A new documentary with the unlikely title “Blinky and Me” may be the best answer yet to the thorny question of how to teach younger children about the Holocaust. The film focuses on the life of Yoram Gross, a prominent director of animated films, first in Israel then in Australia, where he lives and works today. When he was a boy, the Nazi invasion sent his well-to-do family into hiding, dispersing his parents and siblings from Krakow to Russia and the four corners of occupied Poland.
This is a typical enough scenario and, while Gross tells his story with considerable elan, his fame in Australia is probably the main reason director Tomasz Magierski gave him a cinematic podium to do so. But Magierski, in collaboration with Gross and three generations of his family — wife, children and grandchildren — gives us something different and quite smart, a child’s-eye view of a child’s life.
The film opens with a verdant panorama of an organic farm owned by Gross’ daughter and son-in-law and immediately introduces us to his tweener grandkids, Nakisha and Sabine Jamieson, who speak with enthusiasm about farm life, while Oscar, Sophie and Sasha Gross lead a somewhat more conventionally urban existence. After slowly taking us into the grandchildren’s lives and, more importantly, their minds, we meet Yoram; it is then that the film begins to take us through his story, with the kids providing a surprising amount of the narration.
Therein lies the film’s strength and its charm. On a family trip back to Poland, Yoram and the kids jointly tell the story of his life on the run; the Yoram who was known as Jerzy back then lived a period that roughly covers the ages of the five grandchildren — from Sasha, 6, to Oscar, 15. The film’s storytelling is firmly rooted in the consciousness of the kids and, although they are unusually bright and articulate, the film’s narrative style owes a great deal to their point of view.
Magierski also integrates clips from Gross’ most famous Australian work, the ongoing tale of Blinky Bill, a rambunctious koala bear, whose story is closely based on his creator’s wartime experiences. While the pop-eyed animation style of the Blinky Bill cartoons is rather more sugar-coated than adults may enjoy, the narrative style is a throwback to the best work of the Disney studios, with more than a hint of the tragedies awaiting children when the real world intervenes.
Gross was multiply fortunate. He managed to avoid the camps; several members of his family — including his mother — survived the war, and he seems to be less damaged than many of his cohort. As a result, his story is one that younger children can appreciate without too many nightmares ensuing. And Magierski has found an entirely appropriate and involving way to tell that story to the young. Happily, Gross himself is such an engaging raconteur, that adults will be engaged too.
“Blinky and Me” Opens on Sept. 21 at the Quad Cinema (34 W. 13th St.). For information, call (212) 255-2243, www.quadcinema.com.