THE BLOG

What Place Do Holocaust Films Have in Jewish Film Festivals?

07/31/2012 12:37 pm ET | Updated Sep 30, 2012

Several weeks ago, while in Israel for the Jerusalem Film Festival, I was interviewed by a reporter from Ha'aretz, Israel's most influential newspaper. The reporter wanted to understand why today's filmmakers would be interested in making films about the Holocaust now, nearly 70 years since the end of World War II. For me, the answer was easy: 10 years from now there will be hardly any survivors left to tell their stories. Getting first-hand accounts from that horrific time in Jewish and human history will be nearly impossible. Ironically, at this very moment when we're losing access to our best source of primary information about the Holocaust, American Jewish audiences are losing their interest in seeing Holocaust-related films.

Documentary filmmakers are often asked the questions, "why this story, why now?" about the projects that they work on. The documentary film, Kinderblock 66: Return to Buchenwald, of which I am a producer, tells the story of the effort to save more than 900 boys in the Buchenwald concentration camp in the closing days of the war. When the executive producer of the film, Steve Moskovic, told me about his desire to make a film about four men, including his father Alex, who go back to Buchenwald to commemorate the 65th anniversary of their liberation, I jumped at the opportunity. The "why now" question was obvious. If we don't capture this story today, we won't be able to tomorrow.

Working on this film has been one of the greatest professional and personal experiences of my life. I have met and interviewed people who survived the loss of everything -- their families, their homes, their freedom, their entire universe. Their experiences were unfathomable, yet somehow they managed to build lives and new families for themselves. I have learned about selections and transports and seeing parents and siblings for the last time. I have heard stories of disease and hunger, depravity and death. I have interviewed people who cried as they told us their stories and then thanked us for listening to them. I have listened to survivors.

For years, many of them refused to talk about what they had gone through. Those who left Europe for Palestine and later Israel had a country to build; there was no time or patience to listen to their stories. Those who came to America were also often told to forget about the past and get on with their lives. So for years, many survivors did just that -- they started families, had careers and got on with the business of living. Later, when they started to slow down - once their kids grew up and they themselves began to retire -- the need to speak became more urgent. For many, it was the birth of their grandchildren. They wanted to share the stories that they protected their children from. They wanted their grandchildren to remember.

Today, we are living in a golden era of Jewish film festivals, with more than 150 across the United States alone. These festivals provide showcases for Jewish films and filmmakers and are vital for the continued cultural well-being of the American Jewish community. Sadly, however, some of the festivals are refusing to screen films that might push audiences out of their comfort zones.

Earlier this year, a story broke about the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival rejecting a documentary film about child sex abuse in Baltimore's Orthodox community over fears of provoking controversy within the community. Adding insult to injury, the festival's director sent an email to her colleagues at other Jewish film festivals around the country warning them off of the film. In recent years, films deemed too "pro-Palestinian" have also sparked heated debates over whether they should be screened at Jewish film festivals. The Holocaust is another subject that some festivals are shying away from, either due to so-called "Holocaust fatigue" or simply unwillingness to upset moviegoers with sad stories.

It is one thing for a festival to reject a film because the film does not meet the quality standards of a given community. It is quite another when a film is rejected not on artistic merit, but because festival curators don't want to "upset" their audiences with a film's subject matter. Good art pushes boundaries. Healthy communities should not shy away from controversial or disturbing subjects.

Alex Moskovic, one of the subjects of Kinderblock 66, spends his days recounting his story to young people whenever he can. Doing so, I heard him tell a group of seventh and eighth graders this past spring, is his therapy; it's what allows him to go on happily living his life. Even though his stories are painful for him to tell and certainly painful to hear, the collective experience leaves no one unmoved. After one of Alex's talks, I shared some of my thoughts with the students in the audience. I told them that I wanted them to take away two words from listening to Alex: privilege and responsibility. It is our privilege to be alive while the last Holocaust survivors are still on this earth and our responsibility to ensure that their stories are remembered.

The Jewish film festivals should live up to this responsibility as well. Filmmakers who want to document stories from the Holocaust know that the window is rapidly closing. An Israeli friend, after seeing Kinderblock 66 in Israel, wrote that "the memory of the Holocaust has become a tool in forging our collective Jewish identity. Regardless of whether we're in Israel, Germany or Florida, we are bound by a common destiny; such documentation is sacred work for future generations."

It would be truly shameful if Jewish community-run film festivals turn their backs on these stories now.