TJFF: Ingelore & Red Shirley

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Directed by Frank Stiefel

2009, USA, 40 mins.

Red Shirley

Directed by Lou Reed

2010, USA, 28 mins.

These are the sorts of films that future historians will thank us for. Ingelore and Red Shirley are cut from the same cloth; hence the joint review. Both are documentaries about Jewish women (Ingelore and Shirley, of course) telling us their life stories. Both are made by relatives. And both pack extraordinary lives into deceptively short runtimes.

Escaping War Stories

Red Shirley takes the form of an interview – interspersed with family photographs – between director Lou Reed and his cousin, Shirley, on the occasion of her one-hundredth birthday. Their relation adds a sense of familiarity to the proceedings that extends to the audience. Reed knows how parts of these stories go, and his prodding and pleading with Shirley adds something special to the typical documentary interview. Shirley’s story is, of course, incredible: she tells us of fleeing Poland, immigrating to Canada and then New York without a word of English, and finally of becoming a union agitator during a time of unrest.

Ingelore is something different. Ingelore’s son, Frank Stiefel, serves as a silent director. He leaves the entire business of telling the story to his mother, only appearing with the rest of the family at the end. Ingelore’s story of fleeing Nazi Germany for the United States is fascinating primarily because she is deaf, and at the time did not even know what a Jew was. Stiefel has added subtitles for clarity – though generally Ingelore is not difficult to understand.

Everything Worth Remembering

These are the sorts of films that will have a narrow audience, but nonetheless are extremely important. Such is the nature of memoir. Part of these films appeal lay in the fact that Ingelore and Shirley and ordinary people who lived through extraordinary times, but a larger part lay in the fact that both women are extremely candid.

The length of these films also deserves some mention. Whilst it is doubtlessly possible that directors Stiefel and Reed could have shot more footage and made longer films – certainly, Ingelore and Shirley have more to tell – I’m glad that they did not for several reasons. By keeping their films mid-length (and sticking to the bare essentials of each story), the directors gave the films a sense of depth that a feature would not have. Also, both stories are traumatic, and because both filmmakers are good at eliciting the audience’s empathy, their audiences could have easily been emotionally fatigued by longer films.

I ought to note that Ingelore and Red Shirley both have optimistic – or happy, anyway – codas. They are not easy films to watch, but they are worthwhile.

–       Dave Robson

Toronto Jewish Film Festival is playing from May 7th through May 15th. Tickets may be purchased online, by phone, or in person. More information is available on their website.

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