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Documentary Altina exposes the life of artist, activist and inventor Altina Schinasi

Altina Schinasi.
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.

See also: Nathan Englander on the distinction between Jewish writers and Jews who write

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.

Altina Schinasi.
Altina Schinasi.

I didn't see the waves of success for her. Like, the Harlequin eyeglasses (that Altina invented) -- millions and millions of women wore these eyeglasses. They were a revolutionary invention and a very popular must-have in the 1930s and 1940s. She also was an Oscar-winning filmmaker, winning for 1960's George Grosz's Interregnum, about the Nazi's expulsion of the Jews before World War II started, when they were rounding them up and sending them off and basically giving them an opportunity to leave before they began killing them. The fact that she made this movie and edited it in one long storyboard that she devised -- it was just an overwhelming experience [for me]. I can't believe my grandmother did that.

Tina was the black sheep, that's what's so great about her. Her sisters [Victoria and Juliette] were not colorful, artistic people. They felt entitled and didn't want to buck the system. They both left New York after their childhood to live in France and were completely different people than Tina. You can't imagine those two sisters doing what Tina did, living out in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with a Cuban refugee who came off the Mariel Boatlift in 1980.

She was also one of the premier people on the West Coast doing art therapy -- she tried to help addicts and mentally ill people through their problems with painting. She wasn't a therapist, but it proved how much she wanted to grow and learn as an artist. She was a really gracious learner, maybe because she didn't go to college. Yet she wanted her children and grandchildren to have fantastic educations. She got married instead of going to college, and I think that was one of her regrets in life; I think she always felt that she would try to learn as much as she could to make up for that situation.

Altina's Harlequin glasses design.
Altina's Harlequin glasses design.

My last question is about the fate of the Harlequin glasses factory that she ran for a while in Los Angeles -- once she shut it down, what happened with the inventory and the design? Did she have the Harlequin eyeglasses frame patented?

It is a very amorphous situation. She closed the plant down in Los Angeles because she felt quote-unquote "threatened" by some of the mafia people who were around the area who wanted to "take care" of her. She just felt that she didn't really want to run a business anymore -- she wanted to go back to inventing and creating. I think the factory in L.A. just closed and then maybe the inventory went to different wholesalers -- I'm not sure if there was much left. I don't have any proof of what happened with those glasses.

But they did make their way into the social fabric and culture -- the glasses themselves were able to sustain and become what is known today as the "cat eye." Celebrities wore them and the Harlequins still had their prestige, but I don't think she had a copyright on them for any time anyone copied the glasses and sunglasses that she invented.

It's interesting, because I sometimes see Vera Wang and Tom Ford and other eyewear designers using almost identical types of frames to the Harlequin. I don't think Altina worried about the glasses -- she was done and was ready to move on. It's less about the invention and more about the follow-through. But I don't think she or the family tried to hold on to where the copyright went.

The eighteenth annual Denver Jewish Film Festival opens Wednesday, February 5 at the Elaine Wolf Theater. Altina will be the fest's closing film on Saturday, February 15, with director Peter Sanders appearing in-person at the screening. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the Denver Jewish Film Festival's website.