An important challenge for 21st-century documentary filmmakers is connecting the distant history of the Holocaust to today, and making it relevant for younger audiences.
More often than not, it’s the children and grandchildren of survivors, rescuers, and perpetrators who supply the necessary link between the past and the present.
In her riveting, revelatory, and profound Besa: The Promise, director Rachel Goslins depicts an Albanian man’s extraordinary efforts to fulfill the vow his late father made to the Jewish couple he hid during the war. This marvelously crafted film, with a fine score by Philip Glass, simultaneously honors the broader efforts of the entire population to protect its Jews from the Nazis.
These days, Albania is looked down upon as the most broke, backward province in Europe, but the country deserves a better rep. Immediately before Mussolini’s troops invaded and drove him into exile, King Zog granted citizenship to every Jew in Albania.
Following their beloved king’s lead, and in keeping with their highly developed code of honor, or “besa,” the populace assumed the responsibility of sheltering its Jews. Some 70 percent of the Albanians who saved Jews were Muslim, and Besa is intended in part as a rebuke of the conventional wisdom that Muslims and Jews are natural and eternal enemies.
Admittedly, Albania is a small country and we’re not talking large numbers of Jews, but every life and every act of conscience counts. That’s the attitude of Norman Gershman, a tireless American who embarked a decade ago on a campaign to find, photograph, and extol the Albanians who aided Jews.
Besa artfully weaves the historical overview and the aging Gershman’s solo crusade with the fascinating, nearly unbelievable persistence of an unassuming toy seller named Rexhep Hoxha. Born in 1950, he grew up listening to his father’s story of hiding a Bulgarian Jewish couple and infant during the war.
When the Abadjens fled, they left three prayer books — treasured family items that would have betrayed their Jewishness if they were stopped en route — in their benefactor’s care. He promised to return them after the war, but to his dismay he was never able to locate the family nor did they or their children ever show up to reclaim them. After his death, Rexhep inherited the artifacts.
What gives the film its tension is the mysterious behavior of the Jews, whose inexplicable failure to seek out and thank their rescuers after the war (of greater importance, arguably, than recovering their property) contrasts with Rexhep Hoxha’s unwavering, Internet-aided persistence.
The trail eventually leads to Israel, where we watch apprehensively to see if the people of the book will be embarrassingly and insultingly cavalier about Rexhep’s remarkable commitment to return their precious books, or if they will match the singular character of the Albanian (and his son) we’ve come to admire.
Goslins, a lawyer turned filmmaker who graduated from UC Santa Cruz and is married to Federal Communications Commission chair Julius Genachowski, has made a terrific, galvanizing film. One wishes, though, that she hadn’t gone all “Ken Burns” with slow zooms in on Gershman’s mesmerizing black-and-white portraits, and had the faith in her audience to allow us to absorb the quiet power and beauty of his compositions.
That’s the smallest of quibbles for a rare film that lets us spend an hour and a half awed by the best qualities of human beings, and inspires us to manifest our own.
Besa: The Promise closes the New Jersey Jewish Film Festival on Sunday, April 6.