Bucknell University will soon have wrapped up a week of workshops and events to ensure that Holocaust education remains relevant.
Visiting scholars included Dr. Michael Renov, an expert in documentary films, invited to discuss how that most terrible period is depicted. A rabbi and another prof joined him on a panel. Renov is a School of Cinematic Arts critical studies professor at the University of Southern California. His credits included serving as a programming consultant for “50 Documentaries to See Before You Die,” a series on the Current TV network.
We had a talk at Lewisburg’s Copper Beech Manor before the panel, covering the topic which brought him to Lewisburg and others.
Matt: “What makes a good documentary?”
Michael: “The thing that makes a good documentary is not just telling a good story, but also surprising an audience. The world is a big place. It is full of surprising things. There are so many topics, subjects, people, conflicts and dramas that happen everywhere. The good documentary filmmaker is the one who tells you something (and) shows you something, but also throws a surprise at you.”
Matt: “Such as?”
Michael: “You’re watching a film. You’re thinking, ‘This is so interesting. I didn’t know about this, but I think I know where we are going.’ You don’t consciously think that but some way, somehow you realize where we are headed. But every so often a filmmaker with a great idea changes it in their hands. As the process proceeds, things emerge and change and often the filmmaker is a little surprised but even better knows how to seize those ‘golden moments.’”
Matt: “Of filmmakers people would be familiar with, would Ken Burns be exemplary?”
Michael: “I’m not sure Ken Burns makes the kind of films that run counter to one’s expectations if he makes ‘Country Music’ or ‘Baseball.’ Yes, you are going to learn things or see things put together in a way that will be surprising or that you hadn’t thought about. But he is unlikely to throw you a curveball. For those, you have to take the chance of watching something a little off the beaten path. Some of that is available these days on streaming networks like Netflix and Amazon Prime. But whenever there are films that come to your theaters, to see them on the big screen is the best.”
Matt: “Therein lies the rub. Even our local venue, nearly an art house, leans away from the documentaries. They did show “Amy,” about Amy Winehouse and “Eight Days a Week” by Ron Howard.”
Michael: “(‘Eight Days a Week’) is not going out on a limb, nor ‘Amy.’ But those are both very popular films.”
Matt: “Very popular, and well-crafted. But not what we’re talking about here?”
Michael: “Well I think ‘Amy’ probably did throw a bit of a curveball, or maybe it wasn’t a curveball so as much ‘the golden moment.’ Listening to her in a home movie singing ‘Happy Birthday’ at the age of very young. Then all of a sudden you hear the ‘adult Amy in embryo.’ And you just went, ‘Oh, my God. She had it then.’ There’s something uncanny about an adult voice coming out of a child. Then you put it all together and you know already the end of the story and the sadness and you see it all in a child.”
Matt: “You’re hear to discuss the Holocaust on film. There have been projects which most certainly have kept the horrors of it from fading into history. Do fictionalized accounts of the Holocaust or history in general harm or help? People might not be down with something simple but powerful, like ‘Shoah,’ but they’ve seen ‘Schindler’s List.’”
Michael: “I think it is a very mixed bag. One one hand it is important that audiences be touched. Something like ‘Schindler’s List’ caused tremendous controversies at the time. I know you remember it. People were passionate on both sides. ‘Schindler’s List’ was a well-crafted film, but it was kind of a classic Hollywood film. It reached a lot of people so it opened to new audiences, which was a positive.
“On the other hand, despite its virtues, it has that capacity as all well-told tales do of having a beginning, a middle and an end and summing things up with a narrative arc then having closure of a sort. Some of the people who got most upset were those that said, ‘How dare you suggest something like redemption. How dare you suggest something that ties it up in a bow. Even if it is placing a rock and having the flesh-and-blood survivors meeting the actors that played them in the movie. It is still a well-told tale and it tames all the contradictions and the inconsolable loss. It was mass murder. How do you make mass murder palatable. It is not something that historians feel comfortable with.