I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Serena Dykman at HATCH 2015. Serena is an award-winning flimmaker whose mounting accolades go well beyond her years. Her latest film, NANA, is a beautiful and moving multi-generational documentary that reminds us what can happen in a world of intolerance. The film is a tribute to her grandmother, and an expression of Serena's deeply held and very personal commitment to acceptance.
Describe some highlights of your journey to the NANA project.
I read my grandmother’s memoir in January 2015, after witnessing the terrorist attacks at the Jewish museum in Brussels, and the Paris January attacks. Two months later, we were in Auschwitz shooting the film. The concept of NANA was to have 2 cameras – one that shoots objectively, while the other follows my mother – Alice Michalowski – and I (re)discovering my grandmother’s survival story, and fight for tolerance. So I didn’t want to do too much research, or learn too much before we started shooting, as I wanted my reactions to what I would learn throughout the shoot to be real, genuine and honest.
We shot in Poland and Brussels, where my grandmother emigrated after the war. There, we interviewed 15 people that knew her; these interviewees were of all ages, religions and backgrounds. I was on the quest of learning more about my grandmother through the people that knew her, and it was magical to see how many lives she had touched, and to realize that her message was still being passed on today, more than a decade of her passing away.
I am still discovering Maryla every day through the making of NANA. I have been watching countless hours of archival footage of her giving testimonies. She was able to captivate her audience for hours on end, while still getting her message of tolerance across. Not once did she complain. While watching the footage, my colleagues and I found ourselves crying, and laughing the next second, because of her incredible sense of humor.
This is only the beginning of this incredible journey.
Your grandmother's experience as a survivor of the Holocaust and her role as an activist has had a huge impact on you and your mother. In addition to your decision to make this film, how has this experience informed your upbringing?
I only recently become conscious of who my grandmother was. Maryla passed away when I was eleven, so I knew her without really knowing her. When I was little, I knew that she was an important person to the public, as she was always running around to give conferences and speeches, but I didn’t comprehend the scale of her work, or importance of her fight until now. She never tried to conceal her past from anyone. However, my mother tried to keep my grandmother from speaking about it in front of me because I was so young. But I recently came across an interview of my grandmother where she says that my 9-year-old self asked her “Nana, when are you going back to Auschwitz?” (She went on educational trips to Auschwitz a least 3 times a year for 30 years). I guess that on some level, I knew.
I know that being the daughter of a survivor was very difficult for my mother; she felt the duty of supporting Maryla in her fight against intolerance, while trying to preserve herself psychologically. She wasn’t able to accompany Maryla on a trip to Auschwitz until the last trip of her life in 2002.
Making this movie together is not easy. Both my mother and I are confronted with very hard and personal feelings, but we know that it is our duty to preserve Maryla’s life-long work, especially in a time where survivors are leaving us.
If there was one thing you could say about tolerance to moms around the world, what would it be?
Accept your children for who they are, and make them aware that the world’s wealth is in people’s differences.
Describe the importance of travel in your life.
I have been very fortunate to travel a great deal since my early childhood because of my parents’ jobs, and then my own. Traveling has definitely informed who I am today. I think it opened my mind to different cultures and lifestyles, and made me understand that the culture I was raised in was not the only one. I realized very early on that the world is a big place, rich because of its differences. And having grown up in different countries and continents, I tried to take what I liked the most from each culture I encountered and made my own culture out of it. I think that’s what people call “third culture kids”. I always have to stop and think when people ask me “where are you from?”
Tell us more about your fascination with elephants?
For the first five years of my life, every night, my father would tell me a story that he would make up along the way, about an elephant named Bengalore traveling through India with a family of filmmakers. A couple of decades later, I am an elephant-obsessed filmmaker going to Asia every chance I get.
What's next? With this film or other dream projects?
There is still a long journey of post-production ahead of us with NANA. But aside from NANA, I would love to make a documentary on elephants telling the realities between domesticated and wild elephants both in Asia and Africa. I also started my filmmaking career in fiction, and would love to go back and direct a comedic script. Working with actors is one of my favorite aspects of filmmaking.