Friday, April 22, 2011

Neglected Gems #2: Watermarks (2004)

It’s a funny thing about movies. They may get critical acclaim, even score some box office success and years later they’re barely mentioned by anyone or even remembered. And there’s often no discernible reason for their fates. I really can’t tell why Neil Jordan’s terrific and accessible heist movie. The Good Thief, which got good reviews when it came out in 2002, has pretty much vanished into the ether. Or why Steve Jordan’s powerful documentary Stevie (2002) failed to match the impact of his earlier 1994 doc Hoop Dreams. Or even why impressive debuts like Jeff Lipsky’s Childhood’s End (1997) didn’t get half the buzz that considerably lesser movies (Wendy and Lucy, Ballast) have acquired upon their subsequent release. In any case, here is the second in a series of disparate movies you really ought to see.

Watermarks is the inspiring story of Hakoah Vienna, a Jewish athletic club formed in 1909 as a reaction to anti-Semitic policies that kept Jews out of gentile clubs in the country. The documentary, which is available on DVD, traces how some 65 years after they were forced to leave Austria, a group of Jewish women athletes return to where it all began. The goal of Hakoah (which means “strength” in Hebrew) was to prove that Jewish athletes could hold their own against their Christian counterparts, dispelling stereotypes of the weak Jew in the process. Hakoah succeeded in spades, with many of its members, in particular the women's swim team, dominating Austrian sports competitions in the 1930s. But the Anschluss, the Nazis' annexation of Austria in 1938, ended all that and forced the Hakoah members to flee for their lives.

Reuniting seven of the women swimmers, all in their 80s, Watermarks, which is directed by Israeli filmmaker Yaron Zilberman, lets them tell their history and that of their tumultuous era, illustrated with archival clips, interviews and footage of them revisiting their old haunts in Vienna. Watermarks succeeds in bringing a forgotten part of history to life. But best of all, it introduces us to some genuinely remarkable individuals who made a significant difference in their time and place.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute.

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