Screening as part of the COLCOA French Film Festival’s documentary selection is the International Premiere of Sabrina Van Tassel’s “The Silenced Walls.” A strong and moving portrait, “The Silenced Walls” examines the notorious World War II French internment camp in the nearby Parisian suburb of Drancy, and its use today as low-income housing. With interviews from men and women who passed through Drancy and survived the Holocaust, as well from family members of relatives who died, the film also solicits views from politicians, historians, psychologists, and current residents. “The Silenced Walls” rightly puts a spotlight on a very prickly chapter in French history.
Television journalist and documentarian Van Tassel discovered the Drancy Camp’s current existence while shooting “Rivka’s Tribe” (2010), a doc about six brothers and sisters who discussed their childhood during the Nazi occupation of France. She wondered how a place where 80,000 Jewish people were interned before being shipped out to death camps like Auschwitz and Bergen Belson could exist today as low-income housing? What did survivors or relatives think? What about the residents themselves? Did they feel all the pain and suffering that occurred 70-plus years ago?
Van Tassel smartly sets up the history of the Drancy camp. Originally built as housing projects in the 1930’s, the Nazis took it over in August 1940 (before anyone actually lived there). French police (gendarme) who helped round up the Jews also brutally policed Drancy until 1943 when Nazis took over. Conditions were horrific—severe overcrowding, lack of food and water, rampant disease, starvation, suicides, etc.—all occurred behind these walls.
Wondering how the French police could be so complicit with the Nazis, Van Tassel interviews a former gendarme guard who was fired for not carrying out specific orders. He explains that the guards too were threatened with being deported to camps if they didn’t carry out orders. But he couldn’t live with himself and “luckily” was only fired (and never was reinstated, or given a pension).
Equally illuminating are the site’s current residents, some of whom feel “the ghosts” haunting the place; while others are just happy to have a home and be off the streets. In 2012 a Shoah museum was erected across the street, but questions about the use of the Drancy housing project still remain.
A thoughtful, provocative documentary, “The Silenced Walls” screens at COLCOA April 23. The film is scheduled for a U.S. release later this fall. For more information about the COLCOA French Film Festival, including the schedule of films and ticket information, visit the COLCOA website.