Taking a Vow to be Heard
During a USC Shoah Foundation Institute event, filmmakers discuss the value of genocide survivor testimony.By Pamela J. Johnson
September 8, 2009
In James Moll's documentary Inheritance, the daughter of Nazi Amon Goeth and one of his victims return to Goeth's villa in Poland more than a half century after the sadistic camp commandant was hanged for war crimes.
There, at the old Plaszow Concentration Camp where Goeth — depicted by Ralph Fiennes in the movie Schindler’s List — personally shot and killed many of the thousands of Jews who perished at the camp, the two women struggle to communicate.
“He only killed some Jews because . . .” begins Monika Hertwig, lost for words.
“Because they were Jews,” says Helen Jonas, who was 15 when sent to the camp, where her mother was killed and she forced to serve in Goeth’s house.
“No,” interjects Hertwig, who was one when her father was hanged. “Because of sanitary problems, because . . .”
“Because they were just Jews,” Jonas says, visibly pained.
The emotional exchange was shown during the Aug. 13 panel discussion, “Genocide Survivor Testimony in Documentary Film,” held at the George Lucas Instructional Building. Moll, an Emmy- and Oscar-winning filmmaker and USC alumnus, was among four panelists at the event hosted by the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, housed in USC College. The USC School of Cinematic Arts co-hosted the event, part of its international conference, Visible Evidence XVI.
Other panelists, all documentary filmmakers, included Emmy Award-winning Anne Aghion who lived for more than a decade in a rural village in Rwanda to create My Neighbor My Killer and other films; writer-director Theodore Braun who spent months in Sudan making critically acclaimed Darfur Now; and Socheata Poeuv, whose New Year Baby featured her interviews with survivors of the Cambodian genocide, including her own family.
Andi Gitow, psychologist and two-time Emmy award-winning broadcast journalist, moderated. The institute’s new executive director, Stephen Smith — founding director of The UK Holocaust Centre — and Michael Renov, cinematic arts’ associate dean of academic affairs, spoke at the event.
Panelists showed clips from their latest works and shared insights about documenting genocide survivors’ stories. Audience members threw out questions. One wondered if any had cried during a particularly heartwrenching interview.
Moll admitted he had while interviewing a soldier in the Iraq war after the soldier began choking back tears. He doesn’t recommend it.
“Never cry during an interview because it changes the dynamics,” said Moll, who established the Shoah Foundation with director Steven Spielberg in order to videotape and preserve Holocaust survivor testimonies around the world. “Suddenly, they’re taking care of you. When I cried while interviewing the Iraqi soldier, he toughened up and stopped crying.”
A lengthy discussion followed a question about whether the filmmakers were concerned about “revictimizing the victim” — in the way they use footage or during the interview process.
Aghion said that often survivors are eager to release their anguish. But it took her some time to gain enough trust for Rwandan survivors to fully open up — especially when bringing together, in one room, the perpetrators and victims.
She also gives her sources plenty of space. Rather than zooming in for a closeup when an interview grows intense, Aghion does the opposite.
“I’m tempted to say that the more intimate, the more emotional things become, the less close I want the camera to be,” Aghion said. “Because I think you can very quickly veer into something that’s sort of — I don’t call it ‘revictimization’ — it can very quickly turn to what I call ‘pornographic’.”
For Braun, he discussed with Sudanese Liberation Army soldiers the dangers they would face by telling their stories. He also spoke to their commanding officers.
One woman in Darfur Now, Hejewa Adam, was taped candidly explaining why she joined the movement.
“I wanted to make sure Hejewa understood that bringing her story to the outside world would potentially put her in greater jeopardy than she already was,” said Braun, also an associate professor in cinematic arts. “She was willing to put her life on the line to bring her story to the outer world. She was adamant that she be filmed with a gun on her lap.”
Braun was careful to include the tragedies sparking Adam’s transformation. Adam became a soldier after the Janjaweed beat her baby to death.
“I made sure the audience understood her first as a mother,” he said, “before they saw her as a rebel.”
Another audience member asked how the filmmakers felt about the Jewish community’s strong activism on behalf of the people in Darfur, Rwanda and other persecuted countries.
“Do you welcome it with open arms?” he asked. “Or is it intrusive?”
“I feel an enormous amount of gratitude toward the Jewish community,” Poeuv said. “They can be a model for the Cambodian community to use their voice as a tool against current and future genocide.”
Others echoed the sentiment.
“I can answer very simply,” Aghion said. “I’m Jewish. So, it’s one of the reasons I embarked on this work in Rwanda. On a personal level, it was a way for me to get closer to the pain of what my parents’ generation lived through.”