Helmer Sabine Franel is nothing if not rigorous in “First of the Name,” an exhaustive, innovatively constructed chronicle of more than two centuries’ history of a Jewish family from the Alsace region of France. But in the end, it’s Franel’s rigor that makes this docu such a tough slog. Pic relies on staged conversations – most of which are heavily scripted – readings and loads of voiceover, and the lack of spontaneity eventually becomes wearying. Intriguing tale touches on the bigger picture of the history of Jews in Europe, but the too-intellectual approach ensures that the film is seldom emotionally involving. Pic is probably best suited for play on pubcasters around the globe.
Film traces the history of the descendants of Moise Blin, a Jewish peddler who lived and worked in Alsace in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Much use is made of black-and-white footage from a 1987 reunion of almost 100 Blin descendants. Franel appears in pic as she interviews various members of the clan and muses in voiceover about the history of the family and the wider Jewish community.
The Blins’ story chronicles how they had to deal with discrimination and the constant pull of assimilation into the wider French culture. One of the themes is how difficult it is for Blin descendants to hang on to their Jewish heritage; many of the people interviewed say they have drifted from their Jewish roots.
The material is interesting on an intellectual level, but Franel fails to play up the drama of the stories. For example, there are a couple of short clips in which she talks on-camera to her father, and it’s clear that there’s a real conflict here because she feels he tried to bury their Jewish roots. But this father-daughter debate is never fleshed out in any detail.
The interviews are scripted and rehearsed, which gives dramatic density to the film but cuts off any chance for spontaneity. Franel mixes up interviews with archival clips and photos and scenes from the family reunion. Soundtrack is heavy on mournful violin music.