“You are surrounded. Everything looks like a film set,” observes Anya Lewin, a UK-based American artist and film-maker on growing up in Los Angeles.
“You encounter films all the time as a child, so inevitably I loved film and always wanted to make them.”
The LA-born artist, 50, spoke to Jewish News about immigration, the cities her family came to inhabit and her trilogy of films which are being screened at the John Hansard Gallery until 4 May.
Realised intermittently over the course of 12 years, the three films capture the Lewins’ haunted memories of Berlin, Cairo and the Sunset Strip in LA, where they came to live.
The deeply personal, sometimes unreliable stories passed down from her family are front and centre in Lewin’s imaginative retelling of her family’s trajectories across generations.
“My dad had a problem being in the present and constantly told stories,” says Anya , who also works as a university art professor.
“That’s common with families who emigrated unless it’s so traumatic that people do not want to speak about it.
“The films are also very much about the instability of stories we are told from one generation to the next and how you lose information and have to build it back.
“As a film-maker, I work as a detective, but I also let my imagination inspire me.”
The first film, With Heartfelt Gratitude for the Painless Treatment, is set in the Berlin dental practice of her grandfather, Dr Ignatz Lewin, before the Jewish Polish dentist fled to the US in 1938, soon after Kristallnacht.
Lewin says she was shocked to discover the address of the practice in Berlin among the names listed in a Jewish phone book dating from 1929, kept at the Wiener Library archive in London.
“To find it in an archive was a strange validation,” she says. “I had no idea there were Jewish phone books and when I realised the listings still exist, there was a sense of shock.”
“It was horrifying, but also it was kind of amazing listing dental practices. You have all this private stuff but it’s a published archive, saying ‘here was a dentist. He was living in Berlin’.”
The second film, Chez Paulette on the Sunset Strip, is set in the family cake shop her father, Max, took over in 1958 and converted into ‘Chez Paulette’.
The hip coffee house became a Hollywood bohemian hangout for the likes of Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando and MASH star Sally Kellerman.
“I had always heard that Marlon Brando had saved Chez Paulette from going under. But when I went to the Warner Brother archive, I found a gossip column that could explain that.
“He would go and my dad would say it wasn’t doing very well and had to close. [Brando] said, ‘No don’t do that’, and came every night.”
The third film is set between 1926 and 1928 in the family perfume shop in Cairo that belonged to her family, where Lewin’s grandmother invented a scent that was presented in a bottle in the shape of the Fez hat.
“I like to tell stories and these are the ones that were in my head,” she said.
On her Jewish identity, Lewin says: “I have quite a few memories of celebrating Passover as a child and I have been thinking more deeply about my Jewish identity since I moved to the UK.
“Maybe I have thought about it more here because it feels so other”, she explains. “It’s quite different to the US. People’s identities are very separate if you are English and Jewish.”
What would she like people to take away from her films? “I hope they gain a sense
of immigration and the complexities of seeking refuge,” she says.