The 2016 St. Louis International Film Festival features 420 films from 72 countries; it is clearly impossible to have seen them all!
Yet, by serving on a couple of committees this year, I can easily nominate three of them to the rank of being treasures (cf. my earlier post to find them).
The last one, to screen through a single screening, takes place on the last day of the festival, Sunday November 13 at 3 p.m. at the Missouri History Museum: Bogdan’s Journey (its St. Louis première and FREE).
I sat down with Larry Loewinger, one of the two accomplished filmmakers (the other one is the Polish cinematographer, Michal Jaskulski).
As if Poles and Jews had fought hard for reconciliation, they came together to weave a film that is both about a specific tragic day in 1946 (seventy years ago), but also, thanks to their delicate work and the main character, Bogdan Bialek, is about much more… and there lies its power.
Since this interview is not meant to replace the viewing of the film, particular details about the film are purposefully not elaborated upon [for those who want access to some of the facts surrounding the film, this is the Wikipedia entry about the Kielce Pogrom.
– How did you get to meet Michal, your co-director?
I met Michal in the course of making the film, and like many documentaries, the process of coming to the story was one of discovery. In the first year, in 2006 – this project has gone on for ten years – we were to cover a particular memorial sculpture in Kielce, I hired him to be the cinematographer. There was a press conference with the person who became the subject of our film, Bogdan Bialek, the publisher of a psychology magazine much like Psychology Today, and, by background, a therapist. Right then, it became clear that Bogdan exhibited something forceful, with a sense of moral persuasion and passion. And I became interested… And I began to bond with my very skilled cinematographer, Michal, a Catholic Pole, who then didn’t know much about the issues and what was taking place in the city of Kielce. And at that point, it became clear that Bogdan was at the center of healing the town, the site of the last Jewish pogrom in Eastern Europe and reconnecting this town with outside Jewish community.
The next year, the book by Jan Gross, Fear, came out and turned Gross into an incendiary character for Poland – the current Polish government is attempting to prosecute him for his writing.
By the third year, it became clear that Michal had become my full-fledged partner in the making this film.
– In what ways did you discover that he was more than a technician?
We worked easily together, shared similar ideas and were determined to pursue the story. Besides being a good technician, he happens to be very gentle, smart, and well-educated. He taught me a lot about Poland and to look beyond my vision of what we should be filming. The principal lesson I learned from him was to understand the sense of pain, fear and anger, and the complexity of feelings that Poles have about their role in the Holocaust and their lives during WWII.
– You have shown the film a number of times by now, right?
We had our official world première at the Polin, the Jewish Museum in Warsaw, then Krakow, Kielce, and back at the Polin for their Jewish Film Festival, and now Camerimage, and a human rights festival, etc. ; it is beginning to have a life of its own in Poland. Here in the U.S. it is just starting its distribution, but we just won the Documentary Best Award at the Jersey City Festival.
– Specific issues come up in Poland?
Whereas as just a few years ago, all historians agreed as to what happened in Kielce, the current government presents the events as “still under discussion” (“and it is not clear who did what”).
I thought of using Jan Gross* as a major voice in the film but Michal made it clear that it could not happen if the film was to have a life in Poland. And I have to make peace with that and, as time went on, began to understand why.
– How is the film also made for a U.S. audience?
Jan Gross’s presence gives the film a certain newsworthy quality but the film is not only about healing the bridge between Jews and Poles, it is also an example on how to handle conflicts. What are the ingredients that go into resolving long term conflicts between religions, social groups…?
– Did you investigate similar conflict resolution programs like the South African’s Peace and Reconciliation Commission or what took place in Rwanda?
No, we did not. Bogdan is a practiced psychotherapist and the method he uses with his patients, and now uses on a social scale, is the notion of empathy: trying to understand the motivation. It does not mean one forgives the other but, to reach a deeper understanding of human nature, one brings about change by extending one’s feelings of empathy to the other, particularly if the other is very foreign to us – an issue that is most relevant to the current political situation in the U.S.
– Filming Baruch Dorfman, one of the few survivors, must have been difficult…
Already things were hard with Bogdan as he bared his soul to Michal in some earlier filming but yes, Dorfman was particularly difficult blind, very poor, in his nineties, lived in a very small apartment with people who had to be there to make him comfortable. After meeting him for some pre-interviews, I was determined to give him his due justice in whatever we could, and I hope the film did that.
– Has the film played in Israel? What is its U.S. future?
Yes, it has Hebrew subtitles and is ready to make its debut there. In the U.S. it is distributed by Menemsha. We are setting up various screenings in the U.S. from opening up night for Jewish Film Festival in Florida. to a series of university screenings in California in March. There are also some pending screenings in New York. Daniel Mendelsohn likes the film a lot and, along with Jan Gross, would be most willing to take part at future screening discussions. We are also considering some theatrical distribution.
* Princeton historian Jan Gross, author of Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. among other books.