Written by Garrett Brown – March 21st 2022
Originally published by Film Inquiry
As I sit down and press play on I Am Here, the screen fills with images of hate and terror. A montage of news anchors reporting on the escalation of hate crimes against Jewish people across the world: white men marching with torches, synagogues covered with swastikas and slurs, people being attacked in streets for wearing religious dress. The news clips continue to mount up until one final report breaks through. A radio host educates us about the anti-Semitic postings of a social media influencer, and the open letter published in response by a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor. This is our first introduction to the astounding and extraordinary life of Ella Blumenthal.
In her letter, Blumenthal offers forth her own memories of surviving the horrors of the Holocaust, hoping to counteract the lies being perpetuated. She also extends an olive branch to the social media influencer, offering to meet with them and help them to become aware of the hate that they are spreading. Within the five minutes of the film I Am Here, we already comprehend the resilience of Ella Blumenthal, and that regardless of her life experience, Blumenthal believes that the next day can always bring about great change.
SHARING A STORY
I Am Here is the result of the long-time friendship of director Jordy Sank and Ella Blumenthal, and his desire to capture her story for posterity. The documentary allows Ella Blumenthal space to recount her extraordinary life of survival, resilience, bravery and hope, while other times opening lines of discussion but never returning to them. Under close examination, the flaws of the film stick out and can make it feel difficult to ignore or accept.
I want to make it clear that Ella Blumenthal and her story is nothing short of astounding and moving. I am glad that she chose to share it with us, and was willing, to be honest and open despite the trauma of reliving the memories. My critiques are with the documentary itself and some of the techniques utilized in structuring and delivering the story. Because of these shortcomings, I Am Here remains a well-made film, falling just outside of being unforgettable.
USE OF ANIMATION
I applaud the use of animation to illustrate Ella Blumenthal’s past. Animator Greg Bakker uses a 2-D animation style to vividly illustrate the past, and to be honest, it is one of the best parts of the film. Instead of using the same stock footage that every documentary has used for World War II and the Holocaust, Jordy Sank allows the animation to literally illustrate the trauma that Ella is recounting.
When the animation works, it really works. For instance, possibly one of the most moving sections of I Am Here is Ella Blumenthal recalling being imprisoned in a Nazi camp and finding a scrap of the Torah. As present-day Ella reflects on how finding this scrap of holy text gave her hope and focus to survive, the animation on screen imagines her floating up into the air, wrapping herself in the words of hope.
TELLING RATHER THAN SHOWING
I Am Here clocks in at around 73 minutes, just squeaking in to being a feature. While the shorter length is not bad, the timing also prevents the audience from getting a form of closure on all ends of the story. If the documentary was 45 minutes long, editing could have helped contain the focus on particular aspects of Ella Blumenthal’s life. If the documentary was 90 minutes long, there would be room to explore all of the narrative threads that are briefly mentioned or alluded to.
I understand that the film is limited to what Ella Blumenthal chose to share (and what the director chose to bring into focus) but the film really shines when the character of “Ella Blumenthal” is shaped into a deep personality, not just the bare bones of her story. During these moments, directorial choices by Jordy Sank pay off for the audience.
One such moment is when the animation visualizes Ella and her niece Roma playing in the barracks, trying to make the other laugh and retain some joy. Though this moment lasts five seconds, Sank gives the audience a concrete example of Ella’s resilience and her wish to survive. I wish the documentary was built around more of these small exchanges, instances that enable the audience to develop our empathy and understanding of Ella‘s life.
RISK IN STORYTELLING
Where the documentary falls short is that it chooses to play it too safe. It is a faithful interpretation of the events of Ella Blumenthal’s life, and what led to her telling this story. While this is engaging to watch, the story becomes very linear and does not really feel like it has an emotional arc that brings together Ella’s past and Ella’s present. The open letter to the social media influencer is never followed up on, and we only get glimpses into the family that Ella Blumenthal has built.
There is a moment of catharsis towards the end of the film when Ella uses FaceTime to call her niece Roma, the only other immediate family member to survive the Holocaust, but that is the most exploration of their bond post imprisonment that the audience sees. I think the film would be stronger if it spent more time exploring Ella’s life post-World War II, as well as using the animation to bring forth the humanity she fought to keep throughout the war, as the aforementioned scene with the Torah. I doubt a single film could capture Ella Blumenthal’s entire essence, but I am willing to bet I Am Here could have gone deeper to fully display the breadth of her humanity.
HONORING THE PAST
Time marches on, and eventually, everyone passes on from this world. Every year, there are fewer survivors who can bear witness to the horrors of the Holocaust. As a public, it is our responsibility to document the experiences of people like Ella Blumenthal so that we can learn from and mourn the lives of those we lost. I Am Here is not a perfect film, but it accomplishes what it sets out to do, which is to allow the world to honor Ella Blumenthal and share her story. Overall, I think that I Am Here is an excellent first venture from director Jordy Sank, and I look forward to seeing what they can bring to the screen in the future.
What did you think of the use of animation? Let us know in the comments below!
Watch the trailer to I Am Here on Youtube.