Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
THE SILENCED WALLS (LA CITE MUETTE – UNE MEMOIRE OCCULTEE) | 88 min | NR
Directed by: Sabrina Van Tassel
The following originally ran on VeryAware.com
Imagine being ripped from the arms of your family, taken from the life you know and sent to a prison-like internment camp with only the barest of human essentials. Sadly, this was the atrocious reality for 80,000 Jews in a Nazi-occupied France during WWII. In the quiet suburb of Drancy, there still sits the austere apartment building formerly known as “the antechamber of death,” a horrible holding camp for those being shipped off to Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. However, today the building is used by the French government as low income housing for retirees, homeless and mentally ill residents – most of which know nothing about the building’s distressing history. While it may look like a happy place, with a bright exterior and a lush lawn for children to play soccer on and laugh, inside are hidden secrets and ghosts. In THE SILENCED WALLS, writer-director Sabrina Van Tassel shines a light on a blight on France’s history, crafting an incredibly powerful, moving and necessary documentary that’s a must-see even for those outside of France.
Just when you think you’ve seen every documentary on the Holocaust, here comes another amazing testimony needing to be told – and messenger Van Tassel tells it perfectly. Wisely taking a no frills approach to visual storytelling, the survivors’ stories, photographs, charcoal drawings, intimate letters and highly-charged emotional responses say far more than any superficial sheen ever could. She interviews many of the survivors, now elderly, who were forced into living at the camp at a very young age. Many of them lost family members and have repressed memories of their time at Drancy. The accounts of suicides are bone-chilling. Others remember their first crushes and friendships there; however, during the doc’s brisk run time, moments of levity are few and far between.
The filmmaker also explores what life is like there now, interviewing a few current residents who are struggling to get by. One psychologist mentions in his studies that he found keeping mentally ill people there will spread delirium. Though we don’t really see the proof of that statement, we can’t help but sense he’s probably right. There’s a weight and uneasiness imparted on the picture when the camera pans down hallways and goes up the poorly shellacked concrete staircases. Pain, fear and abandonment seemingly seep from behind the dry walls that hide prisoners’ desperate etchings.
Van Tassel has created a must-see, thoughtful and provocative living history with THE SILENCED WALLS. It’s absolutely riveting. “If these walls could talk,” as the saying goes – only the talented documentarian doesn’t just make them talk. They sing in a deafening chorus that more needs to be done with this sacred and damned ground. Once standing in the shadows, this shamed building will now be in the spotlight.
4.5 out of 5
THE SILENCED WALLS (LA CITE MUETTE – UNE MEMOIRE OCCULTEE) plays ColCoa on April 23. Distrib Films US will release the film in September 2015.