Widowed on October 7, director Shaylee Atary brings her husband’s film to London

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Widowed on October 7, director Shaylee Atary brings her husband’s film to London

Writer director Yahav Winner was murdered by Hamas terrorists and his wife wants everyone to know his story

Brigit Grant is the Jewish News Supplements Editor

Shaylee Atary and  baby Shaya with husband and father Yahav Winner a month before his murder on October 7
Shaylee Atary and baby Shaya with husband and father Yahav Winner a month before his murder on October 7

Shaya, just six months-old, has just cut her first tooth. “She’s had an injection and is not sleeping at all, I’m sorry for resting my head on the pillow,” apologises her mother. Framed by a fan of dark curls with a protective arm shielding her child, Shaylee Atary is the picture-perfect image of motherhood, but it’s a façade masking the grief and despair that has enveloped her since October 7. That was the day Shaylee’s life changed irrevocably when Hamas terrorists murdered her husband Yahav Winner in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, the place of his birth.

Both filmmakers, Yahav and Shaylee raised in Rishon LeTsiyon were together for 13 years, supporting each other creatively by switching  roles on productions, two of which – Single Light and The Boy will be seen this week in London at Night at the Movies, a showcase of films from award winning students of the Tel Aviv University Steve Tisch Film School.

Agreeing to come to the capital is a big step for Shaylee who hasn’t ventured far from the supportive hub she shares with other evacuated survivors at Kibbutz Shefayim . She has been there since she escaped and was rescued after her home was burned to the ground by a detonated grenade. “They host us until we get a temporary village as we cannot go back to Kfar Aza,” she says. “It’s not a place that you can stay in – you can still smell the gunfire. It has become a place for other people to see what happened ”.

What happened to the couple on October 7 is on a reel in Shaylee’s mind that can never be edited. From the moment she heard the footsteps of the terrorists on the grass, the horror of their laughter and the shouts of ‘hello’ at her house.

“Yahav and I had an arrangement,” she says recounting their sudden survival plan. “We couldn’t talk, but because we’re so close through gestures we knew that he would hold the door and I would be with the baby. But they didn’t come in through the door. They came in the window, and Yahav held it, so I could run away with Shaya through the door. He held the window the window and did his part of the arrangement.”

Yahav was murdered by the savage intruders as Shaylee fled between bushes as bullets were fired by those wanting to take her life. Any life. Unable to shout for help, her fearful neighbours ignored her knocks on their doors, so she hid in a shed with Shaya still sleeping. The moment the baby woke and cried, Shaylee knew to move and ran across a lawn that had once been the site for so many parties, and was now strewn with the dead bodies of those she knew.

Shaylee , Yahav and star of his film The Boy actor Nimrod Peled at Tel Aviv International Students Film Festival

“It was very frightening. What helped me was to think I was making a film. That it’s not me this is happening to. I am the camera and the director of a Shoah film. But it was me. Finally a family opened their door. I told them I didn’t know where to go and what had happened. The woman in the house already knew her sister and husband were dead and her three-year-old daughter was gone. Kidnapped. Together we were besieged for 27 hours with no food and water for Shaya.”

The fear of October 7 sits soothingly beside a love story for Shaylee. The one she had with Yahav whom she met at the Nissan Nativ Acting Studio. “It wasn’t love at first sight and we had no formal date. We were just in the same class and I really appreciated his thoughts and opinions. But something changed when did Romeo & Juliet and I really looked into his eyes. It felt like home. I think this is when I fell in love.”

That was also turning point for Yahav who lived in Jaffa with Shaylee, before he suggested moving back to Kibbutz Kfar Aza in 2021 as he wanted to bring the arts to the south. Once back at the Kibbutz the couple began making films, which incorporated many of the real residents, who lived alongside them  with their dog, Buckley, two cats Grace and Cocus and then baby Shaya.

Actor Nimod Peled in Yahav Winner’s film The Boy. pic: Ben Peled

Just before his death the couple had argued about who fell in love with who first, and recalling the innocent spat brings a smile to Shaylee’s face as she knows what they had and what she has lost. “The hardest part for me is that my partner, the one who will hold my hand and give me the power to go after our dreams has gone. We went from acting together to behind the camera, and we felt comfortable there.”

For Yahav comfort was harder to attain. The grandson of a Holocaust survivor who escaped the Bochnia Ghetto, Yahav was 21 when he witnessed the death of his best friend’s father who was killed by a rocket. From there on he lived with PTSD and it is that trauma that provides the theme for his deeply personal short film The Boy which captures the dissonance of life along the Israel Gaza border from the eyes of a teenager dealing with PTSD.

Writer director Yahav Winner murdered by Hamas

The film was awarded Best Cinematography prize at the Tel Aviv International Students Film Festival 2023, but the tragic irony of the subject matter is not lost on Shaylee who knew the content of her husband’s darkest thoughts which also fuelled his film about a widow who is visited by her deceased husband who tells her she must live.

There are many days for Shaylee when the only way to live with her loss is to sit with other survivors in the widow circle at Shefayim. “We’re 11 in the circle and one of the questions we have asked is whether it is better for the children to be like mine and too young to remember. Or to be older and understand?  Shaya is just a baby learning the world and the sorrow is only mine, so I try to do everything I can to find the strength to be the mother she deserves. But when a happy thing happens like the first smile and the first tooth it’s also painful because Yahav will never see it. He wanted to be the best father and he saved us. I have thought about Romeo & Juliet and how they died for each other. Yahav died for us.”

For TAU Night At The Movies on Tuesday March 19th visit : https://tautrust.org/event/night-at-the-movies/

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