Helen Sjoholm and Jonatan S. Wächter in "Simon and the Oaks." (The Film Arcade )
The meaning of identity is a subject close to the heart of the directors of two new foreign-language dramas that explore the consequences of the loss of individuality — Sweden's "Simon and the Oaks," which just opened, and France's "The Other Son," which will be released in Los Angeles on Friday. Both movies deal with issues of religious and national identities, and both come directly out of the personal experiences of the two female filmmakers.
The award-winning "Simon and the Oaks," based on the Swedish bestseller by Marianne Fredriksson that spans 1939-52, stars Bill Skarsgard (actor Stellan's younger son) as Simon, a young man from a working class family who has felt out of place living in the outskirts of a town. His parents have long held a secret from Simon, and at the end of World War II they tell him that they are not his mother and father. His real mother is his unstable aunt, and his father was a German Jewish music teacher.
Though he understands the reasons why, Simon can't hide the anger he feels that his parents kept the secret from him for so many years.
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"Simon's" writer-director, Lisa Ohlin, noted that his parents lied to protect him because during World War II the Swedish were collecting the names of everybody who had Jewish blood in case the Nazis invaded the country. But she believes they also lied for selfish reasons. "When you don't tell the truth — at first you do it to protect the child, but at a certain point, you are protecting yourself from unwanted questions. You are afraid if you tell the truth your child won't love you as much."
"The Other Son," written and directed by Lorraine Levy, concerns two 18-year-old boys — one Israeli, the other Palestinian — who learn they were accidentally switched at birth. Both boys were born in a hospital evacuated during a Scud missile attack during the Gulf War. In the confusion, the newborns were accidentally returned to the wrong parents.
The film, shot in Israel and the West Bank, explores the ramifications of this knowledge not only with the boys but also their parents and siblings. The boys become fast friends, but the sets of parents have a difficult, often angry, time dealing with the knowledge.
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"It is not a real story, but it could have been because during the Gulf War in 1991 there were some babies who were born during the Scud missile attacks," said Levy by phone from Paris speaking with a translator.
"There were a lot of hospital evacuations that took place, and I could imagine they were in great disorder. We have testimony of people who were babies at the time who believe in fact they were given back to the wrong parents. I thought this would offer me the opportunity to explore some of those themes such as what is identity? What is the other?"
Both female directors have had questions about identity since childhood. That's why Ohlin felt a real kinship when she read the novel "Simon and the Oaks." "It reminded me so much of my situation," she said.
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Her Jewish mother and her family left Germany after World War II and moved to America. Ohlin and her older brother were born in New York City. But their Swedish-born father left the U.S. and returned home after he divorced their mother.
Ohlin, who was just 5 when her mother died, felt immediately out of place when she and her brother moved to Sweden to live with their father."I wasn't blond or blue-eyed for instance. I felt different emotionally. I knew I was different somehow."
But her father never told her or her brother they were Jewish. Her brother learned the fact after attending the funeral of their grandmother when Ohlin was 14. "But I didn't realize the ramifications," she said. That all changed two years later when her father's job took them back to her hometown of New York City.
"I started asking my father what is the story here and he told me very reluctantly," Ohlin recalled. "I met my relatives, and they were extremely reluctant to tell their past history. People of that generation just decided what you don't know wouldn't hurt you. They didn't realize that you don't really know who you are until you find out where you come from."
Identity permeates all the films Levy has written or directed. From an early age, "I had some questions about me and who I was within the family. I felt a sense of being cut off from a large portion of the family because my paternal grandparents had died in concentration camps during the Holocaust and a large part of the family no longer existed."
So one day she asked her father if he remembered the color of her grandmother's eyes. "My father had red hair and blue eyes, my uncle had black hair and brown eyes, and my aunt had blond hair and green eyes. My father looked at me and I could see he took some time to respond. He said he could no longer remember what the color of his mother's eyes had been."
Levy recalled the following day at breakfast "my mother said your father didn't sleep last night because he didn't remember what color his mother's eyes were. My father was only 15 when his mother had died. This was something very upsetting for him and very upsetting for me too. Which is why I am interested in questioning the concept of identity and what it means."
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