For as long as he can remember, documentary filmmaker, Danny Ben-Moshe knew that he had two older half-siblings. It was never a secret in the family home, he says, but he did wonder, in particular, about Andrew, his half brother. As a child he had often imagined playing with him, even though he did not know what he looked like.
“It was just something that was kind of a given,” he explains, speaking on the phone from his Melbourne home. “My sister, [Ira] and I were told: your mother was married previously, you have two half-siblings and their father came along and took them one day. They went to Iran and that’s where they are now.”
That event happened over forty years ago. People would tell him that he “had gold right there,” that his family’s story would make a good film but it would be many years until the time felt right for him to do so. The result is My Mother’s Lost Children in which Ben-Moshe investigates the disappearance of his half-siblings and what becomes overwhelmingly evident is that people are still living with the consequences.
The film, which has its UK premiere next week at UKIJF, is a compelling, moving and at times, surprising saga. What unfolds is an extraordinary journey of discovery that travels across five countries and unravels a complex web of deceit, secrets and lies, rumours and myths.
At the heart of the narrative is Ben-Moshe’s mother, Lillian. “It’s not a pretty story,” she tells him through tears, in one of their initial interviews. She had grown up in the East End, the daughter of Lithuanian immigrants and at 15, married Raymond, an Iranian Jew, several years her senior. After the birth of their two children, Andrew and Michelle, the couple divorced. One day, Raymond took the children out on a trip to the nearby park and they never returned. Andrew was then three and Michelle, two.
Ben-Moshe acknowledges his mother’s courage in agreeing to tell her story. “She’s an amazingly brave person to deal with something like this. It’s unimaginable.” There were several reasons why she chose to participate in the film, he says, but she did waver at the beginning before committing to carry on. “She wanted to do it for me and, interestingly, she did say to me on [numerous] occasions – unfortunately she never said them on camera – that she actually found the process cathartic.”
Cathartic does not mean easy, he adds, and the film does not shy away from showing her obvious distress. For most children, witnessing parental upset is difficult but not for Ben-Moshe. “To be honest, no, not really because I’m used to it. Seeing my mum getting upset is not uncommon. Unfortunately, that’s reality.”
The trauma of losing her children affected Lillian’s mental health and included a period in hospital when Ben-Moshe was a child. Her emotional fragility was something that he always accepted, he says. “When I was growing up, [I thought] that’s what mums are like.”
Lillian’s loss affected her relationship with Ira, Ben-Moshe’s older sister. “When I interviewed Ira, it became clear that this was an important element to the story – the unintended consequences of one person’s actions on one day, [even] for those not yet born. That’s why I pursued it as a storyline and not because I wanted to show that there’s this tension between my mum and sister, who do love each other dearly.”
Throughout the film, family members discuss painful issues with remarkable honesty and candor. “This might seem odd for a normal family but we’re not a run of the mill family,” says Ben-Moshe. “I know families where no voices are ever raised or nobody tells anybody what they feel and they all carry on nicely. In my family, everything is out there and said.”
After Andrew and Michelle went missing, Lillian’s family chose to report their disappearance to the Jewish Board of Guardians and not to the police. It was one of many decisions and differing attitudes that were indicative of the societal and cultural norms of the time, explains Ben-Moshe.
He says he had never fully appreciated the sociological circumstance of the family, who were poor, non-English speaking refugees with, “No man in the house, just my Yiddish speaking bubbe. There’s also this shadow of loss from the Holocaust -[she had lost most of her family] in a godforsaken Lithuanian death pit. Did you just accept loss as part of your lot then? I don’t know.” Nor had he understood Raymond’s cultural perspective. “I can’t accept it but I learnt that from his Iranian Jewish prism, children belong to the father. That’s the beginning and end of it.”
Although the JBG search was an ongoing, active case for some time, he admits that if he feels aggrieved towards anyone, it is to the JBG. “In the sense it was all too hard and, basically, they closed the case.” The thinking was, he says, that because Raymond was later known to be with another woman that maybe she would be a mother for the children. It’s an approach that Ben-Moshe finds particularly baffling.
Despite the difficult nature of its subject matter, the film has received a positive reception from the family. “I would say that everyone is happy with it or appreciates that it’s an honest piece of work,” he says. “And there’s something unifying and healing about telling the story, letting the unsaid be said and moving on.”
The actual impetus for the film came from Michelle, who, after decades, made contact with her mother. At the time, Ben-Moshe was a father with two young children of his own and he recalls the moment when his mother told him that Michelle had found her. “I was already living in Australia when the phone went. The kids were kind of hanging off my legs - you know how they do when they are little? Mum said, ‘You won’t believe what’s happened.’ And somehow I knew.” He says he looked down at his children and it was only at that point that the enormity of it hit him. “It struck me with the biggest ton of bricks you can imagine.”
Subsequently, the half-siblings got to know one another. “Over a decade or so, we visited each other and shared simchas together. Once we had an established relationship it allowed for an exploration of something like this,” Ben-Moshe says. He was on holiday in Miami with Michelle when she suggested the idea of a film to him. She believed that if more people knew her story, it could give hope to others in a similar situation. He said he would do it, on the condition that he had the agreement of all those involved in the story which, to his surprise, he achieved. “I think everyone did it for their own reasons,” he says.
As a filmmaker, Ben-Moshe focuses on exploring issues of personal and collective identity and his film, Shalom Bollywood: The Untold Story of Indian Cinema - also premiering at UKIJF - falls into that second category.
A former academic, Ben-Moshe came across the idea for the story from the father of an Indian PhD student of his who used to send him small gifts as a thank you for a small favour he had done for his daughter. One day he sent Ben-Moshe an obituary of the Jewish actress, Nadira. It piqued his interest. “I had no idea that there was a Jew in Bollywood but not just any Jew - a superstar!”
Ben-Moshe grew up in East Finchley but has lived in Australia for over twenty years. “Love, that great migration factor,” brought him there. “The plan was never to settle here, it was to live in Israel, which I did do but then I met an Australian and the rest, as they say, is history.”