My Father's Secrets

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

My Father's Secrets
"What Belmont does brilliantly, and largely through pacing and style, is to convey all this in a way which, for much of the running time, feels light and easily relatable."

The Holocaust, ripping appart the fabric of Western society as it did, has naturally been a subject for cinema decade after decade, analysed and lamented in multitudinous ways. A lot less attention has been paid to the first generation that grew up in its shadow. Véra Belmont’s animated adaptation of author Michel Kichka’s memoirs explores the life of one such family in a small Belgian town – a family in which a pair of growing boys become ever more curious about their father’s strange behaviour and the subjects of which he will not speak.

“We think they’re telephone numbers,” says young Michel (Esteban Oertil) when explaining to the local sweet shop owner why he and his younger brother Charley (Gabin Geunoun) are curious about the tattoos which she and their father have on their arms. Establishing that their father has told them nothing, she is deeply uncomfortable, not wanting to be the one to break it to them, but she drops a hint. The name ‘Auschwitz’, which Charley struggles to pronounce, is not to be spoken in their house, but nevertheless it provides a starting point from which Michel can begin to piece things together. As he does so, his happy-go-lucky approach to life is replaced by a creeping melancholy, and any viewer who wondered will understand why a parent might want to delay this for as long as possible. It is , nonetheless, a necessary conversation, and one which Jewish parents must sadly continue to have with their children to this day.

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Henri – whose name may be familiar to some on account of a memoir of his own written late in life – is either unwilling or unable to engage. When Michel presents a glowing school report card but only has 8 out of 10 in sport, he tells him that it’s important to be able to run really fast. When they travel on a train together and he nods off for a moment, he is suddenly terrified, searching frantically for his papers. Michel, confused, steps in to hand the inspector their tickets. Meanwhile, the rest of life swirls around them both. Michel ‘borrows’ a bicycle and gets into trouble when he crashes it. He has a non-Jewish girlfriend whose dad disapproves of him. His sisters argue with their mum, wanting more independence. he makes and loses friends, plays football, sneaks out to dances, and it’s hard for him to filter out what is or isn’t supposed to be important. Why does his father suddenly pay acute attention when the television features the trial or somebody who looks like an office worker?

Trauma echoes through the generations. Michel has every material thing that his father dreamed of during the darkest days, but what he doesn’t have, most of the time, is his father’s attention. His mother, who is open about having spent two years of the war in hiding, is hesitant to fill the gaps in his knowledge, incapable of filling the emotional void by herself. What Belmont does brilliantly, and largely through pacing and style, is to convey all this in a way which, for much of the running time, feels light and easily relatable. She doesn’t overburden her audience, something which is all the more important now that people are reaching adulthood without ever having met anyone who can remember the war.

My Father’s Secrets screened as part of the 2023 UK Jewish Film Festival. It’s a likeable, if sometimes over-earnest coming-of-age tale which also makes an effective companion piece to the writings of father and son. The darkness is always there, lurking in the background, but - as Michel runs from neighbour to neighbour waving his report card and shouting “I’m revenge on Hitler!” – it also celebrates survival and the importance of looking to the future. The need never to forget is balanced by the drive to create a world in which children can have space to grow up before taking on the burden of memory. Until, then, it suggests, writing has value, but at least as important is talking.


My Father's Secrets is available to rent and buy on digital platforms from 27 November.

Reviewed on: 18 Nov 2023
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My Father's Secrets packshot
A family's journey to reconciliation after facing the trauma of the Holocaust.
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Director: Véra Belmont

Writer: Véra Belmont, Michel Kichka, Valérie Zenatti

Starring: Michèle Bernier, Jacques Gamblin, Arthur Dupont, Esteban Oertil

Year: 2022

Runtime: 74 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: France, Belgium

Festivals:

Jewish 2023

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