by Annette Hinkle
Identity is something most people take for granted, with tales of family history, vocations and belief systems typically passed from one generation to the next as naturally as heirlooms and old photographs.
But for Sag Harbor filmmaker Kenny Mann, the issue of identity is a bit more complicated.
Mann grew up in Kenya, the daughter of European Jewish immigrants who left home and family in the late 1930s to escape Hitler’s advances. In their newly adopted country on an unknown continent, Mann’s parents were neither particularly religious nor candid about what they had left behind. Instead, they forged a new life in Africa in an era of growing independence and forward thinking ideals formed just as the British colonial system was nearing its end.
“We were Jewish but very secular,” explains Mann. “More than anything my parents were socialists. That fits well in to the African paradigm. They arrived and looked like they belonged there.”
While the freedom of growing up in Africa was exhilarating, for Mann, it was also confusing and questions about her murky past have haunted her for years.
“We don’t have relatives — not the usual aunts and uncles and cousins — and I grew up in a vacuum,” says Mann. “My parents didn’t want to talk because they suffered and there was still anti-Semitism when they arrived in Kenya.”
The issue of identity is one that Mann tackles head on in “Beautiful Tree, Severed Root,” her new documentary-in-progress. Mann has edited 40 minutes of what will ultimately be an hour and a half feature and on Sunday, she offers a sneak preview of the film at Bay Street Theatre as a fundraising event to raise money for the film’s completion.
Through the use of photographs, archival footage, personal correspondence and recorded conversations made prior to her parents’ deaths, Mann has pieced together a narrative of her family’s past. Though the subject matter of the film extremely personal, Mann feels the message it offers about identity will be appreciated by a wider audience in these days of displacement and mobility.
“The film is really a tapestry of sound and image,” she explains. “It’s structured in five chapters, like a book. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end, but it moves through time in different ways.”
“I struggled for a long time to decide what the story was,” adds Mann. “To have it be just a memoir is not meaningful. The struggle has been to give the film a more universal umbrella, especially today when people are displaced for political and environmental reasons. How do we deal with that? Is personal identity important any more? Do we need it or is digital communication breaking down personal, political and national identity?”
Mann explains that her own family’s story began with her parents’ arrival in Africa just prior to the start of World War II. Mann’s mother, Erica, grew up in Bucharest, Romania while her father, Igor, came from Przemsyl, a small town in Poland.
“When Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, my father walked barefoot out of the country with a stream of refugees,” explains Mann.
Igor arrived in Bucharest where he met Erica and the two fell in love.
“He was 32, she was 22,” notes Mann who adds that her father, a veterinarian, opened a clinic in Bucharest with plans to settle there.
“At the time they thought Bucharest would be safe,” says Mann. “He had many clients who brought their dogs and cats to him. One was an ambassador who warned him they had to get out.”
After securing false documents, the couple managed to flee Romania by crossing the Danube in a small fishing boat.
“A Jewish friend had given my mother a small suitcase with silver cutlery to get it out of the country,” says Mann. “The fisherwoman would not row them over to the other side of the river until my mom explained the use of every utensil in the case.”
Mann’s parents became part of a trail of European refugees heading toward Istanbul and on to Israel, where they lived in a refugee camp for a year until they could find a permanent home. Because he was educated, Mann’s father was an asset to the British colonies and he first secured a position in a remote part of Rhodesia. He then managed to find work in Kenya, and eventually became a meat inspector in Nairobi.
“Our house was in the center of town when I was growing up, and it was like a salon, very intellectual,” says Mann.
And although they had been largely accepted in their new country, Mann recalls that her parents did not exactly blend in seamlessly with either the British colonials (who were still anti-Semitic) or native Kenyans (who were only invited to socialize with her parents if they were educated).
Kenyan independence, which came when Mann was 17, compounded her feelings of isolation. Though Mann’s family supported it, life changed drastically when independence arrived and all of Mann’s friends left for England, South Africa or Australia leaving her with more questions about where she fit in.
That, ultimately, is what “Beautiful Tree, Severed Roots” is all about.
“The film addresses the eternal question – how do you find yourself?” says Mann. “It’s about identity. Being white in black country, Eastern European in a British colony, Jewish but not Jewish.”
“I realized that even though there’s a huge vacuum in my life, I enjoy a huge freedom,” she adds. “I can be whoever I want to be.”
The fundraiser for “Beautiful Tree, Severed Roots” is Sunday, December 4, 2011 from 2 to 5 p.m. at Bay Street Theatre, Sag Harbor. Doors open at 1:15 p.m. Mann has invited Maasai dancers from the Association of Maasai Abroad based in Washington, D.C. to perform and take part in a conversation on identity after the film. A reception follows in the lobby. Tickets are $20 at the door. For more information, call (646) 479-5884.
Top: Kenny Mann (center, in overalls), with her sister, brother, and Maasai neighbors.