Naomi Jaye’s sensitive tale of a young woman and man (Milda Gecaite, Grisha Pasternak) is intimate and haunting as it reminds us of the horrors of WWII. They meet in the woods, on the run from Nazis during their country’s occupation. Both have lost their families to the concentration camps and know that every move they make could end in their death. They are injured, starving but determined to survive. The Pin is the first film shot in Yiddish in North America in seventy years. We spoke with Jaye about this extraordinary and difficult labour of love that required deep commitment from everyone involved.
The Pin is the first film shot entirely in the Yiddish language. Did the actors know Yiddish or did they learn it?
I put out a casting call knowing we wouldn’t get anyone who spoke it. No one responded. Then we put out a call for actors who had a second language and a facility for them. The actors knew the film would be in Yiddish. Milda speaks Lithuanian and Russian and Grisha speaks Ukrainian and Russian. I made them audition with a Yiddish monologue and put it into transliteration and had them video linked to a Yiddish coach. It took six months of lessons and that was just to learn the script phonetically.
I’ve never heard Yiddish spoken. It’s beautiful but I understand disappearing.
It is disappearing but it’s making a small comeback. In the last decade there has been a resurgence in younger people who are becoming fascinated with the language and culture. Of course after the Holocaust, there was a huge loss, because there was no one left to speak it after WWII. I don’t speak Yiddish and I was delving in for the first time. I’m not an expert but the numbers I’ve heard are 500 in the world speak Yiddish. What’s so great about Yiddish is that it’s the most descriptive sounding language even if you don’t know what the word means, you know what it means.
That was a big decision.
The film was always going to be done in Yiddish, never English. Because the film was originally set in Lithuania, it would be in Lithuanian or Hungarian, depending on the actors. But later I realized I got it all wrong. These people would not be speaking Lithuanian. They’d speak Yiddish. Jews in bigger cities would have spoken Yiddish at home or assimilated and not at all. The background was that in small towns and shtetls they absolutely would not be speaking the local language. They would speak “market Hungarian”, but not the way they’d speak it in the streets. Also is a universal story. Speaking Yiddish it’s obvious that they are Jews and that it’s WWII but they don’t have names. There are no signs of where you are. It was important that it had the feeling of it being anywhere at anywhere.
Was it weird staging and shooting the torments suffered by the characters?
The scene where the young man is buried alive was. When you’re writing it it’s the story and emotion and figuring g out his story. It’s horrific but you’re writing. But to be on set and actually digging a hole to put people in was intense and awful and strange. And then asking the actors to get inside the hole and actually burying them.
The Pin courtesy Scythia Films
What was the inspiration for this? Is there any real life story?
It’s a story I heard because it was in my family. Growing up Jewish you have an awareness of the holocaust and you hear these stories, nothing specific but the character of the young woman is based on my grandmother. She was in South Africa during the war, but she had the personality and the fear of being buried alive. She made my grandfather promise to prick her hand with a pin to make sure she was dead. So little bits are true. But during pre-screenings a dozen or so people have told me that was their family, hiding in barns and under floorboards.
The Pin reminds us of the lengths people will go to survive war, any war.
A Yiddish actor in Montreal told me his family survived in a hole in a forest for five years. The Holocaust was obviously a massive and devastating genocide but people were able to survive in extraordinary ways.