Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Suzanne Wasserman Previews “Sweatshop Cinderella”

On Tuesday, June 8, noted filmmaker and historian Suzanne Wasserman stood in front of a packed crowd at the Museum Shop to tell Anzia Yezierska’s amazing history. An eclectic mix of visitors both young and old sat to watch Sweatshop Cinderella, Wasserman’s documentary about this Polish-born immigrant, a child of the Lower East Side tenements who fought against prejudice and poverty to become a stubbornly honest, gifted writer. Afterward, Wasserman spoke directly to the audience about her film, its subject’s challenging personality, and how she felt personally connected to Yezierska’s prevailing nostalgia.

The film follows the writer from her youth in a sweatshop and her early career to a romance with famous thinker John Dewey, her brief stint in Hollywood where she was courted by Samuel Goldwyn, and finally her return to New York, where she wrote her most famous novel, Bread Givers, a semi-biographical account of life in the tenements.

Wasserman splices together the major events of the Yezierska’s life with the author’s own wisdom, providing a glimpse into the her enduring outlook on life (“Nothing is real to me but the past”) and her rebellious determination to overcome the simple expectations for a young Jewish woman at the time (“All that I could ever be… was in myself”).

Using archival footage culled from Wasserman’s extensive research, the film is a collage of historic photos, silent films, interviews with friends and fellow historians - Alice Kessler Harris, American history professor at Columbia University, and author Vivian Gornick, who proclaims Yezierska a “literary genius” - and even the sole recording of Yezierska, from a reel-to-reel tape housed at Boston University. These clips, of recycled brown paper bag upon which she would write, of the notebook in which she scribbled at ten years old, espouse many of the same profound ideas and frustrations she held all her life and provide an unprecedented look at Yezierska’s humble genius, even as she was misunderstood by readers and critics alike.

As Harris notes in the film, Yezierska “could write English perfectly well” yet hid this mastery behind a “Yiddish idiom,” for the sake of authenticity and respect for her subjects. This talent, of course, was overlooked – she was labeled an inexplicably successful “Sweatshop Cinderella” by the press and undermined by Hollywood, where her painful, honest characterization of immigrant life was reduced to a simple, raving caricature in 1922’s film adaptation of Hungry Hearts.

Wasserman's biographical film is also deeply personal. She first discovered Yezierska’s work as a grad student in the ‘80s and couldn’t believe the “grittiness of description” that she employed to “bring the Lower East Side to life.” Wasserman immediately felt a connection between her nostalgic memories of childhood in Chicago, represented by home movies scattered throughout the film, and Yezierska’s own yearning for a sense of home in New York, even if it was less than ideal.

In the 1930s, after the Depression hit and people grew disinterested in her stories of hardship, Yezierska was happy to be poor again. When the audience asked Wasserman if Yezierska was a downbeat person, she described her only as “compelling” and “magnetic” even in her troubles.

Appropriately, her film concludes with the great German author W.G. Sebald’s words, “Memory blinds us to life and yet, what would we be without memory… without the faintest trace of the past?” Yezierska gave her life to history, so where would we be without discovering it ourselves?

See the wonderful Sweatshop Cinderella at its next public screening, July 11th at the Yiddish Book Center. And make sure to stop by at another installment of the Tenement Talks series tonight and Thursday.

- Posted by Joe Klarl

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