Jewish Journal

Moldovan Jews’ Tragic History in ‘Absent’

When Los Angeles filmmaker Matthew Mishory set about making his 2015 documentary, “Absent,” about the ghost village of Marculesti in Moldova, it was personal.

Mishory’s father and grandparents left Moldova prior to World War II, and the 35-year-old Mishory is the only family member who has ever returned. The documentary explores what became of the once vibrant Jewish mercantile community in Bessarabia (now Molodova), which flourished for more than 100 years.

The  71-minute film begins with Mishory narrating, “On a July day in 1941, nearly a thousand people, the entire population of Marculesti, were shot by the Romanian army. I wanted to find out what the current residents thought about the village’s history.”

The village is now one of Europe’s poorest, most remote and least-visited places.

Mishory titled the film ”Absent” because “ultimately, I thought the village and the film were as evocative for what wasn’t visible as what was. This is my only film without complex camera movements or even music. The silence of the place became the score.”

“On a July day in 1941, nearly a thousand people, the entire population of Marculesti, were shot by the Romanian army. I wanted to find out what the current residents thought about the village’s history.” – Matthew Mishory

By the time the film went into production, Mishory’s father was already quite ill.

“I had the memorable experience of calling [my father], after a day of filming, from the former schoolhouse building in the center of the village, where my grandfather had once been a teacher,” Mishory said. “I think my father was pleased somebody had finally paid tribute in some small way to what it had been but no longer is. It was the settling of a very old account.”

Mishory began filming in the fall of 2013. Heading to Marculesti, he said he was aware of the state of the Jewish cemetery. “I knew it had been abandoned to the overgrowth, so I had a sense that this was a place that had a difficult and tenuous relationship with its history.”

Mishory interviewed residents who said they had no idea of the village’s history, a  historian who adamantly denied the massacre, and a village elder who seemed to have been waiting her whole life to share what happened to the village’s Jews. The film ends with the mayor’s 14-year-old son leading the filmmakers to the location of a mass grave, the site of the massacre.

“You really see the full spectrum [in the film] of denial to acceptance with quite a lot of misinformation and, I would say, willful avoidance in the center of the spectrum,” Mishory said. “And that’s closest to the truth of the place.”

Mishory completed the film in 2015 and “Absent” premiered at the Astra Film Festival in Sibiu, Romania, in October that year.

“In a broader sense, the film isn’t about the past, it’s about the present,” Mishory said. “It’s about how we talk about [what happened] and if there’s something to be gained or lost from that history slowly eroding.”

“Absent” is streaming on Amazon.