In her debut film, one New York City filmmaker shares her parents’ unique love story and takes viewers on a trip through history.
Judy Schiller is the writer and director behind the documentary “It Happened in Havana: A Yiddish Love Story,” a film that highlights the story of her parents, Reuben and Isabel Schiller, a Forest Hills couple who first laid eyes on each other in 1940s Havana, Cuba.
Schiller — a professional photographer who has worked with musicians such as Miles Davis — said that she always had the desire to be a filmmaker in the back of her mind. Iin 2015 she finally decided to embark on her first film after watching Martin Scorsese’s documentary on his parents called “Italianamerican” at a film forum.
Scorsese’s film inspired her to make a movie about her own parents and share with viewers decades worth of footage that her family had kept, ranging from the 1920s through the 1950s, and that she always wanted to put to use.
“I embarked on this not knowing a lot of things,” Schiller said about deciding to start her movie. “I didn’t know what I would get out of this. When you make a documentary film there is no script, you don’t know what you are going to end up with.”
When starting the project, Schiller said she went with a set of questions for her parents and began asking them about their past — where they grew up, memories of her grandparents and more.
After going down memory lane, Schiller realized that the film was not just a family or personal venture; it was a story worth sharing with everyone.
“I realized that I actually had something that wasn’t just for me to watch, that I had actual something to share with people,” she said.
The 27-minute documentary features the couple — who at the time of filming had been married for 61 years — sitting on the couch at their Forest Hills home in Queens, where they had lived in for over half a century, looking back at their past.
Both discuss their childhoods, with her dad growing up in the Lower East Side and her mother moving from Eastern Europe to Cuba as a young girl.
The film’s name comes from the main focus of the film, which follows the courtship of Schiller’s parents, which began in Havana after her father decided to go to Cuba on vacation.
After meeting, the two fell for each other, said Schiller, and even after her father went back to the United States after 10 days, the two kept writing each other letters.
The catch was that her father could not speak Spanish and her mother could not speak English so the two communicated through Yiddish.
Schiller’s mother months later moved to the United States, her father was drafted to serve in World War II, and the two then later married and moved into their Forest Hills home in 1959.
According to Schiller, the film not only tells her parent’s love story but it also serves as a history lesson for viewers. Throughout the film her father discusses what it was like at a time without electricity, remembering both World Wars, and experiencing life in Cuba before Fidel Castro.
“It was a journey for me,” she said. “It was really a learning experience and a journey of discovery in many ways.”
Since being releasing, the film has screened at various film festivals — including the Queens World Film Festival last month — and on April 14 will make its television premiere at 10:30 p.m. on channel THIRTEEN in New York. The film will also be streamed for the next six month on the THIRTEEN website.
Schiller added that she plans to continue sharing the film, with big hopes that Scorsese will one day see the film as well.
“I always sit in the back of the room because I want to see people’s reactions,” she said. “ I hope that people will learn more and I feel that every time someone laughs at my movie, then I did my job.”
And although both her parents passed away before the film debuted, Schiller said that throughout the whole experience of making the documentary, her parents loved seeing themselves on camera and she knows they are happy with the finished product.
“I said to myself, I’m going to make this movie and I’m going to take it as far as I can take it,” she said. “Wherever [my parents] are, they’re smiling.”