Artist Spotlight:
‘The Dancing Dogs of Dombrova’ filmmaker Zack Bernbaum

Leading up to the 2019 JxJ, we asked our filmmakers and artists a few questions about their featured programs.
In this edition, director Zack Bernbaum talks The Dancing Dogs of Dombrova

What inspired you to tell the story depicted in your film?

This is a very personal film inspired by my Bubbie’s history – she is from a town called Dombrova Gornicza, had a dog named Peter, and is a Holocaust survivor. The title of the film actually came to me first when spending time with my Bubbie. My sister’s dog started jumping up and down and my Bubbie exclaimed she was dancing! It was a loving and intimate moment, and my Bubbie’s excitement about this dancing dog and the fact that she’s from Dombrova, quickly formed into the title of the film. There was something lyrical about the title that resonated with me, and because it came about when spending time with my Bubbie I felt it made sense to use her story and her history as an inspirational launching off point.


Director Zach Bernbaum

What was a particular obstacle you faced while making this film? 

The script and financing came together so quickly (which never happens) that we decided to shoot the film in winter – which ultimately enhanced the bleak but beautiful aesthetic and added more obstacles for the characters to overcome, but at the same meant we were filming in freezing temperatures.

We were told that Romanian winters were more temperate, but they had a cold front just before we began filming so we were working in -30 degree weather. Add to the fact that much of the film is outside, and our interior scenes are in old buildings without modern heating, and the weather became a major obstacle.

The cold weather did however unite the cast and crew, and it provides a rather haunting and otherworldly feeling to the film. Seeing people’s breath in an abandoned synagogue gives the scene and location a beautiful yet melancholic atmosphere.


What do you want audiences to walk away with after screening your film?

Firstly, I want audiences to be entertained.

Beyond that, I hope people connect with the themes and characters – the idea of recovery and reconnection, and the importance of sharing experiences, even (or especially) difficult ones, with family. That it’s never too late to forgive.

I also want people to laugh. Laughter is essential.


Why do you think Washington, DC is a valuable location to screen your film?

Washington, DC is the centre-point of American history, and The Dancing Dogs of Dombrova is very much about rediscovering your history, learning from your history, and hopefully becoming better because of it. I think there is some wonderful thematic resonance to playing in DC.


Still from ‘The Dancing Dogs of Dombrova’

What films or filmmakers have been the most influential to you?

The easy answer is Stephen Spielberg. The way he is able to shift his sensibilities from light-hearted entertainment like serious drama like Munich is brilliant. Guillermo del Toro – especially Pan’s Labyrinth – is a remarkable filmmaker and visualist. Alex Garland’s films are incredible. I wish more people saw Annihilation. Honestly there’s too many to list.


Why are Jewish-interest films important today?

I think Jewish-interest films are important because each person has their own experience with Judaism – whether religiously, culturally or historically. There are no two exact experiences, which lead to a wide range of topics, stories, and themes to explore in film.

Being able to create and share stories that are touching, difficult, or funny while still retaining a sense of Jewish identity allows for audiences inside and outside our community to gain a deeper understanding into who we are as people, and hopefully unite us as people.

I do believe that film unites us – it’s one of the reasons I love going to the cinema, having that communal experience – and I think (or hope) people can gain common ground by sitting in a dark room together watching and appreciating film.

Watch The Dancing Dogs of Dombrova during the 2019 JxJ.

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