Q&A with YARI WOLINSKY, Director, Writer, Editor
Q: How did you come across this story, and why were you drawn to it? Did you have a particular interest in Jewish history before this project?
YW: We didn’t start out with a particular interest in Jewish history. Instead, what hooked us was the Browns passion for the subject as well as their amazing track record on previous reconstructions. We knew they would succeed with this immensely challenging project.
Getting into the story of the Jews of Poland in the 17th and 18th centuries was more gradual for us. Just learning that Poland, before World War II, was home to the largest Jewish community in the world was something that surprised us and drew us in. The more we learned about the history, the more we came to understand the relationship between Jews and non-Jews in the period—it wasn’t what we expected—and appreciate the huge significance of the Polish wooden synagogues to the communities they served.
Q: How was the film funded?
YW: We first started working for this project back in 2006. The first shoots of the project in Poland were unfunded collaborations with Handshouse Studio. When the moment came that the Browns were leaving for Poland to begin construction of the roof, Trillium Studios and John Rubin Productions ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the immediate expenses of travel and production.
Q: What are some of the challenges and rewards working as a father-son team?
YW: For most people, the idea of working directly with their family would be tricky at best. But my father and I have worked together for as long as I can remember. He tells stories of bringing me along on trips to China before I was a year old! We began to work together seriously around 2007, taking on commercial and documentary film projects. His many years of experience as a National Geographic photographer makes him a skilled planner, researcher, negotiator, and, thus, a great producer. I usually handle the technical side of the craft—shooting and editing. On the creative aspects of the project—how to visualize a scene, for example—we work together. We’ve evolved a natural efficiency that helps us minimize the the logistical and technical chaos of a project and frees us to spend most of our time on the creative decisions. I should add that my mother, Babs Wolinsky, also worked intensely on the film as production designer. I think it’s a rare and wonderful thing to have created a beautiful project as a family.
Q: Describe your approach to cinematography and editing in this film and why you took these approaches for this particular story.
YW: For the visuals, my father and I decided early on that we wanted to emphasize the natural feeling of the places and techniques used during the Gwoździec reconstruction. In conjunction with what would come in post-production, we wanted the audience to feel like they were in the same spaces and experiencing the processes and passion of those working on the synagogue timbers and paintings. This approach meant we didn’t attempt fancy lighting or put filters on our lenses.
Also, this is a story that can easily get bogged down in the details of how or why a technique was used, and lose track of the people and their emotional investment. The story is told in way that we are reminded that the Browns and their students were deep into this project for over ten years--they were not simply momentary volunteers without an investment in their creation.
Q: What is your favorite scene in the film, and why?
YW: This is a hard choice to make…but there was a moment, right at the very end of the installation of the roof in Warsaw, when we interviewed Jason Loik. My father pressed him with the question of trying to describe what, conceptually, they had made. Jason stumbled over his answer before being struck by an inspiration: he compared the roof and ceiling to a geode: a rough and natural-looking exterior that conceals a delicate and beautiful interior. This line just had to make it into the movie—and it did!
Q: You’ve made several short films together, but this is your first film of feature length. To what extent were you able to predict the amount of time and effort you’d need to complete this long-form project?
YW: Short-form filmmaking is great way to learn craft and storytelling technique, but it does very little to prepare you for how hard creating a feature-length documentary can be. The complexity of the job doesn’t scale linearly as you go from a 5-minute film to an 84-minute project, but rather exponentially. I found that, in editing the film, I could never plan a one-day session. Rather it took at least three days to get my head back into a space of understanding how one shot interacted with a scene which interacted with a hundred other scenes which built a story over 84 minutes.
Q: What would you most like to stay in viewers’ minds after they’ve watched your film?
YW: I hope our audience comes away with two ideas. The first is that Gwoździec, and all of the wooden synagogues, are beautiful representations of a period of Jewish history that is often forgotten. For centuries, the Jews of Poland lived among non-Jews. The Jewish population was thriving and growing. They were prosperous and optimistic enough to create these beautiful synagogues that were meant to last for a long time.
The second point is that while the Browns may have been the initial dreamers and drivers of the reconstruction, a large number of people over many years came together to make this project happen. From architectural engineers to timber framers to Judaism scholars to students from the United States, Poland, Israel, and elsewhere, they were all devoted to recreating Gwoździec. All of them were passionate about bringing this building back.