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Documentary 'Altina' Is a Family Affair

6 Dec, 2014 By: Stephanie Prange

Many kids urge their grandparents to record their history for posterity, but rarely does a grandmother’s life include the kind of excitement that spawned the documentary Altina, due Dec. 16 on DVD and VOD from First Run Features.

Grandkids Victoria Sanders, who executive produced, and Peter Sanders, who directed, found fertile ground for a feature-length profile in their free-spirit grandmother Altina Schinasi, who was born into privilege in a prominent Jewish family early in the American century and became a groundbreaking artist, businesswoman and activist.

Shinasi’s eclectic career included inventing the glamorous Harlequin “cat’s eye” eyeglasses worn by stylish women such as Lucille Ball and Peggy Guggenheim. She also directed an Oscar-nominated documentary about the Holocaust and created unique art. Along the way Schinasi provided shelter to those targeted by Joseph McCarthy and worked with Martin Luther King Jr. She was born a cigarette heiress when there were still horse-drawn carriages and also saw a man walk on the moon.

“The documentary was very much a labor of love for both of us, and in the end, we feel it did justice to her life,” said Victoria Sanders. “She was an extraordinary woman at an extraordinary time.”

“As the grandson and filmmaker, it was a very rewarding experience to open up the trunks and files and journals and diaries and find out who she was,” added Peter Sanders. “You can explore and admire and also understand that … they are human.”

The genesis of the documentary were the letters Victoria Sanders got from Shinasi while she was in college.

“We started sending each other letters about our dreams, and I asked her about her life and that’s when she started to send me accounts of her life,” she recalled. Those letters became the backbone of a memoir and then the documentary.

Victoria Sanders started handing her brother material that she had inherited, including the famous glasses and a cigarette box from the family business, and Peter Sanders (who also made the acclaimed documentary The Disappeared) began to interview those who knew Altina.

“I think that one of the great things is that when you talk to people you get multiple POVs,” Peter Sanders said.

What surprises viewers most about Shinasi?

“That she had sex in her 70s and 80s,” Victoria Sanders said. “She was a very vital woman.”

“She played by her own rules,” Peter Sanders added.

Both grandkids drew lessons from Shinasi’s life.

“My grandmother treated everyone equally, even though she came from privilege,” Victoria Sanders said.  “To have come from that and to still have been the kind of person who questioned herself was remarkable.”

“I think it teaches us to follow our dreams and keep as connected to your instincts and to your intuition and try to be as honest and direct with others as you can,” Peter Sanders said. “It’s important to share and give back to other people when you have been given so much in your life.”

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