Elan Golod's Nathan-ism seemed to fly somewhat under the radar at the 2023 Heartland International Film Festival, a fact perhaps owing to its unique yet effective storytelling and also to its similarly unique subject matter. The film had its world premiere at HotDocs earlier this year along with a special screening at TIFF. It's a film that won't likely appeal to everyone, though those who embrace it, and many will, will be passionate devotees.
Nathan-ism explores the world of 90-year-old Nathan Hilu. Born to a Syrian Jewish family that immigrated to the United States, Nathan has spent the better part of his life unable to stop drawing. Nathan's mind is consumed by memories of the days when the U.S. military assigned him the task of guarding some of the top Nazi war criminals during the Nuremberg trials. Watching over them meant also making sure they would not successfully commit suicide prior to their verdicts were returned.
As we learn throughout Nathan-ism, a relatively quick but substantial 79-minute feature doc, Hilu's memory is vivid with these encounters that changed his life and now come to life through artwork and graphics not so much realism or existentialism or any other ism than, you guessed it, Nathan-ism. Hilu remembers conversations with Albert Speer, a particularly meaningful long kiss between Göring and his wife, and, perhaps most powerfully, the words he would say to each of the accused before leading them to the gallows. These images and stories and memories recur again and again and throughout Nathan's drawings and in the texts that accompany them.
Intriguing enough in capturing the vulnerabilities and life experiences of this 90-year-old man, Nathan-ism is perhaps most profound because it has the courage to question them.
Golod beautifully dances a fine line. As a filmmaker, he has the courage to question without necessarily judging. Instead, Nathan-ism feels like a journey toward understanding the intersection of art and memory, truth and trauma, time and creativity. Nathan-ism is as much about the artist's world and life experiences as it is simply the artist. It celebrates the art that comes to life while also having the wisdom and courage to question its storytelling.
There seems little doubt that as a young man Nathan experienced profound moments in history, yet as time moves forward art and memory collaborate to become more complex, more convoluted and, yes, more questionable. Does this invalidate the art? Not at all, or at least not necessarily. However, it does present for us that Nathan-ism, much like its subject matter, is far more complex than that which meets the eye.
Golod explores Nathan's world and attempts to authenticate this story that he is now telling. In so doing, Nathan-ism becomes something entirely unique. It's an approach that could have so easily gone awry, yet it's an approach that ultimately makes the film so narratively satisfying.
As a longtime survivor of violence who has written often about my experiences, I've long accepted that time, memory, and my own creative impulses can shape how I express the experiences that I remember. That is, in many ways, the lesson learned here. Nathan-ism challenges us to question the stories we are told and the histories we are taught. It does so unequivocally yet also with dignity, respect, and surprising tenderness.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic