Interview with Prisoner of Her Past Filmmakers Jerry Blumenthal and Gordon Quinn
By Fall 2008 Interns Jenny Wells and Eman Nader
When you started the documentary, how familiar were you with trauma and what did you know about late-onset post-traumatic stress disorder?
**JERRY:** We were familiar with what most people are familiar with— returning veterans who have been subjected to some trauma, usually in war or some natural disaster.
**GORDON:** Or family situations. There are these horrific circumstances that people come out of where the post-traumatic stress usually presents itself within two to three years. Sonia Reich’s situation, as with many other Holocaust survivors, is really very different. These are people who were traumatized as children who…go to a new country, they get married, they have kids. They may be a little bit eccentric, as most people’s parents are, but they seem to be OK. And then all of sudden, something snaps. And one part of them is no longer in the real world.
Along with the new subject of late-onset PTSD, how was the making of Prisoner of Her Past different from other films you’ve made?
**GORDON:** In _Vietnam Long Time Coming_, and other films that we’ve done, it’s not just one central character who is suffering. In _Prisoner of Her Past_, we feature Howard’s mother, but we’re really following his story of trying to find out what happened to his mother. A lot of our other films are about families or family situations unfolding, like in _The New Americans_. But in _Prisoner_ there's not a lot of verite [style filmmaking]. Howard is on a mission to find something out, and you learn about people’s characters as they start to resist his questions. In many ways it is very different from what you see in our first film _Home for Life_, which is set in an institution, but it’s similar in that both are about family interactions. For example, we have scenes where Sonia is making Howard feel guilty for not visiting her enough, all of the typical stuff that happens in families. What we’re really interested in is understanding what her history was and what’s happening with her.
**JERRY:** And that she’s been stricken with this illness and which is one of the things that it takes Howard a long time to discover- that, no, this isn’t just old age, it’s not senility. In the film you witness these mother and son interactions that are very familiar to people who are dealing with elderly parents. His mother is a difficult woman, a very strong woman, sort of even a little manipulative, before the onset of this post-traumatic stress disorder. And the post-traumatic stress just increases things exponentially.
**GORDON:** When we first went to film with Sonia in the nursing home, we didn’t know whether she would throw us out…because she’s very feisty. But we came in and she really took to us. And at a certain point she sort of understood, “Oh, this camera’s here for me.” I would stop sometimes to change tape or change a battery and she would stop. She’d be monopolizing the conversation, she’s in mid-story, and she’d stop. It was uncanny. Because that usually doesn’t happen - people just keep talking. I’m changing tapes and she’d wait until I got the camera up again. She was pretty plugged in to what was going on, even though she would never admit it.
**JERRY:** You can see those moments, even when she is experiencing or expressing symptoms of this disorder, she has one eye on the camera. It’s this ability of people experiencing this syndrome to be of two minds simultaneously.
**GORDON:** What seems to have happened with that generation of childhood survivors is that they never had a chance to heal. They’re displaced persons, they’re in a refugee camp, they’re on a boat coming to America, and they get off the boat and it’s like, for Howard’s mother, she’s still just trying to survive. She’s perpetually in survival mode. She never really had a chance to deal with the trauma in any other kind of way. And that’s why we also looked to include a situation in the film where children have been traumatized today, and what professionals have been doing to help them to work through it, so that they will be more “whole” as they move forward in life, an opportunity Sonia never received.
You’ve tied together powerful stories of trauma and survival in the film. The scenes you just referenced, with the young students in New Orleans sharing their experiences of Katrina with the social workers, are particularly moving. Could you talk a little more about how they come to be a part of Prisoner of Her Past?
**GORDON:** We were looking for something contemporary to give the film context. We were able to put Howard in touch with these social workers and psychiatrists because he was already in New Orleans writing a story about the destruction of Jazz in the aftermath of Katrina. At a fundraiser for the film, somebody raised the point, “Well these kids in Katrina, it’s not like the Holocaust because they’re victims of a natural disaster.” And clearly there is a difference, if you’re a victim of a natural disaster and if you’re a victim of someone coming after you because of your ethnicity. But Howard immediately came right back and said, “It is about race.” That is one of the things that people in New Orleans have suffered from. OK this was a natural disaster, but why was it so bad? Why were they abandoned? Why were they left on bridges and why was there so little help?
**JERRY:** Because they were black and they were poor and they didn’t count. It was a government disaster as well as a natural disaster.
**GORDON:** And in fact, it really doesn’t matter when you’re a child why the trauma happening. You’re not the one who’s going to put the situation in its larger social, political, economic context.
What surprises you most about the film?
**GORDON:** I think the thing that probably surprises both of us is that we're doing a film that deals with the Holocaust. Because I think over the years, we thought, we'll never do that. That's a cliche.
**JERRY:** We thought, everyone has done it. We don't have to do it.
But Prisoner of Her Past tells a different kind of story. How?
**GORDON:** I think that’s where we started. We're starting where Howard started…here's this woman who is suddenly reliving these horrific childhood experiences. We’re looking at how something like these tragedies, which are happening all the time in the world today, just mark people through their entire lives.
**JERRY:** The element of the mother-son relationship is very important. Also, the element of Howard discovering a friendship with his cousin, a very deep, respecting friendship with a cousin that he never knew. You really get a sense of the cultural effects of this kind of trauma, families being torn apart and cultures being exchanged and warped and not acknowledged because of different kinds of prejudices, oppression and conflict. The other thing that brings us real close to this story is our affinity for and shared values with Howard. Howard is a writer. Howard is a storyteller. That's what we do. We’re storytellers.
**GORDON:** And Howard is someone who can't let it go until he's figured he's gone as deep as he can go and found out as much as he can. And that attracts us, too. Here's this guy that's just, “I can't sweep it under the rug. I've got to know.”
Prisoner of Her Past is scheduled for completion in winter of 2008. To find out more visit the documentary’s official website. Click here to read Howard Reich’s original 2003 Chicago Tribune article. Howard has also written a riveting memoir on his experiences, The First and Final Nightmare of Sonia Reich.
Sign up for the Kartemquin newsletter
Get film updates and special deals
With a noted tradition of nurturing emerging talent and acting as a leading voice for independent media, Kartemquin is building on more than 50 years of history as Chicago’s documentary powerhouse.
Kartemquin is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization. Guidestar
© 2018 Kartemquin Educational Films
Sign up for the Kartemquin newsletter
Get film updates and special deals