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Shedding Light on History's Darkest Hours

"Spell Your Name," a documentary about the Holocaust in Ukraine, was created using USC Shoah Foundation Institute archive.

By Pamela J. Johnson
February 25, 2009

Holocaust survivors Zlata and Haim Mednik silently eat dinner inside their Ukrainian home.

Holocaust survivors Zlata and Haim Mednik silently eat dinner inside their Ukrainian home.

Inside a Ukrainian home, a large clock hangs on a wall. The floral wallpaper is peeling and white lace curtains adorn a window.

Zlata and Haim Mednik sweep the curtains aside to watch the snow fall while eating their bowls of boiled potatoes.

A cat, then another, appear then scamper away. The elderly couple eats in silence. The tick-tick-tick of the clock is deafening.
 
The scene in the layered and impressionistic documentary “Spell Your Name” impels the viewer to consider time — the historical time explored in the film and the time remaining for Zlata and Haim, who are among the few living Holocaust survivors.

Director Sergey Bukovsky attended the Feb. 22 Los Angeles premiere of the documentary that tells the story of the Holocaust in Ukraine, including the Babi Yar massacre, where Nazis slaughtered more than 33,000 Jews in two days in September 1941.

Bukovsky traveled from Ukraine to participate in a panel discussion after the screening at the USC Ellen Norris Cinema Theatre. Other panelists were Michael Renov, professor and associate dean of academic affairs in the USC School of Cinematic Arts, and Crispin Brooks, the institute’s curator.

Wolf Gruner, holder of the Shapell-Guerin Chair in Jewish Studies and professor of history in USC College moderated the Visions and Voices event, which drew about 250 people.

To make the film, Bukovsky used Ukrainian and Russian-language testimonies from the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education archive. Nearly 52,000 videotaped testimonies from Holocaust survivors and other witnesses around the world are available at the institute, housed in the College.

Kim Simon, the institute’s interim executive director, shared some history of the institute, established in 1994 by Steven Spielberg who wanted to videotape testimonies of Holocaust survivors before it was too late. Spielberg launched the effort after making a film about the Holocaust. "Schindler’s List" garnered seven Oscars, including best picture and best director.

“We are guided by a social mission of overcoming prejudice, intolerance and bigotry, and the suffering they cause through the educational use of the institute’s testimonies,” Simon said.

“One landmark example of international partnership is reflected in the dedication, artistry and meditation of Sergey Bukovsky’s ‘Spell Your Name’.”

In the film, emotional, horrific testimonials are juxtaposed with scenes of Zlata and Haim who wordlessly perform their daily tasks. The stylized scenes — created through photo animation, by connecting thousands of still shots — create a haunting effect.

“When talking about horrors, the human mind turns to its own protection mechanism and the listener stops receiving the horror at some point,” Bukovsky said in Russian through an interpreter. “This is why we left Zlata and Haim silent in the film. To my mind, it worked in a more powerful way. Then you are the one who wonders, ‘What really happened to them?’ ”
 
The film, produced by Spielberg and Ukrainian industrialist Viktor Pinchuk, brings together accounts from Jews who survived and those who sheltered them. The rescuers recall watching neighbors on their knees begging to be allowed to hide in their homes, a highly risky move punishable by certain death. In one case, a woman remembers her mother pulling out her own hair and screaming in hysterical fear when her husband took in a large family, telling his petrified wife, “They are people just like us.”

In the panel discussion, Renov said he was moved by a theme throughout the film that he called “the question of appropriateness.”

"What’s the right thing to do in the face of tragedy?" he asked. "What’s the right kind of film to make in the face of such suffering? One thing I find remarkable about the film is that it doesn’t shrink from the difficultly of the subject, the murkiness of the subject."

Bukovsky said he and his crew watched about 600 testimonies before selecting only a handful. They particularly wanted to use testimonies from those who had told their stories for the first time.

“I can frankly talk about this now,” Bukovsky said. “When we first watched the testimonies, we really didn’t know how to approach them, we were really lost. They were so powerful, we thought there is nothing more that can be done to give them more power.”

He and his co-producer, Victoria Bondar, who also traveled from Ukraine to attend the event, decided to have the viewers watch the testimonies — then see the accounts through the eyes of an unlikely source. Bukovsky had hired young Ukrainian women to transcribe the videos, but the workers’ visceral reactions to the heartrending stories were used in the film.

“The art of the film is the art of separation, of keeping distance,” Bukovsky said. “The most difficult task of a filmmaker is to find a way to remove himself. We wanted to let the testimonies speak.”