The Journey Begins: an introduction from the newest RP collaborator, Bree Barton
“There is, in each survivor, an imperative need to tell and thus to come to know one’s story, unimpeded by ghosts from the past against which one has to protect oneself. One has to know one’s buried truth in order to be able to live one’s life.”
It was the quote that launched a thousand ships—or, at the very least, the passion of one undergraduate. In 2005, the words of Dori Laub pierced my consciousness and stirred my soul. Laub, psychoanalyst, Yale academic, and co-founder of the Holocaust Survivors’ Film Project, had said something so simple yet so profound: that it is in the very telling of our traumatic histories that we survive them.
Five years later, the same quote was scrolling on my mental marquee as I scanned the selections at the Dallas International Film Festival. So it’s no small surprise that a title like The Last Survivor immediately caught my eye. I’d arrived in Dallas just a few days earlier, eager to engage with the arts community. A cursory glance at the synopsis further piqued my interest—the film seemed right in line with my interests. “How serendipitous,” I mused.
Little did I know just how serendipitous it was.
As I settled into my seat at a sold-out screening, I was expecting a film about survival. I was expecting to watch four powerful stories unfold onscreen, the personal narratives of survivors from four horrific genocides: Rwanda, Darfur, the Holocaust, and Congo (the last of which, up until watching the film, I had been totally unaware of). And I was not disappointed—The Last Survivor offered all of that.
But it also offered something I was not expecting. Two things, actually. The first was a message of hope. The second was a call to action.
I’m a firm believer in the power of stories. They can move and inspire us; they make us laugh, they make us weep. When I first read Elie Wiesel’s Night, there came a page where I had to close the book and pick it up again the next day; the pain was just too raw. But can stories affect real change? Can they tilt the world off its axis, inspire an uprising, breathe spit and fire into a valiant cause?
Directors Michael Pertnoy and Michael Kleiman believe they can. Not only that…they believe that giving survivors a forum in which to tell their story is the absolute best way to ensure that genocides like the Holocaust never happen again. And, as I begin my work with Righteous Pictures, I believe them.
According to Michael and Michael, they’re enthralled by “cinema’s capacity to not only bear witness, but to document – to serve as a keeper of memories for future generations.” I couldn’t agree more. As Dori Laub will attest, survival in the truest sense transpires only when there is dialogue, and film is such an ideal space for creating that dialogue between bearing testimony and bearing witness. I remember watching Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah for the first time and trembling. There is nothing as powerful as allowing people to tell their story, then standing back to let those stories speak for themselves. The Last Survivor achieves much the same magic.
But here’s where the team at Righteous Pictures is doing something truly exceptional. For them, it doesn’t stop at the bearing witness/bearing testimony dialectic. Instead, the dialectic becomes a trialectic, because not only do the film’s viewers bear testimony…they bear the responsibility to take action as well.
And that’s when it hit me. As Michael Pertnoy fielded questions after the film was over, the audience lingering wide-eyed in their seats, still under The Last Survivor’s spell, it occurred to me that, in all my years of reading and research—my foray into Holocaust Studies, my thesis work, my ongoing fascination with trauma and memory—never have I put the final piece into the puzzle. It’s embarrassing to admit, but for all my academic study of genocide, genocide prevention never came up once. And if genocide is indeed preventable, then shouldn’t every story spoken lay the groundwork for a world where one fewer story need be told?
What the Michaels have done—and brilliantly so—is taken the issue of genocide from the realm of the purely esoteric (tweed, theory, and the ivory tower) and made it real. The film’s four characters are so vivid, so heartbreakingly human. As Adam kicks up sand at the Israel-Egypt border or Justin sings praise songs with a smile that could melt Antarctica, we are with them, every step of the way.
But we are not merely passive spectators, watching a stagnant retelling of a story. Because each of the film’s four survivors is deeply involved in fighting genocide, it is next to impossible to walk away from the film without feeling something stir within us. We are impassioned. We are enraged. And we want to do something about it.
Which is why I introduced myself to Michael Pertnoy after the screening, waiting patiently for my turn as he graciously fielded a barrage of admirers, people who were stunned and impacted by the film, propelled into action on what would have otherwise been a sleepy Wednesday afternoon. I wanted to tell him that they’d created a work of art that spoke to people—especially young people—on such a dynamic and engaging level. And I wanted to tell him that, for perhaps the first time, I saw the unstoppable potential of a film like this, not only to educate and empower, but to spark a grassroots movement of international reform.
So, I told him. And here I am.
The floodgates have burst open. Impassioned discussions with the Righteous team, reading everything I can on Genocide Prevention, staying up until 3 a.m. with twenty Google Chrome tabs open on my laptop simultaneously—my work as RP correspondent has officially commenced. All my old passion has come rushing back, this time with the promise of something real and tangible, and so worth fighting for.
Laub had it right: survivors must tell their story in order to know it, and they must know their own buried truth in order to live their lives. But we’re taking it a step—no, 10,000 steps further. It’s time we take these stories of indefatigable hope and survival and proclaim them to the world so that, on some glorious day in the not-too-distant future, there will be no more atrocious truths to be buried. No more denial. No more silence. And yes, even this: no more genocide.
Let the journey begin.