A remarkable pair of documentaries will premiere at Midtown Cinema on May 13 as part of the Edward S. Finkelstein Harrisburg Jewish Film Festival.
Family in Transition and On My Way Out: the Secret Life of Nani and Popi both speak to our basic need to love and be loved, and, as important, to be known – whatever the cost.
When we meet the Tsuks – Amit, Galit, and their four children – the subjects of the Israeli film, Family in Transition, we see a family six months in to accepting the reality that patriarch Amit has come out as transgender. The conservative coastal Israeli community where they live is less tolerant: the Tsuk children are bullied at school, names are slung when Amit and Galit walk through town, and even close family members – both Amit and Galit’s fathers, Galit’s sister, Amit’s aunt and uncle – refuse to attend the couple’s 12-year-old daughter’s coming-of-age bat mitzvah.
Israeli filmmaker Ofir Trainin, who spent two years with the Tsuk family shooting more than 100 hours of film and watching their story play out in an utterly unexpected manner, was no stranger to having to come to terms with unimagined realities.
At 18, Ofir’s world was disordered when his 27-year-old brother came out as gay – a complete shock to his family and to the residents of the kibbutz where they lived. “It was the early 90s,” Trainin recalls, “and in Israel, and especially in the kibbutz, we never heard about LGBT issues. It was very difficult to understand, and we always thought about what other people were going to say, and if they now would move away from us. But gradually people learned to accept him.”
20 years later, Trainin found himself making short films for an LGBT organization focused on helping families process their children’s coming out “in the best way possible so that the LGBT child feels good and understood.” When he heard about the Tsuks, especially Galit’s choice to stay with Amit (“It’s rare that the wife of a transgender woman decides to stay and support her husband through this process”), he knew it was a bigger story. He could not have imagined the direction it would go – spoiler alert– that Amit would have her surgery, that Galit and she would remarry as women, that their relationship would fray and end in divorce, and that Galit would find herself anew, as a bisexual woman in a lesbian relationship.
To Ofir Trainin, Family in Transition is “a film about accepting who you really are. It is about family members evolving together through the challenges of life, and always wanting to be better parents whatever the circumstances. It is about accepting the people we really love for who they are, whatever their gender.”
On My Way Out: the Secret Life of Nani and Popi chronicles the remarkable love story of Roman and Ruth Blank, friends before World War II who each survived the Holocaust, reunited, married, and made a new life together in America. A model marriage for their children and grandchildren, a partnership so perfect that their grandson, Brandon Gross, had been filming them for years, recording for posterity “this cute, sweet couple who always had a great time with one another…a rosy life, no problems,” the family was blindsided when, after 65 years of marriage, Ruth revealed the secret she and Roman had kept from the entire family from the beginning: Popi was gay.
When told, Gross’s first instinct was to pick up his camera again. “Popi would have gone to his grave with this secret. He’d promised my grandmother, and he had so much guilt for what he’d done to her. But he was so relieved to have it out.”
The revelation, so many years in coming, unleashed “the queenie side of Popi’s personality,” laughs Gross. “One persona, the one we all knew, was the wise patriarch, and here was this 90-year-old man making crazy demands, calling his daughter – my mom - in the middle of the night, asking when she was going to find him a boyfriend.”
Gross believes that what brought his grandparents together was the war. “Roman lost his siblings and his mother to the Nazis. Ruth lost friends. Instinctively they knew they had to rebuild and reestablish normalcy. Part of this was to create a family. Also for Roman – it was the times they lived in – he had friends who committed suicide because they were gay. Roman chose to live, and the only option was to get married and have a family.” And why did they stay together all of those years? “It is who they were as people. They had so much love inside of them.”
On My Way Out is at its most heartwrenching when Ruth declares her despair over her long life with Roman, and he expresses the disappointment of never having had a whole, loving partnership with a man. But according to their grandson, “this is just part of the truth.” As Popi says at the end of the film, “Love is love. But it cannot compare to a family like we have.”
“People think you can have it all,” says Gross, who is now studying to be a marriage therapist, “but there is always sacrifice. You just choose what you are going to sacrifice.”
For more information about these and other films at the 2019 the Edward S. Finkelstein Harrisburg Jewish Film Festival, go to www.hbgjff.com.