DISPLACED: A Film by Sharon Ryba-Kahn

As a result of COVID-19, the annual Encounters South African International Documentary Film Festival has gone virtual this year.

The festival runs from 20 to 30 August and has more than 50 films available for online viewing. One such film is DISPLACED, written and directed by Sharon Ryba-Khan, originally from Munich.

The documentary, which is roughly an hour-and-a-half in length, centres around transgenerational trauma stemming from the holocaust and the sometimes-unspeakable feelings and experiences of Jewish survivors and their descendants. Ryba-Kahn interrogates how this played out within her own family, in which both her paternal and maternal sets of grandparents are or were (respectively) holocaust survivors. Indeed, displacement and the feeling of being lost pervade the film; Ryba-Kahn searches for a sense of belonging as well as for answers and accountability from her non-Jewish German contemporaries and from her own family. Whether she finds what she is looking for is left to the viewer to decide. Often, she is met with silence, denial, deflection, and avoidance. She confides early on, “Even though I was born in Germany, I often feel the need to forget where I am so that I can feel free… The truth is, being here, I feel first and foremost Jewish”.

In this intimate film, Ryba-Kahn confronts her father, with whom she did not speak to for seven years, about his relationship with his own father, a holocaust survivor, who struggled to speak about his ordeal until late in his life. The filmmaker cites this silence as one of the key reasons why her relationship with her own father is so stunted: the trauma, unspoken but continuing to fester, travels down the generations, as another type of silent killer. Even she was affected, having felt like she could not converse with her late paternal grandfather in German because, when she tried, “It all sounded very German suddenly.”

Indeed, often this documentary is about omissions and the damage that they can cause in relationships and in society. Ryba-Kahn does not only confront her previously estranged father. She also attempts candid conversations with friends with whom she grew up who are not Jewish. Desperate to understand their lack of engagement with their own German families’ dark histories, their ignorance regarding anti-Semitism and their inability to understand Ryba-Kahn’s own identity as a Jewish woman searching for meaning, she begs them for truth, for an earnest dialogue about how they connect themselves, their families’ pasts and their friendship with Ryba-Kahn, a Jew. One such friend asks the filmmaker if she wants to investigate her reality as a Jew simply because she is afraid of forgetting. An exasperated Ryba-Kahn retorts, “No, because I carry it inside”. The privilege of forgetting, for the director, is simply impossible.

The documentary follows Ryba-Kahn through parts of Germany to track her family’s pre-WWII movements as well as to Israel, where her father now lives after renouncing his German citizenship. The film is at once deeply personal as well as relevant to and relatable for the global Jewish community, blending interactions in German, English, Yiddish and Hebrew.

DISPLACED is about the collective failure to heal from the past because of the inability to engage in dialogue, to talk, and to confront one’s own demons. It is a beautiful, touching film, created by a courageous and fiercely determined filmmaker, who, through her own journey, encourages viewers to face their own pasts and the traumas that come with it.

DISPLACED will be screened on 23 and 30 August. There will also be a Q&A session hosted by Heather Blumenthal of the Cape own Holocaust Centre with director, Sharon Ryba-Khan. Tickets and more information can be found at https://encounters.co.za/

By Jaime Uranovsky

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