Julie Cohen is a true master in story telling. After watching her movie we are not sure anymore what it was about. But maybe that is the point. At first sight the plot seems to be simple: The Sturgeon Queens is a portrait of a fish store in Manhattan, Russ & Daughters.
But then it is also about the „Sturgeon Queens“. The two carefully portraied daughters of Joel Russ that are by now 100 and 92 years old. They talk about their proud father, who insisted on naming his business „& daughetes“ long before even the term feminism became part of a public discussion. Julie Cohen tells the story of a 100 years of the Russ family, starting with their immigration in the USA. The gentrification of a neighborhood becomes part of a larger develompent of a city, a society and a global history. But of course, the movie is also about extremely fine sliced salmon, kosher hering and caviar in the best quality you can find at the whole Lower East Side. Everything Cohen tells us about is already in the fish store. A magical place, loaded with stories, history and carried on by tradition. Nowadays visited by the hippest New Yorkers in town.
CFL: How is Berlin treating you?
JC: It has been beautiful so far. Actually it’s my first time at the Berlinale and also my first visit to Germany. It seems that Berlin is similar to New York, very international.
CFL: Did you see anything particular in the festival yet? Do you have a comparison to other festivals?
JC: Well, obviously the scope is quite impressive. And different to other festivals, the whole identity of the city seems to be very much connected to the Berlinale. That would not be true at most American festivals. Maybe at Sundance, but Park City, Utah is not a full on major cosmopolitan city the way Berlin is.
CFL: Your movie is about the story of a fish store in Manhattan, Russ & Daughters. Is food a general topic for you in your movies and in your life?
JC: Previously food has not been a topic in my movies, although I would say it has been a major topic in my life. Actually my original career ambition was to be a chef. When I was in high school I ran a catering business and catered dinner parties and larger events like bar mitzvahs. When I was 17 I went to a summer program in France by a very prominent French chef at that time. But the other people in my program where older than me and worked as professionals, and they talked me out of the career. They told me how miserable it is to be a chef and they made a convincing case. From that summer experience I decided that maybe cooking is something that I rather should do as a personal thing. And then I became a journalist and a film maker.
CFL: And now, you wanted to bring everything together in a movie – your interest in food and your interest in documentation…
JC: No, actually I haven’t made any connection between my personal passion for food and the film, until the film was complete. I was drawn to the subject by the people and the characters and the Jewish history. And it wasn’t until reflecting upon it later that I realized that food is a serious part of my life. Normally I select the subjects of my films by the characters, like this time: I decided to make it when I interviewed the two main characters Hattie and Anne Russ, from the film for a previous TV-program I did for the New York public television. I thought they were so wonderful and charming that I knew I wanted to expand them into their own film.
CFL: Yes, the two of them were really strong in the film, even though you include lots of perspectives and different narrators. Hattie is 100 years old and Anne is 92 years old – they are two of the three daughters of Russ & Daughters and they were just adorable in their way of telling their story.
JC: And imagine, they had never done an on-camera interview before! But they just had such a natural connection to each other… My guess is that they were much more similar to my grandparents than to your relatives, but I think lots of people find them really relatable and connectable.
CFL: Yes, they seem to not only present a family history and the story of a little food business but to also represent the stories of many other immigrant families in the USA, isn’t it?
JC: That is absolutely true. In New York in particular, the film had a big resonance with the people, because it connects a lot of them to a part of their family story that hasn’t been talked about in a long time. It’s only recently that people look back and realize that they’re actually proud of their relatives. And they have all reason to be. The film tells the story of Jewish-Ungarian immigrants, settling on the lower east side, living in miserable conditions. Joel Russ and his daughtersfounded a magical fish store, which still remains today and became famous. Within the course of a few generations they moved on to a much more comfortable and educated life. My family history is actually very similar to the Russ family history. But if you would’ve asked my grandparents, they didn’t really want to talk about their immigrant background. People are never proud to have come from poverty. Even current educated successful Jewish culture came from families that were very poor three or four generations ago. There were several generations in there, where everyone was ashamed to speak about it. Just recently, after my mother saw the film a couple of times, she told me that her grandmother didn’t speak English, she only spoke Yiddish. People were embarrassed about things like that.
CFL: Did your family also settle in New York? Are you a true New Yorker?
JC: Yes, myancestors, being Jews from Eastern Europelike the Russ family, settled in New York as well. But no, I was not born in New York since my parents moved to Washington after they studied. I moved back to New York in 1988.
CFL: In the 80s, New York City must have been a crazy place. In the movie, you are telling the whole story of poverty in the city during the last centuries. But most impressive I found some pictures you were showing from the 80s – it seemed to be a war-like situation.
JC: When I moved there the situation was beginning to transform a bit. But the crack epidemic was still going on. You’d see a car driving around in our neighborhood dealing crack at all times of the day. It was a very different situation to what the city is today. The lower east side was pretty much how it was pictured in the movies, with graffiti and broken windows. I remember how confusing it was to my parents that I moved to Brooklyn, which in their opinion is an area you want to get out of. The Russ store is on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which is essentially just across the Brooklyn Bridge. And both areas have in common that for quite a long time they were considered neither glamorous nor sophisticated. People just didn’t want to live there. And both places have transformed into these super hip and super young places that are actually the opposite of what they used to be. It wasn’t until 15-20 years ago, that it began to have a revival. And it has actually never been as nice as it is now. Now everything is just super expensive and glamorous.
CFL: We have a similar situation in Berlin. And a lot of people are nostalgic about the times when it was really wild. The ongoing gentrification is a sore topic for many. In the end of the movie you show how the youngest generation of Russ plans to extend the traditional shop in opening also a Russ & Daughter’s Café. Is that a reason to become nostalgic or rather excited?
JC: I think Josh and Niki, the great-grandchildren of Joel Russ, are doing a great job. They opened the Café in the meantime and theyare really succeeded in creating a fascinating combination of things. The shop still looks really old-fashioned and for the Café they used as their basis the old design.When you come in, you can clearly see that it’s a very cool place to be even if you recognize all the nostalgic elements. They play with that. And that’s really true of the menu too. The different dishes have old-fashioned ingredients, which evoke memories of having brunch with my grandparents. But back then, the versions of the things that we ate were actually pretty bad. Now, the young chefs in the new restaurant have taken the basis of the old Jewish dishes and figured out how to make it taste good. This is definitely a reason to be exited.
CFL: Your were producing the film with your own production company. It is called “Better than Fiction”, I really like that. You’re also a journalist so you know that life can write the best stories. Do you like fiction anyway?
JC: Yes I like fiction. I certainly read fiction and I watch fictional movies. But often my favorite kinds of art and even music are things that are closer to a documentary-like form. I love photography. Bruce Springsteen has an album called The Ghost of Tom Joad. It’s music but it’s almost like a documentary album. He went around the country, interviewing people. Each song tells the story of one of them in a very real way. I really like that.
CFL: So making a documentary is also about creating a story.
JC: Absolutely. What you show in a documentary is really not reality at all. It’s a puzzle of something the way that I see it. You follow something around for a time and then you put together a storyline. It’s not a reflection of the thing it’s a reflection of how the filmmaker sees the thing. That’s one of the reasons I put my own voice in the film and sometimes show the microphones and the cameras a little bit. I want the audience to see that this is just my own perspective.
CFL: Do you think making documentaries is a way of connecting journalism with fiction?
JC: The truth is that even a journalist is piecing together a narrative. That’s actually what often makes people angry about journalism. That it’s a subjective perspective. For some reason with documentaries people tend to be far less offended by it. But making a documentary really is the exact same process. With documentaries you usually have more time and you’d probably pick another subject but it’s pretty much the same process. I think it’s funny that it’s actually that what people often hate about journalism but love about documentaries. So people should maybe be a little more honest with themselves.
CFL: You chose a very interesting way of telling your Russ&Daughters story to the audience. Besides lots of interviews with the different characters you let a group of old costumers read out the script of the movie. This reading session becomes a part of the story as you really show it in recurring scenes instead of only letting them speak from the off. Why this method?
JC: Sometimes I do documentaries that don’t have scripts at all, but in this case I knew that I needed a script because there were pictures that I wanted narration to. Sometimes documentaries with narration begin to feel very stiff and serious. I was afraid it would no longer have the spirit that the store has. There’s a Yiddish word called “hamisch” which kind of means “unfancy” and I wanted to feel the film very hamisch and not fancy. So I came up with the thought of having some old customers to narrate the film. I only asked for people that are 80 years and older and have been long-time customers. I didn’t know how well it would go, but I think they did a great job. I had told the crew, that no matter what happens to continue shooting. If a mistake was funny I put it into the movie. I was really surprised about the amount of thought and feeling that they put into it. They really understood the writing. Several of them were strong enough to be professional voice-over artists.
CFL: I have three more questions, our typical Contemporary Food Lab questions. The first is: which is the restaurant you would take somebody if you want to show this person your love? And to which restaurant would you take someone to impress them?
JC: I’d say to impress a person I would take them to Del Posto, which is a modern Italian restaurant in New York. I say impress because the food is amazing and very well thought out. The minimum is a five course meal. The space is huge, that’s very unusual. You’d also impress the person simply because it costs that much. Showing love is much more complicated. I don’t want to say Russ & Daughters because that’s too obvious, but it’s really up there. Hmm… What’s the third question? I’m going to come back to the love showing thing.
CFL: The third one is even more complicated. It’s by Max Frisch: If you could choose, would you rather be dead or live a little longer as a healthy animal or a plant?
JC: That’s easy! Who would choose to be dead, when you can live as an animal? I’d maybe even prefer living as an animal to be alive as a person. I’m a big dog lover. My husband and I have a dog and from where I stand his life seems much more preferable to ours. He relaxes whenever he wants, he sits in the sun and gets tons of love. He seems to have an endless curiosity even about things that are fundamentally uninteresting. His life seems pretty good. I’d trade with him any day. Being a plant seems a little dull to be honest.
And I think if I’m trying to show someone my love I would cook for them instead of taking them to a restaurant. I think there’s nothing more like loving than creating a whole meal and presenting it to them from your heart.