Many of the best documentaries are true-life dramas that the filmmakers never would have predicted would unfold when they began production. They’re just lucky enough to be in the right place in the right time. Alon and Shaul Schwarz’s gripping ‘Aida’s Secrets’ is exactly that.
The directors set out to follow a family knowing that many deep secrets would follow. They never could have predicted the depth of the hidden truths never when they began this journey, but they stuck with it and present a story so strange, powerful, and at times almost unbelievable that it has to be real.
It all starts with a gardener named Izak Szewelewicz who learns that he had a brother he never met. They were separated as toddlers at the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp after World War II. Their family was split up across continents after the war. Izak was sent to Israel to live with foster parents because it was the best his mother could do at the time. She visited her son occasionally, but never told Izak that he had a blind brother named Shepsel. Izak learned about Shepsel when he was 67, and the Schwarz brothers follow him on his quest to meet him. They find him in Canada, where he grew into a charming man and Paralympic athlete. The two brothers have a tearful reunion, and then Shepsel learns that not only is the mother he never met still alive, but actually lived a few hours away from him for his entire life. The trio are reunited, and from there they dig even deeper into the family history.
Believe it or not, the long lost brothers are just the start of the secrets. Aida remains evasive throughout the film despite the avalanche of hidden truths falling all around her. It could be her age, or it could be the pain of acknowledging what she left behind. Only she knows and she has no desire to dig as deeply as her long lost children. Aida claims that she doesn’t recall the man photographed with her sons in a family photo of the displacement camp, and she claims that she doesn’t even know why she moved to Canada without her children. It’s an intense and emotionally wrought story filled with unpredictable twists and a deeply touching relationship between the two brothers who never met each other until they were in their 60s. Throughout it all, Alon and Shaul Schwarz remain active observers, never pushing their subjects too far while maintaining focus on their storytelling. The film is gorgeously constructed for a documentary, shooting the live footage with color and energy while nimbly cutting in archival footage and photographs to keep the story visually compelling and moving along at a brisk pace.
‘Aida’s Secrets’ is as surprising, moving and entertaining as any feature. It also touches on a number of fascinating themes. Tales of family drama and secrets and broken bonds and reconciliation are all over the surface and potent. Beyond that is the figure of Aida, a woman with many secrets for many reasons. Because of the cause and timing of the family breakup, the film is also a story of scars of war and struggles of refugees to restart their lives. Extraordinary sacrifices must be made. Hard truths must be accepted and secrets must be kept to survive.
It’s heavy stuff, not a fun film to watch for the most part, but a riveting one that tickles the heart and mind with extraordinary poignancy. ‘Aida’s Secrets’ is not to be missed by anyone who enjoys documentaries that dig deep for truth, or anyone who simply enjoys a good story well told.