The documentary “NANA” began with a book Serena Dykman, a 24-year-old filmmaker with transnational roots in Paris, Brussels, New York, and London, had been carrying around in her suitcase for two years.
She knew the essence of the story told within it—that of her grandmother, Maryla Michalowski-Dyamant, who died when Dykman was 11. Maryla had a tattoo on her arm and spoke often of the Holocaust, Dr. Mengele, and Auschwitz. “As a small child, I knew those words were bad. I knew they evoked something terrible. But I didn’t know what it was.”
“I definitely did not realize what she had gone through, how she’d survived, what she did for her survival—what an accident she was,” Dykman continues. “I had a million questions I would never be able to ask her.”
If making NANA was a way of reckoning with the story that had loomed large over her childhood, it was made more urgent by recent political events. Dykman happened to be in Brussels during the 2014 attack on the Jewish Museum, and in Paris during the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks. Making a film, she realized, was her way of responding to these modern-day instances of intolerance that happened so close to home—around the corner from where her family now lives, many of them survivors or the children of survivors. “I don’t call it a political film—but every person I’ve talked to who has seen has been relating it to political events, in the U.S. or in France,” she says. “People see it as a call to action.”
Dykman enlisted her mother, Maryla’s daughter and a producer, to help. Just a few weeks after she finished the memoir they were shooting, a process that would involve dozens of interviews and sifting through 100 hours of archival footage. “It’s also a story of three women, with the hope that people from all generations can relate to it,” says Dykman.
From the day the film premiered at the St. Louis International Film Festival, on her grandmother’s birthday in November of last year, they aimed to show it to non-Jewish audiences in places outside the usual festival circuit, like North Dakota and Alaska. They’ve since expanded their run, including a tour of schools in the south of France—the primary space of focus for her grandmother, a vocal activist during her lifetime—with support from Amnesty International.
NANA will make it’s New York City debut next week, and in June will show at the Lower East Side film festival, where Susan Sarandon will sit on the judging panel. After the long, wrenching journey of making the film, Dykman is as surprised as anyone to see it hit the silver screen in such celebrated venues. “If you had told me that even two months ago I wouldn’t have believed you.”
It just goes to show the power of a good story when it falls on ears that need to hear it.
Tell us about the name of the film, NANA.
This is a trans-generational and personal film. “Nana” is what I called my grandmother growing up, but the first two letters—NA—can also stand for “never again.” So she’s my nana, but she’s also everywhere. She was a grandmother, and my grandmother.
What kinds of challenges did you encounter when making the film?
Besides the production and financial aspects of making a feature-length documentary, making a film that is so personal was a huge challenge. I had to separate my director-self with my character in the film. And one of the biggest challenges was that my grandmother was not here to help me or tell me if I was telling the story right. There were a lot of editorial choices involved about very serious and personal content.
Raising money for a film is a struggle for anyone at any level. Of course, as a 22-year-old, first-time, female filmmaker, making a film about the Holocaust, that doesn’t make things any easier! We’ve been lucky to get some funding in the form of grants and donations, and through a Kickstarter. There are usually a lot more people involved for a project of this scale, but I didn’t want to wait. If you’re waiting on grants, a film that took two years would have taken five or seven. The subject became more and more relevant as we were making it. I hope that people still see it years from now, but I think it’s important that people see it today.
The word “tolerance” seems to come up frequently in your description of your grandmother. What does “tolerance” mean in this context?
The remembrance part of the Holocaust was very important to her, but the reason tolerance was so important was because her story shows what can happen in a world without it, the danger of prejudice and racism. It didn’t start with Auschwitz or the gas chambers. It started with an anti-Semitic comment in the classroom by friends who she’d known her entire life.
In one interview, she says, I’m talking about the Jews because I’m a Jew and I suffered because of it. But next time it could be someone else. It’s not just about the Jewish people. It’s a part of history that belongs to all of us.
Do you have any advice other young women who are embarking on large creative projects?
It’s so easy to get discouraged. There are so many obstacles, whether they’re personal or from the outside. If you need to give up for a day, give up for a day. But wake up the next morning and keep fighting if you know that what you’re fighting for is worth it.
The New York premier of NANA will take place on Thursday, May 11, at 7 p.m. at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, followed by a discussion with Serena Dykman. Tickets can be purchased here.