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.
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