After the War: Memoirs of Exile is the first feature film from Canadian director PJ Marcellino. The film follows sister Karin and Astrid who traveled through Europe with their mother after seeing their father shot by Soviet soldiers during World War II, looking at the ways in which war continues to effect those closest to it decades after it ends.
Toronto Film Scene had the opportunity to ask Marcellino a few questions about the fascinating film, screening tonight at Carlton Cinema as part of Raindance Canada’s Indie Night.
With a lack of solid information regarding Karin, Astrid, and their family, was it difficult to build a strong base for the film?
From the onset, I wanted the focus to be solidly on memory, and on the perception and (often distorted) transmission of memory. Rather than an historical snapshot of the war, the film is mean as a personal historiography. My strategy, thus, was to allow Karin and Astrid to tell their own story as they remember it – or as they think they remember it. But here’s the catch: memory is highly subjective, often fragmented… and it’s been almost 69 years since 1945. What little I know about this story is based on their memories, real or reconstructed, and subject to this caveat. For the most part, the information came in the form of sometimes contradictory snippets and anecdotes. I needed to make sense of all that, and it really was like putting together a puzzle in which most of the anchor pieces are missing. I cross-checked with historical information where it was available, relied on the letters for additional clues, but a lot of those blanks needed sheer deduction, intuition, and informed speculation.
Does this lack of information perhaps show the importance of speaking with people about their history, as many of us may regret not doing when older relatives pass away?
It does. I wish we’d all speak more to our elders, that we asked more questions of them, that we probed them to share more. There is a wealth or experience in every personal story, but in cases like this, there is also an important political dimension that is slowly fading away. The generation that lived through WWII is not going to be around much longer, and once they go, those personal, nuanced memories are gone forever. So, I would say, if you can, sit down with your grandma, your nona, your baba, and ask questions. You’d be surprised how much she remembers, and how much she wants to tell you those stories, even if there is some resistance at first.
Karin and Astrid speak about feeling out of place when coming to Canada, due to their German and Ukrainian mixed background. Do you think that this is something that newcomers may still feel when coming to this country, even now?
That’s inevitable, when moving to a new country and leaving behind all your cultural references. Having a mixed background, and having lived in nine countries myself, I suppose I should know, to a degree. Those feelings are there, one way or another. But what makes Karin and Astrid’s situation interesting is their background in the specific context of that particular war. It can’t have been fun to have a German background in the years right after the war. Now imagine trying to be Canadian while also learning how to be Ukrainian. It’s a tall order. There is a portfolio of experiences in today’s Canada that certainly included this. That is not necessarily a bad thing though. Belonging to different spaces, living in that ‘third space’ that is neither here nor there, forces your to examine yourself and your surroundings, and often gives you the amazing ability to observe critically, to belong but to question… I always thought of that as a gift from my family. But you’ll probably find as many answers to this as there are individual experiences.
You speak briefly about the current situation in the Ukraine at the end of the film, which could have results that mirror the troubles that Karin and Astrid faced. How important is it that we learn from stories like your film, and is it even possible to truly learn from our past mistakes?
I tried to steer away from the current situation because it’s was so fluid, but eventually it couldn’t be ignored, and it certainly can’t be ignored today. Ukraine, or parts thereof, has changed hands so many times in the last 200 years that this almost fits a tragic pattern. The senseless, indiscriminate violence going on right now in places like Luhansk and Donetsk is confounding precisely because you’d hope those memories of turmoil would be a deterrent. We can try to learn, and certainly human value stories help us develop a sense of what we don’t want to see happen. Sadly, war is mostly decided in political circles, and tragically it’s been a constant throughout history. I have worked in peace building and post-conflict reconstruction for a while, and if you ask me if I am optimistic, I would have to say… no.
The question is raised that past experiences may have altered how Karin and Astrid raised their own families, perhaps affecting them negatively, but it actually seems to be the opposite. Do you think we all have a fear that the troubles in our life will extend to our children, and could it be that those of us who may have suffered more, could actually unconsciously be raising our children in a more positive way in order to avoid similar problems?
I think that is possible. I hope that is possible. The only way suffering makes sense is if it provides a learning experience, a platform to improve upon the past. I don’t have kids myself, so we’re talking about mental gymnastics above my pay grade… Yet, while not being privy to the process, I would guess that critical parenting is a very likely result of traumatic experiences.
Is there still something that you wish you could have learned during the course of the film, that just doesn’t seem possible to find the answer to?
There are so many blanks, and for the most part they are impossible to fill. That’s something I accept. This happens with so many WWII narratives. I always remember a Grade Eight History class about the war. Our teacher at the time tried to impress on us, impressionable teenagers, the significance of WWII, challenging us to stop thinking about dates, battles, and treaties, and to start thinking about how it changed daily life, how common people coped with basic needs that continue to be essential to life during war. Where do you get water and nourishment? Who picks up the garbage? Do you work? How do you get to work? And if you don’t, how do you get money? How do you take your kids to school? How do you explain to them what war is? I am more interested in the human experience of war than on the political performance surrounding it.