film production + social action



Archive for March, 2009

The Last Survivor: Family Trees

The following post was featured on The Huffington Post in a ten-part Genocide Prevention Month blog series:

This blog picks up where the last one left off – in the Swedish countryside with Hédi. At the end of the “welcoming” tour she offered upon our arrival at her quaint home – a charming yellow cottage nestled against the Baltic Sea – Hédi lead us to the living room. She put on her favorite radio station and affirmed their selection of a lulling classical violin piece with a nod, “Nice.” With that, she lead us to the corner of the room, behind her favorite reading chair, where she had framed a family tree her son had made her for an earlier birthday. Hédi introduced us to the family. It began at the top with her parents, splitting out into two branches – one leading down to Hédi, her husband, their three boys and their wives and the other to Livi, her husband, and their children. Hédi read off the cast of characters that made up her family tree and paused for a moment as she admired it. “This is our victory,” she told us with a smile.

We have found such fondness for family trees common among Survivors.

After three months adjusting to life in St. Louis, Justin was honored to have Sasha in his home. To simply hear Justin welcome Sasha to his house was enough to convey the profound gratitude he will forever hold for all Sasha has done for him. After giving Sasha a tour of his apartment, Justin took him to the neighborhood park where the two sat among children who were enjoying the final dusks of summer. There, Sasha told Justin of his family’s own story of survival: that his great grandmother had fled the Soviet Union nearly a century ago, escaping the deadly pogroms that were targeted at the Jews. That she too had once arrived in America as a refugee and, lost in an unknown land, she dedicated herself to the promise etched in the progression of her family tree. Sasha’s life – his work, his family, his happiness – are linked directly back to his great grandmother – her work, her dedication, and her hope. Sasha stressed this connection to Justin – “and one day you’ll have children, and grandchildren, and great grandchildren and they’ll go on to do wonderful things. And you’re the start.”

Justin smiled quietly at this, distantly staring out at the children across the park as if he could see the line that moved from him – a family line that carried his own legacy and gave life to the memory of his missing family. A line that insisted on moving forward.

It’s certainly not surprising that those who have lost so much of their history, would find not only satisfaction, but great pride in the generations that spawn forward from them. If genocide is an attempt at destroying an entire people, then a people’s true triumph over genocide is marked by their ability to endure – to pass on not only their genes, but their values and their stories, ensuring that a piece of their family is woven securely into posterity.

In our eyes, such a notion illuminates our role in life as one of continuation – an all important link between what was and what will be – in a manner that saturates each life with meaning. But perhaps even more moving is the realization that such a perspective on life is one that insists we look forward. That no matter what we are given in this life – whether it be great gain or great loss – we accept that our role remains consistent and simple: to continue. And in doing so, we pass on the many lessons we have acquired – both those born out of our own experience and those bequeathed to us by our ancestors. It is the sum of these collective experiences that make up the future.

This has been, in many ways, a remarkable month. Most days were spent going through the hours of footage we have taken across the span of the last two years. Such a task was a daily exercise in reflection – allowing us to revisit all that we have been through over the course of the past two years – the places, the experiences, and mostly the people. From the start, we set out to make a film about connection – the links that bind our subjects as Survivors and those that bind all of us as human beings. Certainly, we have found many. And as we move on from this 20-minute cut and begin work on the final film, we are certain we will be struck by deeper and more meaningful connections that bind those we film together with one another and with ourselves.

For now, at the end of this month, the most profound connection we have discovered is this: that while we are each born out of distinct pasts, we share a common future. And as that future is the sum of all that has come before, it will be measured by the totality of its inclusiveness – made richer by the inclusion of each of our histories. Our role, then, is to move from one generation to the next, passing on a sense of who we are and from where we have come.

In this manner, we all move forward.

A 20-minute sneak preview of our film, The Last Survivor, will be available via webcast on April 2nd as part of the Genocide Prevention Month kick-off event. We encourage you to hold screenings at your home or at a community center on April 2nd or any time there after. Watch the film and subsequent panel discussion and host your own conversation on genocide awareness and prevention. For more information, please visit the Month’s official website, www.genocidepreventionmonth.org and sign the pledge to honor the six genocides commemorated in April by working to prevent future atrocities. This blog is part six of a multi-part series on survivors of genocides. This blog is posted every Monday and Thursday on Huffington Post and Change.org

While there is no new video clip available with today’s posting – stay tuned for footage from the Genocide Prevention Month Kickoff Event with Thursday’s posting.


The Last Survivor: Rebirth

The following post was featured on The Huffington Post in a ten-part Genocide Prevention Month blog series:

The first time we met Hédi Fried, she told us about her love for travel. It was a love affair that had begun when she was just a little girl, living in the small Romanian town of Sighet. There, she would watch the trains pass by and wonder about the majestically dressed people on board and what wonderful adventures they might be off to. And so, at nine-years old, Hédi prepared herself for a life of exotic travel. In the winters she would sleep with her window open and in the summer she wrapped herself in her warmest quilts, an effort to prepare her body for the extreme temperatures she would no doubt encounter on her journeys. As Hédi told us this, the smile on her face evolved into an ironic laugh.

She shook her head: “My first travel was actually to Auschwitz.”

But Hédi survived Auschwitz and in 1945 she and her sister, Livi, were liberated from Bergen Belsen. What has surprised us most about the time we spent with Hédi is that, at 84-years old, having witnessed first-hand the most traumatic horrors the world has ever known, she has not lost the delicate fondness with which she takes in the world around her. Like the little girl watching trains rush past her small town, Hédi remains deeply enamored with life.

She now lives in Stockholm and while she has come to love the city, Héd still prefers her house in the country – a charming yellow house that looks out at the placid Baltic Sea. There, separated from the noise and rush of the city, Hédi can relax and find peace in the simple pleasures that make life endlessly thrilling.

When it is warm, she starts each day with a dip in the refreshing water – she prefers the early morning hours as, despite the tepid temperature, the water is quiet then. She can drift peacefully and bask in the sun, feeling one with nature. In giving us a tour of the house, Hédi’s mind drifted into poetry as she described to us the annual life span of her favorite tree: “Soon it will be yellow and then in the spring it’s so nice…the leaves will be small, small, small like the ears of a mouse…and then later like the ears of a rabbit.”

Hédi points out such beauty wherever she goes. When we returned with her to Bergen Belsen, she picked a small leaf from the shrubs that grew over a mass grave. And in the flower garden where her former labor camp once stood outside of Hamburg, she picked out a beautiful white daisy. Both, she insists are signs of hope – that the world can rejuvenate, that beauty can reemerge and that life can go on.

But we must never forget what happened.

To that end, Hédi and her sister Livi both participate in the Storytelling Project – an innovative program in Stockholm that pairs Holocaust Survivors with youth who are given special training in storytelling tactics. During intimate sessions, the Survivors share their stories with the young storytellers, allowing a new generation to assume the role of witness.

It was in this context that we first met Amanda Glans, a striking 25-year old woman who joined us at Hédi’s home in Stockholm just after breakfast. Armed, with a microphone and tape recorder, Amanda asked Hédi about the evils from which she had emerged and Hédi shared her story of survival – how she was taken to Auschwitz with her family and she and her sister, Livi, were immediately separated from both of their parents; how she was allowed to leave Auschwitz for work detail but Livi was forced to stay behind; how Hédi decided to go back to Auschwitz and remain with her sister, honoring her mother’s final wish that the two should “look after each other.”

And they continue do so. Livi keeps a country house just down the road from Hédi’s and during the warm months, they keep each other company for each meal. Our tour of the house included a walk through the yard where Hédi made note of the various seating areas that were spread out among the grass: breakfast with Livi was taken on the dock, lunch in the center of the yard, and dinner off to the side of the house. Indeed, Hédi had charted out a seating plan that followed the whims of the sun – so that she and her sister need never be without its warmth.

After a long day, Hédi likes to retire to the couch for a few moments. There she takes a brief “cat nap” to reinvigorate herself for the joys of the evening.

In this manner, Hédi showed us how magnificent the world can be. We learned much during our time with her. Namely, that life does not always obey the rules set out by the dreams of our childhood; that evil rises when the good people of the world shirk their responsibility to stand up for those who cannot stand for themselves; and that no matter how dark life gets, there is always hope and beauty within it.

Much more about Hédi’s story will be featured in the 20-minute version of our film, The Last Survivor. The film will be available via webcast on April 2nd as part of the Genocide Prevention Month kick-off event. We encourage you to hold screenings at your home or at a community center on April 2nd or any time there after. Watch the film and subsequent panel discussion and host your own conversation on genocide awareness and prevention. For more information, please visit the Month’s official website, www.genocidepreventionmonth.org and sign the pledge to honor the six genocides commemorated in April by working to prevent future atrocities. This blog is part four of a multi-part series on survivors of genocides. You can read future posts of this blog series every Monday and Thursday on the Huffington Post and change.org


The Last Survivor: Mambo Sawa Sawa

The following post was featured on The Huffington Post in a ten-part Genocide Prevention Month blog series:

This is a story about hope.

Justin Semahoro Kimenyerwa is 25 years old. He is a Banyamulenge Tutsi – an African tribe that hails from the mountainous South Kivu region of Congo. Justin was born in the small village of Muzinda. He loves to sing, and has a laugh unlike any we’ve ever heard – it is deep and genuine and silent when it is heavy. Above all else, it is Justin’s ability to laugh – his insistence that life’s gifts not be overshadowed by life’s struggles – that inspires us most.

As a child, Justin loved two things: praying at church and tending to his family’s cattle with his father. He remembers the mountains that surrounded his village, paying little care to any world that might exist on the other side. Justin was fifteen years old when his small village in Congo was attacked in 1996. He can’t remember the date, but he remembers the time: it was around 5:00 am. He remembers the sound of drums and the shouts that were growing closer. He remembers his father’s voice: “We are finished!” And he remembers running. There was no time to say goodbye, no time to look back and catch one final glimpse of his parents – an imprint of their faces that could sustain him until the next time they might be together. Justin could only run.

When we first heard Justin’s story, what shocked us most is that we had we never heard anything about the conflict in Congo. Dubbed by many as “Africa’s World War,” the war in Congo has claimed the lives of over five million people in the past decade – a staggering number that does not take into account the millions, like Justin, who have been displaced from their homes and separated from their loved ones. In the aftermath of the 1994 Tutsi Genocide in Rwanda, the genocidal Hutus were forced out of the country and found themselves in refugee camps in neighboring Congo – a nation that, like Rwanda, is home to a prominent Tutsi minority. The arrival of the Hutus was merely the match in what was a powder keg of tribal tensions and warring factions. Twelve years after the attack on Justin’s village, the violence in Congo continues and the issues around international intervention are ever more complex – making Congo the latest example of the desperate need for a policy of prevention.

During the ten long years that Justin lived as a refugee, he journeyed – usually by foot – from Congo, to Burundi, to Rwanda, and then Nairobi. He often went without food or shelter. He remembers the hunger, the exhaustion, and the prayers he sent to God, asking Him to take his life. What hurt most were the unanswered questions that lingered in his heart: Where were his parents? Where were his brothers and his sisters? Would he ever see them again? Such questions still remain but this is a story about hope.

In Nairobi, Justin survived off the generosity of others. He was taken in for periods of time by fellow tribesmen and strangers who, in Justin’s words, were touched by God and moved to help him. It was in Nairobi that Justin met Sasha Chanoff, the founder of Mapendo International – a Boston based non-profit that assists refugees in Africa. It was Mapendo that helped Justin find a place to live in Nairobi; Mapendo that gave him the surgery he desperately needed but could not afford; and Mapendo that would eventually help Justin leave Nairobi and begin a new life in the United States.

To hear Justin speak of Sasha is a unique and intimate testament to the power of human connection. When Sasha is brought up in conversation, Justin’s tone takes on the reverence of one who speaks of the man he believes saved his life. And the quiet humility with which Sasha goes about his work speaks to his own gratitude – for all that he has and all that has been given to him by the refugees, like Justin, who have touched his heart. Watching Justin and Sasha together is indeed proof that one life can affect another.

Justin now lives in St. Louis, Missouri. He works at the largest hospital in the city as a translator – translating to English from any of the seven languages he speaks. He has started classes at the local community college and is taking driving lessons. He has recently taken to traveling – going around the country telling people of the violence that, to this day, ravages his homeland; sharing with them the beautiful culture and generous spirit of his little known Banyamulenge people; and offering them a tale of hope that was made possible by good-hearted people who were willing to help. He continues to laugh and, in doing so, spreads his unshakable faith to others.

The last time we visited Justin in St. Louis, he took us to his church, The New City Fellowship – a diverse congregation of people of all different colors and backgrounds, who come together each Sunday (and often during the week) to pray and celebrate all that they have in common. On that Sunday, like every other, Justin sang with the Voices Of Africa Choir, a choir which he leads in order to share his native culture with his new community.

In beautiful harmony the choir sang a traditional Swahili song, “Mambo Sawa Sawa.” The hopeful lyrics speak to the very faith that has allowed Justin to not only endure despite his circumstance, but thrive.

“Things are already better!” The song declares. “When the Lord is on His throne, things are already better.” It is a song about hope.

It has been twelve years since Justin last saw his parents and time has started to fade the cherished memories of his childhood – memories of a world from which he was unwillingly pulled. He now exists among all of us in the world beyond the mountains of South Kivu. It is a world that can be painful, a world that is all too often unfair, and a world that, at times, overwhelms each of us. What Justin has shared with us, and what we will forever be grateful for, is his faith that within each of us is the power to overcome, the power to recognize ourselves in one another, and the power to make things better.

And once we each recognize this power, things are already better.

Mambo sawa sawa.

Much more about Justin’s story will be featured in the 20-minute version of our film, The Last Survivor. The film will be available via webcast on April 2nd as part of the Genocide Prevention Month kick-off event. We encourage you to hold screenings at your home or at a community center on April 2nd or any time there after. Watch the film and subsequent panel discussion and host your own conversation on genocide awareness and prevention. For more information, please visit the Month’s official website, www.genocidepreventionmonth.org and sign the pledge to honor the six genocides commemorated in April by working to prevent future atrocities. This blog is part four of a multi-part series on survivors of genocides. You can read future posts of this blog series every Monday and Thursday on the Huffington Post and change.org


The Last Survivor: Stop Saying ‘Never Again’

The following post was featured on The Huffington Post in a ten-part Genocide Prevention Month blog series:

At the beginning of April in 1994, Jacqueline Murekatete was nine years old. As was common in Rwandan culture, Jacqueline was spending some time away from her parents and siblings, looking after her grandmother who lived in a neighboring village. Jacqueline has fond memories of such visits. Living at home with six siblings, it was often a struggle to get the attention she craved from her parents. But alone with her grandmother, Jacqueline reveled in the affection she was given. Her name, Murekatete is Kinyarwandan for “may she be spoiled” — a name her grandmother lovingly allowed her to live up to.

On April 6, 1994 genocide broke out in Rwanda. In just 100 days, genocidal Hutus slaughtered over 1,000,000 Tutsis. These murders were not carried out systematically in gas chambers or ovens — most victims were slain individually at the hand of a machete; others were killed by machine guns or grenades. The killings were not hidden behind barbed wire, below ground, or inside remote camps — they occurred in churches, in government buildings, and in the streets.

Just days into the genocide, after the savage murder of a group of Belgian peace keepers, the United Nations pulled out of the small East African country. For its part, the United States chose to all but ignore the genocide. In fact, they preferred the term “ethnic cleansing” after an internal survey of International law concluded that referring to the events in Rwanda as genocide “could commit [the U.S. government] to actually ‘do something.’” (Power, Samantha. A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Harper Perennial: New York. 2002 Pg. 359.)

Before her own murder, Jacqueline’s grandmother brought her treasured grandchild to an orphanage run by Italian priests. There, Jacqueline remained — a young child traumatized by the horrific events she witnessed beyond the orphanage gates. And when the genocide ended, a surviving cousin told Jacqueline what had happened. One day, Jacqueline’s Hutu neighbors rounded up her parents, her four brothers and her two sisters. They took them, along with her uncles and aunts and the rest of the Tutsis in the village, to a nearby river. And there, like so many others who perished while the world turned a blind eye, they were slaughtered.

Jacqueline is now 23-years old and is a graduate of New York University. She remains in New York City where she works at a non-profit, Miracles Corners of the World, speaks to students about the genocide in Rwanda, and works to build a community center for Survivors who remain back home. We have had the opportunity to see Jacqueline speak many times over the past two years and what strikes us is that her message is eerily familiar. Jacqueline talks much of the vow of “Never Again” that was made after the Holocaust — and after Cambodia, and after Bosnia — and the world’s failure to live up to that vow. For us, as members of a young generation, it is a message we are used to hearing from Holocaust Survivors — older individuals speaking of a time of which we have no memory and a failed promise for which we bare little responsibility. But at 23-years old, Jacqueline is one of us. And the failure of the world of which she speaks is our world.

In the wake of Genocide Prevention Month, Jacqueline’s speeches are rather fitting: “A genocide is not something that happens over night,” Jacqueline likes to say. “It is something that occurs in a process.” And as such, there are always opportunities for global intervention before the violence reaches the levels it did in April of 1994.

Indeed, long before April 6 of 1994, the dehumanization campaign that would ultimately end in genocide was in full swing in Rwanda. On national broadcasts, Tutsis were referred to as “cockroaches” and “Rwanda’s misfortune.” Lists were drawn up of prominent Tutsis that would be the first targets of the genocide, machetes were imported in greater quantities than ever before, and newspapers and radio broadcasts informed Hutu’s that “the time was coming.” If these horrific occurrences sound familiar it is because we have seen them before. In Europe in the 1930s, Jews were forced to wear yellow stars that distinguished them as second class citizens, they were forbidden from opening businesses and the many who had already done so soon found their shops and offices destroyed. In Sudan, the Arabic government forbade Darfuris to enroll in the country’s most prestigious universities and in Congo, genocidal Hutus, who had fled Rwanda after the genocide, re-established power within refugee camps sponsored by the United Nations. “A genocide is not something that happens over night.”

When the genocide in Rwanda ended in the summer of 1994 it was not because the world decided it had finally seen enough. The Rwandans were left to their own devices — establishing a rebel army that ran the genocidal Hutus out of the country into neighboring Congo.

When it was over, however, the world did come together. Together we declared our outrage at the unchecked genocide. We asked the Rwandan Tutsis for their forgiveness and in one strong voice we solemnly vowed “Never Again.” If this noble vow sounds familiar it is because we have heard it before.

So as we move into April, a month in which six genocides are commemorated, let us consider a revision in our tactics. When the genocide in Darfur is finally brought to an end, let us gather and honor the victims; let us ask the forgiveness of the Darfuri people for not acting more swiftly to prevent the deaths of their loved ones; and let us support the Survivors in rebuilding their nation.

But let’s not say “Never Again.”

Instead, let’s recognize that this will happen again. For it is only by such an acknowledgment that we will force ourselves to look out for the warning signs that foreshadow impending violence — the very warning signs we’ve seen before and can be certain we will see again. It is only by recognizing that this will happen again that we can insist that our government take on a policy of genocide prevention rather than one of reaction.

The Genocide Prevention Project has compiled a list of 33 countries most at risk for mass atrocity crimes. So when the genocide in Darfur is finally brought to an end, let’s not say “Never Again” and instead recognize that it is already happening again.

What we both find most tragic about Jacqueline’s story is that it could so easily have been prevented.

Much more about Jacqueline’s story and the important work she does in the area of genocide prevention will be featured in the 20-minute version of our film, The Last Survivor. The film will be available via webcast on April 2nd as part of the Genocide Prevention Month kick-off event. We encourage you to host your own screenings – watch the film and subsequent panel discussion and start your own conversation on genocide awareness and prevention. For more information, please visit the Month’s official website, Genocide Prevention Month and sign the pledge to honor the six genocides commemorated in April by working to prevent future atrocities. This blog is part three of a multi-part series on survivors of genocides. You can read future posts of this blog series every Monday and Thursday on the Huffington Post and change.org


The Last Survivor: ‘Home to Darfur’

The following post was featured on The Huffington Post in a ten-part Genocide Prevention Month blog series:

On March 4th, 2009, when the International Criminal Court issued the arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, over 400 local Darfuri refugees living in Israel rallied in support of this decision.

When we met Adam Bashar, we were running a few minutes late and were out of breath. The bus that was supposed to take us to the Yemine Orde Youth Village outside of Haifa – where Adam was on pace to finish Israeli high school in just two years – dropped us at an unmarked stop at the base of Mount Carmel. We hiked up the first half of the hill before being offered a ride to the top.

Adam greeted us with a welcoming smile and slowed the rush of the morning to a snail’s pace as he lead us, one step at a time, around the beautiful campus of the Yemine Orde Youth Village and school. The village, which was founded in the 1950s as a home for Jewish children orphaned by the Holocaust, has since become home to orphaned youth from over 20 countries around the world. Most recently, the case of a group of young refugees fleeing genocide in Darfur caught the attention of the director of the village, Dr. Chaim Peri. Dr. Peri was especially moved by the group’s eldest member – a 16-year old named Adam who, having had his first taste of democracy, petitioned the United Nations and the Israeli government to allow him to attend school like any other child his age. Dr. Peri was appalled by his own government’s refusal. United with his students, Dr. Peri fought – successfully – to have Adam and the others released to the school’s custody.

As we walked along the path that ran the perimeter of Yemine Orde, Adam told us about the last time he saw his home in Darfur. He was just 14 and was playing outside with friends when the village was bombed. He told us how he and the others started to run; how they went from village to village in search of food and shelter; how although there were many boys at the outset of the journey, only Adam and one other were able to escape into Egypt; that once there he joined other refugees in sleeping outside the United Nations headquarters – the comfort of the organization’s promise the only shelter afforded to them in an unknown land. And as we continued walking, Adam told us about the massacres carried out against Darfuris in Egypt, that he fled to Sinai where he found work but was never paid, and that, seeing few options before them, he and two others decided to cross the depths of the Sinai Desert during the night and cross the border into Israel.

Through Adam, we were introduced to an entire community of Darfuris who had made the journey from Sudan, through Egypt, and across the border into Israel. And when we walked into the homeless shelter in which many of them lived, we were overwhelmed. We have both spent the better part of the last two years speaking with genocide Survivors, listening to stories of horror and loss. But when we met the refugees who had fled Darfur where genocide continues, the past tense was suddenly replaced by the present. Experiences of loss had not yet settled as treasured memories that linger in the heart, but remained raw panic that screamed from the eyes.

But these refugees did not fit into our clichéd assumptions of what a refugee was supposed to be. They did not sit around, helplessly waiting for their plight to improve. Instead, under the inspired leadership of people like Adam, they strove to improve themselves – to rebuild their lives so they might one day return home and rebuild their country. They organized themselves into a nationally recognized non-profit, B’nai Darfur (Sons of Darfur). Touting the motto, “God helps those who help themselves,” the organization assists newly arrived refugees in finding shelter, work and schooling for their children. Adam himself, works in elementary schools around Tel-Aviv, helping Darfuri children continue their education in a foreign land. He preaches the importance of education as a means of not only improving oneself, but as a weapon by which we can combat the very forces of intolerance and hatred that drove him and his people from their land.

Yet despite all of this it is the first image that remains with us – that of a fourteen year old boy, scattering into an unknown wilderness, equally unsure of the whereabouts and well-being of his family as he is of his own destination. Before meeting Adam, like many others, we quantified the horror of mass atrocity solely by the number of dead – in the case of Darfur the death toll is staggering: over 400,000 and rising. What we often overlooked, were the millions, like Adam, who have been displaced by the genocide.

Meeting Adam has taught us what it means to lose one’s home – to be forced from the land of your ancestors, driven from your history, your family and all that distinguishes you in this world. And so what inspires us most about Adam is that, despite all he has endured, the unexpected turns of life that have forced him to age far beyond his 19 years, he clings to the same inclination he once held as a young boy playing outside with friends in Darfur: that when this is all over he will return home.

There is a compelling moment that we captured during a radio interview with Adam on the day that the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for the arrest of Sudanese President, Omar al-Bashir. After listening to Adam’s story, the Israeli radio host questioned how Adam was able to cross into Israel. As an illegal immigrant, she wondered, how is it that he was allowed to stay? “I am not staying,” Adam insisted. “I am waiting until there is peace in Sudan.

“And then I will go home.”

Much more of Adam’s story and the stories of the refugees whom he leads will be featured in the 20-minute version of our film, The Last Survivor, that will be featured via live webcast as part of the Genocide Prevention Month kick-off event. To learn more about the premier and other events you can participate in as part of Genocide Prevention Month, please visit the Month’s official website, www.genocidepreventionmonth.org and sign the pledge to honor the six genocides commemorated in April by working to prevent future atrocities. This blog is part two of a multi-part series on survivors of genocides. Cross-posted at change.org


The Last Survivor: An Introduction

The following post was featured on The Huffington Post in a ten-part Genocide Prevention Month blog series:

Watching helplessly from the United States as his family in Poland was taken from the home of his childhood, loaded on trains as if cargo, and exterminated in concentration camps, Raphael Lempkin searched for a word that might encompass all that was lost. What was happening in Europe was more than murder. The Nazis sought not just to kill people, but to kill a people – to take not only their lives, but their customs, their culture, the stories and lessons they passed on from one generation to the next. As documentary filmmakers enthralled with notions of preservation and cinema’s capacity to not only bear witness, but to document – to serve as a keeper of memories for future generations – it is this notion of genocide as ultimate eraser, that in our eyes makes it such an unspeakable crime. And so, two years ago, we began work on The Last Survivor, a film that follows the lives of Survivors of four different genocides and mass atrocities – The Holocaust, Rwanda, Darfur and Congo. In creating this documentary, we have sought to make a film that not only speaks to the connectivity of these individuals as Survivors and, more broadly, as human beings, but a film that serves as a celebration of all that some wished to destroy but could not.

While we have never claimed to understand the complexities of international policy as it relates to genocide better than the experts who have spent their lives working in the field, we do believe that there is much to be said about our often overlooked commonalities. As filmmakers we have a fond appreciation for our medium as one of connection. Film, which unites light with movement and sound, has an unmatched ability to weave together lives and moments. That is the film we set out to create – one which allowed its audience to see past illusory fissures of religion, race, and generations, to marvel at our similarities and reflect on all that can be learned from our differences.

Over the past year, we have traveled the world creating that film. We have had the honor of forming lasting relationships with some of the most inspirational people we’ve had the privilege of meeting – people who have found themselves in the most horrific of circumstances and managed to emerge not defeated but determined. Each life speaks to the deep-rooted connections we all share as human beings; the commonality of their experiences demonstrates the need for a policy of prevention, focusing on the common warning signs that signal impending genocide before violence begins; and their work as activists highlights the dedication and passion of the millions of individuals taking part in the growing movement to end genocide in the 21st century.

We now find ourselves in a small editing suite with hundreds of hours of unwatched footage, the only hard evidence of our expedition. We began this series of blogs in order to create a venue through which we could share the many stories that we’ve come across in our travels – accompanying each with a piece of footage found in the editing room.

At the beginning of April (date soon to be announced), we will be working with the Genocide Prevention Project, the Genocide Intervention Network, the Save Darfur Coalition and many organizations nationwide, in putting together an event that will launch Genocide Prevention Month – a month-long campaign that honors the six genocides that are commemorated in April by highlighting the need to prevent future atrocities before they begin. The kick-off campaign will include a 20-minute version of our film, followed by a panel discussion that features genocide survivors, scholars, and prominent activists. The event will be available via live webcast and so we invite you to organize your own screenings – large screenings at universities, high schools, churches, synagogues and community centers or more intimate screenings in your own living rooms, dorm rooms, and studio apartments.

In the coming weeks, we will be sharing with you much more about the film and its subjects as well as information regarding Genocide Prevention Month. In the meantime, please visit the newly launched Genocide Prevention Month website and sign the pledge affirming your commitment to honor these important anniversaries and work toward a better future.

Watch the work-in-progress trailer of our film here, and stay tuned for more (shorter) clips.

We will be posting every Monday and Thursday, so stayed tuned. Our new post is currently available here.

Genocide survivor organizations and other anti-genocide advocates are staging Genocide Prevention Month in April – a time to remember the past and call for an end to mass atrocity crimes now and in the future. Sign a pledge to observe Genocide Prevention Month this April.