March 28, 2013 | by Tim Small
Alexa Karolinski is an old friend. I first met her in 2005, when I was the editor at VICE Italy, in Milan, and she was a particularly bright intern at the VICE Germany office. Alexa quit VICE a few months after I met her; she then moved to Paris for a while, started working in television for ARTE, met her husband, moved back to Berlin, and then moved to New York three years ago, where she studied documentary filmmaking at the School of Visual Arts. And now she is a film director. Oma & Bella, her first feature-length film, began as her thesis, and was then released in German cinemas after being accepted at the Berlin Film Festival last year. If, like me, you have any sort of fascination with World War II, food, and your grandma, it is an absolutely must-see documentary.
Oma & Bella tells the story of best friends Bella Katz and Regina Karolinski (Alexa’s grandmother), two octogenarian Holocaust survivors among the oldest surviving members of Berlin’s Jewish community, who moved in together when Regina had a hip operation. They spend most of their time cooking traditional Eastern European Jewish food, giving that food to their family, talking about food, organizing dinners, going food shopping, preparing food, washing the utensils they use to prepare food, putting food in Tupperware and freezing it, and occasionally taking a break from the food in the form of an amble to the park or the cemetery. With a delicate grace and a warm sense of humor, Alexa made one of the most touching portraits of an elderly couple―and of Holocaust survivors―I have ever seen on screen.
A few months after the movie was released, we collaborated on The Oma & Bella Cookbook. That is to say: when Alexa told me she wanted to make a cookbook that would collect the movie’s recipes, I begged her to let the Milan Review design it.
I recently got on Skype with Alexa to talk about her movie, grandparents, and food.
So, tell me—exactly when did you decide to make this movie?
It began about three years ago, when I was living in Berlin and decided that I wanted to learn how to cook. At the time I couldn’t cook anything more complicated than scrambled eggs and I decided that one day, my children—the children I don’t have yet—should be able to eat the food I grew up with. Therefore, I needed to learn that from my grandmother, and from her best friend, Bella, who she lives with. So I started cooking with them and then I kind of decided very quickly that it wasn’t enough to just cook with them, that I would have needed to write down the recipes and make a cookbook out of it.
It must have been daunting.
Yes. And they don’t cook with measurements—they go by eye—so I had to learn how to cook with them and invent the measurements just by watching them cook. So basically I started this cookbook project, and within that cookbook project I was looking for a visual landscape. And one day I kind of decided, knowing that I was going to go back to film school, to rent a camera and, just for fun, film them. Then I cut a two-minute teaser out of that, just to teach myself how to use Final Cut. And then, when I moved to New York, I showed this around, mostly just to show some friends how much I love my grandmother and how amazing she is. And people were like, This is gonna be your thesis film, and I kind of thought, Yeah, I guess it is. Read More »
March 7, 2013 | by Tim Small
10:00 A.M. Having just quit my job (well, not just quit, but still) to dedicate myself to “my own projects,” I have the great luxury of being able to sleep until ten every morning. It’s disgraceful. I eat bread and butter and drink a cup of tea while I watch last night’s NBA highlights.
11:00 A.M. Yesterday I gave a copy of Train Dreams to my special lady, mostly because I started reading it again and it’s just a perfect-perfect gem of a book. I read more of it on the subway as I make my way to VICE Italy, my old office, where I have to pick up two pallets of new Milan Review books. They are both comics and they will both be presented at BilBOlBul, the independent comics festival in Bologna. One is the Italian translation of Prison Pit, a hilarious and ultra-violent graphic novel by Johnny Ryan, which is like a mixture between violent mangas, wrestling, and a twelve year old’s brain. I decided to title it Il pozzo di sangue, which literally means “the well of blood.” The other is called Rap Violent in the Ghetto Street and it is a collection of dumb, satirical comic strips about rap and new-age philosophy (but filtered through a weird take on Italian popular culture) by Dr. Pira, an Italian artist who specializes in terrible drawings with an amazing sense of humor. It’s very hard to explain to Americans, but Italians seem to get it. Read More »
October 16, 2012 | by Tim Small
Jim Shepard is the author of six novels and four short-story collections. In a departure from the typical trajectory of the American writer, however, his novels came first: graudally, he has, by his own admission, become more and more drawn to the short-story form. And what short stories! His subject choices are bold, strange, almost stunning in their range: the love story between two gay engineers on the Hindenburg; a Roman scribe sent to man Hadrian's Wall; the inventor of the Godzilla epics. His narrator might be the Creature from the Black Lagoon or Aeschylus at the Battle of Marathon or John Entwistle or perhaps a British explorer searching for a sea in the middle of the Australian desert. A lot of his stories are set in the world of sports—baseball players moving to Cuba during Castro's revolution, football players, mountaineers, a Yugoslav soccer player who moves to Ajax Amsterdam during the sexual revolution. And yet, despite such a range of subjects, each story manages to feel true, the voice credible, the world evoked uncannily, so much so that the reader often feels like he's stumbled upon these character's private diaries.
I recently edited and translated a collection of Jim's stories for an Italian publisher, and I decided to focus on those stories that had, more or less, some sort of connection to sports. The reason for that is simple: I have never read stories set in that world that manage to evoke it as well as Jim's. Also: I like sports. I called Jim up on Skype, from my ex-girlfriend's kitchen in Milan, Italy, and asked him a few questions about short stories and sports.
In translating your stories, I started resenting the way you write, because it forced me to do so, so, so much technical and historical research, decipher so much lingo and jargon. It really was the most laborious translation I’ve everdone, and it really hit me just how much work you put into a single story.
A different writer would take that kind of work and make a novel out of it. He’d make that much groundwork last three or four years.
My friend Ron Hansen, the novelist, always says to me: “You’re crazy! You know, you did eight months of research and all you got out of it is a story. I would get a four-hundred-page novel and make a lot more money.” But part of it is also that, you know, it doesn't feel like drudgery to me. If I’m reading about these subjects, it’s because I’m strange enough to want to be interested in them anyway. So the idea that I have to read yet another book about volcanology doesn't make my heart sink. It makes me think, “Oh, good, I get to do that!” You know?