian hopes that the character of “Nana’s” star is not lost.
“My grandmother had a great sense of humor. Despite what she lived through, she had a positive outlook. She felt that life was worth living,” said Dykman. “The film is not supposed to be a downer. It’s supposed to be a call to action and to enjoy life a little bit more.”
After wrapping up its Pennsylvania premiere, “Nana” will enjoy its theatrical release on April 13 at Cinema Village in New York City. The date was specifically chosen to “coincide with Yom Hashoah,” said the filmmaker. PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.