Skate to Survive, a documentary by two York alumni, airs on OMNI Television

Trained as an architect, York alumna Astra Burka (BA ’70), a graduate of Glendon, soon began honing her talents as a production designer and art director working on over 40 feature films and television movies. She has now turned her talents to creating her first full-length documentary Skate to Survive, which will have its world television premiere of the English-language version as part of the Signature Series on Rogers OMNI 1 Television.

Left: Ellen Burka in a clip from Skate to Survive

Astra is the daughter of the famous figure skater (a national champion in her native Holland) celebrated coach and choreographer Ellen Burka. Skate to Survive will look at the first 44 years of Ellen’s life starting in Amsterdam where she was born in 1921. It airs on Sunday, Nov. 16 at 8:30pm. Michael Kainer, who graduated from Osgoode Hall Law School in 1976, is the writer and co-producer of the one-hour documentary.

The film, directed and co-produced by Astra, looks at Ellen’s experiences during the Holocaust, how she survived two concentration camps and met her husband in the second one. It details her life after the war in Amsterdam and later in Toronto during the 1950s when the city was still anti-Semitic. It unveils some of the hard truths and memories of Ellen’s life, experiences she buried when trying to make a life in Canada for her two daughters. She was a single mother for much of the time.

It wasn’t until Astra and her sister Petra were teenagers that they learned they were Jewish. Skating clubs at the time were not open to having Jewish coaches like Ellen, so that bit of information was kept hidden. Ellen went on to revolutionize figure skating, coaching Petra to become a bronze medallist in the 1964 Olympics and the 1965 world figure skating champion, and Toller Cranston to six Canadian senior men’s champions along with a bronze medal in the 1976 Olympics. Two-time Olympic silver medallist and three-time world champion Elvis Stojko was another of her pupils. Ellen coached and choreographed skaters for over five decades. At the age of 86, Ellen is still coaching.

She was named a member of the Order of Canada in 1978 and became an honoured member of Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1996.

Right: Astra Burka

Throughout Skate to Survive, Astra has had Ellen tell her own story with the aid of a long-hidden scrapbook, old film footage of Ellen skating with a fellow figure skater and friend in Amsterdam, as well as footage of Petra and Ellen skating. It is also told with the help of some of Ellen’s friends in her native homeland (the interviews in Holland are in Dutch and German).

Astra and Kainer, who works as a lawyer in the arts community, also co-produced the short documentary films Innocence on Ice, about the beauty of skating, and Succo Pomodori, a colourful depiction of making tomato sauce in the back lanes of Toronto’s Little Italy. Innocence on Ice was Astra’s directorial debut.

Skate to Survive was exclusively funded through OMNI’s Ontario Independent Producers Initiative, a $32.5-million independent production fund that to date has supported over 200 new documentary programs. 

The film had its premiere screening in May 2008 at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival.