"Remember?" Lore Segal asks as she holds up a shoelace attached to a cardboard label numbered "152." A gasp escapes from an unseen room of kindertransport survivors. In Melissa Hacker's directorial debut, My Knees Were Jumping: Remembering the Kindertransports, she documents a nearly forgotten episode of the Holocaust: the transport of 10,000 Jewish children from their endangered homes in Austria, Germany and Eastern Europe to the institutional safety of Great Britain. They were lucky, but their survival is bittersweet. The children, aged five to 17, traveled alone. Ninety per cent of their parents were subsequently killed in concentration camps. The number on Segal's shoelace marked her for deliverance.
The title of the film comes from an interview with Hacker's mother, the late Academy Award-winning costume designer Ruth Morley. Morley's parents sent her to England from Vienna after her "knees jumped out" -- that is, she fainted at the prospect of her father being taken to jail for the second, and possibly the final, time. The film chronicles both Morley's story and the kindertransport movement, tackling issues such as survivor's guilt, Jewish self-definition, hate, forgiveness and the frightening images of persecution that haunt even descendants born safely in America.
My Knees Were Jumping is a conventional documentary, developed through headshot interviews, newsreel footage and black-and-white file photos. Hacker has beautiful raw material. The old photos depict wide-eyed children clutching dolls and smiling bravely for the newspaper cameras. In one interview, a woman stoically re-counts how her father ran after her departing train, crying, "Don't take my baby!"
The editing, however, is unimaginative and the narration fairly dry. In the lone stylistic variation, photos of Morley as a child flicker past, flip-book style. This scene, reminiscent of the earliest motion pictures, creates a striking visual image of her uncertain childhood. Had Hacker been willing to take more such artistic chances, her good film might have been great.
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My Knees Were Jumping: Remembering the Kindertransports.
Directed by Melissa Hacker.
Saturday and Sunday at the Museum of Fine Arts.