The Full Story
STORY OF THE FILM
ASSYRIANS IN MOTION
STORY OF THE FILM
The two dusty reels of film, are, like many things Assyrian, miraculous survivors, a testimony to the vibrancy and resilience of the Assyrian culture. The reels discovered among the papers of Dr. Joel Elias, a Californian Assyrian, after his passing in 2017, are a cultural treasure. The film, which includes color footage, is a rare document of the immigrant communities in America just twenty years after many fled genocide in Persia (today’s Iran).
The films have their own migration story. Chicago Assyrian John (Aghajan) Baba, originally of Seir Persia, was a photographer and editor who traveled to Assyrian communities in America in 1937-- including Chicago, Illinois; Yonkers and Manhattan, New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Elizabeth and Newark, New Jersey; and New Britain and Hartford, Connecticut--filming Assyrian American picnics, churches, cemeteries, family gatherings, and businesses.
The film resurfaced in 1955, traveling from California to Yonkers, for a showing. The following notice appeared in the monthly publication, the Assyrian Star in December, 1955:
"A film taken in 1937 of Assyrians in Philadelphia, Pa., Elizabeth, N.J., Yonkers, N.Y., and New Britain, Conn., was recently loaned to the Star by Mr. Cyrus S. Moorad of Hughson, California, to be shown as a means of raising funds for the Star. It will be shown in each community soon after the first of the year. Watch for the announcement and be sure to come and see all your friends. Everyone is in it."
In 2000, the films came into the possession of Dr. Joel Elias, a long-term officer of San Francisco's Assyrian Foundation of America, most likely from the Moorad family. He made VHS copies and periodically showed the videos to family members and others. The two original film reels were eventually stored in a closet. Seventeen years later they were rediscovered by the Elias family.
Annie Elias, Joel Elias' daughter, had them digitized and the film restorer at Movette, in San Francisco, suggested giving them to the Library of Congress National Film Archive where they are now housed (bequeathed by the Assyrian Foundation of America).
The film restoration revealed, astoundingly, that some of the film was in color, a brand new innovation in 1937. The restorer also noted that the films depicted more than just Chicago, as the family had previously assumed, and pointed out an image of a Sheffield Dairy truck and a New York license plate on a car. Further examination of buildings and street signs led to the conclusion that some of the film was set in Yonkers, New York.
A Google search of “Assyrians in Yonkers” led to Dr. Ruth Kambar’s newly released book, Assyrians of Yonkers, which had been published that very month in 2019. Looking at the photos in Ruth’s book, Annie saw a photo of the Reverend Benjamin whom she recognized from the film. Annie wrote to Ruth, sending her screenshots of Reverend Benjamin. It turned out that the Reverend Benjamin was Ruth’s great-grandfather and the Sheffield Dairy truck was Ruth’s grandfather’s.
Both Ruth and Annie experienced the astonishment of being reunited with their ancestors: both of them discovered in the films their fathers as little boys, their grandparents, uncles, aunts, and great-grandparents, along with countless family friends from several Assyrian communities.
Since the unearthing of the films, Ruth and Annie have engaged in a research project that has included interviewing Assyrian elders who appear as children in the films, recording them watching and reacting to the films, and gathering their identifications of people and places as well as their stories of the time.
Some of the Assyrians interviewed even remembered being filmed and pointed out John Baba in the film (he had handed the camera over so he could appear in a shot).
Ruth has retraced John Baba’s path, from Chicago to New Britain to Yonkers to New Jersey, showing the film to Assyrians along the way and making further discoveries.
EVERYONE IS IN IT
Beyond the experience of seeing one’s specific ancestors we hope that viewing the films, even without knowing the people, is an experience of recognition, familiarity, and delight.
Photographs of our ancestors from the era are often formal, stiff, posed, the people look severe. Seeing Assyrians in motion--gesturing, laughing, eating, dancing, playing music--gives a completely different perception. Those playful children, kidding around and mugging for the camera, are just like our children. That couple chomping on pumpkin seeds are just like our aunts and uncles. As one viewer wrote:
“I wanted to tell you what an astonishing experience it was to see the film clips of our family and ancestors from 80+ years ago. Old photos feel like history, but seeing the movement, the smiles, the crazy things kids (including our parents) have always done and will always do, bridges that gap and reminds us of the continuity of our shared experience."
Among the writings of Annie’s great-grandfather, Rabbi Badal Elias, was a 1909 poem he wrote from Yonkers, where he first immigrated for work, describing looking at a photograph of his family in Urmia and the anguish of being separated from them. He writes of longing for the day he would see them again. Only two of his children in the photograph made it to the United States--he never saw his youngest son, mother, or wife again, all victims of the genocide.
So many of the people in the films could tell the same story of separation. We hope that viewing these films will bring Assyrians together, like a family reunion, and the viewer will share in the joy that is so obvious among these communities living intimately together, in diaspora.
The film has been presented at the Assyrian Foundation of America in San Francisco, The Assyrian Policy Institute's National Assyrian Conference in Washington D.C., the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Assyrian American Association anniversary event in Yonkers, New York, at California State University, Stanislaus, in Turlock, California, and at the 2023 Assyrian Studies Symposium at Stanford Univer