New York director and producer, Tyler Gildin, through his media company Gildin Media, released a documentary titled The Starfish, exploring the life story of his grandfather, Herb Gildin. Tyler isn’t new to creating Jewish-related content as his Uber satire Schlep a few years ago explored a ride share service ran by Jewish mothers, but this film is a lot more personal for him.
The Starfish is the story of Herb Gildin, whose parents sent him to live with non-Jewish families in Sweden to escape Nazi persecution at age 10, along with his older sisters Margaret (12) and Cele (14). Their journey was aided by the organization HIAS, were able to facilitate the children’s travel from Sweden across Russia and the Pacific to reunite with their parents in America 2 years later. Herb went on to build a successful business for himself and his family, leaving his childhood very much buried in his past. It took years of questions from his children to finally dig up his story, resulting in one last trip back to Sweden, to try and reunite with the remaining family members who had taken him in 60 years earlier.
The film is now available for download on AppleTV, Prime, Vimeo on Demand, Vudu and Google Play. We had a brief Q & A with Tyler to discuss a bit more about the process of making such a powerful and personal film.
When did you first start working on this documentary?
We began filming in May of 2017. My cousin Alex and I first sat down with my grandpa to interview him, then my grandma to interview her, and then the two of them together. At the time I really didn’t know the extent of the film I wanted to make. It wasn’t until after interviewing them and then taking some time to watch through the footage and process it, that I decided I wanted to pursue this further by then interviewing other members of the family.
What was the biggest challenge in telling such a personal story? Did you get any pushback from members of your family?
I was really fortunate to have full buy-in from everyone in my family. I don’t think anyone knew the extent of the documentary I was looking to make, but they all knew the importance of the story and were very happy to speak in interviews as well as supply me with as many photographs, documents, and old videos that they had. The biggest challenge for me was figuring out what was the exact story I wanted to tell as well as the length of time and visuals I needed in order to tell it. Because the film is about my grandfather, naturally I could watch hours of footage and be enticed, but how could I create a film that I wanted others who were not family members or did not know who my grandfather was, could also really enjoy and connect with. This involved a lot of difficult decision making when it came to trimming, moving around pieces as well as conducting several mini test screenings with trusted friends, colleagues and even some strangers to see what elements of the story was resonating the most with viewers.
You just mentioned the extent of the photographs and home videos that the film had, what was the process of collecting and cataloging all of that?
Yes, I was very lucky to have a ton of assets to work with, but I didn’t necessarily start off with all of them. It took a lot of emails and phone calls with relatives to remind members of my family to send me what they had. In most cases I actually showed up at their homes so I could take a look for myself. A few times, I got the occasional phone call of, “oh yeah, wait – I have some other photos I forgot about, do you want them too?.” And I was always very much like, “yes, please!” Ultimately I got everything I needed, but it took a lot of reminding for them to keep digging!
Were you in contact with HIAS throughout the process of making the film?
Yes, HIAS was extremely helpful in providing important documents as well as some additional archival photos for the piece. Mark Hetfield, the president of the organization was actually at the world premiere at the Miami Jewish Film Festival last year for a panel discussion, and other members of the organization have attended other screenings and Q & A’s. The organization does such fantastic work and I’m still in awe of how they were able to somehow facilitate all of the moving pieces in my grandfather’s story. If it wasn’t for their great work, I don’t think I would be here today. I’m glad the film sheds a bit of light on some of their incredible work.
I understand your grandfather was able to view the film before he passed, what was his opinion on it?
My grandfather was always very supportive of the film and I think mainly because he was always very supportive of me. My grandfather was the type of person who when you would sit and talk with him, he made you feel like you were the most important person in the world, and he could just hone in on everything you had to say, before always offering his words of wisdom. He was always very interested in my career and when I came to him with this, he trusted me that if I thought it was a good enough story, then it was worth pursuing. I naturally kept him up to speed throughout the process, showing him rough cuts as well as having him record occasional audio pickups I needed. He would give some advice on aspects he felt might need to be clearer or should be represented differently, but for the most part, he really trusted me. I think he very much enjoyed the final version and took pride in it. I also think it gave him further closure on things as well. He was also really touched by the amount of people who had seen the film at the several screenings and reached out with kind words. He got to be a bit of a local movie star for a couple of months, which I think was pretty funny for a typically private guy.
How important is it for you to now have this story documented for people to see, but specifically for your children and future generations of family to see?
I think that’s probably one of the coolest things of all of this. My son only got to meet my grandfather once when he was 3 months old, and my daughter who was born late last year, is named after him. I can’t wait for the day when they are old enough to sit down and be able to watch this film and know who their great-grandfather was. What could be cooler than that?
How important do you think it is for grandchildren in general to document their grandparent’s story?
I think at the least, grandkids should always make an effort to call their grandparents weekly. Especially these days when many of them are alone in quarantine. But yes, I do think that in some way, recording their stories is important for your family to have and to cherish for years to come. You don’t have to necessarily make a documentary like I did, but we all walk around with smart phones in our pockets that have the ability to record, even just audio if you only wanted. I think it’s a great family experience and I hope others will continue to do so as there are so many incredible untold stories out there that deserve to be told or at least recorded and kept within the family. For me, to know that I spent the last two years of his life working on a film that honors his legacy, is probably the greatest thing I could have done with that last bit of time I had with him.
What is the main takeaway you hope people have from watching the film?
Well, of course, I want people to appreciate the great man that my grandfather was and to see how much he was able to accomplish in life given the unfortunate circumstances he was put in. But beyond that, it’s a story of perseverance, it’s a story about compassion and generosity and about taking a chance on people. It’s a story about the impact we can have on each other’s lives and the ripple effect one good deed for one person or family can have on generations to come. Not to give too much away, but the Starfish Story parable is really a perfect metaphor for the film and what I hope viewers can take away from it.
Find out where you can watch The Starfish here.