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‘Aida’s Secrets’ reveals fascinating family history

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Shep Shell and Aida Zasadsinska reunite in “Aida’s Secrets.” (Courtesy Music Box Films)

History, genealogy and one family’s tangle of lies mix fascinatingly well in “Aida’s Secrets” — a documentary in which two brothers, separated as toddlers after World War II, learn of each other’s existence nearly 70 years later and reunite and seek truths about their origins.

Directed conventionally but effectively by Alon Schwarz and Shaul Schwarz, the film is a family-tree mystery, somewhat like Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell.”

The filmmakers chronicle the journey of an uncle, Izak, who was born in the Bergen Belsen displaced-persons camp, in Germany, in 1945, and grew up in Israel, in a loving foster family.

At age 10, Izak learned that the couple raising him were not his biological parents and that his birth mother, Aida, was living in Canada. Izak and Aida established a long-distance relationship, but Aida never told him who his biological father was.

Aida also didn’t tell Izak that he had a younger brother, Shep, who, as a young boy, moved to Winnipeg with his father, Grisha, from whom Aida was divorced. It isn’t until he is nearing 70, that Izak, now married with children and grandchildren, learns this.

Izak travels to Winnipeg to meet Shep, who is blind and a former Paralympic athlete. Shep, too, didn’t know, until recently, that he had a brother.

As emotional as their reunion is, it is topped by Shep’s reunion with Aida at the Montreal facility where she resides. Aida hasn’t contacted Shep since he was a boy.

Why did Aida not stay in touch with her younger son? Who was Izak’s father? Why were family members instructed not to inform Izak of Shep’s existence? Who is the man posing with Aida and her sons in an old snapshot? What was Aida’s life like during and after the war?

Aida is evasive when asked such questions, sometimes citing an inability to remember.

Friends and relatives provide clues. DNA tests solve some of the mysteries. Other answers have probably gone to the grave with Aida, who died not long after reuniting with Shep.

The Schwarzes aren’t the most original documentarians, but their film impresses both as an intimate story of family and identity and as a bigger-picture look at the reverberations of wartime trauma and displacement.

Their thoughtful, nonjudgmental directing captures a wealth of feeling. When Shep is getting reacquainted with his mother, he brings to mind a young child desperate for approval.

Aida’s potentially frustrating memory lapses prove, in their own way, revealing, in that they seem to reflect less the results of aging than the workings of a coping mechanism.

The story’s unpredictable turns are captivating. Just as things appear to be winding down, another Aida-related bombshell shocks the brothers.

REVIEW

Aida’s Secrets
Three stars
Starring Izak Szewelwicz, Shep Shell, Aida Zasadsinska
Directed by Alon Schwarz, Shaul Schwarz
Not rated
Running time 1 hour, 35 minutes

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