When Nancy Spielberg spoke at the 2015 Boulder Jewish Film Festival screening of “Above and Beyond,” she described her immediate affinity for the subject of American World War II pilots who turned around and headed back into combat as volunteers fighting in Israel’s War of Independence. This unknown tale of heroism in dire times spoke to her. She said at the time that it felt like “a Spielberg story” to her.
The producer had teamed with director Roberta Grossman to tell this story, and got to know the handful of surviving pilots, most notably Boulder’s George Lichter, a good friend of the JCC. Although he did not live to see the film festival premiere, it was dedicated to his memory.
“Who Will Write Our History” is another Spielberg story, rife with heroic drama, urgency, intrigue, and moral reckoning. Based on the book of the same name by historian Samuel Kassow, the story is of Emanuel Ringelblum’s Oyneg Shabes Archive and his secret race to document life in the Warsaw Ghetto. The Boulder premiere is Monday, March 11, at 6:30 pm the Gordon Gamm Theater in the Dairy Arts Center.
Nancy says she first learned of the remarkable story as she overheard Roberta Grossman making mysterious phone calls to Poland about a secret society while making “Above and Beyond,” and became interested in the project. Roberta had just purchased the rights to the book, but put the film on hold to work on Nancy’s film.
Still, Nancy says she originally resisted the idea of producing a Holocaust film.
“At first I heard about a secret group and buried archives and it sounded like an ‘Indiana Jones’ story,” Nancy recounts during a phone interview. “Later, when I understood that this was a story about ordinary people who did something that went well beyond their own personal well-being, I became interested. I was so struck by what they did, what they did for the common good – something they would not benefit from.”
That’s when Nancy decided to come aboard as producer, working with a director who has one of the most impressive track records in Jewish documentary filmmaking.
Although Nancy did not initially consider the Holocaust her area of expertise, she does credit her brother Steven for inspiration.
“With ‘Schindler’s List,’ I realized the importance of first-hand testimony,” she explains. “I saw the power of getting that firsthand report rather than through a third party. That prompted me to want to tell the story of the pilots quickly while they were alive. ‘Schindler’s List’ was a more in-depth experience because it had respect for people and their stories. I knew how impactful it could be. So for me, it was connect the dots.
“So I found myself walking in that path,” she continues. “But what I found so compelling was the levels they went through despite their pain and suffering to record the text and to complete this task. That really made me want to share their story.”
“It is also incredible to me that they had such a rich cultural events going on. Anything to return to their humanity – through theater, music, poetry and painting – and not be the lice infested dehumanized beings. It was a form of resistance. This is a story of resistance.”
“Who Will Write Our History” was screened by UNESCO for 55 countries on January 27th, with a panel the included Shoah Foundation director Steven Smith. Steven Spielberg submitted a video in which he pointed out the historical importance of the Oyneg Shabes group, which provided the very first eye-witness testimony after the Holocaust.
Producing WWWOH involved filming on location, fundraising, engaging in the collaborative artistic process, working with scholars (who, she notes can be brutal), distribution, placement, and marketing. And more.
Spielberg adds that in many ways this style of documentary was just as demanding technically as a feature film because it relies so heavily on dramatizations. The building of sets included a re-creation of the Warsaw Ghetto in Lutz that was painstakingly detailed.
“We felt we could not get it wrong,” Spielberg soberly notes.
“Roberta did the creative work of taking the story and creating a compelling, thrilling, and deeply human experience. She had to tell the story by using diaries and personal insights to connect the audience on a close human level. One of the things the Nazis so successfully did was dehumanize Jews. And Roberta had to find a way to bring people’s personal lives alive. She restored their humanity.”
The biggest challenge, Spielberg says, was to avoid the pitfalls of so many Holocaust documentaries that consist of horrific archival footage coupled with scholars dryly discussing the history. “Haven’t you tortured us enough,” she says she thought to herself, and decided that “people can be moved by the Holocaust in a different way.”
Spielberg’s mission was a heavy one, and she was guided by a deep sense of obligation.
“This was their dying wish – to be remembered through the archive,” she explains the sense of moral duty. “It’s very profound to grant them their dying wish. There’s a difference between not forgetting the Holocaust and actively remembering. We wanted to show how they lived, not how they died.”
Spielberg adds that while the film tells an incredible unknown story of the Holocaust, at talkbacks the filmmakers often get questions about journalism and the search for the truth.
“I learned that the term ‘fake news’ was actually coined by the Nazis,” she adds. “And was used to dehumanize the Jews. Somehow the film has a message for today about the importance of the written word.”
Roberta and Nancy are now working on a documentary directed by Laura Bialis about the famed photographer Roman Vishniac. Festival audiences may remember Bialis from her powerful 2014 film about the Sderot music scene, “Rock in the Red Zone.”
Nancy hopes to return to Boulder before that film is ready to show at the Boulder Jewish Film Festival, however, and has fond memories of her last visits.
“Everybody was so kind – I loved being in Boulder, starting with my first visits with George. I’m so thrilled that he will be honored at the screening. Of all the people in the film he’s the only one who did not get to see it completed, and that bothers me,” Nancy says as she ends our call. “Please send everyone my best.”
A few tickets are still available. PLEASE CLICK HERE.