Recently at the Summit film society, we had the pleasure of interviewing Serena Dykman, a precocious 24-year-old filmmaker. With her, we discussed her latest filming endeavor: a Holocaust documentary entitled NANA. Nana honors the legacy of Maryla Michalowski-Dyamant, an Auschwitz survivor, while also serving to bring about further Holocaust awareness in its chilling recollections from Maryla herself. From the title of the film, you might have guessed that Serena is the granddaughter of this rather eminent survivor.
“Reading my grandmother’s book when I was 22 triggered making the film. I wanted to continue the work she started.” Before then, Serena had refrained from learning deeply of Maryla’s past, intimidated by her incredibly poignant tale of adversity. That being said, Serena remarked that for her mother, Alice Michalowski, “it was a thousand times harder than it was for me.” Nevertheless, they both threw themselves into the making of Maryla’s documentary, and Serena was shooting within three weeks of finishing the book.
The two retreated to countries such as Germany, Austria, Belgium, and France where Maryla lived through the Holocaust and strove to keep its memory alive after World War II. There, they went about contacting Maryla’s post-war colleagues and trying to give the audience, and themselves, some perspective as to what her life was like. Between clips of Maryla’s archival footage and very evocative moments of B-roll, Serena and Alice pull the audience in asides to read excerpts from Maryla’s memoir. These scenes have quite a powerful effect on the viewer. Serena explained that they were employed to bring her grandmother’s story to life, to make it seem more real through the film’s transgenerational nature. We suspect that this aspect of Nana may have been part of why it received such acclaim from film festivals like Fargo and Amnesty International.
In addition, Nana is empirically significant as it showcases Maryla’s suffering and triumph of will so thoroughly. We see this through her archival footage as she describes her agonizing experience as a translator for Dr. Mengele at Auschwitz, amongst other things, and also in interviews with Holocaust scholars she had worked with. Maryla’s hopes for a more tolerant world and her efforts in Holocaust education were expressed to a profound effect by both her and her colleagues.
Serena’s sentiments of her grandmother touch us as well, both within the film and in reflection of it. When asked about her thoughts on Maryla’s immense strength in returning to Auschwitz for archival purposes, she told us that “As painful as it was for her to return to Auschwitz as an educator, it was less painful than to not do it.” Getting to know the anguish and triumph of Maryla helped Serena keep things in perspective, especially as she struggled to finance Nana and prove herself as a young filmmaker in the industry. Her touch and artistry in this gripping Holocaust documentary plays into its inspirational message and essence of remembrance, urging us to show it at the Film Society our first weekend of the fall season on September 9. We encourage you to come see this film of Maryla Michalowski-Dyamant, who would “make you laugh and cry within the same minute” through her personal hand in Holocaust education.
A graduate of NYU Tisch School of the Arts in Film, Serena grew up in Brussels, Belgium and now lives in New York City. Nana is Serena’s first documentary and her first feature film, quite an accomplishment for anyone considering the number of awards and recognition she has already received. Previously, she directed three dramatic shorts and would like her next film to be a romantic comedy.