Two documentaries and a drama on tap on Martha’s Vineyard screens

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“Nicky’s Family”: A Holocaust story almost lost

It is rarely possible to append the word “uplifting” to a film about the Holocaust. “Schindler’s List” and “Life is Beautiful” come to mind. In fact, “Nicky’s Family” is a documentary about the man dubbed (literally, he’s been knighted) the “English Schindler.” His life story, told in this documentary, is not to be missed.

In 1938, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain waved a piece of paper to English citizens as evidence of appeasement with Hitler. This Munich Agreement acquiesced to the loss of a chunk of Czechoslovakia – the Sudetenland – to Germany. That year a young London stock broker abandoned a ski vacation in Switzerland when a friend called from Prague and told him of the effects of the occupation.

Nicholas Winton’s visit to refugee camps started a ball rolling that has had repercussions for thousands of people right through present times. He began a letter-writing campaign to world leaders without success, except that as word of his efforts spread, more Czech parents began bringing their children to his hotel and exhorting him to help spare them. Of course the Germans got wind of all this and introduced Winton to a beautiful spy to keep an eye on things.

Relying on archival footage as well as re-enacted scenes (effectively shot in faded tones to match the era), the film is aswirl in torn emotions as parents – prohibited from leaving – yield their children’s futures to strangers willing to adopt them in England. The children are often too young to understand and Winton’s task grows monumental as the oppression and desperation ratchet up.

In then end, he and others were able to place nearly 700 children with families. All of this nearly never came to light. A chance discovery by Winton’s wife of a scrapbook in their attic 40 years after the war – it is part of the Winton’s charm how modest he feels his efforts were – opened the pages of these lives saved. Here are dusty snapshots, train tickets, forms, letters, etc., which now come alive kaleidoscopically.

Many of the rescued children (about one-third are presently accounted for) are able to give first-person accounts of what it was like to join a new family, unable to speak the language, and to learn from letters of the concentration camps that were taking their relatives. And for many children, the homeland fear followed them: the Blitz was a months-long bombing of Great Britain, killing 40,000.

But in some ways, the expatriation of the children is where the film really begins because for this 102-year-old, the “family album” unfolds in ways Winton could never have imagined.

After the scrapbook is found and the buzz builds, he is reunited with many of the rescued children, who as adults relate to him how what he did wove an important thread through their lives: “repaying the debt” to others.

Often this “repayment” is toward other starving or oppressed children in the world and indeed the adults’ philosophy continues down through their own children and those of others. In an epiphanically heartwarming scene, Winton, with hundreds of young adults who are prompted by the moderator to show him “a good deed you’ve done,” gets to see in the darkened auditorium a waving field of cell phones lighted with photos of those deeds. It goes in our scrapbooks.

Summer Institute Film Series presents “Nicky’s Family,” 7:30 p.m., Sunday, July 1, M.V. Hebrew Center, Vineyard Haven.

“Under African Skies”: Back to “Graceland”

The documentary “Under African Skies,” chronicling the return of Paul Simon to South Africa for a reunion concert celebrating the release of “Graceland” 25 years earlier, will be part of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival ninth annual Summer Film Series. Also at the July 2 screening at Chilmark Community Center will be director Joe Berlinger for a Q&A session afterward.

Simon’s album was a huge commercial and critical success but not without backlash. Recorded in South Africa during that country’s apartheid, Simon was accused of breaking the United Nation’s cultural boycott and faced protests.

When challenged by a South African black as to why “you came to this country,” Simon says simply, “I was invited here by black musicians.” And indeed the music carried everyone beyond the politics.

Beetlebung Farm and The Scottish Bakehouse will be providing food, and live music will be by Dana Edelman. Dinner and music start at 7 pm; the film at 8. Tickets available at tmvff.org.

“Footnote”: Father and son go I-to-I

Eliezer and Uriel Shkolnik are both eccentric professors who have dedicated their lives to their work in Talmudic studies.

The father, Eliezer, is a stubborn purist who fears the establishment and has never been recognized for his work. His son, Uriel, is an up-and-coming star in the field who appears to feed on accolades, endlessly seeking recognition.

Then one day the tables turn. When Eliezer learns that he is to be awarded the Israel Prize, the most valuable honor for scholarship in the country, his vanity and desperate need for validation are exposed. His son Uriel, meanwhile, is thrilled to see his father’s achievements finally recognized but, in a darkly funny twist, is forced to choose between the advancement of his own career and his father’s. Will he sabotage his father’s glory? Directed by Joseph Cedar.

“Footnote” will be shown at the Capawock Theatre in Vineyard Haven at 4:30 pm on Thursday, June 28, hosted by the M.V. Film Society and the Capawock.