Saturday, April 30, 2011

Holocaust Remembrance on PBS: Prisoner of her Past

Chicago-based jazz critic Howard Reich is an authority on Jelly Roll Morton. While it is often tricky winnowing the myths from the truth of the early jazz pianist’s life, Reich addressed a far more difficult research subject in his most recent book: his mother, Sonia. A Holocaust survivor, Sonia Reich’s late-onset Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) spurred her son’s investigation into her harrowing experiences during WWII, inspiring his book The First and Final Nightmare of Sonia Reich and Gordon Quinn’s subsequent documentary, Prisoner of her Past (trailer here), which airs on many PBS stations nationwide over the next two days in recognition of Holocaust Remembrance Day.

One day, the eighty-some year old Reich suddenly fled her Skokie home in a deeply agitated state of paranoia. She was obviously delusional, but not suffering from Alzheimer’s or similar suspects. Indeed, she could recognize her grown children and grand children perfectly well. When her doctors finally diagnosed late PTSD (“with all the bells and whistles”), her son set out to discover its roots, hoping a secret from her past could untangle her knotted psyche.

Reich’s mother never talked about her past and her few surviving relatives are nearly as reticent. The only exception is her cousin, Leon Slominski, who was sheltered (both physically and emotionally) by a brave Czech family. Reich pointedly notes how the contrast between his survival through the compassion of others and his mother’s formative years of constant fear and flight profoundly shaped the people they are today.

As befits a film with a jazz critic as its central POV figure (and writer-co-producer), Prisoner employs the music in distinctive ways. Particularly effective is the use of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” as the film’s theme. Poignant yet vaguely unsettling, it sets the appropriate mood, even for those who do not recognize the avant-garde innovator’s most “accessible” piece. (We also briefly hear guitarist Bobby Broom’s swinging soul jazz combo when Reich and Slominski visit Chicago’s Green Mill.)

In addition, Reich eventually visits the birthplace of jazz, New Orleans, as a way to take his story full circle. He shows how counselors are working with NOLA school children post-Katrina to prevent the sort of PTSD plaguing his mother. While these scenes seem somewhat abbreviated (and perhaps a bit tacked-on), it is nice to have some sort of positive take-away when the film ends.

As is often the case in real life, Prisoner does not end with a neat and discrete moment of closure. Yet, there are quite a few insights to be gleaned along the way. A very intelligent and compassionate film, it screens on many PBS outlets, including the Tri-State area, over the next two days (5/1-5/2). (Viewers might need to set their Tivos or old school VCRs in some markets though). Definitely recommended, it also screens the traditional way this Tuesday (5/3) at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles and the following Tuesday (5/10) in San Francisco at the Koret auditorium.