Nancy Spielberg and Roberta Grossman are award-winning documentary filmmakers whose dedication and commitment to preserving Jewish history through the telling of real life stories is unparalleled. It was an honor for Stay Thirsty Magazine to visit with them for these Five Questions about their projects, with a special focus on their current project, Who Will Write Our History, that documents an untold story of testimonials and courage during World War II.
STAY THIRSTY: Your current production, Who Will Write Our History, reunites you, as the Executive Producer, with Director Roberta Grossman, who directed your award-winning documentary, Above and Beyond. What motivated you to do a film about the Holocaust and particularly this story of the Warsaw Ghetto Jews? Did your brother’s work in this area have any influence over your decision to produce it under the Spielberg family’s Playmount Productions banner?
NANCY SPIELBERG: To tell you the truth, Roberta was my motivation! When she
came on board to direct Above and Beyond, she had already begun to work on Who Will Write Our History. And,
as we worked together on Above and Beyond
(and we really enjoyed working
together), she would tell me stories about the Warsaw ghetto and the Oyneg
Shabes. The stories were so compelling that I was soon asking Roberta if I
could be a part of her project! I think that my brother's work in this
area did affect my desire to join Roberta. It also was part of the impetus
to make Above and Beyond. We've all
learned that visual testimonies are incredibly powerful tools to teach history
to the next generation.
STAY THIRSTY: How do you think your new film will help keep remembrance of the Jewish genocide that occurred during World War II alive? How has making this film changed your view of the Holocaust?
NANCY SPIELBERG: The story of the secret buried archives and the work done by this clandestine group has never been told. It has been referred to as the “dead sea scrolls” of the Holocaust. The story is compelling in so many ways and so very relevant today – here was a group that used their writings as a form of resistance. It was a non-violent way to have their voices heard and their truths be carried forward. Our hopes are to have a wide release of the film to expose it to many who know so little about the Holocaust. I personally grew up with no knowledge of the Holocaust, and my very first time in Poland was while shooting Who Will Write Our History. I was amazed to learn about the details of life in the Warsaw ghetto. My view of the Holocaust hasn't changed, but my depth of knowledge has been improved.
STAY THIRSTY: How did your many award-winning documentaries prepare you to tell the story of the Oyneg Shabes Archive of 30,000 documents buried by the Warsaw Jews in 1943 on the eve of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising? How is this film different from all that you have previously directed and how did directing it affect you as an artist and as a woman?
ROBERTA GROSSMAN: Who Will Write Our History is the fourth film on Jewish history that I’ve made, one after the other, since 2008 (Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh; Hava Nagila (The Movie); Above and Beyond). I’ve been trying to alternate between tragic and joyful, serious and funny in an A and B pattern, not only to present the wide range of the Jewish experience, but also for my own sanity! Who Will Write Our History is obviously on the tragic side of the equation, and yet, it is ultimately an uplifting story about spiritual resistance, heroism and the power of the human spirit to endure in the darkest times.
Who Will Write Our History is part of the ongoing experimentation I’ve been doing in
interlacing “recreation” with archival footage and photographs to tell
an historical story. Who Will Write Our
History pushes the technique about as far as it can go and remain a documentary.
This film is really a hybrid between a feature film and a documentary. By way
of example: on our biggest day of shooting in Poland this past May, a day in
which we recreated a Warsaw Ghetto street, we had 150 actors and extras in
period costume and 150 crew members. That’s a dramatic feature. On the other
hand, everything in that scene was meticulously researched and the scene itself
is bookended by archival photographs and footage. I’m not a documentary purist.
I’m very comfortable using all the available cinematic tools to tell an
historical story in a compelling way that will keep audiences (young as well as
old) in their seats. My goal is to make the most engaging film so that
audiences will learn about the secret archive of the Warsaw Ghetto and the
brave and inspiring people who created it.
STAY THIRSTY: If you could only tell people about Who Will Write Our History in one sentence, what would that sentence be?
ROBERTA GROSSMAN: Who Will Write Our History tells the most important untold story of the Holocaust – the story of Emanuel Ringelblum and the secret archive he created in the Warsaw Ghetto.
STAY THIRSTY: This film is also produced by Katahdin Productions, a nonprofit company with the mission to produce films that “inform, inspire and engage.” Traditionally, Katahdin Productions has relied on grants, donations and public funding for its award-winning films. How has Who Will Write Our History been funded? What are your plans for distribution and exhibition of the film in the United States and beyond?
NANCY SPIELBERG: Who Will Write Our History is being funded by grants, donations and public funding. That's the norm for many documentary films. We are actually still raising money for the distribution and educational components. Thankfully, many have recognized how critical this story is to tell and have supported us generously. In fact, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) just awarded us a very large grant and that is a huge vote of confidence for the project. We are planning to release the film first in film festivals worldwide and we are also looking at different avenues for distribution. Our goal is to use this in educational institutions as well and to create a study guide to delve into the topic even more. It's impossible to tell the entire story in the confines of 90 minutes, and so it's always a valuable resource to have study guides and added material to round out this piece of history.
ROBERTA GROSSMAN: Who Will Write Our History has been funded by hundreds of individuals and foundations that made tax-deductible donations to the non-profit Katahdin Foundation. As Nancy mentioned, our production financing was completed when we received a prestigious NEH production grant in March 2017.
We are very serious about working as hard on getting our films out into the world as we do on making them. We are now raising funds for grassroots outreach and educational distribution to help get the film seen as far and wide as possible. In particular, we are working on partnerships and plans to get the film into schools in both the U.S. and Poland.