“AIDA'S SECRETS” — 3 stars — Izak Sagi, Shep Shell, Aida Zasadsinska; not rated; Broadway
“Aida’s Secrets” feels like the best possible hybrid of an Ancestry.com advertisement and an episode of "Dr. Phil." Alon and Shaul Schwarz’s documentary traces the journey of two long-separated brothers who unite to solve the mystery of their past.
The story starts in Israel with Alon's uncle Izak Sagi. Izak didn’t find out until well into his childhood that he was adopted and even as an adult, he discovered that the people closest to him knew more about his mysterious past than they were telling him. At one point, even Alon has to admit that he'd heard rumors about Izak having a secret blind brother named Shep, who had been separated from him at a young age.
Things pick up steam once Alon and Izak locate Shep in Canada and head out to meet him. They have little to go on aside from a pair of old photographs and the odd anecdote, but the story of the separated brothers slowly starts to form.
It turns out Izak and Shep were together with their mother Aida in a special camp in Germany set up after World War II to accommodate displaced Jews. Following this time in the camp, for some inexplicable reason, Izak was sent to Palestine on his own, while Aida went to Canada.
Shep also went to Canada, but with a man named Grisha, who Izak and Shep assume was their father. But the more the brothers find out, the more secrets and inconsistencies they uncover.
“Aida’s Secrets” is a story of reunions, and there are numerous heartwarming moments that pepper the directors' effort. Izak is overjoyed to learn he has a brother, and their reunion early in the film is a golden on-camera moment. Grisha passed away in 2008, but we learn that Aida is still alive, which leads to another great reunion when Shep finally meets his long-lost mother.
The brothers drive the film, but the mystery is fixed on Aida, who seems especially vague and evasive when her sons try to make sense of what happened so many years ago. Unable to get any straight answers out of her, they eventually decide to have a DNA test, suspecting that while they share Aida as a mother, they may come from different fathers.
“Aida’s Secrets” falls somewhere between a family history documentary and a suspense film, made all the more interesting because the person with the answers is sitting right in front of the camera and refusing to share them. Part of this seems to stem from the presence of the documentary cameras, but the more we learn about the brothers' past, the more we understand why Aida might have kept the past to herself for so long.
Directors Alon and Shaul Schwarz are able to blend these heartfelt moments of reunion with the twists and turns of a narrative that isn’t completely resolved until the closing titles. In that sense, “Aida’s Secrets” carries a feeling of suspense that few documentaries achieve. The film’s style is straightforward and intimate, eschewing fancy technique to focus on the gravity of its subject.
Coming on the heels of Pixar’s “Coco,” “Aida’s Secrets” feels like a more adult-targeted foil on the joys, highs and realities of researching family histories. At certain points in the film, you may suspect Izak and Shep wish they had been more careful about what they wished for. But “Aida’s Secrets” leaves you feeling that even the more scandalous family histories are worth exploring.
“Aida's Secrets” is not rated, but might earn a PG for adult themes and some profanity; running time: 90 minutes.