The vicissitudes of an Argentine Jewish family are observed in “Papirosen” by one of the sons, filmmaker Gaston Solnicki. Starkly different from his brilliant music doc “Sueden,” Solnicki demonstrates that a work of art can be made from the humble materials of home-shot video and various 8mm formats, especially when the eye and ear behind the camera are as observant and unabashed as they are here. After fest rollout, the pic should be at the top of the get list for smart docu and Jewish-themed events.
“Papirosen” does share with “Sueden” a distinctly musical rhythm that reaffirms the filmmaker’s love of cinema as well as music. (The film was edited by Andrea Kleinman, who waded through hours of Solnicki’s own footage as well as vintage family homemovie reels.) Music also seeps into the material, starting with the title, which references a sad Holocaust-era song that Solnicki’s father, Victor — more or less the film’s leading man — can’t bear to listen to in an early scene. Later, the filmmaker’s grandmother, Pola Winicki, listens to a recording of “Midnight in Moscow” after Passover dinner and feels a wave of nostalgia.
These are among a host of spontaneously captured moments that make the film an impressive contribution to Jewish cinema, even as it offers an entirely different storytelling approach from what more conventional docs on the culture and faith typically provide. Never served up as a standard family bio, a history lesson or a psychological group portrait, presented sans identifier graphics and with only diegetic music, this could have been titled “Scenes From a Jewish Family Life,” with each one building toward a powerful final impact.
Beginning closer to the present, the Buenos Aires-based Solnickis are on vacation (the location is never specific, but it looks like Florida), and eldest daughter Yanina is fighting with Victor about his supposedly overbearing ways. (Mom Mirta later tells Victor that he should be getting “more psychoanalysis.”) Yanina is separating from husband Sebastian and keeping young son Mateo, who adores Victor (and vice versa); the mop-haired boy brings some levity to moments of familial drama, but later reveals that he can be a royal handful as well.
The filmmaker himself remains invisible, and is addressed only rarely by one of his family members (usually his mom). This lessens the viewer’s awareness of how masterfully Solnicki creates an atmosphere that allows his loved ones to bare themselves in front of the camera. This near-nakedness is both emotional (notably with his brother Alan, who expresses considerable alienation from the clan and vows to keep his distance in the future) and physical (Victor is viewed in several scenes in only his underwear, and in one memorable moment, is treated and massaged in a chiropractor’s office).
Clearly, this is a documaker lucky enough to have been born into a family of characters with their own individual quirks and obsessions. The legacy of WWII haunts “Papirosen” without ever being hashed out; it remains just under the surface, and will strike resonant chords with Jewish viewers of many generations, but particularly the one that directly endured the Holocaust.
Gaston’s vid lensing is low-grade but very well shot in the moment, but the most distinctive tech feature is the choice insertion of old 8mm footage at key moments and, most wonderfully of all, an extended VHS-shot scene of kids dancing at a bar mitzvah with singers and a backup band.