In the maze of a major festival event such as the Berlinale, The Klezmer Project, a debut feature by Argentinian filmmakers Paloma Schachmann and Leandro Koch, which premiered in the Encounters section, emerged as a unique and utterly captivating title and was awarded the 2023 GWFF Best First Feature Award. 

Maybe the best way to describe The Klezmer Project would be to say that it is a small wonder created by the fresh talent of its writers-directors Paloma Schachmann and Leandro Koch. The Klezmer Project is at once a riveting journey through time, space, and the souls of its protagonists, a music documentary exploring Klezmer music and, last but not least, a political film questioning the current state of Jewish cultural heritage worldwide. Many different narrative threads weave together to form this thought-provoking, heartfelt, witty, and thoroughly enjoyable film. 

A fictionalised version of the directors’ real-life relationship serves as the main storyline: Leandro, a young filmmaker who makes a living filming Jewish weddings in Buenos Aires, meets Paloma, a beautiful, talented clarinettist who plays in a Klezmer band at Jewish weddings. They both fall in love. To keep the girl’s interest alive and cement their relationship, Leandro, who initially fakes his interest in this topic, joins her project to make a documentary on Klezmer music, the traditional and slowly dying instrumental music of the Ashkenazi Jews of Central and Eastern Europe. 

A second narrative layer is provided by an off-screen female voice speaking Yiddish and claiming to be the devil itself. The devil’s voice tells a mesmerising tale from the beginning of the 20th century about another couple, gravedigger Yankel and the rabbi’s beautiful daughter Taibele. Both the devil and Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza are heavily involved in their romance. This intriguing off-screen story, expertly interwoven with Leandro and Paloma’s love story, builds up a witty counterpoint to it. 

The Klezmer Project

The filmmakers, both grandchildren of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who fled the Nazis, are keen to understand why Yiddish, their forefathers’ language, as well as Klezmer, their wonderful folk music, have almost vanished. Their explanation is strongly political: beyond the Holocaust, the decline of this huge cultural heritage was prompted, in their view, by the creation of the State of Israel which disregarded all the various diasporic regional cultural traditions and made Hebrew the only official language of the young nation. Leandro’s and Paloma’s fictional characters decide to embark on a long journey to Eastern Europe in search of their own family roots as well as local Klezmer bands. 

In the second half, the film becomes more of a road movie, incorporating many documentary elements as the filmmaking team travels through Transcarpathia meeting many people and local musicians. Welcoming and warm-hearted, the villagers open their houses and share their daily lives and their music. Each encounter is a gem of life experience, wisdom, and true beauty, captured unobtrusively by the filmmakers’ precise camera work and sensitive approach. 

We also see how the film is made – a hilarious reflection on the adventurous production process – when Leandro visits the film’s actual Austrian producer, Lukas Valenta Rinner, in Salzburg to secure funding. Despite this being yet another thread in an intricate web of references, the film’s skilful editing succeeds in perfectly orchestrating these threads to create a fine-tuned, uncomplicated whole. Paloma and Leandro’s erratic search for Klezmer bands eventually fails, simply because they no longer exist, but it is complemented by a wide range of wonderful performances by local musicians and a newly acquired insight. In this territory, where Judaism peacefully coexisted with the cultures that surrounded it, mutually influencing each other’s traditions, the gypsies fondly preserved Klezmer melodies until today. The film also pays tribute to ethnomusicologist Bob Cohen, an invaluable beacon to the filmmakers, who has spent more than 30 years conducting field research on Klezmer and popular music, working with absolute dedication and generously sharing his knowledge with others. 

The Klezmer Project concludes with a wedding scene, thereby closing the circle. Where the first wedding in Buenos Aires was the catalyst for Leandro and Paloma’s romance, the last one, held in a remote Transcarpathian village, is filmed by Leandro alone. After showering us with jubilant music and unrestrained energy in its final sequence, the film bids us farewell leaving us with much to think about.

This conversation with Paloma Schachmann and Leandro Koch took place during the 73 Berlinale.

The Klezmer Project is a remarkable first feature film; could you each briefly describe your artistic backgrounds? 

Paloma Schachmann: I’ve always written and played music since I was a young child. After graduating from high school, I immediately began working as a musician and have since performed at a variety of events. About 15 years ago, I became interested in Klezmer, and ever since then, I’ve done all kinds of performances of Klezmer music and have been learning about its background. Filmmaking started for me with The Klezmer Project, and now it’s my second career! 

Leandro Koch: Between 2004 and 2008, I studied film directing at the Universidad del Cine in Buenos Aires. After that, I worked as a cameraman, scriptwriter, and assistant director. I completed the Di Tella University Film Program, which was essential to my growth as a filmmaker. I made two short films, La Isla Visible and Pero Algun Dia, and then began working with Paloma on this movie in 2016.

The Klezmer Project

What led to the creation of The Klezmer Project and what stages did it go through? 

Paloma: We both realised there wasn’t much audiovisual information available about Klezmer music. A lot more was being played than could be found on the internet. The idea for a film grew out of a trip we took through Eastern Europe to document what was left of Klezmer in its homeland today. After we came back from that trip, we realised we had many hours of material that could be used for research. We began to delve deeper into the ideas we wanted to express in a film and began the creative process while seeking funding to make the film as we saw it.

Leandro: The idea was 100% Paloma’s. Let’s call it the starting point for our work on a documentary about Klezmer music. Then, as we explored the subject, things got more complicated, and the film became more complex as well. Writing, shooting, editing, and rewriting were all significant parts of the process. Working this way felt extremely natural. It allowed us to have an idea, test it, fail, try again, and so on. Today, I can no longer imagine directing with a production setup that doesn’t allow for the freedom to fail and try again until we get what we’re looking for. 

The Klezmer Project’s journey is a poignant quest of one’s own identity, memories, and lost traces…

Leandro: When we first considered making this film, it was simply a documentary about Klezmer music. While researching the subject, we discovered that Klezmer was like a small door that led to a vast world, an immense culture, Yiddish culture, that had been forgotten, and Klezmer was all that was left of it. “How did it happen?” we wondered. Of course, we all think that the main reason for that was the Holocaust, don’t we? According to the statistics we found, the Holocaust exterminated 66% of the Jews living in Eastern Europe. But what happened to the remaining 33% that survived, and where did their Yiddish go? What exactly happened? That was the starting point of the real quest. All of this process had a strong impact on my personal life, because I grew up in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires but never felt connected to it. 

Paloma: The Jewish community of Buenos Aires is made up of people from different places. In my opinion, it’s a major sociopolitical issue. It’s important to distinguish between institutions and people but, in general, people who identify with the Jewish community in Buenos Aires have a distinct way of thinking about a specific political posture and a general attitude that I would describe as ‘endogamous’.

Leandro: My grandfather used to tell me many stories about Judaism, both in his homeland and in Buenos Aires, when the first migrants arrived from afar. Listening to these stories and comparing them to my own experiences in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires gave me the impression that a significant change had occurred over the years. “What exactly happened in history? What was the event that profoundly changed Yiddish culture, people’s idiosyncrasy and their ideology?” I wondered. Cultures don’t disappear on their own; they are naturally passed down from generation to generation unless there is colonisation or a tangible desire to end them. In fact, the reason for that was to be found in the creation of the State of Israel, a newborn country that decided to ‘forget’ and leave behind both the Yiddish and Sephardic cultures. The new State of Israel gave birth to a new culture, the Israeli culture. It’s almost unbelievable, but this profoundly affected not only the State of Israel itself, but also the Jews of the diaspora. The Jewish schools in Buenos Aires stopped teaching Yiddish and began teaching Hebrew instead, which drastically altered people’s identity and perception of their own culture. 

The Klezmer Project

You talk about your own love story in the film, whether real or invented. Why?

Paloma: We understood from the start that we wanted to find narrative elements to frame the documentary components. By introducing ourselves as fictional characters, we were able to illustrate our starting point and convey at least a glimpse of the city and Jewish community of Buenos Aires. At the same time, it allowed us to place Klezmer in a specific environment before moving on to another one in the second part of the film. 

Leandro: I believe it was simply a narrative tool that we invented in order to start developing the different layers of our film. It also has something to do with the desire to make a more narrative film. We both enjoyed the task of telling a story to frame this entire world that we discovered when we established the film’s cornerstone, which was Klezmer music. 

There is a tale we hear off-screen, told in Yiddish by a character who claims to be the devil himself and seamlessly blended with what is happening on screen. I was captivated by this witty, unique approach. How did you come up with this?

Leandro: The story we hear off-screen emerged near the end of the editing process, in the last five months or so. It was a true revelation for us because the place of the story had previously been filled by the voice-over of my character, which was something that never convinced us, but we still kept in order to finish weaving the narrative plot of our love story. The tale idea worked on many levels because it incorporated Yiddish into the film as well.

Prior to that, there was a lot of discussion about Yiddish in our film, but you couldn’t hear anyone speaking Yiddish. That was almost as important to us as being able to finally replace my voice-over, which was something we wanted from the start. We were just trying to figure out how to get rid of it. Finally, we came up with the idea of writing a story that works as a counterpoint to the images.

Paloma: The truth is that we liked the idea of having a storyteller speaking Yiddish while we tried to convey Yiddish culture through the film’s main narrative thread. The first thing we did was read Yiddish literature, specifically looking for stories that could be used in the film. We then realised that the best thing to do was write our characters and our own story, which would help us move forward with the film as well. As Leandro just mentioned, we wrote the tale after finishing a large part of the editing and already knowing the film’s structure. We thought it would be appropriate to introduce Yankel and Taibele, two fictional characters who are somewhere else but feel alive in the film’s narrative. 

Of course, we were aware that we were demanding an extra layer of attention from our audience, which could be risky in the long run. Listening to this Yiddish tale means keeping track of an invisible storyline. Another reason for creating this voice-over tale was necessity: we are not professional actors, but we needed to get in front of the camera in order to make our film. With everything else going on, it was nearly impossible for us as directors and writers to think about acting as well. Those invented characters, in some ways, enabled us to give the characters we played in front of the camera some feelings that we were missing in the concrete act of filming, such as sadness or joy, and they helped us deepen our emotions. 

The Klezmer Project

In fact, as the movie progresses, the Yiddish voice-over disappears for a while. This break gives us a chance to catch our breath and get ready for the movie’s ending, when the story told by the voice-over comes up again proposing an intriguing conclusion. 

Leandro: In fact, we had to work on almost every layer of the film individually. Although we were always aware that we were creating a large ensemble, we had to sit down with each narrative thread separately to see where they appeared, where they didn’t, and where we had some loose end that we hadn’t noticed. Adding the devil’s tale to the fictional story within the documentary story, as well as Leandro’s voice notes, was a real challenge. The Yiddish narrator is very present in the first part of the film, but as the road trip starts, everything begins to drop into the present. We had to decide when this tale would surface again. In other words, we needed to strike a balance between these various layers. 

We haven’t talked about Klezmer music yet… 

Paloma: When we started the project, we said: “We are going to make a Klezmer documentary and film Klezmer bands!” Everything in the film is Klezmer. In the end, we discovered a very different sounding Klezmer than we expected, because there are slow songs and sad songs, whereas you might expect all Klezmer to be about dancing, jumping, and partying. The truth is that this tradition has a vast repertoire, and that music can express a wide range of emotions. The aspects of this culture that we are familiar with have survived to the present day. We wanted to take a step back and see what was about to be lost and be able to represent it through music. Also, when we talk about a disappearing culture, it’s difficult to say when exactly it disappears because it’s a long process. In some ways, the music we are attempting to portray has to do with that type of sound that existed a little earlier in time than what we already know. It’s like trying to save a little bit of it, to arrive just in time before this kind of sound is lost forever. 

Along the way, you recorded a number of wonderful musical performances. Could you tell me more about it?

Leandro: What we found on our journey in Transcarpathia is Klezmer music. It’s folk melodies from the Yiddish culture. We didn’t film them being performed by bands because there are no bands playing Klezmer music in that area, and there are no Jewish weddings to play it at anymore. As a result of the wars and massive migratory movements, Klezmer mutated and was nourished by other cultures of the new countries to which the Jews moved. However, the melodies featured in the film are Yiddish folk melodies, or what became known as Klezmer music many years later. 

The ethnomusicologist Bob Cohen, who also travels to collect sound materials and find witnesses to this musical tradition, is a crucial character in the film.

Paloma: In fact, it is difficult to know what ethnomusicological fieldwork involves, and even more difficult to portray it. It was a real blessing for us to find Bob Cohen who has been doing this type of field research for 30 years and who writes about it all on a blog that is open to anyone who wants to read it. Bob Cohen is very generous with his knowledge. He is someone we could always write to, in any situation, to ask him about a book or a Klezmer song, or other things. His expertise was critical in allowing us to decide exactly what we wanted to show in the film. He welcomed us into his world with open arms, accepting us with our cameras, equipment, and an entire crew, all of which were unfamiliar to him. 

Leandro: I believe the film also serves as a tribute to Bob Cohen’s work because, as Paloma said, he’s been doing this research for three decades and only a few people are aware of it. We wanted to keep track of his work and pay tribute to him in some way, since he was always a beacon, a guide for us.

The Klezmer Project

The film is divided geographically into two parts: the first, shot in Buenos Aires, shows us more about your real-life existence, revealing some actual relations beyond the two fictional personas you built out of yourselves. I’m referring to Leandro’s bond with his grandmother, who appears to be the film’s hidden driving force. 

Leandro: My grandma, Rebe, was and continues to be incredibly significant in my life. When I was a child, she took great care of me and showered me with affection. I will never forget it. When my grandfather died in 2016, she began to see a slow but consistent decline in her mental abilities. Until Paloma came into my life, the only emotional connection I had to Judaism was through the stories my grandmother and grandfather told me. Stories of migration, full of sadness but also of heroism, of children growing up quickly as a result of beatings. Fantastic and epic stories, yet not out of the norm. These are the same stories that everyone of that generation who arrived in Argentina in the first part of the 20th century must have told. When my character first emerged in the movie, we wondered where this young man, who knows nothing about Judaism, could look for information for a hypothetical documentary about Klezmer music. My grandmother was the solution. We decided to add her as a character because of this, as well as to leave a record of all the stories she always told me.

The elderly are keepers of forgotten worlds, of memory, wisdom, and experience. Every elderly person you come across on your journey is filmed with warmth and tenderness.

Paloma: I believe that the position of the elderly varies greatly depending on culture. Unfortunately, in our culture, the elderly represents the passage of time, impotence, dependence, and, in short, the death that awaits us all at the end of the road. There is a lot of rejection of old age in our society, a lot of locking old people away, taking them out of sight, isolating them. We both have a special bond with our grandparents and older people in general. We seek them out because we are interested in them, and we enjoy talking to them and hearing their stories. Making a film about a culture that belonged to a couple of generations before us was a way to show our affection and gratitude to them as well. 

In the film, your research is similar to that of an archaeologist looking for fragments, bits and pieces of a bygone world…

Paloma: That’s true! Our investigation was similar to an archaeological dig, looking for lost traces. Our goal was to always raise questions and leave those who saw the film with at least some of the same questions that we had during our research without being able to answer them.

Leandro: The ‘archaeological’ traces of Yiddish culture are preserved in Eastern Europe by their former neighbours, which is also a clue, an indication of what that culture was like, how Jewish people shared it, and how they bonded with their neighbours. It was very moving and beautiful for us to learn that gypsies are now keeping track of the lost melodies of the Jews.

Paloma: This quest is a metaphor for life. The fact that the coexistence of gypsies and Jews in this area has left traces in the music moved us greatly. None of them could possibly imagine the course of history, they only knew how to play melodies. In a way, this fact is almost romantic and I still wonder: how is it possible to express so much without using words?

The Klezmer Project

Except for the photographs that Leandro looks at with his grandmother, there is minimal archive material throughout the entire film. These photographs are like silent witnesses of a vanished world. Later on, when you’re traveling around Eastern Europe someone shows you some photographs they accidentally found in their attic but, once again, no one knows anything about the people we see in them. They are simple traces of a faded memory….

Paloma: We spent a long time deciding what archive material to use and whether or not to include content from others in our film. The images that Leandro looks at with his grandmother appeared naturally and we thought this was a situation that anyone could easily relate to: seeing photos with someone from the previous generation. Later, when we were filming in Ukraine, a neighbour living next door to Simkhe, one of the musicians we filmed there, came to the set out of curiosity and ended up telling us about how this quest is a metaphor for life. The fact that the coexistence of gypsies and Jews in this area has left her traces in the music moved us greatly. He discovered it while repairing his roof. There were images of a Jewish family who had lived in that city until 1943, which felt rather disquieting. We discussed how to incorporate the neighbour and his experience into the film, and we filmed him that afternoon. In short, these photographs not only represent what we were looking for in the past, but also that past that overwhelms you even when you aren’t looking for it, as evidence you can’t take your eyes off. 

In the second half of the film, you portray people you met in Eastern Europe, inviting them to pose in front of the camera. These cinematic portraits appear to fill some of the void left by the photographs you mentioned.

Paloma: The majority of the portraits you see were shot in 16mm, which adds to their evocative quality. They are mostly people engaged in rural activities, which in a sense looks anachronistic. We have always been interested in creating portraits. We wanted to convey the sense of a journey through them. What motivates us to travel the most is not a change in landscape but rather the opportunity to interact with others and recognise one’s own culture through the contrast with different civilisations we encounter along the way. The portraits we created aim to understand and highlight these differences.

Leandro: In 2016, when we first visited the region where we would later shoot the film, we were immediately drawn to the people who lived there and felt totally at ease with them. These folks not only knew Jewish traditional tunes that no one else knew, but they were also extraordinarily warm, welcoming, and beautiful individuals. We sought to leave a record of that, portraits that somehow reflected the feeling we experienced the whole time we were there.

Finding the ‘right distance’ between yourself and the people you’re filming means to profoundly respect them. 

Leandro: Certainly, there was a distance that had to be kept in order to deal with respect for the people standing in front of our camera. We didn’t want to look for more sensationalist framing. There were a lot of things that one could highlight in those places but the truth is that we weren’t interested in doing that at all. Our frames are almost all static shots, except for some panning. These panning shots have mostly a very specific narrative function. Our static shots instead were like a gamble. We were betting on a specific frame and trying to make something happen inside it. We were waiting all the time for a little miracle to happen. Sometimes it happened, sometimes it didn’t, but that’s how it was. We were framing a specific spot and betting that reality would give us back something beautiful. A flood of beautiful things happened in those village houses when we were there. The manners and way of life of the people we met in Eastern Europe moved us deeply. These rural villages have very old traditions and give off the impression of being frozen in time. They didn’t use money until ten years ago; they bartered, and a lot of things still work that way. There is a scene in which a lady goes to milk the neighbour’s cow, which is how she gets milk, and she brings him something in exchange. For us it was wonderful to travel to a place where it felt almost as if we were traveling back in time.

The camera is frequently placed on a hilltop in order to capture the whole landscape. Why was that significant to you?

Paloma: It was primarily an aesthetic quest. Transcarpathia’s landscapes are breathtaking, especially when viewed from above, from the Carpathian Mountains. Standing in front of vast landscapes and distant horizons always makes me feel as if time is infinite. It is difficult to perceive large changes in vast landscapes; however, when we inhabit small spaces, changes appear constant and rapid, and we lose our sense of immensity. Viewing landscapes from a higher perspective can sometimes seem to stop time. At least, that’s what happens to me. 

The Klezmer Project

Why does the film include a sort of making-of segment and what part does your Austrian producer and director Lukas Valenta Rinner play in the narrative?

Leandro: The film begins with a young man’s decision to make a documentary in order to seduce a girl. It’s a ruse, because the guy is not interested in the subject and, contrary to what he claims, knows nothing about it. Including the Austrian producers was a way to escalate the conflict, to spread Leandro’s little lie, to involve more people and money. There’s more at stake. At the same time, the character of Lukas in the film represents common sense, the voice of reason, with whom we imagine the viewer must also identify, asking what the filmmakers are looking for in those villages where there are no Jews or Klezmer bands anymore. 

Paloma: We spent many years making this film, and the truth is that the production in the documentary always took up a lot of space, due to the complexity of filming in many countries, the financing, and the desire to film a generation that was on the verge of leaving. We felt it was both necessary and amusing to include the entire production world in the film. It allowed us to laugh at ourselves, to re-signify what was happening to us by putting them on stage, and to find humour in the concrete problems we were experiencing. It was also a way of communicating with the audience, suggesting that we already knew what it would eventually think of our film because it was what we thought about it ourselves! Lukas agreed to play this fictional character because he knew and understood what we were going through, and he found it amusing that we resolved certain conflicts in this manner. In short, this film within the film fostered a sense of complicity within the team that was very positive. 

The journey you take in the second half of the film is full of surprises. How much of it was influenced by unforeseeable events?

Paloma: Unforeseen circumstances had a significant impact on the entire film. Because of the pandemic, we had to stop shooting before we could begin filming in Romania the first time we went out. Then, we had to deal with the unforeseen loss of the right to film particular bands in particular places, or with musicians abruptly changing their itinerary and no longer being available. But, in general, I believe that going off the beaten track is more about taking the time to truly understand what you’re looking for. I believe that sometimes we spend more time looking for questions than looking for answers, which is what happens to Leandro’s character. 

“The one who seeks his roots beats around the bush.” What did you want to say with this idiom that we hear at one point in the film?

Leandro: The idiom implies that seeking one’s roots is a subconscious way of beating around the bush. It spoke to us because many people believe that by discovering your roots, you will discover yourself, and what Leandro’s character understands is that, at least for him, discovering his family origins doesn’t really alter his perspective on anything. He will find himself by rediscovering his dream of being a filmmaker, a dream he then lost on the way due to the monotony of his job, and which he now recovers through this project. 

The Klezmer Project significantly begins and ends with two wedding parties thousands of miles apart, as if coming full circle. 

Paloma: The script was constantly changing right up until the final edit. However, the truth is that we went into the shoot with some ideas that we had been considering for a while. One of those was to end the film with a wedding, even though we weren’t sure the film would begin with one. We knew this closure had to do with our character’s evolution. The shot of the wedding that we see at the end of the film was a huge challenge for both production and us. We eventually decided to keep that sequence shot, which runs for more than eight minutes in the final edit. This final wedding shot, in some ways, stands for something that represents us, for who we are in real life.

 A film with so many layers implies a highly complex editing process. What steps did you take?

Paloma: The most difficult aspect of the editing was the great confidence with which we originally approached it. We expected to finish the editing in three months, but it took us close to a year and a half. Understanding that error was difficult, as was realising that each layer we added to the plot implied a new editing challenge. It was extremely complicated to mix all the layers and make the fiction interact with the documentary without losing sight of the narrative threads that exist only at the sound level. The most difficult aspect of editing, in my opinion, was deciding not to give up until we had an appropriate outcome. That was the only constant throughout the entire process. 

In terms of production, what are the hurdles you had to face?

Paloma: The production faced some major obstacles, such as how to deal with the shoot when crossing so many borders with the equipment, not only due to bureaucratic issues, but also due to cultural issues and communication. To have simultaneous translations while making the documentary recording, we needed translators and a special system. Another critical aspect of the production was flexibility. Scheduling in advance was challenging because the shootings were determined by authorisations to film specific situations or events. Of course, another major problem was the difficulty of filming in a country with an unstable economy like Argentina’s. Running behind the devaluation was another issue to consider in the production. 

Leandro: One of the most difficult aspects of filming in Eastern Europe was putting together a shooting schedule almost entirely on the fly. Communication was difficult because the characters lived in rural areas and didn’t speak the same language. It was difficult to make concrete plans for dates, and the shooting time in the region was actually 5 weeks. It might seem like a long time for an Argentinean movie, but for a documentary like this, it wasn’t. 

In retrospect, how would you describe your first feature filmmaking experience?

Paloma: The hardest part was figuring out what roles we had to fill, what issues we had to deal with, and what we could have delegated. Another significant challenge was dealing with the fact that the film would take much longer than we had anticipated when we began. Those two problems, I believe, were the most draining.

Leandro: The language barrier that separated us from the real characters we filmed in Eastern Europe was the biggest obstacle for me. I would have loved to be able to communicate with them directly without intermediaries.

What are your future projects? 

Paloma: Currently, we are enjoying the film’s presentations, showing it to audiences and observing their response. We have some ideas for our next projects. The 16mm work we did in The Klezmer Project inspired us to try further explorations in this area, and I believe we feel very at ease using a hybrid register. But for now, all we have are ideas and discussions; I think we’ll probably start writing again in a few months.