You can never tell what a shopping trip will yield. For Elizabeth Cullen, Oxygen Media’s director of program acquisitions, a stroll through the aisles led to the purchase of a doc. Cullen bumped into her former mentor Wolf Schmidt on that fateful outing and when he told the tale of his daughter’s latest doc effort, Tangled Roots, Cullen realized it was just what Oxygen was seeking.
Oxygen picked up California-based Heidi Schmidt Emberling’s Tangled Roots – which Cullen calls ‘a very sweet story’ – and added it to the channel’s ‘As She Sees It’ strand, which focuses on ‘the unsettled woman seeking truth.’ Cullen says it was the film’s suitability to this strand that drew her to the project.
Tangled Roots is the story of Emberling’s German Jewish family. Wolf Schmidt, her father, came to L.A. from Germany in the 1960s as a journalist for Stern. While on assignment, he met Janet Sherman, an American Jew born and raised in Chicago. They fell in love and eloped to Las Vegas.
The blending of German and Jewish cultures relatively soon after World War II is the central motif of the film, but the theme of Tangled Roots is one of ‘coping, rather than victimization,’ says the director.
The idea for the film came to Emberling after she visited an aunt in Germany two years ago. Once there, she travelled to Dachau – a trip that upset her relative greatly. Her aunt, who was six at the war’s end, feels her generation is still blamed for Nazi atrocities. ‘I began wondering what it is like for her and her generation. A lot of it is that she hadn’t faced her own feelings about her father’s involvement with Hitler. She doesn’t want to talk about it and doesn’t understand why everybody wants to bring it up. I started to feel empathy for both sides,’ says Emberling. She returned to Germany and Dachau a year later with cameras and crew.
Emberling interviewed relatives on both sides of her family, including a Jewish grandmother who had been estranged from Sherman since she eloped with Schmidt; and her paternal grandfather, a German soldier who was captured by the French at the end of the war and is still haunted by the treatment he endured.
Finding money to make the film proved difficult. Emberling says the German sources she contacted were reluctant to raise the specter of Nazi history, while Jewish agencies preferred to ‘focus on the Jewish – not German – experience.’
The Pacific Pioneer Fund – a U.S. organization offering grants to emerging doc-makers based in Washington, Oregon or California – provided an initial grant that enabled Emberling to film in Germany. After that, the director raised most of the film’s US$200,000 budget herself, from people interested in the film’s subject matter. Oxygen contributed 50% of the finishing funds for the project, and according to the director, a final third-party signing is imminent.
Cullen says Oxygen prides itself on seeking out ‘an eclectic list of films – some serious [like Tangled Roots], but most leaning towards the light-hearted.’ In the coming year, Oxygen plans to change its acquisitions process. ‘We are going to put more money into fewer films this year – financing a higher percentage of perhaps eight to 10 feature-length (two-hour) films, rather than the 40 shorter (90-minute) projects we ran this year.’
Tangled Roots, currently in post-production and set to wrap by the summer, is Emberling’s second documentary. Her first, The Spirit of the Dawn, studied the evolution of education on the Crow Indian reservation in Montana from harsh boarding schools to modern, culturally sensitive centers.