Dwindling communities and The Hidden Faith Project
Documentary filmmakers David Adelman, Paul Shore, and Nick Timmins have embarked on a journey. The mission: to visit the smallest Jewish communities in the world and broadcast their stories to a North American audience. So far, the trio has traveled to the Dominican Republic to document the remaining 200 Jews who still live in Sosua and Santo Domingo (remnants of a migration that took place in WWII).
The resulting film will be presented in March of 2011 across Montreal. By focusing their cameras on faraway cultures, the Project asks important questions that affect local Jews: Why are many Jewish youth disconnected from their cultural heritage? How can we enrich our North American communities? Ultimately, The Hidden Faith Project is a reflection on how we negotiate our cultural, religious, and spiritual identities on a daily basis.
VAN (Vista Art Network): What is The Hidden Faith Project about? Tell us about the Project’s beginnings.
Paul Shore: There are about 200 Jews in the Dominican Republic. The story was so inspiring that when we came home and started cutting the film we started to explore. How can we engage the next generation of Jews, who are secular like ourselves, in Jewish culture and identity through culturally relevant tools like video and new media? You might not want to go to synagogue, but you still want to explore your Jewish identity. So, we thought: we can create a program that goes to these places that North Americans know nothing about, whether it’s in Surinam, Kenya, Ghana, or Curacao. We’re focusing on communities of fewer than 200 people.
Would you say that the use of new media and documentary film was a key component of the Project?
David Adelman: There’s something about film that allows you to capture everything. There’s a lot of stuff about film that writing can’t do. If you have a really good story and you show it in a new and original way, you can really connect to people.
What about the topic of assimilation? It seems to be part of The Hidden Faith Project’s mission to document dwindling communities.
PS: The funny thing is that I went into the project as a journalist, not as a Jew. Of course I’m both, right? What are all the factors that are causing Jews to disappear? One of them happens to be assimilation. It just is what it is. When you’ve got 700 Jews in a country of 8 million Catholics, and 500 of the Jews are men and 200 of them are women, you’re going to have intermarriage. The longer you stay there, the more the culture that you’re living in – as a guest basically – is going to become part of who you are. And that’s ok. But what happens to your original, older identity when you live in a space like that? What you see is that it gets chipped away slowly over time, unless you make an active effort to do something about it.
DA: What I found really fascinating was that the people we interviewed in [the Dominican Republic] try really hard to hold on to what they have. We live in North America: in Montreal there are 100 000 Jews. We’re surrounded by [Judaism]. Because it’s everywhere, we don’t really want it. We feel like we’re going to go home to it and it’s [always] going to be there. When I went to Cegep, I was seeing all these other cultures. I then thought: What do I have? I have a little bit of knowledge of Yiddish and I know something about Judaism, but not really. Judaism is more than just a religion and more than a culture. You can explore Judaism without being religious. What really touched me in the Dominican Republic was that the people hungered for it. That’s lacking in North America.
Nick, what did you think about this project?
Nick Timmins: I’m not Jewish, but I think the story itself could apply to different cultures in general. When we look at a community of 200 Jewish people struggling to survive and maintain their culture, it’s like taking a magnifying glass to an issue that’s perhaps happening here in North America, but that’s not necessarily visible to everyone. So, for me, personally, I found the story very interesting. I’m not very religious, but I can understand the struggle that [the Dominican Jews] are going through.
What was the most memorable part of the journey for you, as a group?
PS: For me, it was probably meeting Louis Hess. I’ve been making documentary films for a long time, on and off for the last 15 years or so. One of the highs of documentary film is those moments of discovery where you happen upon something that you don’t expect that’s basically going to make your film or make the scene. If I hadn’t walked into that other room, adjacent to the restaurant we were having breakfast in in Sosua and met that German innkeeper, we never would have discovered Louis Hess. We never would have walked over to his house, knocked on his door, spent the afternoon with him–
DA: We were his last interview.
PS: Yes, he passed away a year later. He was the historian – he was the first refugee to arrive. He’s the last. He’s like the remnants. I mean there are only about 15 [Jewish] people left in Sosua.
How do you feel the Jewish community in the Dominican Republic relates to the community here in Montreal?
PS: The Project relates to the community here in Montreal or any larger North American community. When you go to a place like the Dominican Republic and you see what lengths the Jewish community has to go to just stay connected in some way – to maintain their culture and their identity – it puts your own relationship with your own Jewish identity into perspective. Here, if you want to be Jewish it’s easy. There, it’s a lot more difficult. And so, I think that when you’re able to see these stories that are outside of your community and that are virtually unknown to most Montrealers and most North Americans, it catalyzes you to examine your own connection to Judaism.
What is the next step for the Hidden Faith Project? Tell us about your plans for the future.
PS: Again, we’re looking at communities of fewer than 200 people because they’re really on the verge of extinction. We’re looking at Curacao, Surinam, Kenya, Ghana. We even looked at Tahiti, which has 110 Jews left. We’re actually hoping to go to [Guadeloupe] next.
For more information on The Hidden Faith Project, or to request a screening, please visit: http://thehiddenfaith.com/