Documentary Altina exposes the life of artist, activist and inventor Altina Schinasi
In the years before her death in 1999, Altina Schinasi Miranda was best-known for her sculptures and paintings. But the daughter of a poor Turkish immigrant-turned-tobacco-tycoon was more than just an artist -- she was an Oscar-winning filmmaker, an activist and the inventor of the Harlequin glasses frames, which became a fashion staple in the 1930s. In a new documentary Altina, her filmmaker grandson Peter Sanders delves into who Altina Schinasi -- a woman who married four different men and was adored by many more -- really was.
In advance of the Altina screening that's part of the eighteenth annual Denver Jewish Film Festival kicking off this Wednesday, February 5, Sanders spoke with Westword about his larger-than-life grandmother and how the discovery of hours of archival family footage helped tell the story of Altina's life.
Westword: What was the catalyst for making Altina at this point in time?
Peter Sanders: I wanted to celebrate the strong women in my life -- Tina was my grandmother and I felt that she was one of the strongest women I've ever known. I just didn't feel like there was any better way to pay tribute to her and our family than to make this film. The really great work that came from me, my cousin [Laurette De Moro], my uncle and my father [filmmakers Terry Sanders and the late Denis Sanders] is due to Altina's spearheading art, becoming an artist and becoming a filmmaker herself.
My sister Victoria Sanders suggested that we do a documentary based on the autobiography my grandmother had published in 1995, The Road I Have Traveled. I couldn't have agreed more, so we decided to do it.
There is a lot of footage of Altina herself in the film, taken from an interview your uncle Terry Sanders had done with her in the '90s. How did those come into play for the film and what was the original purpose of that interview?
That was sheer luck on my part. Up until 2009 when I started on this project, I didn't know that those tapes existed. My uncle Terry actually didn't even give them to me until after my rough cut was done. The interview goes simultaneously with what the book says, which was perfect for my movie because she was able to talk in a nonchalant way about the beginnings of her life all the way up until she met Tino, her fourth husband. She was basically kind of describing what the book was about in a three-hour interview with my Uncle Terry. When that came to the table, it changed the game and I was very grateful to him.
I just had no idea going into the project that we would have any kind of footage like that; in fact, I didn't know that we would even have any of the black-and-white archival footage from when Tina grew up on Park Avenue. All of that family footage also came from Terry. The movie was going to be made with or without that stuff, but it certainly made the movie more personal.
Tina, more than anything else, was able to tell her own story through [the interview]. If it was just the images and voices of other people talking about her, it wouldn't have been Tina. Once you get to know Tina, you can see that she didn't really want to have anyone else talking for her. That's where I knew I had a complete movie.
You knew your grandmother, but she has such a deep and fascinating story as an artist, activist, philanthropist, filmmaker and inventor. Was there anything that you learned about her that you didn't know before the making of this film?
I kind of learned that she was very compassionate about other people regardless of their race, income bracket and circumstances. I feel that she created her own rules to live by and that's how she conducted her life until the very end. She was compelled to act -- she produced the film with George Grosz, she reached out to Dr. Martin Luther King, I mean, the social work she did. I didn't know the extent of what she had done during those periods -- I didn't know she had helped thirteen individuals escape Hitler. I really didn't know how much of a life she had before, like, 1965. I was born in 1969, so my real memories of her didn't begin until the '70s. She was born in 1907, and that was almost sixty years of history I didn't know or experience.