Suzan Marcinkus for Slovak Social Club
Susan Marcinkus is Co-Producer of Manifest Films in Chicago and Los Angeles. Over the last fifteen years she’s worked in Hollywood as director, producer and editor on award winning film and TV projects. Among her numerous credits, she served as segment producer on the popular CBS reality show Rescue 911 and on Safe Streets, a syndicated reality TV series. She was associate producer/editor of the feminist feature documentary, Right Out of History-The Making of the Dinner Party, chronicling the process of Judy Chicago’s acclaimed mixed media installation. Marcinkus directed and produced the dramatic short, Second Thoughts, winner of the CINE Golden Eagle award, that aired on A&E and PBS. She worked as editor on the OSCAR AWARD winning dramatic film Board and Care, and on Francis Ford Coppola and Godfrey Reggio’s groundbreaking feature doc, Koyaanisquatsi, Life Out of Balance. She was also co-producer on Late Curtain, a dramatic short and Chicago International Film Festival award winner. As producer at the Jewish Television Network, she was responsible for the urban affairs series Critical Issues Facing L.A. and other weekly news magazine shows. Ms. Marcinkus holds a BFA from the University of Wisconsin and an MFA in Film/TV Directing from the American Film Institute, Los Angeles.
Her personal documentary film, Pictures from the Old Country, was shot entirely on location in Slovakia. It’s had numerous airings on PBS TV and continues to play at conferences and universities across the U.S. and central Europe. It had its west coast debut at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles and its east coast debut at the Slovak Embassy in Washington, D.C.
Pictures from the Old Country chronicles the filmmaker’s quest to uncover the mysteries of her Slovak identity and heritage, after they had been lost behind the Iron Curtain and her family’s secrecy. As a young girl growing up during the Cold War, she is curious about the “strange” language her grandmother is speaking and the enigma that shrouds her past. Fantasizing that Grandmother must be a communist spy, she begins to ask questions that are never fully answered. Years later as an adult, seeking answers to many of those same questions, she embarks on a journey that crosses continents and generations — to learn about Slovakia, why her grandmother came to America, and who she left behind. With few clues to go on, she embarks on a journey of discovery. With the help of a genealogist, archivists, historians, and a film crew – she gradually fits together the pieces of the puzzle, telling the story of her grandmother and the history of her homeland. The filmmaker’s sleuthing leads her to family she had never before known in a country that was facing its own identity crisis during the split of Czechoslovakia into two separate countries — Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Along the way, not only does she gain a deeper understanding of her family roots, but discovers a beautiful land, a rich culture, and a profound sense of her own Slovak-American identity.
NTERVIEW with SlovakChicago.com
What inspiration did you have to make the movie about your Slovak roots, “Pictures from the Old Country”?
My curiosity about my Slovak roots began as a young girl growing up in Wisconsin during the height of the Cold War with an immigrant grandmother. She had a foreign sounding name and the heavy accent to go along with it. The fact that my grandmother spoke an “unusual” language intrigued me. It didn’t sound anything like the Spanish and French that was being taught in my elementary school. And it was a language she would speak only with my mother, uncles and aunts in hushed tones and late at night, after my bedtime, as if they had something to hide from us children. It haunted me. Unfortunately, I was never taught the language. The media at that time was saturated with stories about the “Red Scare” and having an active imagination, I thought it sounded suspiciously like Russian, and even fantasized “Gram” was a communist spy!
I asked many questions and would occasionally quiz Gram about her past, but she would always change the subject. Her reticence was palpable. All I managed to learn was that she was from a place called “the Old Country”. I finally learned her homeland was a place called Czechoslovakia. Occasionally I’d come across a clue to the culture she’d left behind, like the miniature doll I’d found in her sewing basket one night, dressed exquisitely in the colorful folk dress of her Slovak people. With its elaborate headpiece, tiny beads and delicate bobbin lace, it was dressed so differently than all the other dolls I’d ever played with. I wondered why she’d never shown it to me…
I wanted to know more; the questions flooded my thoughts ‑‑ what is Grandma whispering about? Where is this mysterious “Old Country” she mentions, without saying anything further? Why did she leave her country? What is she ashamed of? I always had a sense that my grandmother was still connected to another world, and I needed to experience it. I felt something was missing in my life.
I grew up without getting many answers to these childhood questions. There wasn’t much more that I could do then, but I resolved that one day I would discover the secrets of my grandmother’s past. I felt compelled to get to the place that elicited such curiosity in me. My need to know carried on into adulthood, and like many third generation children of immigrant descent, however, I didn’t dig deeper into my family history until after my grandmother died and my film career was established.
Maybe it was inevitable that years later, while working on a film project in Vienna, I managed to make a day trip to nearby Bratislava. Something was pulling me. Despite problems crossing the border in then-communist Czechoslovakia, I spent a day there inhaling the smells, sights and sounds of my grandmother’s “Old Country”.It was there I heard everyone in their daily lives speaking the same tongue that I’d heard only during nighttime whispers when I was a child. During the span of only one day, I felt a deep and soulful connection. It was electrifying. As a filmmaker, I couldn’t help but think of my experience with images, stories, and music. I vowed to return.
When were you able to return to Slovakia?
In 1992, after the communist regime tumbled in Czechoslovakia during the 1989 Velvet Revolution, I was awarded the opportunity to teach English at Comenius University in Bratislava as a Masaryk Fellow. I went with many of the questions I had as a child, still unanswered, and a Hi-8 video camera.I wanted to explore the land of my ancestors, find my grandmother’s village and any remaining family members. However, there were many obstacles, distractions, and surprises in my quest – the biggest being the split between the Czechs and Slovaks. Slovakia and the Czech lands were splitting their country over national and economic differences and I was able to learn about this history-in-the-making firsthand. Somehow it seemed appropriate that I should find myself in Slovakia searching for my identity at a time when the Slovak people were reexamining their own. As I searched for my personal roots and Slovak identity, the country itself was struggling to gain its own identity and autonomy.
Meanwhile, I was quickly realizing that I didn’t have sufficient information to find my grandmother’s family. I managed to find and travel to Martin, the region of her birth in Central Slovakia. But with a population of over sixty thousand people, it was hardly the ancestral “village” I had in mind. During this trip I attempted to find members of my grandmother’s family, but short on time, I was unsuccessful. I had barely scratched the surface of my search. I returned home and continued my research, editing, and writing.
Did you ever find your Slovak family?
I returned to Slovakia years later, more determined than ever to find my family and document the experience for posterity. A cinematographer friend who I’d worked with in L.A., Geza Sinkovics, accompanied me, along with a small film crew. A Hungarian native, Geza was familiar with shooting in Central Europe and felt comfortable there. I took on the role of detective and continued the search for my grandmother’s family. My sleuthing resulted in a meeting with a Slovak man whose father had worked in America and sent home a wedding photo taken in Kenosha, my home town. The bride looked like my grandmother might have as a young woman, but it was difficult to know for sure. I realized I’d never seen a photo of my grandmother’s wedding. Was it her; could it be? I felt I was getting closer.
Just two days before my departure from Slovakia, with the help of local archivists and a genealogist, I finally succeeded in finding my grandmother’s family. The camera crew captured every moment as my second cousins, daughters of the sisters my grandmother had left behind, and their families, greeted me with open arms. Out came the old photos, including the same wedding pose taken in Wisconsin. Indeed it was my grandmother! How ironic yet fitting that I saw it for the first time in Slovakia. My relatives explained that my family’s former properties no longer existed. City buildings now stood on the site of my grandmother’s former home. A local living history museum provided us with some idea and visual information of what my grandmother’s home once looked like.
Why did this movie need to be made?
Most everyone spends part of their life seeking self‑discovery, but many of us wish to do more than just scratch the surface. We come to the realization that we can’t fully understand ourselves without probing deeper than our daily existence. We find we need to explore our family roots from the past, for they give us a foundation of who we are in the present and, ultimately, who we can become in the future.
Throughout much of the 20th Century, our American multicultural “melting pot” had distanced us from the land and culture of our ancestors. The notion of assimilation into American culture at the expense of one’s own was the norm for the immigrant experience. But much was lost as the newcomers scrambled to become Americans. Now we understand that each American, like each tile in a mosaic, is of a distinct and unique culture and identity. The mosaic as a whole can’t work without recognizing the beauty of each tile.
The recent popularity of tracing our family histories as evidenced by the flood of new websites, books, magazine features, and TV specials can only indicate that we Americans currently have a “collective curiosity” about our roots and a strong need to re‑connect with our cultural heritage. The act of digging deeper, going beyond the surface of our everyday lives, making the past come alive, is a healing act. This is true for any nationality, for any ethnic or racial background.
Has the experience of making the film changed your life in any way? If so, how?
Making this documentary film, Pictures From the Old Country, has enabled me to satisfy the deep longing I had to connect with a family history that I’d never before known. In a journey that started at the beginning of the 20th century, when my grandmother left Slovakia forever to immigrate to America, I returned there at the beginning of the 21st century to reconnect with my family and my cultural heritage. The joy of getting to know my Slovak family has enriched my life, as I’ve made annual pilgrimages to visit them, as well as new Slovak friends and colleagues. There have also been bridges built to the Slovak and Czech-American cultural societies, to film organizations, libraries and universities.
My thrilling journey also made it possible for me to learn Slovakia’s difficult history, a history of survival, despite hardship and constant foreign domination. I came to understand how it impacted my grandmother’s early life and the generations before her. I discovered that the Slovak resistance against its thousand-year foreign rule was centered in the region of my grandmother’s birth.
Once in the U.S., my grandmother struggled to define herself as an American, while Cold War realities severed ties to her family back home. She had a need to give her children the opportunity to live their lives with the promise of freedom, education and prosperity – the things she never had growing up in Slovakia. Without her sacrifices, my mother, sisters and I would never have had the wealth of opportunities that were not available in a war‑ravaged country, and a communist controlled state. I have come to understand that I owe a great debt to my grandmother and to those who came before her for my lifetime opportunities and freedoms; for this I’m grateful.
Would you consider making a documentary about Slovaks in Chicago?
Absolutely! I’d love to make a doc about Slovaks in Chicago. I’m sure it can happen with the Slovak community’s help with fundraising efforts, in particular.
Where can we purchase the movie?
To purchase a DVD or videotape of the film for home use, you can contact Manifest Films at 708-660-9320. Or you can e-mail your purchasing inquiries to [email protected].