film production + social action


Independent Film Festival of Boston

2010 IFF Boston

Michael, Tom and I spent the weekend at the Independent Film Festival of Boston. True to it’s name, the festival did an incredible job in promoting and showing some amazing independent films. The documentary lineup was particularly impressive, with 22 docs in competition!

Our sold-out screening was yesterday at 2:15PM. And it was a huge success. Mapendo International brought many people to the screening, including Justin, who made the afternoon truly unforgettable. When the film finished, nearly everyone in the audience remained in their seats for the Q&A. Michael, Sasha Channoff and Justin fielded questions from an eager audience.

Personally, I had the support of friends and family who came up from New York just to see the film. Each of them came over to me after the film to individually thank me for providing them with such a profoundly moving experience. Once again, THE LAST SURVIVOR proves its ability to evoke strong emotional reactions from people. Many of the attendees at the screening left with pamphlets given out by Mapendo volunteers — and I have no doubt that they will all be moved to some sort of action.

The screening/Q&A ended with Justin teaching us all how to sing “Mambo Sawa Sawa.” The audience erupted in song, dance, and cheer as Justin lit up the room with his usual angelic spirit.

Boston was another great success. In two weeks we are off to LA for the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival. I imagine the momentum will continue to build out West just as it did back here on the East coast.

Reporting back from New York. Over and out -
Sam G

WEBlog Part II – 2 – Don’t Get Cocky

Rainy Day Activity

The syllabus of any respectable film school’s Purus class probably starts with a lesson that by now is ingrained in the head of every student whose ever passed through its walls: “Whatever You Do, Don’t Get Cocky.” Having not gone to film school myself, I never learned that lesson. It was tempting to be cocky. After all, the first time I went to the jungle things were in a word, hard. The weeks leading up to my departure were one big mess of worry, desperation, and bad news. Cinematographers cancelled on me, power generators were not delivered from factories, and congressmen were shot. And now, things were going without a hitch. It was as if the jungle had been conspiring before that first outing to keep me away and now, after having proved myself during that first month-long trial, it had deemed me worthy of admittance. And like any prestigious club, once you’re given the Jungle’s seal of approval, you can come and go whenever you’d like – you’re expected even. And so, I felt good – damn good actually. I told myself that things were going so smoothly because I had obviously grown quite a bit from my experiences, I was learning, maturing, mastering my profession. I was getting very cocky.

Me, my crew of two, and Roddy the technician were booked on an Air Force cargo flight set to leave Lima on Thursday morning, March 4th. By Tuesday night, I had everything packed up and was all set to leave. The sound recordist had arrived from Buenos Aires and we had gotten along very well. Cesar had packed an entire extra suitcase of canned goods to help us fight Dionisia’s cooking experiments of turtle and cow stomach. We were set. On Tuesday night, I lay in bed and thought about what was left to be done on my final day in Lima.

I had to buy batteries.

That was it. I searched my head for other things I had to do and in doing so thought again about how simple everything had been. Yes, all that stood between me and a second round with the Amazon in Purus was a box of nine volt batteries. That’s when the nightmarish thought entered my head that would keep me up the entire night: “Something terrible is going to happen tomorrow.”

The call came at about 1:00 PM the next day. I was with Martin, the sound recordist, on our way to get the box of batteries that was the lone item on my “To Do List.”

“Michael, it’s Roddy. Listen, Michael, I don’t have very good news.” It seemed that the Air Force had re-routed all of its civic cargo flights to Chile where they would be delivering needed aid to Earthquake victims. The flights to Purus would be postponed indefinitely.

Now, what exactly is the correct reaction here? Are you supposed to get mad at that? No, you can’t get mad about that – that would be inhumane. Frustrated? Perhaps you can be frustrated on the inside, but it’s certainly not appropriate to express that frustration outwardly, is it? Compassion and empathy seem like good, stable emotions for a situation like this. “Oh, well of course, they need the flights more than we do.” That seems like a reasonable response, though not a very productive one. These are the questions that I would like to ask a film school professor. That and, When you are told that the flights that are the only means of accessing the region that is the key to your entire film, have been re-routed indefinitely to Chile, what the hell are you supposed to do?

Now, again I haven’t taken the official Purus course, but here is how, I would imagine the book would go:

1. Asses the situation. What are your options?

-I could give blood. I had given blood a few times in my life, once in the aftermath of 9/11 and a second time at some high school blood drive. The second time did not go so well – the blood didn’t come out easily. They had to stick me with a needle 5 or 6 times just to say in the end, “Thanks anyhow.” I decided not to give blood.

-”We could go to Chile.” That was Cesar’s reaction and I won’t lie, I entertained it for more than a few seconds. But Chile would have been an entirely different film and would have meant the end of everything I’d been doing here in Peru. It felt like giving up.

The only option was to wait and keep myself as up to date on good information as is possible in Peru. I called the Air Force flight office about 3 times a day – often getting different answers with each call. Things got worse when a few days later I got a call from an unknown number on my cell phone.

“Michael!!! It’s Robert from Palestina. Where are you?” Robert and Miguel, two of my friends from the village had heard I was coming at the beginning of March – I’m not really sure who would have told them (I certainly didn’t), which only strengthens my belief that the jungle knows everything about those who intend on passing through its depths. Robert and Miguel had gone to Puerto Esperanza to meet me and take me back to Palestina with them. I was flattered, but devastated as I felt by not showing up I’d let them down and, to make matters worse, couldn’t give them a straight answer about when I’d be coming.

“I’ll be there as soon as I can. I’m not sure when the flights are leaving. I’ll be there soon.”

“Michael, can you bring me a pair of Nike sneakers?” Miguel asked.

“Yes,” I told him. I went on to apologize one last time. “I promise I’ll be there as soon as the flights leave.”

“Yeah. Don’t you leave without my Nikes!” Were Miguel’s final words.

In the end, it turned out that the round of flights had been all out cancelled. There would be nothing departing for the region for another 15 days. March 19th was set as the new departure date.

2. Asses the Damage.

At the end of the day, the damage caused by the two week postponement was not all that grave – or at least didn’t appear to be. There were two big hits:

Cesar would no longer be able to come. He had booked other work for the end of March going into the beginning of April so could not come on the 19th, nor could he meet me there at the midway point on the 4th. Roddy, couldn’t come either. He had to go out to the mountains for other work and Bari Gloria would be on an assignment in the north of the country. Bari assured me that the local specialist in Purus, Gardel, would be able to handle anything that might come up. Bari had, after all left the Internet OK and the only major work that was needed was the installation of the two solar powered batteries, which was really no big deal at all. I was in good hands, he promised. I had my doubts.

But Humberto could still come along for the first two weeks and Martin was very flexible and could stay on with me for the full month. I’d be able to handle the camera work myself the second half. The important thing was that we were leaving.

WEBlog Part II – 1 – Everything Appears OK

The Port of Palestina

I never went to film school. It’s definitely not a decision I’d ever say I regret per se, but I’ve certainly, on more than one occasion, found myself reflecting on the choice in the context of a lingering “what if?” I imagine that had I made a different decision after college and decided to invest three more years of my life getting a degree in production from a directing or producing program, I would have arrived on the first day of registration, opened the course offerings booklet and found in bold letters under required courses: How To Get You and Your Crew Into And Out of the Region of Purus in Peru. I imagine it would be a two semester course. Semester one: Getting In. Semester two: Getting Out.

You may remember the region of Purus where I lived last November. Referred to as the “Capital of Isolation,” the only way to access the region is via Peruvian Air Force cargo flights that depart from Lima every 15 days. The flights drop you in the “city” of Puerto Esperanza from where you can take an 8-hour boat ride down river to the village of Palestina on the Brazilian border. There are no roads in Purus. I had lived in Palestina in November and spent most of my time with an adorable ten-year old girl named Lidia and her family. The month was in the end a success, but was not without its fair share of challenges and setbacks. Most notably, the Solar Powered Internet system that had been the reason I had chosen the village of Palestina in the first place – offering me an opportunity to film students in one of the most remote parts of the world using the Internet for the first time – was not working. Upon my return to Lima in December, the Ministry of Education here had promised they would send one of their technicians out to Purus in February to repair the Internet and, for good measure, they promised to send a technician along with me when I returned for a second time in March.

The three months in between trips to Purus flew by and before I knew it, it was time to get things together and prepare for my return to Palestina. Things went delightfully smoothly. Both of my cinematographers, Cesar and Humberto, agreed to come along for two weeks each – Cesar the first two, Humberto the second two – and, with Humberto’s help I found a sound recordist from Buenos Aires who was willing to fly himself up to Lima and come along for the full month. The technician from the Ministry, Bari Gloria, returned from his own trip to Purus in mid-February and happily informed me that the Internet was left “OK.” (Peruvians very much like using the term “OK.” They don’t use it as we use it – back home, I interpret okay as “so-so.” So if you asked someone how they are and they responded, “OK,” you’d probably follow up with, “What’s wrong? A Peruvian “OK” is much more enthusiastic, in the vein of “Great!” or “Fantastic!”). A second technician, Roddy Guillen, a plump and friendly fellow who had accompanied me on an expedition to the mountains back in February was all set to come along with me as the on-site technician should anything go wrong. (I imagine that phrases such as “should anything go wrong” are not used in the textbooks that they give out in the Purus Class in fIlm school. They probably use the phrase “when things go wrong” instead.) To top it all off, I had received a small grant from the U.S. Embassy here to help me with the expenses and I had convinced One Laptop per Child to buy a pair of Solar Powered Batteries that would allow the Solar-Powered Internet System in Palestina to function 24 hours a day. “The Capital of Isolation” was about to have 24-hour wireless internet access and I would be there to film the consequences. Things were looking OK.

THE LAST SURVIVOR wins Special Jury Prize at Dallas and heads to Atlanta

On Thursday, we said “goodbye” to Dallas and “hello” to Atlanta.

I must say, as I recap our 5 days at the Dallas International Film Festival, I cannot imagine how the week could have gone any better than it did. We sold out both of our screenings, attended some incredible events, met interesting people, and moved THE LAST SURVIVOR one step closer to being seen by mass audiences around the globe. And as icing on the cake, during Friday’s award ceremony we were announced as winners of the DIFF Special Jury Prize!!!

From Dallas, director Michael Pertnoy made the trip to Atlanta, Georgia where the film is already garnering significant buzz around town. The Atlanta premier of THE LAST SURVIVOR is today at 2:20 PM at the Midtown Art Cinema. I look forward to keeping you updated on all of the happenings in Atlanta and beyond.

Over and out-
Sam G

Dallas International Film Festival – Day 3

Monday was a day we’ll never forget. Day 3 of the Festival – but for us – it felt like it had really just begun.

We began the day by going to the festival’s press office and were interviewed by the Dallas Film Festival and Red Carpet Crash. The surreal nature of the day’s events began here, where the reverence with which the interviewers treated us and our film was truly humbling.

Moving forward, the evening began at the Hotel Palomar, where Michael, Thomas and I met 6 of the 12 volunteers from SaveDarfur and STAND, who had come to join us for the screening. These young adults, seniors from Plano high school, were unbelievable. Enthusiastic and intelligent, they met the opportunity to volunteer with the perfect mix of excitement and maturity. The film was made for young people like them, and their involvement means so much to us.

Sam, Jeff, and Thomas on the red carpet

Michael on the red carpet

From the hotel, we went downtown to the Magnolia Theatre to walk the red carpet. I’ve gotta say, this was a thrilling moment! Michael was a superstar, fielding questions from many local reporters and students with the eloquence and calming presence that we have all gotten so used to. Thomas, Jeff and I also had the opportunity to share our unique experiences with the crowd – and from the get go – the positive energy was in the air and we knew this would be a special evening.

Check out Michael’s interview with Red Carpet Crash (starts at 5:08)!: DIFF’10: Red Carpet Day 5

From the red carpet, we drove back to the Angelika Theatre for the 7:15 screening. The film was sold out and as the lights went down, I got quite emotional as I realized that we are in the process of actualizing our dream. When the movie was over, I turned around to see that nearly the entire crowd remained in their seats for the Q&A.

The audience was eager to hear about the process of making the film and the characters themselves. It lasted over 30 minutes, which is almost unheard of at a festival, and is testament to the ability the film has to touch people on a deep, emotional level. The vibes in the theatre were almost tangible. Every time someone new sees THE LAST SURVIVOR we are struck by the connection the viewers feel to Hedi, Jacqueline, Justin and Adam. It reminds me how lucky I am to have met and spent time with these four inspiring Survivors. As audience members came up to us after the film to share their thoughts and emotions, we once again realized the power the film has to inspire ACTion.

Part of the success of our sold out screening is a tribute to our amazing partners here at the festival; the Dallas Holocaust Museum, 3 Stars Jewish Cinema and the JCC of Dallas. Each organization aided tremendously in spreading the word to the community.

All in all, I sit here writing this blog post with an irreversible smile on my face. Let’s ensure that THE LAST SURVIVOR continues to see the light of day, as we here in Dallas are once again witness to its incredible capacity to affect both hearts and minds.

We woke up yesterday morning to a rave review posted on the DIFF website by Bridgette Poe. We cannot thank the Dallas community enough for embracing us so whole heartedly.

Dallas International Film Festival – Day 2

Another eventful day for the Righteous Team at DIFF. We started the day at a panel discussion on adapting books to film, then hit the town to promote the film, passing out flyers, putting up posters, and talking to local Dallas folks about the film.

As we move into the 12th day of Genocide Prevention Month, our friends at the Save Darfur Coalition have been keeping us up to date on the news coming out of Sudan:

“After months of speculation and intrigue, polls opened across Sudan on Sunday morning. Many Sudanese turned out to exercise their right to vote (for the first time in 24 years), despite the opposition boycotts and precarious security situation…As expected, there have been reports of significant confusion about the multiple ballots. Numerous other logistical challenges have presented themselves, not atypical for an election in a developing nation. There have been no major reports of significant or organized violence thus far.”

Stay tuned with us as new developments continue to unfold.

Yesterday was also Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, worldwide and we joined the local Dallas community in honoring this special day at a large synagogue in the Dallas suburbs. The tribute was quite moving – beginning with a procession of the remaining Holocaust survivors in Dallas – and ending with the vital message of promoting activism within the community.

Sam, Thomas and I are all donning bracelets with the word “Upstander” on them, the central theme of the evening’s event, which focused on those who stood up to do good in the face of evil. The theme really hit home for the RP team, as THE LAST SURVIVOR profiles four survivor advocates who epitomize what it means to be an Upstander!

It is with this in mind that we launch the first installation of our upcoming new media series called the Survivor Project, featuring Holocaust Survivor, Joe Sachs. As we continue the days of Remembrance and commemoration, Joe’s leadership and activism continues to inspire us all.

That’s all for now . . . Press junket in an hour…Red Carpet walk in 5… T-Minus 6 hours to The Last Survivor screening!

Over and out,
Michael Pertnoy

Dallas International Film Festival – Day 1

Michael, Tom and I arrived yesterday afternoon here in Dallas, and it has been non-stop action ever since. Our first screening sold out nearly a week ago, and our second screening has only 10 tickets remaining. There is lots of buzz around The Last Survivor!!

Students from Plano High School’s STAND chapter have volunteered to assist us throughout the week and tonight we will be attending an event for Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) at the Dallas Holocaust Museum, another sponsor and advocate for the film. The support we have gotten from the activist community here is amazing – people just want to rally around the cause and help out in whatever way they can!

Yesterday was spent preparing press and outreach materials, and today we will finally get out of the Hotel Palomar and see some other films. Dallas is beautiful; the people are nice and hospitable, the weather is warm and sunny, and the overall atmosphere is very encouraging.

I look forward to reporting back with more news from the festival. Tomorrow night we walk the red carpet!

Over and out from Dallas-
Sam G

As the Sun Sets

In a week’s time, we will be venturing to Dallas, Texas to partake in the Dallas International Film Festival. Dallas will be one of the first of many stops on a long and hopefully fruitful festival run. Over the past week, The Last Survivor has accrued more fans and supporters here in Florida. As I sat in a packed Synagogue and screened the sneak preview of our film, I looked around at the faces of the many people in attendance. Young, middle-aged, and old, they were all in awe of what they were viewing.

This reminded me of the important work that we are doing – spreading the message of hope – in a subject matter that so often feels devoid of that crucial light at the end of the tunnel. When the sneak preview was over and the lights went up, hands went up as well; people are eager to learn about past and current Genocides, and we are providing the necessary tools to begin conversations.

As the sun sets here in Aventura, Florida, and a beautiful holiday weekend comes to an end, I am grateful that I can help propagate the message that The Last Survivor carries with it. This is only the beginning of what will be an incredible life long journey.

Happy Holidays to all. Dallas: here we come.

Signing off,
Samuel Goldberg

The Last Survivor @ Oxford Film Festival

This weekend The Last Survivor screened at the Oxford Film Festival. It marked the first official film festival that the Righteous Pictures team has attended. Hopefully, it will turn out to be the first of many. The Oxford Film Festival, which started in 2003, brings independent filmmakers from across the country to Oxford, Mississippi to showcase their work and interact with the audience at a number of social events.

The Last Survivor was extremely well-received at Oxford. So much so, in fact, that we were presented with the “Hoka” Award for Best Documentary Feature. What an honor. And as if that was not excitement enough, just this morning we were informed that The Last Survivor also won the Audience Award for best overall film in the festival. A positive first step in the festival tour!

Oxford Film Festival 2010

Check out the Oxford’s page for a little more information: Oxford Film Festival 2010

WEBlog 6: Departure

My good relations with the townspeople continued and I began to feel very much at home. Where ever I’d walk, I’d see someone I knew. They’d stop me, we’d speak for several minutes – conversation usually focused on where I was going (no where really), when they could get a copy of the wedding DVD (whenever you want, I have them in the house), and how much I was charging for the DVDs (nothing it’s a gift). They’d smile and I’d be on my way. Everyone was friendly and always smiling. I shouldn’t say everyone. There were at least a few people who viewed my presence as an imposition – they didn’t like the idea of a Gringo hanging around and filming them. “Gringo, what are you looking for?” An elderly woman yelled out at me once as I filmed near her house – a profound question and one I’ve often asked myself. But other than these few objectors, I was a hit. As the time for my departure came closer, conversations centered around the date I’d chosen – October 12th. “And when will you return?” They would ask.

Indeed my final few nights at Yanet’s had an heir of sadness to them. “We’re going to be sad when you leave, Michael.” The father told me at dinner. “I don’t think you should leave. You should stay with us longer,” the sister told me. I reminded her that when I left she could at least have her room back and not have to share a bed with her sister. “I don’t care, you can have my room,” was her response.

However, the comment that will remain with me always came a week earlier, during an interview I did with Yanet’s father, Mauricio. The mother had gone into town for the day and the children were all at school. The house was quiet and we spoke at length. When I had finished all of my questions, as I do at the end of all my interviews, I asked Mauricio, whether there was anything he wished to add. He thought about this for a moment and then looked right at me.

“Don’t forget about us,” he pleaded. “Everyone else forgets about us but you – you remember us.”

I promised that I would.

I as wrap up this account of my first three weeks living with families in the Andes Mountains, I recognize, that I can’t have possibly captured all of the moments that pervaded my time in Antuyo and have indeed shaken the foundation upon which I have built my view of the world. It is an incredible thing to be welcomed into the home of those who have so little, whom happily offer all that they can, not only with a smile but with insistence. Indeed, their generosity was so great, that at times I forgot how poor they are. But they are poor. For a full week of back-breaking work on the canal, each person was paid a salary of 20 soles – less than $7. At the end of my stay, a high electricity bill was the source of much angst. The bill: 12 soles – about $4. (As I had been using electricity to charge my equipment each night, I insisted on paying it).

In addition to the many moments I have described in Antuyo, there were many others – the details of which escape me. There were moments of sheer awe in which the mountain view that my eyes never took for granted offered indescribable miracles of nature. Like in the first hours of the morning, when the mountains blocked the sun’s dominance of the sky, creating the illusion of a battle between the moon and its peaceful nighttime stars and the sun which pushed the night from the sky with all of the power of its daylight. Moments of fears in which guard dogs chased me from their property as I made innocent hikes around the mountains. There were small triumphs of joy when I climbed trees with Bernardo, who sang the whole time, and remembered again what was to be a kid with nothing to do but get dirty, play and be home before dark. Undoubtedly, there were moments of difficulty and foreigness, times when I felt of a different world and that I couldn’t stand another minute there. But above all, what I have learned from my time in Antuyo is that while we all inherit different lives – different challenges posed to us that are met with different reactions – we are above all else the same. And while this appearance of other often clouds our vision and ability to see the undeniable truth of similarity that is at our core, when we demand that our eyes see through this fog, the world offers to us the greatest of its gifts: connection – a bridge between two worlds that allows us to learn, to understand and to grow.

WEBlog 5: Building a Canal

Life in Antuyo is hard and the people are poor. As I mentioned, the greatest problem is a lack of water. To aid in this issue, while I was there, the people of the town joined together to begin construction on a canal that would bring water down from a lagoon several miles away. The construction began on a Sunday. I was told we would be going very high up (“Arrrrrrrrrrrribba!” as they were fond of saying) the mountain, riding along on donkeys. I let myself daydream on the idea of a peaceful ride up the beautiful mountain bouncing along on the back of donkey. I heard wrong. We were not going to ride up the mountain on donkeys, but rather load the donkeys up with bags of cement and herd them up and down the steep mountain. I climbed the mountain five times that day in all, filming the townspeople as they marched their donkeys onward, often carrying bags of cement over their own shoulders – the heavy load pushing them toward the rocky Earth. Everyone in the town participated in this work – young fit men, old men, young women, old women, kids. For fear of being excommunicated if I didn’t help out, I herded a few donkeys myself. It’s pretty easy, you just need to stay behind the donkey and walk at a steady and purposeful pace. On my third trip up the mountain, I got a little slow and the donkey started veering off to the right. I started to run after him, which only caused him to run faster. He started heading downhill, picking up speed – perhaps sensing freedom. I grabbed onto the ropes that tied the cement onto his back. This seemed to piss him off – he darted away, dragging me along for a few moments until I was wise enough to let go. I dropped my heavy pack of gear and sprinted after the donkey.

Here’s a little known fact: donkey’s are fast. Much faster than you’d imagine. I had no hope of catching up with the donkey that ran with great strides toward liberation. The terrible shame that comes with losing one’s donkey started to come over me. I turned to look and see if anyone was looking and was relieved to see Bernardo, my 12-year old savior, sprinting out toward the donkey. Bernardo is also fast. Much faster than I am, even faster than the donkey. Within seconds he was well ahead of me, and managed to make his way in front of the donkey. Upon doing so, he came to a halt and turned back toward the mountain. Apparently, this is all that is needed to curb a run away donkey. Just get in front of them (as you see, not an easy task) and they give up. So, I’ve learned that donkeys are very fast but not very hopeful animals. Bernardo took over from there and the case of the run away donkey was solved. I of course, would not live the episode down, as Yanet’s father would often bring it up during dinner, laughing about the fact that I couldn’t keep my donkey in order.

The next day, with the cement distributed along the canal’s intended path, construction began in earnest on the canal and continued throughout the week. I went to film the construction on Friday. The people gathered on the mountain at 9, they spent an hour relaxing, chewing coca leaves and talking. They split into two groups – each working on different sections of the canal – and many arguments erupted about who had more cement, who had brought more cement, and where each group’s designated territories ended. It was not exactly the quaint, “we’re all in this together scene,” I had imagined. At 10, work began and continued until lunch at 1. First they dug out the canal from the Earth – pulling out large boulders that stood in their way. Then they lined the canal with large rocks, then laid and smoothed cement to preserve the design. By 11:30, satisfied with the footage I’d accumulated, I decided to help out with the canal’s construction. The people were all very pleased with my volunteerism. In fact, they even argued over which group I would help. In the end, I split my time between the two groups. I was assigned three different tasks: first I brought buckets of water to use in mixing the cement; then, once mixed, I brought buckets of cement up and down the mountain from the mixing site to the specific areas where it was needed; finally, I searched for and retrieved large rocks to put along the canal as a type of foundation – this seemingly easy task was complicated by the existence of little black spiders that hide under the rocks. I didn’t quite catch what would happen if I was bitten, other than that it would be rather painful and would include an hour long drive to the hospital. “And I don’t have a car!” The woman who was telling me all this concluded. The point was, I should be careful.

Work finished at four. Too tired for the long trek home, most of the people hung out for a bit before heading home. In helping out, I had certainly won over the respect of the whole community. Before then, while I was a recognizable face, I was still the unknown Gringo who danced kind of funny. Now, the people seemed to actually enjoy my presence. At lunch, I was given food by three different people, each insisting on taking my already full plate and adding to it. And, by the end of the day, my name had changed from “Gringo” to Michael.

WEBlog 4: A Dedicated Professor / Roy the Revolutionary

I come from a family that’s deeply embedded in the world of education – everyone in some form or another: my mother, my father, my brother-in-law, several of my cousins, and now my sister. They all work hard and are extremely passionate. I must say however, I have never met a more dedicated educator than the wonderful teacher who governs the one-room school house in Antuyo, Peru. The professor of the lone school in Antuyo wakes up every morning between 2 and 3 am. He spends several hours preparing for the day’s class and doing work for the classes he himself takes on the weekends. At 5 am, he starts his round of household errands: he feeds the two donkeys, the three pigs, the two turkeys, the chicken, the four guard dogs, and the cat. He has a quick breakfast with his family and by 6 he has begun his long commute to the village of Antuyo to begin school at 8:30. The day, which lasts until 2:00 sees him governing a class of wild students that range in age from 5 to 13, teaching eight different grade levels (from pre-K to 6th grade) at the same time. Throughout the day he wears the hat of principal, math teacher, grammar teacher, science teacher, gym teacher and custodian. When there is an issue with a student, he makes the long hike up the mountain to visit their families personally. He’s got a tough job.

I’ll shift gears here and say that, perhaps the greatest benefit of life in Antuyo is that it’s socially acceptable to pee anywhere. On a couple of occasions, I found that the person I was having a conversation with while walking had stopped to relieve himself. At night, with the doors to the house locked up, one need only leave his room and take care of business (the whole house is outside anyhow). Despite designated outhouses, the rule of free peeing is in no danger. After all, the animals do it and, as their masters, why shouldn’t we? I found that no one took greater advantage of this luxury than the five-year old, Roy. His bed was upstairs, looking out at the mountains and the outdoor area of the house below. Standing on his bed, Roy would lean over the balcony and let loose. One morning, I was having a conversation with the father below when Roy started peeing from above. The father smiled at me, “It’s raining,” he said. While everyone in the town took full advantage of this privilege (women included), Roy was a true revolutionary – always pushing the envelope. One morning, I went to great lengths to set up a beautiful shot of Roy running freely toward the school. It was really a great shot: the full mountain landscape filling the frame, lit perfectly by the fresh morning sun. Roy ran into frame as if on cue. I was admiring the shot from behind the camera, giving myself a big old pat on the back, when Roy suddenly stopped at the edge of the frame, sat down and took a crap in the middle of the field. I learned a lot from Roy.

WEBlog 3: An Andean Wedding

Just a few days after my arrival, I learned that my timing was rather apt. It turned out that on the first Saturday I was in Antuyo, Yanet’s sister would be getting married! I was invited to the wedding and, as a gift, agreed to film the wedding for the family (I figured it would also be a good opportunity for me to film their culture for my own purposes). The day of the wedding was a long one. We got into Ahuac around 6 am to prepare for the ceremony that would start at 10:30. I had a breakfast of pancakes and coffee – a welcomed break from my otherwise steady diet of potatoes – while the bride changed at the hair salon. Nothing exciting to report about the ceremony itself – very similar to our own – the party however, was phenomenal. It started immediately after the ceremony (around noon) and went on for two days at three different venues. We started at the plaza right outside the church, with a full band set up. We danced in circles in the plaza for about an hour at which point a parade line formed. The parade made several tours of the plaza, pushed along by the band which played at the rear (throughout the night the band played a slew of Santiago songs – at one point I got into an argument with another guest about whether or not they were playing the same song over and over again. She insisted they were different songs, I’m pretty sure it was the same song all night). After making many circles, we headed down the streets of Ahuac toward the main venue – a big outdoor field with two stages for the two bands. I thought the luxurious venue would be a nice opportunity to seek out a toilet, but was disappointed to learn that it merely offered holes lined by tile. The dancing started upon our arrival at the wedding hall and continued until midnight. Each key part of the party would begin with the key objects being displayed in a dance that circled around the field. Before lunch, the guests picked up the dozen or so full pigs, formed a parade line and danced around, swinging the pigs back and forth, presenting each to the bride and groom. After lunch, gifts were presented. The guests formed lines and danced around carrying their gifts – and these are not little envelopes containing checks, I’m talking about people dancing around for twenty minutes lifting refrigerators, dressers, and ovens over their shoulders. After the gifts came the beer – there must have been several hundred cases of 40 oz bottles, each of which was paraded around. The people drink communally, pouring themselves a shot of beer and then passing the bottle and plastic cup onto the next guest. They drink in circles of five to ten, dancing the whole time. Now, in my dancing days, I’ve made an impression on quite a few people with my natural dancing skills – I’m self-taught. The people of Antuyo are no exception. Behind the bride and groom, I was the most popular guy at the party, dancing with everyone (most of them laughing at me and mocking my moves – I actually got a hilarious shot of two old women, decked out in full Andean costumes, imitating my unique breed of dancing). Things got dangerous as people got drunker. One woman came up to me, grabbed me by the ear and tried to force me to marry her daughter. I managed to free myself from her strong grip and flee only to run into her an hour later, having to go through the whole ordeal again.

The party ended around midnight, and by 9 am the next day, all of the guests were up in Antuyo at the groom’s house dancing to the same music with the same band, drinking case after case of beer and eating all of the leftovers. This went on until midnight.

Creating the DVD turned out to be a much bigger deal than I thought it’d be. From the moment the party ended I was asked when it would be ready. I tried to explain that I needed some time to edit everything together; that these things take time and I’d need to wait until the following weekend when I went to the city for a few days. When I went into the city of Huancayo the following weekend for two days of much needed rest and running water, I spent hours editing the four hours of footage into a tight, hour-long video. I came back on Sunday, feeling generous and excited to show my work to the family. They liked it but were perplexed….what happened to all the rest? Why would I edit it down? They wanted EVERYTHING. Accepting the fact that I’d wasted a whole day editing, I gave them all four hours of footage on two DVDs. They couldn’t have been happier – the DVD became legendary around the town with people constantly asking where they could get a copy. It was practically on repeat from the moment I gave it to them until the time I left. They’re probably watching it right now.

WEBlog 2: Arriving & Eating in Antuyo

I arrived in Antuyo on Monday morning, September 21st, unsure exactly how long I’d be staying. My arrival by car disrupted the class as all ten students ran outside to see what was up. They all instantly recognized me and, having recently edited all of the footage I had previously shot at the school, I felt like I’d already spent a full week with all of them. The shouts of “Michael” began here and continued for a full three weeks. After school, the teacher lead me to the top of the mountain to Yanet’s house so that I could speak with her parents about the possibility of my staying there. They were delighted by the prospect and offered me a room to take as my own – everyone else shared a room (and things got a bit more crowded because of my presence). They refused to take money from me, nothing for rent nor for the food they generously “forced” on me three times a day (more on this later). The problem, as it turned out, wasn’t an issue of me staying with Yanet’s family. The problem, from the perspective of the rest of the community, would be if I only stayed at Yanet’s house, as many families wanted the opportunity to host me. I was flattered but recognized this insistence as an obstacle to my filming. My hope in living in the town was to come to know a family intimately and not divide my time between many households only getting a superficial view of their life. I explained to the family (and the teacher who was facilitating the discussion) that for my purposes, since my time was limited, it was better that I stay with families who have children in the school and have the chance to get to know one or two families well as opposed to having a brief visit with so many. This discussion would come up several more times during my three week stay, but in the end I prevailed and ended up splitting my time between just two families: Yanet’s family who lived way up at the top of the hill (the furthest house from the school) and Bernardo’s family, who lived rather close to the school. Bernardo is 12-years old and is the furthest along in the class – meaning he’s the only sixth grader in a class that spans pre-school to sixth grade. In March, he’ll begin at the high school, which means he’ll have to walk about forty-five minutes down the mountain into Ahuac each morning and over an hour back (the trip is a lot longer when you’re walking uphill). Along with Bernardo is his five-year old brother, Roy, who provided much needed comic relief throughout my stay.

Both houses were pretty full. At Yanet’s I lived among her parents, her two sisters, her brother-in-law, her sister-in-law, two cows, a bull, three donkeys, two pigs, thirty-five sheep, a dog, a cat, and a number of guinea pig that roamed freely around the kitchen until their day of reckoning (Guinea Pig is considered a delicacy in the mountains). At the beginning of my stay, there was a chicken running around the house, but one night we ate well and thereafter there was no more chicken. Eating in general was a bit of an issue. Meat is a luxury (as is most protein) and is rarely eaten. The favored food group is starch – potatoes, rice, spaghetti. Most meals would start with an appetizer of raw potatoes, along with two local potato-like crops – Mashua and Oca – which would be followed by a big plate of sliced potatoes (sometimes fried, other times boiled or with a sauce) with heaping portions of rice and spaghetti. Sometimes this would be put into a soup and, if I was lucky a newly produced egg would be placed on top. Now, as you probably know by now, I love to eat. I’m rarely too full for another serving and love trying all sorts of foods. In terms of my culinary life, Antuyo was rock bottom. I simply can not eat that many potatoes. Fortunately, the appetizer of raw potatoes was served in a communal bowl and so I could fake how much of it I actually ate. The main course was a different story all together. As the guest I was given the most and as a guest, it was considered rude if I didn’t eat all that was offered to me. That didn’t mean just finishing what was on my plate. I quickly learned that I was expected to ask for and enjoy seconds. In fact, Yanet’s father usually seemed perturbed that I didn’t want thirds. When I explained that I already had two full plates, he’d always respond with, “I’ve had three plates.” “You’re bigger than me,” I’d tell him. This would make him laugh and the suggestion of thirds would be forgotten – worked like a charm every time. But I hope I’m not minimizing the challenge I faced three times a day – two heaping plates of potato, rice and spaghetti (which was served, for breakfast lunch and dinner) is no easy task. I often found myself playing the eating-encouragement game usually relegated to little kids…”Come on, Mike, just two more ‘big boy’ bites and you’ll be finished.” Drinks came in two forms: hot water with sugar or a tea-like drink that was made with water, sugar, and sliced apples. It was actually pretty delicious. All drinks were hot. On more than one occasion, after an afternoon of particularly laborious work in the hot sun, I decided it was worth the forty-five minute walk to buy a Coke in Ahuac. These brief visits into “civilization” would indeed sustain me over the course of what proved to be three difficult weeks of potatoes, cold nights, few showers, and toilet-less bathrooms.

I did have occasion to have meat a few times, however. About half-way through my stay I was sitting in the kitchen with Bernardo’s family after dinner, telling them about my own city. Everyone I spoke to about New York had very similar questions that clearly demonstrate how foreign our two worlds are: “What do you grow there?” was undoubtedly the first question anyone would ask. I’d have to explain that I lived in a city, that they we didn’t grow anything and that all of our food we bought in markets or at restaurants. “So what kind of animals do you have?” Dogs, cats, squirrels. “And what do you eat?” See, if you’re from Antuyo, that question can be answered very easily: “we eat potatoes.” I tried to explain that in my city there were people from all over the world, and so we ate, literally everything.

Well, not everything it turns out. It came out shortly after I made that comment that I had never eaten Guinea Pig. The mother seemed pleased at this prospect – “I will make it for you on Monday.” That was on Wednesday. On Thursday, I returned to Yanet’s house for several nights. In the afternoon, we were having a similar conversation which again resulted in the same discovery but now with an added caveat: “I’ve never eaten guinea pig, but Bernardo’s mother is going to make it for me on Monday.” Not wanting to be shown up by another host family, Yanet’s mother decided she’d beat them to the task and prepare guinea pig – Cuy (pronounced Coo-ey) – that night. The preparation of Cuy is a long and rather explicit process. First several Cuys are picked out of the bunch, based on size – the whole pack shrieks as it loses three of its brethren. The unfortunate few are taken outside where there necks are promptly slit and their blood drained. The Cuy is then sliced down the middle, its guts removed, tossed into a bowl and fed to the dog (who up until this point is watching along expectantly). The Cuy are then boiled, their fur removed and then sliced up, covered with some flour and fried. I was given a plate of two Cuy legs covered in a delicious, thick, red pepper sauce with potatoes on the side. I’ve gotta say, it really wasn’t that bad – a good taste and the consistency of dark meat chicken. I could however, have done without the dessert that was given to me – the much coveted jaw of Cuy. When I ate the same meal on Monday night with Bernardo’s family, Roy beat me to the task of finishing off the face. Can’t say I was upset.

It was a tough decision, but I’d have to say in the first annual Cuy making competition of Antuyo, Bernardo’s family takes the prize – the sauce was a little bit better and, as I said, I didn’t have to eat the face, which definitely made for a better experience.

WEBlog 1: A Michael Heads to the Andes

Growing up with a name like Michael can, at times, be frustrating. In elementary school there was bound to be at least one other Michael in my class and usually two others. This meant that either we’d each have to take on a derivative of the name as our own – one of us Michael, another Mike, and the third, least fortunate of us, Mikey – or, even worse we’d have to use the initial system and I’d end up being Michael K. for the whole year. The frustrations of the initial system came to an ultimate low in fourth grade during a trip to the water fountain. It was probably after gym class or recess and I along with a small group of classmates, was waiting on line. It was during this time – I think I had actually just finished my turn at the water fountain – that Roshini came up to me with some sort of important news: “Michael K., did you hear about such and such?!” Now granted, Roshini, we can’t all be blessed with such a distinct and uncommon name like yours, but for fuck’s sake, I’m the only Michael around right now! Is the “K” really necessary? It’s not that I didn’t like my name – quite the opposite, I think it’s a great one – I just wished there weren’t so many of us.

Well, in the small town of Antuyo, situated deep within the Andes Mountains, I at last got to experience the thrills and popularity that come with being the only Michael. The town consists of approximately 17 families and about 100 people, none of them named Michael. (more…)

The Last Survivor: What’s in a Name?

Undoubtedly, every time either of us presents the sneak preview of our film, The Last Survivor, we are asked about the title. “Who is the ‘Last Survivor’?” People often wonder. Sometimes the questioner has already narrowed down the options in his head, “Which one of those four is the ‘Last Survivor’?” It’d be a lie to say we are caught off guard by such questions – indeed, the film’s title has been a favorite point of inquisition since we began presenting the film in the idea form over two years ago. In fact, at one point we considered changing the title to allow audience members to focus on the stories being played out in front of them, instead of getting hung up on the name. In the end, however, cooler heads prevailed and we have chosen to stick with a title that, to us, has great meaning. The short answer to the question above is, of course, that we cannot name for you whom the ‘Last Survivor’ is. What can be extrapolated however, is the fact that when such a survivor can be named, it will be the culmination of generations of hope and hard work – a bloodline of activists that includes not only the survivors presented in our film, but those who came before them, those who perished at the hands of genocide, and those of us who have taken on this cause as a great struggle to preserve the rights of humanity.

We have already spoken about family trees and the particular fondness we have found for them among the Survivors we have known. For many of us, family trees are a means by which we can remember our roots – understand who came before us, what trials our family line has passed through, what history is written in the make up of our genes. However, when all of the branches from which one hangs have been systematically removed, the act of reviewing one’s roots – though important – can be quite painful. Perhaps it is for that reason, that we have noticed a trend in Survivors to take on a forward view in reviewing their family bloodlines – to view a family tree as an exercise in imagining what is to come. We are reminded again of the beautiful expression of comfort that Sasha Chanoff offered Justin Kimenyerwa as the sun set on a peaceful park in St. Louis, a city in the middle of a nation that Justin could only imagine months earlier. “You’ll have children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren and they’ll all go on to do wonderful things. And you’re the start.”

There is an optimism provided by a family tree that is difficult to express in any other form: it is a visual expression of the act of continuation. And while many of us may take such a notion for granted, to Survivors it often represents their ultimate triumph in a world which sought to destroy them and those who would follow.

Hédi refers to such a revival of spirits as rebirth – the reawakening of life’s splendor in one who has passed through great horror. Tied up in such an awakening is more than the ability to attune oneself once again to life’s pleasures. It is the fulfillment of a deeper need to find meaning and purpose in one’s life. And while it may be difficult to see through the trauma that undoubtedly hinders one’s vision after such an atrocity, the branch upon which any survivor sits – a branch that serves as a lone connector between those of the past and those to be birthed in the future – is one of unparalleled meaning.

During the same scene referred to earlier, dusk in a park in St. Louis, Sasha told Justin of the pogroms that forced his own family to flee the Soviet Union over 100 years ago. This statement of history was followed by one of recognition – “I could be you very easily,” Sasha told Justin. This line has always stuck out to us as the most poignant we captured on film, for in it is the simple recognition that all of our family trees are connected by the sheer insistence with which they move forward.

Indeed, Sasha still recalls sitting with his Great Aunt as a child, hearing about when, as a child herself, she was hidden in a tree as hate-filled soldiers passed below, thundering through villages on horseback. Adam does not have a child with whom he can share such memories – memories that tell of his own flight from his village in Darfur as bombs fell from the sky and Janjaweed militias tore through the land on horseback. And if Justin and Hédi could sit together in the small park near Justin’s St. Louis home, they might speak of the common horror of being pulled from one’s parents, forced to etch an imprint of their faces into the permanence of memory in an instant. And if Jacqueline could join that conversation, she might speak of the utter silence she discovered to exist on the other side of the world, when she awoke from her nightmare. Indeed, each of the film’s subjects could speak to the feeling of loneliness that must come when it is realized that the world is deaf to your cries.

This ability to connect with an other – despite separations of generation, age, and oceans – is not specific to Survivors of terror. As each of us move through the branches of our family trees, not only do we tumble in the same direction, but if one were to remove the leaves, fruit and flowers blossoming from our trees – beautiful decorations of uniqueness that often cloud our vision – she might see that that which we believe to be a tree in itself is merely a large branch. The tree of which we are all apart is far more magnificent than those we dreamed of climbing in even the most ambitious of our childhood daydreams.

So, who is ‘The Last Survivor’?

Unfortunately, it appears unlikely that any of us will have the pleasure of meeting this elusive being in our lifetime. Even if we are to succeed in ending the genocide in Darfur – survivors are continually birthed in Congo, Burma, Sri Lanka, Uganda, and far too many other places in our world. A crime as old as genocide and fears as ancient as intolerance cannot be destroyed in a single generation. That is why we celebrate the continuation provided to each of us within our family trees – a forward movement that allows our work to be continued when we can no longer fight ourselves.

It is on this note of optimism that we wish to leave you as we move on from Genocide Prevention Month. There is much work still to be done. More work than can possibly be completed in a single lifetime. However, by recognizing that we are bound not by the time we are permitted in this world, but only by the legacies we can pass on to coming generations, we can be comforted by the fact that the work will one day be completed. And while it is not likely that any of us will be present when the notion of genocide is itself extinguished from this Earth, while we will not have the opportunity to meet the last to survive the horror of genocide, we can be certain that if we speak loud enough, our voices will be heard even then.

Visit to learn more about ‘The Last Survivor.’ Join our mailing list to stay up to date with news and updates about the film.

The Last Survivor: The Case for Prevention

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

Lawrence Woocher speaking before the launch of Genocide Prevention Month at the 6th & I historic synagogue in Washington, D.C.

As we begin this final week of Genocide Prevention Month, we thought it was an important opportunity to pause and consider what it is we are advocating for – why we believe a policy of genocide prevention should be adapted both by our own national government as well as the international community at large.

Last week, our post began with a clip from Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, a leader of the Armenian community who has been a tremendous voice and advocate for the people of Darfur. Archbishop Aykazian referred to the 20th century as “the Century of Genocide.” It’s a troubling label to be sure, but one that is difficult to argue with. And now, with genocide raging through six of the first nine years of this new 21st century, we must wonder how much worse it needs to get before we consider a change in our reaction. It is time that we take a serious look at how we have responded to these atrocities in the past and why these responses have continuously failed.

In a word, our response to genocide throughout this unprecedented “Century of Genocide” has been reluctant. Among policy circles, debate tends to center less around what specific actions should be taken to end a genocide, focusing more on whether it is our role to be involved in the first place. The Genocide Convention, passed by the United Nations in 1948, not only outlawed genocide but declared that once recognized, the international community had an obligation to stop it. This seemingly straight-forward legislation has only upped the political ante involved in the word genocide itself – as leaders search lexicons of evil for less obligatory titles: “ethnic cleansing,” “civil war,” or “internal strife.” No matter what the chosen phrasing, the point is the same: despite the violence, as these crimes against humanity rarely pose direct threats to “American interests,” there is little reason to get involved.

Despite the current labeling of our international response policy to genocide as one of intervention, such intervention is rarely the end result. As we have seen all too clearly in the case of Darfur, intervention poses far too great of a political risk to our leaders. And as hundreds of thousands perish simply because of who they are, distant condemnation has proven a far safer reaction for international leaders weary of getting involved in a volatile conflict far from home.

Certainly, it is important to combat this familiar faltering on the part of American and international leaders, who offer great lip service to the need for intervention on the campaign trail, but find their agendas suddenly full once in office. Indeed, the lives of four million refugees in Darfur depend on our willingness to push our leaders to put actions behind their words. However, if we are serious about truly ending genocide in the 21st century, we must recognize that the reluctance associated with intervention in Darfur is nothing new – once a conflict reaches the level of genocide, the politics of the situation have proven far too complicated to render any sort of substantial reaction from the international community.

There is hope, however – hope born out of the fact that genocide is spawned out of years (if not centuries) of ethnic hatred and persecution, combined with political unrest. Genocidal killings are rarely the first action taken up by the groups in power, but are usually a “final solution” that comes at the end of a long path that systematically strips the oppressed party of their rights, liberties, and humanity. A policy of prevention would mean stepping in somewhere along this path of persecution, before the escalating conflict reached the level of genocide. It would mean an ability to take action, make demands, and negotiate with oppressive leaders on a political clock in which thousands were not yet being killed with every passing hour.

Jill Savitt, the director of the Genocide Prevention Project – the organization at the helm of Genocide Prevention Month – likes to draw comparisons between a preventative policy toward genocide and the preventative policy our doctors recommend we take toward our personal health. Fighting heart disease can be very difficult once it is fully manifested. In such cases, patients are faced with a number of non-ideal options for intervening with the disease’s course. These options are often risky and always expensive. But if one is conscious of the warning signs of such a disease – if one seeks to prevent such illness rather than intervene once it is fully spread – the options before him will be much more vast and amenable. Certainly, we’d all prefer to adjust our diets than undergo a risky heart bypass. The same holds true for genocide – when addressed early, the scales of political negotiation have not yet tipped in favor of the oppressor.

So what does that mean for those of us unlikely to be called upon by our President to begin steps toward the adoption of a national policy of prevention? As we move into the flowers of May, what is it that we should take with us as participants in the very first Genocide Prevention Month? Lawrence Woocher, who co-authored the Genocide Prevention Task Force Report alongside Madeleine Albright and William Cohen, points out that though our policies are often defined in their specifics by the leaders and policy makers at the top of the political totem pole, which policies these leaders will spend their time creating is determined by the voice of the people. Only when our leaders hear us call – loudly – for a policy of prevention in the face of genocide will they begin to take steps to create and adopt such a policy.

So as we move away from a month which has seen the implementation of six genocides over the past 100 years; as the situation in Darfur deteriorates; as Omar al-Bashir makes light of an international arrest warrant with little consequence from the international community, it is important that we do not lose hope. The lives of four million refugees in Darfur continue to depend on our ability to move forward – to push our leaders to finally intervene and stand up for those unable to stand for themselves. But when such intervention finally does occur, let us not forget how long and difficult the road toward action proved to be nor the over 400,000 lives we lost along that road. When the international community finally decides to intervene on behalf of the people of Darfur, let those of us who have come together to form this coalition of conscience set our sights on an even loftier goal: that this, the first genocide of the 21st century, also be the last. We do not believe that this is an unattainable goal – it simply requires a change in the way we view our response to genocidal conflict. A recognition that it is difficult to stop genocide from happening again when one waits for it to start before taking action.

You can learn more about Genocide Prevention by viewing the 20-minute version of our film, The Last Survivor and the panel discussion that followed its premiere in Washington, D.C. featuring Lawrence Woocher and other policy experts here. Please visit to learn how you can work to prevent genocide in the future.

The Last Survivor: Denial

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

Archbishop Vicken Aykazian speaking at the “Honor the Past, Act Now for Darfur” commemoration event in Washington, D.C. on Sunday, April 19th. Despite, the world’s refusal to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide of 1915, the Armenian community acts as some of the strongest advocates for the Darfuri people.

In the 1980s, with her children grown, Hédi Fried, decided to dedicate her life to Stockholm’s community of Holocaust Survivors of which she is a part. Now, at 84 years old, she has dedicated her remaining years to ensuring that the stories of horror that she was made to witness and experience are passed on to future generations – allowing a new generation to take on the important responsibility of keeping and sharing such memories. In Hédi’s view, the degree to which we allow our memory to fade is tied to directly to the persistence with which the past will repeat itself. Voices such as Hédi’s are imperative at a time in which it has become all too common to deny that the Holocaust ever occurred.

“The first time I heard it, I laughed,” Hédi told us, speaking of her first encounter with such denial. “The second time I heard it, I realized that this was nothing to laugh at; and the third time, I realized I had to do something.”

Unfortunately, the trend of denial is not relegated to the Holocaust alone. While deniers in Iran hold conferences that seek to dispute the facts of the Holocaust, Hutus in Rwanda have insisted that tales of one million Tutsis slaughtered in 1994 are mere myths. In addition to the extreme pain such claims undoubtedly bring to Survivors like Jacqueline, who is reminded daily of the genocide’s reality by the extreme absence that remains in her life, denial has turned to acts of violence. In April, the day after a commemoration event in Kigali that honored the victims of the 1994 genocide, a grenade was thrown at the city’s genocide memorial – the same horrific incident occurred last year. And, even as genocide continues in Darfur, governments across Africa have already launched a widespread campaign of denial – insisting that claims of genocide are the stuff of Western propaganda.

Indeed, it is more important than ever that champions of truth speak up to ensure that our collective memory does not fade at the hands of those who seek to repeat the horrors of the past. However, in denouncing those who spread variations on history, deviations from the truth, and all out lies, we must remind ourselves that as a nation, we too are engaged in this evil movement of denial.

Tomorrow, Armenians around the world will commemorate the horrific genocide that was carried out against their people. On April 24, 1915, the Ottoman authorities arrested 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Istanbul. The execution and deportation of these Armenians launched a genocide that would claim nearly two million lives. 94 years later, the Armenian community still waits for the world to acknowledge this crime.

Nations around the world, including our own, continue to refuse this simple request.

In Darfur, four million refugees wait for the world to respond to their continued cries for help. In response, we tell them that there is little we can do – that it is far too complicated of a situation for us to get involved. Despite the indifference to evil that saturates such refusals of intervention, implicit within them is at least an acknowledgment of the suffering of the Darfuri people – an assertion that the horror they are experiencing is real and not a delusional figment of their nightmarish imaginations. While it is rightfully outweighed by the frustrations of our unwillingness to act, we must not forget that acknowledgement is indeed a powerful thing. For one will never seek to stop, what he does not believe to exist.

In Germany, the government is unable to take back their trespasses of the past. Such impossibilities are a fact of our limitations as mortals – the movement of history insists that we look forward. Understanding these restrictions all too well, the German people have done what they can to ensure that the horror that began in Germany in the 1930s, does not repeat itself there. They have adopted a firm policy of Holocaust education in their schools and a newly erected Holocaust Memorial in downtown Berlin serves as a daily reminder to the German people of both the atrocious actions undertaken by their nation and the inhumane silence with which they responded to such actions as citizens.

In comparison to the 11 million lives taken during the Holocaust, this may seem like a rather small step. Small as it may be, it is unlikely that the next genocide we witness as a people will be carried out in Germany.

In Turkey, these small, pertinent steps of acknowledgement are constantly refused. Such denial is not only a slap in the face of the Armenian community, it is an affront to all us – an attempt to rob us of the facts of our collective story of life; an insistent error in the history of our species; an attempt at tipping the balance of memory, compelling us to repeat the horrors of the past. As a nation that values freedom, peace, and truth, it is our responsibility to speak up to such atrocious lies.

Today, President Obama will speak at our National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Undoubtedly, just days following the annual commemoration of the Holocaust – Yom Hashoa – the President will honor the memory of those who perished during the Holocaust. What remains to be seen is whether, on the day preceding the 94th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, he will honor the two millions lives taken in 1915 with the simple action of acknowledgement.

In the aftermath of genocide those who survive are often left with very little. An indiscriminate killer, genocide claims mothers, fathers, children, siblings, teachers and friends as its victims. As it continues it kills a people’s history and traditions. What it cannot take is the memory of those who come out alive. It is us only us, the people of posterity, who can commit such an atrocious crime against those who have already lost so much.

Watch a 20-minute sneak preview our film now and commemorate the Armenian Genocide along with the five other genocides commemorated in April by participating in Genocide Prevention Month.

The Last Survivor: Tired Feet, Rested Souls

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

Reverend Gloria White-Hammond speaks to the crowd at the Save Darfur Coalition’s ‘Honor the Past, Act NOW for Darfur’ Event.

Yesterday, hundreds gathered in front of the White House to ‘Honor the Past’ and to ‘Act NOW for Darfur.’ Survivors from past and current genocides and mass atrocities, including Darfur, South Sudan, Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia, the Holocaust, and Armenia, joined together with faith leaders, leading anti-genocide advocates, and local activists; united. And as we stood there among those whose very lives speak to the world’s failure to uphold its sacred promise of never again, we couldn’t help but wonder how many more years we will have to gather to remind ourselves and others to ‘Act NOW for Darfur?’

A few months ago, we heard Ruth Messinger, President of the American Jewish World Service, speak about the priorities of the anti-genocide movement in the year 2009. “What is our next cause to fight for in 2009?” she asked the audience rhetorically. “This year’s cause is Darfur” she exclaimed.

Yesterday as crowds emerged from buses onto the scene at Lafayette Park – conveniently situated across from the White House – young faces descended on the park armed with signs carrying the names of villages across Darfur that have been destroyed.

Dadinga. Tandosa B. Gorne. Dumi. Labandi. Margabaj. Burny Sakh. Anguri. Amar Gedit. People’s homes that now endure only in the memory of the survivors.

These are but a few of the names spread across the crowd. Side by side refugees from Darfur and inspired youth, banded together to declare that despite all that we’ve lost, there is still much which can still be saved – and indeed must be saved.

Among the many speakers was the Reverend Gloria White-Hammond. In a whisper, Reverend White-Hammond, offered a diagnosis of the movement’s morale, moving into the 7th year of the genocide: “Many of us, perhaps, are feeling tired,” she offered. “Genocides have come and genocides have gone. And you could perhaps be feeling discouraged,” she remarked.

As activists, it seems all too easy to fall victim to our own expectations – expectations to see tangible change, expectations to see an end to the Genocide in Darfur. It seems all too easy for fatigue to set in around us. As we enter into the seventh year of the Darfur conflict, how can one not be dispirited?

As the Reverend’s voice grew from a soft, gentle tone, she went on to declare that, “Even though we might feel tired, we cannot stop raising our voices. Now is not the time to get quiet!” And then went on to share a story that Martin Luther King Jr. once told when he felt people around him growing tired.

“Dr. King told the story of Mother Pollard. Mother Pollard was a 70 year-old woman who lived in Montgomery during the bus boycott. And like many of the older women, Mother Pollard was offered a ride but Mother Pollard refused to take a ride. And when Martin Luther King asked her why don’t you just get in the car so you can rest a little bit, she responded:

‘My feets are tired, but my soul is rested.’”

Indeed, now is not the time to be quiet.

The Reverend’s voice turned to one of fierce determination, “Today we’re here to say we’ve been on this road a little while and while our feets may be tired, our souls are rested.”

Although the conflict continues in Darfur, our work has made a difference. The activist movement has accomplished so much over the last several years, but as John Prendergast pointed out, “We have unfinished business.”

And so today, as we sit on the precipice between the 6th anniversary of the Genocide in Darfur and Yom Hashoa, let’s take time to celebrate the progress we have made in combating the horror that continues in Darfur. But in doing so, let’s never allow ourselves to forget that such horrors continue, that even as we sit and reflect, many die. Tomorrow, Yom Hashoa, will serve as a potent reminder of the atrocities that occur when the world turns a blind eye.

Observe Genocide Prevention Month and watch the 20-minute sneak preview of The Last Survivor NOW! Share with your friends and family, host local screenings at community centers, schools, universities, and your home, and start a conversation in your own community about how you can work to fight genocide. This is blog is part 12 of multi-part series. Cross-listed on

The Last Survivor: Rwanda 15 Years Later – A Survivor’s Reflections

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

For the next several posts, we have asked the Survivors in our film to reflect on the month of April and the memories – both dark and hopeful – that they associate with it. Today’s post was written by Jacqueline Murekatete.

15 years ago, I was a young girl of nine living in Rwanda. I remember listening as a death sentence was pronounced on me, my family, many of our neighbors and our friends. The crime? Our ethnicity.

For approximately 100 days, I lived in state of extreme fear, never knowing whether I was going to live to see the next day. Every day I was exposed to horrors that no human being – especially a child of nine – should ever be exposed to. The things that I experienced between the months of April and June of 1994 are things that I will never forget.

How can I ever forget the day that I had to flee my home and everything I had ever known and loved if I had any chance of surviving? How can I ever forget my horror and lack of comprehension as I listened to a national radio station that encouraged my neighbors to pick up machetes and hunt my family and other Tutsis, calling us cockroaches that needed immediate extermination? How can I forget the days I spent watching men, women, and children being dragged to their death? How can I ever forget the nights I spent listening to the painful cries of children whose arms and legs had been chopped off – in most cases by those they had once called neighbors and friends?

And in the end, how can I ever forget that tragic day that I came to learn that while I was one of the few survivors of this Genocide, my entire immediate family and most of my extended family had been taken to a river and butchered as if they were animals. Their bodies were thrown into the passing water, never to be found, never to be buried in dignity and honor.

On Tuesday evening this week, at the Church Center for the United Nations, I joined a small of group of survivors and lit a candle for my parents, my six siblings, my uncles, aunts, cousins, teachers and friends, and the now estimated over one million innocent men, women, and children whose lives were tragically taken in Rwanda in 1994 .

Earlier that day, I was standing in front of an audience of more than 500 people, including the U.N Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, where I had been invited to be the voice of survivors as the U.N marked the 15th Anniversary of the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda. In front of world diplomats, civil society leaders, and members of the Rwandan Diaspora, I asked myself what, if anything, the world had learned in the 15 years since the Rwandan tragedy. How close are we to fulfilling the vow of “Never Again” that was promised over 60 years ago?

On one hand, I am reminded of the many letters I have received over the past eight years since I began sharing my story with young people around the world. They are letters that express young people’s commitment to genocide prevention and tolerance – not only through words, but through actions. I think of the various STAND chapters that have created a haven in schools throughout this country, of the growing movement of young people calling for an immediate end to the current Genocide in Darfur, Sudan. In all of this I find hope.

But I am also reminded of the fact that the Genocide in Darfur continues. That while humanitarian aid may flow to Darfuri refugees, the killings and rapes continue. 15 years after the Genocide in my native country, I am reminded of the fact that the ideology of Genocide remains alive and well in Rwanda, expressing itself through the harassment and killing of survivors, in denial and attacks on Genocide memorials.

In the 21st century, hate, genocidal ideologies, and intolerance of all types remain realities we cannot afford to ignore.

This April, the world will commemorate the anniversaries of not only the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda but those of the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, Cambodia, Bosnia, and the Genocide presently wreaking havoc in Darfur. It is therefore appropriate that April has been deemed Genocide Prevention Month.

On Sunday, April 19th between the hours of 2 to 4pm at New York University, Miracle Corners of the World, a New York based nonprofit organization where I am currently a fellow and program director, will organize one of the many remembrance and educational programs occurring this month.

As I prepare for this commemoration, and as I honor the five other solemn anniversaries we recognize this month, I return to my original question: How close are we to fulfilling that vow of “Never Again”?

15 years after Rwanda, there is still a great deal that humanity needs to learn. More actions need to be taken if we are to make sure that future generations are spared the losses that I and many others experienced during those haunting 100 days of horror, desperation, and murder.

To learn more about Jacqueline Murekatete and her Genocide prevention efforts as well as well upcoming commemorative and educational programs, please visit

You can also Jacqueline in the 20-minute sneak preview of The Last Survivor, available now. Share with your friends and family, host local screenings at community centers, schools, universities, and your home, and start a conversation in your own community about how you can work to fight genocide.

The Last Survivor: The Banyamulenge

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

This post was written by Justin Semahoro Kimenyerwa – a Congolese refugee who was resettled to the United States in June.

I would like to tell you about my home and my people.

I was born in Minembwe in the Democratic Republic of Congo – over the mountains of the land, deep within the green fields of South Kivu. It is a land full of green vegetation, lush forests, and beautiful wildlife. Between the greenery, numerous rivers always flow among mountains and flat land. We have just two seasons – the rainy season and the sunny season – both marked by favorable temperatures. Throughout the year, a nice breeze offers comfort each morning. Within this peaceful land, there exists a community that struggles to survive. These are the members of the Banyamulenge tribe – they are my people.

The Banyamulenge have lived on the lands of South Kivu for five centuries. It is the home of our grandfathers, our ancestors – the only home we know, but one that is not acknowledged by our neighbors or our government. They believe we have no right to live in Congo, constantly insisting that we return to our “real” home far from the lands of South Kivu. This unprovoked hatred of the Banyamulenge people has been the cause of indescribable suffering and massive killings of my people.

In 1996 war began in Congo – a war which continues to this day and one in which a malicious group called the Mai Mai seeks to eliminate the entire Banyamulenge Tutsi tribe. The Mai Mai is a group of many tribes in the South Kivu region (Abafurero, Ababembe, Abanyintu, Abashi, Abarega) that joined together with Interahamwe (Hutu’s who fled from Rwanda after they carried out the Rwandan Tutsi Genocide in 1994). Together, they started attacking Banyamulenge villages – killing men, women, and children, taking our cattle and burning our homes. While they attacked our villages, those Banyamulenge who lived in other areas of Congo were captured, jailed, and in some cases, killed. My brother, Bizimana Mavugo, was one such Banyamulenge – he was arrested in the town of Kalemie and was killed by machete along with 81 others. They were buried together in a single grave.

In 1998, my own village was attacked. I remember the sound – shouts, the intensifying beating of drums, guns firing at those who tried to escape. Suddenly, the sound of my father’s voice: telling us to run, to each fend for our own life. There was no time to say goodbye.

I ran through the bullets, past the attackers who were shooting us, toward the forest we call Nyarubari. I thank God I was not shot. In the forest, I stood with my cousin, Bogabu, waiting in the darkness for the silence that would signal the end of the attack. I was content to wait there, alive. But Bogabu was less patient. After sitting in silence for several hours, he insisted on walking out to see if the attackers had left. I pleaded with him to stay put, but he was older and he insisted.

As soon as he emerged from the bush he was shot. He cried out for me, but I could not help him for fear of being killed myself.

After my cousin was killed, I didn’t know what to do or where to go. I remained in the bush alone, confused, waiting to be discovered and slaughtered like the others. But God protected me from the attackers and they did not come to the bush in which I hid – a bush that was surely shaking from the twitching of my nerves.

My life changed that night. It was the last time I saw my home in the green fields of South Kivu. I lost five of my best friends that night, friends with whom I did everything throughout my childhood. I loved them very much. It was also the last time that I saw my parents and my siblings – my father’s command to run the last I have heard of his voice.

There is no way that I can explain to you in words the troubles that I endured after that night. I have no words to tell you of the hunger I felt from having nothing to eat as I walked through the forest. I survived off the leaves and roots of trees. If I discovered a piece of fruit on the forest floor, it was indeed a good day. Nor can I explain to you the pain that I felt in my heart – the longing I felt for my family and my friends, the desire to return home.

Of course, I could not return home and so I moved through the forest – comforted by the protection of God’s great trees. I went to a town called Uvira. There were other Banyamulenge in Uvira and I thought I would be safe there. A group of children I encountered upon my arrival in the village, proved this thinking incorrect.

“What are you doing here?” They asked, already moving toward me with machetes. “Do you think this is your motherland?” Even young children are trained to hate the Banyamulenge.

I decided that it was better to be killed running than to stand still and wait for death. And so again, I ran. It was not until after I escaped that I realized I had been struck in the leg by a machete that had been thrown at me. I was lucky. Other Banymalunge who had approached Uvira, suffered a much worse fate – their bodies hacked apart while they were still alive or burned – simply because we are Banyamulenge and these others do not want us in their country.

From Uvira, I journeyed into Rwanda, which was not safe either. In Rwanda, I heard that there was a city in Kenya called Nairobi where I would be safe. I heard that Nairobi was a silent city – a place where I would not hear guns, where I would not hear the cry of women and children who screamed out as they were killed. I decided to go there.

I remained in Nairobi for five years. During that time I grew sick of my own struggle. I wished I had someone with whom I could share my days, but I was alone. I had a terrible infection in my sinus that kept me up at night. I missed my parents and my siblings. I missed my friends and our cattle back home. Each day I prayed to God, asking Him to bring me to a place where I could be in peace.

I thank the creator of Heavens and Earth who heard my prayer and sent his servant to come and save me.

Of course, I speak of Sasha Chanoff and the organization he founded, Mapendo International. Tirelessly, they worked beyond what was asked of them for me and my people. Mapendo found someone to pay for the operation I desperately needed on my sinus – allowing me to breath and sleep for the first time in five years. They helped me find shelter and helped me through the long and difficult resettlement process.

And so it is that suddenly, after ten longs years during which I traveled the forests of Africa, I find myself in St. Louis, Missouri. For the first time feeling safe. I still miss my home very much. I still miss my loved ones – my family who I have not seen in ten years. I thank God for I recently learned that one of my brothers and one my sisters are alive with their families. They now live in the silent city of Nairobi, hoping that one day God will find a way for them to join me here in St. Louis. So that we might live again as a family.

I thank God for keeping me alive and now, allowing my voice to be heard – allowing me to speak on behalf of my Banyamulenge people who have no one else to speak for them. We, Banyamulenge, do not have a place to call home. We are hated in our country, our people are displaced across neighboring countries and our attackers follow of us – killing us wherever we seek shelter. Many of you may have heard of the massacre of the Banyamulenge at the Gatumba Refugee Camp in Burundi in 2004 – a nightmare in which hundreds of men, women and children were slaughtered simply because of who they were. Banyamulenge.

As I said, my whole life changed that night in 1998 when the Mai Mai came to my village. Sometimes I wonder what it might have been to live in my home in peace – among family and friends, tending to our cattle and worshipping the Lord. Strangely, I find that the more I dream – the more I remember my old village – the more I believe. It remains a mystery to me how I survived the oppression and suffering I faced during the last twelve years of my life. But whether I understand it or not, I must accept both that I did survive and that there are others who continue to suffer as I once did.

To those out there who are struggling through a situation they feel unable to overcome, I encourage you to continue to move through your own forest – there is nothing in this life that is permanent. Your struggles too shall pass one day. And for those who have been fortunate enough not to suffer in this life, I ask you to consider my people and others that struggle around the world – think of them and consider how you might help.

My remaining wish – aside from that of one day being reunited with my family – is that no other child shall cross the difficult path that I passed through. I will dedicate my life to working toward that goal.

I must once again thank the good people at Mapendo International and my new brothers and sisters at the New City Fellowship in St. Louis – I thank them for welcoming me to their country and for caring for me as my family once did. Everywhere my voice is heard, I will thank God for keeping me alive, I will thank Mapendo, and I will thank the New City Fellowship.

You can learn more about Justin’s story in the 20-minute sneak preview of The Last Survivor. Share with your friends and family, host local screening at community centers, schools, universities, and your home and start a comversation in your community about how you can work to fight genocide. Visit for a list of 30 things you can do this April to work toward a more tolerant and peaceful future.

The Last Survivor: Survivor Networks

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

At a recent screening of the 20-minute sneak preview of our film as part of Genocide Prevention Month, a rather telling question was asked. The audience was primarily, if not entirely Jewish, as the screening was held as part of a Passover Seder – a means of recognizing that the freedom from slavery and persecution that Jews celebrate during Passover very much continues for others around the world.

“Does the term ‘Genocide’ refer only to the Holocaust,” we were asked, “or is there another way the atrocities are distinguished?” It is an incredibly important question and one that should be answered with the delicate respect that comes with the understanding that just as we each mourn the loss of a family member in a manner that is deeply personal and in some ways isolated to the individual, so too each group mourns its own tragedy uniquely. Sympathy is an important human emotion, but it only goes so far; emotions of loss are much more pointed when they are born within our own soul.

The answer to the question is of course, “Yes – each is referred to as a genocide and, in terms of the lexicon of horror, there are no distinctions between the six genocides that are commemorated in April and the others that have pervaded human history.” That is the short answer. The long answer begins with the origin of the word ‘genocide’ itself.

As was mentioned in an earlier post, the term ‘genocide’ was coined in the 1940s by Raphael Lempkin, a Polish Jew whose studies of the Armenian Genocide had brought him from Poland to the United States before Hitler invaded his homeland. While Lempkin lived securely in the U.S., his family suffered the same, horrific fate of eleven million others. Despite Lempkin’s constant pleadings with his family to join him in the U.S., they were determined to remain in the land they called home until they were physically forced from it and taken to the gas chambers. Alive and lonely in the United States, Lempkin sought a word that might encompass the depths of his loss. After a long search, ‘genocide,’ the destruction of an entire group, was the word he settled on.

Most remarkably, in our eyes, Lempkin was able to separate himself from what was undoubtedly an overwhelming sense of personal loss, seeing the horror through the universal lens of history. In coming up with the term “genocide” and spending his life persuading the United Nations to adapt the Genocide Convention – an International law that would not only recognize genocide as a crime, but would require the International community to intervene once such a crime was acknowledged – Lempkin was well aware of the dangers of creating such a law in the aftermath of a crime as unfathomable in scale as the Holocaust. He understood that while the Holocaust was certainly an atrocious example of genocide, it need not be and must not be the rubric against which future crimes were measured.

It is true that the horrific death toll of 400,000 in Darfur pales in comparison to the 11 million lives lost under Hitler’s reign. Even five million lives taken in Congo does not halve that number. What is remarkable about Lempkin is that, under the incredible personal duress that must come with the loss of one’s entire family, he was able to see the dangers that lay in such comparisons. One cannot compare in the language of mathematics the value of human life nor the tragedy of its unnecessary loss.

However, in the same way that it is impossible to grasp all that is lost in a tragedy in a number, so too it is impossible for a single word to stand in for the suffering of all of those slaughtered at the hands of intolerance throughout history. We must therefore limit our expectations of the word “genocide” itself.

No word is precise enough to convey the depths of human suffering or human loss and because of this fact, mourning will always be a deeply personal and unique experience. Words do, however, offer incredible powers of unity. It is this unity that Lempkin sought in creating a name for the horror the world had witnessed – labeling the crime, he believed, was the first step toward defeating it.

The word “genocide” should never be used as a starting point for comparison; it is simply a common ground where we can meet. In April, six communities will commemorate the attempts at their destruction. Each will do so in a manner that acknowledges and mourns the uniqueness of the crimes perpetrated against them – distinctions in where and when they occurred, how they were brought about and, most importantly, distinctions in the names of those who were taken in the tragedies.

Afterwards, however, we must recognize that each crime was born out of the same evil ideology of intolerance and that such an ideology will only be defeated when its victims stand together – united in the commonalities they share as human beings.

In the panel discussion that followed the premiere of the sneak preview of our film in Washington, D.C., Jerry White the director of Survivor Corps – an organization dedicated to helping survivors of all tragedies, rebuild their lives in the face of trauma – made an important point about the need for Survivor networks. While he made the point in a slightly tongue-in-cheek manner, the message of statement is quite clear:

Six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, he reminded the audience. And along with them, Hitler targeted gays, disabled people, gypsies, Communists, anyone who did not fit into his singular notion of perfection. Around the world, Jews such as Lempkin spoke with outrage about the horrors being perpetrated against their people, while gays and gypsies each did the same. Imagine, Mr. White wondered, what would have happened if the many groups came together and spoke with one voice.

It is the search for this singular voice that marks the goal of this inaugural Genocide Prevention Month. Lead by a chorus of Survivors from each of the six genocides commemorated during the month, Genocide Prevention Month calls on all of us to come together to mourn the loss of human life and to recognize that while each tragedy is unique, they are all marked by the same perpetrating ideology of intolerance and share common warning signs that offer the International community hope for preventing such horrors in the future. To do so, however, we must celebrate the undeniable ties that bind each of us by standing firmly together.

You can watch Jerry White and the other speakers on this distinguished panel as well as the 20-minute sneak preview of The Last Survivor NOW! Share with your friends and family, host local screenings at community centers, schools, universities, and your home, and start a conversation in your own community about how you can work to fight genocide. This is blog is part 10 of multi-part series. Cross-listed on

The Last Survivor: A Genocide Happened Here

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

Jill Savitt, executive director of the Genocide Prevention Project introduces Genocide Prevention Month at the national launch in Washington, D.C. Watch the film and subsequent panel discussion at

It is officially Genocide Prevention Month – a month which is dedicated to honoring the memories of the six genocides that are commemorated throughout April by working to prevent future atrocities. In working on our film, The Last Survivor, over the course of the past two years, we have learned some incredible lessons. Lessons about hope, the power of human connection, and the void that is left in one’s heart when one is separated from his family, her people, and everything he holds dear.

We have also learned much about the power of democracy.

Indeed, as we enter Genocide Prevention Month, it has become our firm belief that the tools of democracy remain our best hope in combating genocide and mass atrocity crimes both as they currently exist in Darfur, Congo, and elsewhere in the world, as well as a way of preventing future horrors. With that in mind, we can enter April with a sense of optimism. Despite the slaughter in Darfur that rages into its seventh year and the violence in Congo that continues for over a decade, we have seen young people both here in the United States and abroad using the power of democracy to insist that their voices be heard.

In the United States, grassroots organizations have ensured that there is more awareness surrounding the issue of Darfur as it continues than there was around any previous genocide. The fact that it continues is not proof of failure, but simply a reminder that there is still much work to be done – more voices that need to be heard, more phone calls to make and letters to write to our representatives in government – but there is a sense of hope.

The story of Adam and his B’nai Darfur Community in Israel is yet another reason to hope. Adam and his people fled dictatorship in Sudan and persecution in Egypt and found democracy in Israel. There, they refused to be intimidated by their status as visitor, asylum seeker, refugee, or any other label that might be given to them. They see themselves only as participants in a democracy who share the responsibility to speak. Their ability to organize themselves, to hold rallies and protests in the front yards of government buildings is indeed proof that in a true democracy we each have a voice. We need only find the courage to use it.

But let us not grow complacent as keepers of the strongest democracy in the world. We must remember that with such status comes the responsibility to use that power to speak for those who do not enjoy the same powers of speech and action that are available to us here. And just as importantly, it is our responsibility to ensure that our democracy not only endures, but grows.

In discussing these blogs and democracy as it relates to combating genocide with a friend, we were struck by a telling comment he made. We were talking about the very ideas put forth above – that genocide can be combated by good people who use their rights and responsibilities as citizens in democracy to stand up to those who preach destruction. “Yes,” he said, “that’s why something like that could never happen in this country.”

Not only can genocide happen here, it has.

In her Pulitzer Prize winning book, “A Problem From Hell:” America and the Age of Genocide, Samantha Power considers the United States’ historically muted response to genocide. Perhaps, she puts forth, our failure to respond to genocide abroad relates directly to the fact that we are the only nation to successfully carry out a genocide.

Our nation, once home to a thriving population of Native Americans and their beautiful culture, is responsible for the slaughter of 19 million people between our arrival in this land and the mid-19th century. Not only were people killed, entire tribes were wiped out – removed forever from the forward movement of our collective human story. The riches and lessons of their magnificent history, culture, and values if not entirely erased, exist mostly between the borders of reservation land and the halls of museums.

Indeed there is great danger in the common notion that genocide is something that happens “over there.” Genocide has occurred on nearly every single continent on this Earth – from Africa to Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and North America. It has affected Jews, Christians, Muslims, Native Americans – all of us.

Perhaps the most insightful comment we’ve heard about the Holocaust came from Hédi Fried during the magical day we spent with her at her country house. We sat with her in her pink bedroom looking out at her favorite tree and asked her what has become a staple question for us. Something we throw out to everyone we interview in hopes of gem like that which was given to us by Hédi.

“What message do you have for young people like ourselves? What can we take from your experiences?”

“Young people should try to understand what I went through,” Hédi told us, “because the Holocaust doesn’t mean only the death of so many people – this is important to remember, yes. But what’s also important to remember is how democracy dies if you don’t work for it.”

When good people stop living up to the responsibilities that come with the privileges of democracy, the silence is filled by voices of intolerance and hate. Such a failure of democracy has happened many times throughout our history in every corner of our planet.

Even here.

Watch the 20-minute sneak preview of The Last Survivor NOW! Share with your friends and family, host local screenings at community centers, schools, universities, and your home, and start a conversation in your own community about how you can work to fight genocide.

The Last Survivor: April 15th

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

For the next several posts, we have asked the Survivors in our film to reflect on the month of April and the memories – both dark and hopeful – that they associate with it. Today’s post was written by Hédi Fried.

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is


A time to kill, and a time to heal: a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”

Ecclesiastes 3:1-4

As a child, April (Nissan according to the Jewish Calendar) has always been my favorite month. With spring on its way, Pesach, our Easter Holiday approaching, and the time to shed the heavy winter clothes, life seemed wonderful.

All of this changed in 1944, when April became a month of mourning. Life changed into a black hole, and nobody would believe that any light could ever break through.

And still, one year passed and in the morning of April 15, 1945 it all changed. With the British Army liberating Bergen-Belsen, a ray of sun penetrated our darkness.

It was a miracle.

Strangely enough, miracles happen. It was a miracle that once upon a time the Jews were taken out from the Egyptian slavery. It happened in Nissan – in April. And it was a miracle that we, the slaves of Hitler in Bergen-Belsen, were liberated in April.

And I will never be able to explain this other miracle that happened.

It all started New Years Eve 1945. The girls in the Labor Camp of Eidelstedt, tired after a long day of hard work, were sitting on their bunks, evoking old memories and talking about past happy days, gay celebrations, past New Years Eves, and the hard present.

“How will next New Years Eve be? Do you think we will be out of here?” one of us asked.

“We will never get out of here. Either we will be dead or back in Auschwitz” was the answer.

Suddenly I felt that I had to contradict them, their pessimism was disturbing:

“Don´t talk nonsense. Of course we´ll get out of here.” I said

“When?” my cousin asked.

Without a moment of thinking I burst out: “The 15th of April.”

The girls both doubted and wanted to believe, questions came thick and fast. “How do you know?” Are you sure?” “Will the war be over?”

“No, I said, but we will be free”.

Looking at me in doubt, though willing to believe, my cousin said:

“Let´s have a bet.”

So we did. I would give her my bread ration if I was wrong.

In the first weeks of April, in the Camp of Bergen-Belsen, there was hardly any food and scarcely any water. On the morning of April 15th, 1945, the famished, dried out girls were waiting for their death. My cousin noted that it was the 15th of April and I had lost the bet. I regretted not being able to pay her, “there will hardly be any bread today,” I said to her.

Time went by slowly, slowly, hour after hour, and the sun was already high up the sky, when suddenly the girl next to the window yelled out: “the British are here!”

Unbelieving, I also went to the window and looked.

And at that moment a tank with soldiers turned up in the yard, and I could see that they were not German soldiers.

We were free.


Hedi Fried:The Road to Auschwitz; Fragments of a Life

Nebraska University Press, 1996

Hedi Fried: Livet tillbaka

Natur & Kultur, Stockholm, 1995

Watch the 20-minute sneak preview of The Last Survivor NOW! Share with your friends and family, host local screenings at community centers, schools, universities, and your home, and start a conversation in your own community about how you can work to fight genocide.