Puppets & Film: An Interview with Ilya Tovbis

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Puppeteer Michael Meschke’s life and work are the focus of the recent documentary The Man Who Made Angels Fly (2013), which will be in DC this weekend as part of the 2014 Washington Jewish Film Festival.  Patricia Germann, Wit’s End’s Managing Director, caught up with Festival Director Ilya Tovbis to learn more about the film and its selection for the festival.

Patricia Germann: What led you to select this film for the festival?

Ilya Tovbis: The base qualifier to be in the festival is purely quality and diversity of vision.  So on that characteristic it really stood out.  I think it’s a tremendous documentary, and a unique one at that.  It’s done without almost any interviews, and very little sound that’s not coming directly from what’s happening.  A lot of the film is just the puppeteering happening on stage, and you’re meant to gather that the weighty subjects being discussed, or the Greek tragedies, or the philosophy that’s on stage… You gather what importance they are to Michael Meschke himself.  At times he and his wife talk, but it’s kind of a prime example of the “show, don’t tell” mentality and of a documentary where – especially for me, who’s not a subject matter in puppeteers or the craft – it allowed me to understand it from a very human perspective, and that was immediately attracting.  I think the cinematography is tremendous, the use of light and air, and just space and the pacing of the whole documentary is absolutely fabulous.

PG: It really did come across in the trailer that the puppetry and the puppets support the storytelling aspect of the film.

IT: More so than that, they’re really the prime characters, and I think the reason he agreed to be on film was that he’d be allowed to sort of speak through them and speak through his art more than one-to-one with a moderator before the camera.

PG: You mentioned that you’re coming from a background that is not in puppetry, and I’m wondering what in particular non-puppeteers would get out of this film.

IT: For me, it piqued my interest in puppetry and is something that I hope to look into more post-festival.

PG: That’s wonderful to hear!

IT: A lot of what I saw on screen I would love to see in person, and I just had never considered going to such a show.  So in terms of piquing interest, it’s amazing. Also, his life is a fascinating account.  It’s certainly not exclusive to him, but it is a pretty unique story in that he grew up thinking that he was Christian.  He had some nominal notion of his past and heritage, but he actually found out that he was Jewish as he was being set upon by a mob of people.  He and his mom hid in a church, and he asked her, “Why are these people after us?” and she said, “Well, you happen to be Jewish.” And that’s informed a lot of his artwork.  From a Jewish Film Festival perspective, that’s a tremendous story of finding one’s identity and doing with it something unique. I think that’s why he does the puppetry and why he takes on the stories that he does.  A lot of these stories are grand myths, and it’s evil fighting good, and it’s getting at the root of what humans are and what our universal struggles are.  I think that’s clearly rooted in his personal history.

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Michael Meschke, puppeteer.

PG: Is there anything else that you wanted to share about this film, or that you think would be of particular interest to the puppetry community?

IT: One thing that’s important for us about this film within the context of the festival is that it’s part of our spotlight on Polish cinema and where that particularly intersects with his stories – Again, this notion of finding out you’re Jewish a little bit later on.  That was quite common in Poland, which is just beginning to grapple with its Jewish history, and it’s become a real topic of conversation recently.  You’re seeing that again in cinema, and a lot of that is about the ‘hidden’ identity and people discovering that they’re Jewish and that their family hid it from them as a means of perseverance and moving forward.  So from that standpoint, it’s in a larger framework of films, but it also is very unique and set apart from the other ones that we have like Mamele and Ida and Aftermath, that all make up that Polish focus.

PG: I’m remembering now from the description that there are a number of different countries credited in the production of this film.

IT: Yes, so it’s a co-production: the filmmaker is Polish and quite a number of the crew are Polish, and also the UK and France – the subject lived there [in France] for a while and much of it happens there.  When you have a number of countries credited, it means that considerable funding or cast/crew (in this case crew, since there isn’t really a cast, being a documentary film) come from those countries, and as film has been globalizing, you notice more and more that those list are getting longer.  It used to be a huge deal if 2 countries collaborated on a film, but it’s becoming increasingly common as the borders come down.

The Man Who Made Angels Fly screens March 1-2 as part of the 2014 Washington Jewish Film Festival. Tickets $12 each. Learn more at www.wjff.org.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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