Studying history comes with an implicit promise: that we can understand what came before us. But within history, people – their movements, longings, mistakes – are unpredictable, even incomprehensible, and building your own narrative among it all is a lifelong task that has consumed many filmmakers.
Composed almost entirely of archival images, the humble new Australian documentary, The Last Goldfish traces Sydney filmmaker Su Goldfish’s journey to find the last living carriers of the Goldfish name – beyond the designation, and having never known an extended family to calibrate her own identity against, she craves people with the same story. Respected in the artistic, queer and activist communities, Su was born in Trinidad, an island in the West Indies, to German parents, and ended up in Sydney, but knows little of the history that brought her parents from continent to continent, island to island. ‘My father tells me stories,’ Su narrates, ‘not always the truth.’ Her investigation brings her into collision with her Jewish ancestry and the lost story of the Goldfisch (as they were known then) family’s forced migration after World War II.
Su’s father Manfred is a secretive man, but when he speaks of the partnership he forged with Su’s mother Phyllis after the war, it’s sincere: ‘We were both orphans, and your mother fills many spaces in my heart.’ They were two of 600 Jewish refugees that ended up in Trinidad after the failure of countries like Britain to relocate the victims of Nazi Germany.
There, they found a beautiful, but short-lived home. ‘In 1970,’ says Su, ‘Black Power came to Trinidad’ – initially a social movement against poverty and tyranny, it resulted in an attempted military coup, and the Goldfisches were compelled to leave. Growing up in Trinidad, Su had never reckoned with the fact that she is not black. There, she was white without realising it, but here she was in Sydney, not quite white enough. With a West Indies accent and a Jewish surname; she hung out with the immigrant kids at school, and had no other close family nearby. When Su asks Manfred about why he never journeyed to his home country, he says ‘there’s no-one there to visit and nothing left.’ Throw away the past, relinquish your identity.
Growing up in Trinidad, Su was white without realising it, but here she was in Sydney, not quite white enough.
It’s a lie – at age 14, Su discovers she has another family, one that Manfred left behind in Europe; and at age 19, she’s rejected by her half-brother from that family. It’s a formative shock, and the remainder of the film traces her adult mission to reach her other relatives. It’s a story rendered mainly in voiceover, overlaid with still photographs of the past that blend into video; including, most touchingly, home footage of Su gently extracting from Manfred the story of his life in Germany.
As far as any summary goes, the Goldfisch to Goldfish story is a deeply compelling one, drawing together any number of stories – of 20th Century migration and displacement, of arbitrary and shifting yardsticks of race, of yearning and family and belonging and home – into one, divided family tree that unfurls over 80 minutes. But in memoir it’s not enough to have a compelling plot: a deeper theme must be extracted and made universal.
As a small, personal documentary structured around absent protagonists and dead figures, (‘I could have known her,’ Su laments of her lost aunt), The Last Goldfish summons purely through its narrative and spoken elements a world of swept-away homelands. To travel on a passport for stateless people; to be a Jewish refugee deemed an enemy alien by British colonial authorities; to move someplace you’d never heard of before. And in the generations that follow, to keep stitching your family around you, despite being scattered by history, despite homelands being swept away. To have, as Manfred feels he had, nothing and no-one to return to.
As a small, personal documentary structured around absent protagonists and dead figures, The Last Goldfish summons a world of swept-away homelands.
It is hard not to think of the work of Jonas Mekas when watching The Last Goldfish, though the comparison is a slightly unfair one. People call Mekas’ works avant-garde autobiographies and film diaries, because they documented his life as it unrolled as a post-war Lithuanian immigrant in New York, equipped with his 16mm camera, as well as the life of his community.
But it is hard to go past Mekas’ own words to describe his work, specifically of Lost Lost Lost (1979):
These six reels of my film diaries [show] the Lithuanian immigrant community, their attempts to adapt themselves to a new land and their tragic efforts to regain independence for their native country. It shows my own frustrations and anxieties and the decision to leave Brooklyn and move to Manhattan…The period I am dealing with in these six reels was a period of desperation, of attempts to desperately grow roots into the new ground, to create new memories. In these six painful reels I tried to indicate how it feels to be in exile, how I felt in those years. [The title Lost Lost Lost] indicates the mood we were in, in those years. It describes the mood of a Displaced Person who hasn’t yet forgotten the native country but hasn’t gained a new one. The sixth reel is a transitional reel where we begin to see some relaxation, where I begin to find moments of happiness. New life begins. What happens later, you’ll have to see…
Mekas’ films are terribly moving and profound, spliced with intertitles – I thought of home, reads one iconic frame in Walden (1969) – and laced with his halting, Eastern European-accented English voiceover, looking back on the images years or decades later. The pictures of a new environment – spindly winter trees, bare parks, the urban skyline, the faces of those in the Lithuanian community in Williamsburg – and the rhythm with which they are cut together hold an impressionistic and kinetic energy, a real sense of experimentation with words, vision and conventional narrative. The films are portraits, but epic in their own way, too – works of social history that come from the unique experience of someone’s life.
The films are portraits, but epic in their own way, too – works of social history that come from the unique experience of someone’s life.
In form and scope, The Last Goldfish’s aspirations are much smaller and more televisual; though its themes are cinematic, its storytelling choices are well-suited to watching at home. Much like William Yang’s My Generation (2013), a similar work of memoir by a Sydney artist (also directed and edited by this project’s editor Martin Fox), The Last Goldfish is a narrated slideshow, an invitation into a series of homes, a small and personal piece of storytelling. We see rolls of square-format home video footage. We see the monochrome, Modernist-style paintings by Su’s long-lost sister, described by Su as ‘stories of displacement and distress.’
We crave a little more aesthetic abstraction and exploration of the grainy aesthetics of the old family photos, a little more breathing space, a little less voiceover and a little more of Manfred’s voice, his formal manner of speech, the way he puts words like ‘anticlimatical’ together. We sense the world opening up as the photographs from family albums leap from European and Trinidadian sepia to the incandescent light of Sydney. And we feel the world close down again when, back in Europe, Su realises that her long-separated brother, now elderly, never recovered from the loss of his father and the feeling of abandonment that went with it.
The film’s angle toward the present moment of offshore abuse of refugeees is held in textual epilogue. Spelt out in this post-script, the Goldfish family’s parallels with Australian whiteness today, race relations and the forgotten islands of hopeful migrants are clear enough, and would perhaps have been better found by some kind of more metaphorical, allegorical function. The real story here is the Goldfish story, a story of identity – how big histories play out inside family trees and inform your sense of who you are and where you’ve come from; as a collection of images of places that could have been home; an epic of history concentrated into something smaller.
As much as it speaks about global movement, The Last Goldfish speaks of the generational gulf in families, of parental regret and paternal burdens, of family members ageing and disappearing before your eyes. In many ways it is just as much a biography of Manfred as an autobiography of Su, a reflection of a parent through an adult child, and a portrait of identity forged through merging with others.
The Last Goldfish is screening at the Jewish International Film Festival in Sydney on 20 November and Melbourne on 21 and 25 November. The film is also screening at Golden Age Cinema in Sydney on 26 November and 10 December.