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A Filmmaker Recounts Her Family's Time of Terror

Film * Graduate thesis project, which tells a story of people persecuted for their identities, was nominated for an Oscar.

July 10, 2001|BILL DESOWITZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Few student films are as polished or as profound as "One Day Crossing," the Holocaust drama of a Jewish woman in Hungary who poses as a Christian to protect her family. That is probably why it earned an Oscar nomination this year for best live-action short. Yet in 1999 when Joan Stein began directing "One Day Crossing" on location in Budapest--the home of her parents, grandparents and aunt and uncle--she had no idea that this graduate thesis project from Columbia University would garner so much international acclaim, let alone bring her closer to the Holocaust survivors in her family.

Stein's powerful debut film screens Wednesday at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood as part of the American Cinematheque's "Oscar Shorts" program (in association with Apollo Cinema). Seven of the eight Oscar winners and nominees in the live-action and animation categories will be screened, including Florian Gallenberger's "Quiero Ser," the live-action winner.

Stein said that before making her film she had long been "haunted by the story of my uncle." A New Jersey native, Stein spoke by phone from the offices of Madstone Films in New York, where she is currently working on her first feature. "It would come out in bits and pieces as I was growing up, how Lajos, in 1944, at the age of 8, living in an orphanage, was rounded up by the Arrow Cross [the Hungarian version of the SS]. My grandmother tried to save him but couldn't."

Evidently, the roundup turned into chaos with an explosion of Russian bombs, and her uncle tried to make a run for it with another boy. They thought they were safe in a doorway of a nearby apartment building, but the superintendent turned them in to the Arrow Cross. The boys were herded along with the other Jews to the banks of the Danube River. All of them were shot to death, except the other boy, who jumped into the river and survived by dodging the bullets.

Stein, who had lived and worked in Budapest in the early '90s while earning her MBA as a management consultant, was not only drawn to Columbia's film school but compelled to make her first film about her uncle's tragedy. (Both of her parents survived the Holocaust, along with her grandmother and aunt. Her father, a member of the underground, escaped from a forced labor camp; a Jew disguised in an Arrow Cross uniform saved her grandmother.)

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Stein interviewed family members on video and did months of research before tackling the script, but then decided to enlist the help of a screenwriter, Christina Lazaridi, a fellow graduate student at Columbia. Lazaridi, a Greek who shared Stein's political and storytelling passions, and who had scripted her own World War II film about her homeland, persuaded her to fictionalize the story to provide a greater sense of drama.

"It was a fortuitous pairing through our professors," Lazaridi conveyed by phone from New York.

The 25-minute black-and-white film takes place on Oct. 15, 1944, when the Hungarian government surrendered to the Allies and the Arrow Cross mounted a coup. Teresa (played by Hungarian actress Erika Marozsan) shelters her young son indoors and abandons their Jewish heritage. When her heroic husband rescues a Jewish boy from a roundup and brings him home, Teresa is forced to confront painful issues of identity, sacrifice and survival. The boys, meanwhile, strike up a friendship, putting additional pressure on Teresa, especially when her son realizes she has been lying to him.

Originally, the script was written in English, but during rehearsals Stein realized it needed to be translated into Hungarian to achieve greater authenticity. In Budapest, she received full cooperation: hiring local actors, crew and schoolchildren. Lazaridi, meanwhile, came up with the title "One Day Crossing" to convey Teresa's emotional transition, as well as the 24-hour turmoil going on around her. Many of the film's details have a documentary realism, such as the way Jews avoid bomb shelters for fear of being turned in, or the system of forging identity papers. Stein has her family to thank for that.

"I was afraid to show my family the film," she confided. "I was nervous about their response. But during the first big screening, my mother cried and grabbed my shoulder. Afterward, we cried and laughed as we walked out. My aunt was shocked by the weight of it. My cousin said it was great that we have a film of our family for posterity. It's been so redemptive and so rewarding that it has played in so many places."

Since the Academy Awards in March, Stein has been collaborating again with Lazaridi, this time on a feature-length script on a familiar theme: reconciling the past with one's family. The as yet untitled film concerns a 19-year-old girl who learns about her family's identity when she journeys to Hungary to bury her mother.

"It's not like I'm obsessed with this subject," Stein said, "but it's something that still weighs heavily on my mind, the idea of reconciliation and progeny. You might as well mine what you know."

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The indie film will be produced and distributed by Madstone Films; Stein and two other filmmakers are currently being subsidized through Madstone's director's program. Madstone has also picked up distribution rights to "One Day Crossing," which has been blown up to 35-millimeter and will be playing in select theaters.

"'In the last year, it seems there has been renewed interest in short films, and I'm glad mine will be shown in theaters," Stein said. "That's where it was meant to be seen, and that's where it can have its greatest impact."

* American Cinematheque and Apollo Cinema Present 2001 Oscar-nominated shorts (Lloyd E. Rigler Theatre at the Egyptian, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, 7:30 p.m. (323) 466-FILM.

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