His leather jacket underscoring a full-growth white beard and tzitzit, 75-year-old Lupu Gutman is much like his films, where tradition is refracted through the modernity of the camera lens.
Gutman is now distributing copies of his haunting documentary, "Monuments of Soap," to all the branches of the Los Angeles Public Library. The film is a tour through the remnants of post-Holocaust European graveyards, examining the monuments that were erected to mark the burial of the soap that was made of Jewish flesh.
Gutman has been making films for almost 50 years, and today, he edits his documentaries in a corner of his one-room Pico-Robertson apartment. Though a veteran filmmaker, documentary cinema is a relatively new venture for him, having begun work in this genre only after he moved to America in 1986.
After surviving the Holocaust, Gutman became a star of the Romanian film industry, writing and directing features for the communist government. However, he grew "sick and tired of the stupid and false propaganda" that he was required to create, he told The Journal, and knew that if he remained in Romania, he would not survive. So he came to America, and took advantage of the freedom offered to make cinema véritas, and to use his films to educate and inspire others about Jewish history and traditions.
"My target [audience] is teenagers" Gutman says. "I can’t convince anti-Semites not to be anti-Semites — that is stupid. But the kids who go to libraries — they should know."
Gutman’s creative efforts are aimed at saving the memory of lost communities. He recently returned from Romania, where he began a project filming the last 74 synagogues remaining in the country. He is looking to raise funds that will enable him to travel to Romania to complete the project, so that the treasures of this once proud and vibrant community will not be lost in the decaying urban sprawl.
"In Romania, before the war, there were over 400 synagogues," he explains. "Now there are no more Jews in these places, and they are turning the synagogues into garages. I know how beautiful the synagogues are — and I thought that I needed to capture their image professionally, so that, in a manner of speaking, they can be saved."
Gutman, whose apartment holds his small collection of European relics, such as a yellow star, and a piece of Torah scroll parchment that he salvaged after it had been made into a lampshade, is primarily focused on the preservation of the past.
"I am not interested in business" he says. "What I have is enough for me."
For more information on Lupu Gutman and his films, call (310) 271-6887. To see "Monuments of Soap," contact the history department at your local branch of the Los Angeles Public Library.