Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Holocaust Remembrance: Inside Hana’s Suitcase

The Tokyo Holocaust Center might not be as famous as the Simon Wiesenthal Center, but its dedicated director set in motion a global phenomenon of remembrance. When the Auschwitz Museum sent Hana Brady’s confiscated suitcase to Fumiko Ishioka for display, she and her elementary student group were compelled to learn more about the young girl. Their investigation would inspire an international bestseller and Larry Weinstein’s subsequent documentary, Inside Hana’s Suitcase (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York, marking the start Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Knowing Brady was very close to their age, Ishioka’s students immediately identified her. Frustrated in their attempts to glean information, Ishioka eventually visited Auschwitz. Sadly, she learned Brady did not survive the war, but her older brother George did. She writes to Brady, now living in Canada, asking for a photo of Hana. A connection is made between Ishioka’s class and Brady, who eventually comes to Japan to tell them Hana’s story. Much to his surprise, it spreads exponentially from there.

Weinstein mixes a real hodge-podge of documentary techniques, including dramatic re-enactments and one-on-one interviews with his primary figures. Yet, his shrewdest decision, by far, is the use of Ishioka’s students and other school children touched by Hana’s story as the film’s primary narrators.

Given the substantial volume of previously produced Holocaust documentaries, even predisposed audiences may find themselves facing another with some reluctance, accepting it as something important, but not unlike a chore. The students in Suitcase, especially those in Ishioka’s group, are a vital antidote to such responses. While listening and watching them relate her narrative, it is clear this is the most significant and profound thing they have ever learned in their young but promising lives.

There is something deeply touching about these students’ empathy and earnest sincerity. Both Ishioka and George Brady are genuinely compelling presences, as well. In contrast, though stylishly lensed by cinematographer Horst Zeidler, the dramatizations lack the same emotional heft and ironically take viewers out of the story rather than pulling them in. Still, to his credit, Weinstein never ignores the complexity of the situation, including a visit to the center from Machiyo Kurokawa, a Hiroshima survivor, who forthrightly acknowledges Japan’s problematic record during WWII.

Truly, just about anyone of good conscience will get choked-up watching George Brady interact with the Ishioka’s group. Indeed, it is the bond they form with him and Hana by extension that is so moving. It is also quite an uplifting example of how a committed teacher and researcher like Ishioka, who comes across as quite a lovely person in multiple respects, can make a positive difference for younger generations. Recommended with considerable respect and affection, Inside Hana’s Suitcase opens tomorrow (4/18) in New York at the Quad Cinema, with Ishioka and George Brady scheduled to appear with Weinstein this Friday through Sunday (4/20-4/22).