A Conversation with ‘The Starfish’ Director Tyler Gildin

Director Tyler Gildin visits ‘Jake’s Take’ to talk about his documentary: ‘The Starfish.’ (Photo property of the Miami Jewish Film Festival)

By: Jacob Elyachar, jakes-take.com

It is a pleasure to welcome film director Tyler Gildin to Jake’s Take.  

I had the privilege of seeing Tyler’s project, The Starfish, when the UJA (United Jewish Appeal) Federation of New York hosted a screening of the film earlier this year.  The Starfish is a documentary that focuses on the journey of Tyler’s grandfather, Herb.  Tyler and his team wonderfully tells on how Herb and his older siblings were able to escape Nazi Germany, thanks to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society’s efforts. 

Tyler and his production team revealed how Herb and his siblings spent time in Sweden with non-Jewish families before traveling across Russia and the Pacific Ocean and reuniting with their parents in the United States.  The Starfish also documented how Herb was able to reunite with the Swedish family almost 60 years later.

Since The Starfish’s release, the documentary was featured on Daily Mail TV and NowThis News. Also, the Miami Jewish Film Festival, the Maryland International Film Festival, and the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival named The Starfish as official selections for the 2019 festival season.

In this edition of A Conversation, Tyler Gildin spoke about the challenges that his team faced while filming The Starfish and how the documentary could raise awareness about the Holocaust.

Jacob Elyachar: When did you get interested in the entertainment industry? How did that passion evolve into the desire to pursue a career in the film industry?

Tyler Gildin: I guess I have always been interested in entertainment. When I was younger, I liked to put on little shows with my cousins at the holidays. I was also involved in writing. I loved writing short stories, and then as I got older performing stand-up comedy. Then, when I went to Syracuse University’s S.I Newhouse Communications School, where I majored in Television, Radio, and Film, that seemed like the perfect segue into the entertainment space once I graduated.

Jacob Elyachar: Let’s talk about your latest project, The Starfish. This documentary focuses on your grandfather, Herb, and his sisters’ escape from Hitler and the Nazis from Sweden to eventually traveling to the United States to reunite with their parents. When did you get the idea to film this documentary?

Tyler Gildin: I think the first time it hit me that I wanted to do this was in February 2017.  My grandfather’s oldest sister, Cele, passed away.  At the funeral, my grandfather and some other family members recounted pieces of the story. It was the first time I had ever heard my grandfather talk about his past so openly. He was 88-years-old, and it dawned on me that we were at a funeral, and time is precious, so I wanted to document his story. I was not sure in what capacity I wanted to do it yet, but I knew at the least, I wanted to sit him down and have him tell his story,  just so I could always have that.

Tyler Gildin and his crew interviewed his grandfather, Herb, and other family members throughout The Starfish’s film making process. (Photo courtesy of Gildin Media)

Jacob Elyachar:  What were some of the challenges that you and your team faced throughout the filmmaking process? How did you overcome those obstacles?

Tyler Gildin: One major question that I think every filmmaker asks when telling a story is, ‘what am I visually showing?’ I sat down for interviews with my grandfather, my grandmother, my aunt (their daughter) and my dad (their son), but I ultimately needed to make the piece more than just talking heads. It was doing the deep dive in getting photos and documents, trying to figure out how do I make this piece visually compelling. I was fortunate that my family had kept hold of a significant amount of photos over the years, as well as video footage from when they returned to Sweden in 2001. I had eight-millimeter footage from Brooklyn. I had a significant amount of footage in front of me. It was just a matter of tracking it all down and assembling it compellingly. And where there was no footage or photos, I needed to determine what other visual elements I could create.

We also had to determine what were the necessary bites that needed to be in the film. Because he’s my grandpa, it could have been a three to six-hour documentary and I’d be fascinated because it’s the story of my family. But, I wanted to make this a film that would interest other people.  Another question that ran through my mind was, “What are the bites that are most necessary to drive the story forward?”  I therefore did a significant amount of screenings, upwards of 30+ for different groups of people.  They ranged from friends and family to other filmmakers, to history buffs and casual movie fans.  I tried to get a wide array of feedback. Also, I ultimately watched for patterns in the feedback. I was able to use this to help me determine some sections of the piece that may have needed to be adjusted or just removed.

Jacob Elyachar: What were some of the lessons that you learned throughout the filmmaking process?

Tyler Gildin: Keep asking questions and don’t be afraid to dive deeper during interviews. Even though I prepared a certain number of questions, it was through some of the answers that I was able to have some stronger follow up questions that really helped me extract some of the stronger beats of the story. Also, the more questions you ask, the more answers you have to play with when you’re in the edit that can help you have different options for how you ultimately decide to present the story. Don’t be scared to figure it out as you go. I hadn’t realized until I sat down with my grandfather, just how important his older sister Cele was to him and to his ultimate survival. From there, I decided I had to speak with her daughter to understand more about Cele and her perspective. Then, I felt like – well if I am talking to Cele’s daughter, I should also speak to Margot [Herb’s other sister]’s daughter. I probably could have had a more precise road map at the beginning, but I think it was useful how I allowed myself to be flexible as I went. A documentary is not like a scripted feature film where you have an exact script to work off of.

Initially, we did not have any plans to interview my grandfather’s Swedish sister, Agneta’s son. Then, I found out he was coming to town. At the time, I thought the film was already complete. I had even wrapped my editor! But I thought it would be a significant mistake to not interview him, and therefore I got the crew together and brought my editor back on. It seems like I’m never able to fully walk away from the edit. Even after the recent UJA screening, I felt a couple of audio things were a little off and I brought back on my mixer to adjust.  The Starfish really seems like a project that never ends.

Jacob Elyachar: Have you thought about telling other Holocaust survivors’ stories?

Tyler Gildin: I do not necessarily want to limit myself to what type of topic I cover. A lot of people ask me what’s my next big project and it’s hard to say. I work on a lot of simultaneous projects. Most of the work that I have been doing recently, minus the documentary, is mostly digital and social videos for several brands and publishers, all kind of in the client services space. I would like to have another passion project type piece. My ears are always open for another big story. It’s just got to be something I feel passionate about. The Starfish was a personal story to me because it was my grandfather, but you know I plan to make a lot more films in my life. I will have to find more subject matter that I find an attachment to, and I want to pursue.

Jacob Elyachar: While we are on the subject of the Holocaust, last year The Washington Post reported that two-thirds of Millennials do not know what Auschwitz (and it’s significance to the Holocaust) is. While the documentary did not address Auschwitz directly, in your humble opinion, how can The Starfish raise awareness about the Holocaust?

Tyler Gildin: If that statistic is accurate, that is troubling. Initially, I set out to tell my grandfather’s story.  In doing so, I think the film has brought up a lot of essential topics. Whether it is anti-Semitism and the horrors that can result of it or  refugee issues and taking a chance on people. I am happy that my documentary has enabled people to have some healthy conversations about these topics.  The Starfish is a film that without being too raw and graphic, can at least open some people’s eyes to the dangers that can result from anti-Semitism. People should never forget what happened. My grandfather and his family were some of the lucky ones to escape Nazi Germany. However, there were far too many who were not as fortunate. If The Starfish can help remind people never to forget and to always learn from past mistakes, then I think that’s wonderful.

Jacob Elyachar: Why should my readers check out The Starfish?

Tyler Gildin: I think at its core it’s a human interest piece. The Starfish is a story about survival and perseverance and the impact that individual strangers can have on somebody. It can be like a ripple effect, impacting so many more lives. I hope viewers find the film inspiring, regardless of if they are Jewish. The piece has many themes that can hopefully resonate with viewers. There’s a love story in it. It’s a story of entrepreneurialism. It’s a human interest piece of somebody who struggled but ultimately was able to succeed and live the American Dream. You can never have enough of those stories.

For more information about The Starfish and Tyler Gildin’s other projects, visit his website.

You can also connect with Tyler Gildin on social media. Visit his Instagram and Twitter channels.

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Copyright 2019 Jacob Elyachar