H is for Horror

The word Holocaust forever remains a term that expresses tragedy beyond belief – and beyond any quotation marks. In a book by Gerald Greene, written in parallel to a late 1970s TV-series adaptation (starring Merryl Streep, among others – who would also rise and shine in her equally thrilling role of Sophie Zawistowska, in 1982 film adaptation of William Styron’s shocking masterpiece novel – “Sophie’s Choice”), we are witnessing one among many (real-life) family dramas. In Holocaust, we meet an aristocratic Jewish family that refuses to accept reality, which will sadly work totally against them, as each member of the family slowly and painfully perishes in the utter social madness of war and the merciless nazi-propaganda.

One question which forever stays is – how tragic is mankind in itself – accepting nazism as form of “pop-culture” or “form of easthetic” today, while staying judgementally doubtful towards the Holocaust? Historical events and facts, well covered and documented, continue to cause friction in the society. The climate of today’s world events somehow caused the Holocaust falling flat on relative terms – from being “one among many tragedies” to senseless doubting “it never really happened”. How (anti)fascist is the actual world we live in today? Can one festival succeed in its educational quest, addressing the whole of the society that is continually drenched in crisis by global – political and social – hypocrisy?

“Zagreb Jewish Film Festival” is one of the world’s specific events that, bringing together the cultural and historical facts, vigorously fights against the problem of “reasonable doubt” regarding the Holocaust. Relying on ordinary lives of the people that survived to tell their own stories, JFF fights for the truth in favour of objective and constructive opinion – especially considering current affairs that shape public opinion about the formidable past and the even more formidable present.

Nataša Popović, the main person behind “Zagreb Jewish Film Festival”, talks about the ideas and visions of the Festival and its future events. This year, the Festival welcomes us for the 7th time.

SD: To start with, “Zagreb Jewish Film Festival” is active for how many years now – and were you, as its art director, involved with it from the beginning? Of many films that have been presented throughout the years, can you choose one in particular – which speaks out regarding the Holocaust, in its most in-depth kind of way?

NP: “Zagreb Jewish Film Festival” was first organised in 2007, as the only regional festival of Jewish film. The initiative to start one such festival in Croatia came from London’s “UK Jewish Film Festival” as early as 2006 – I became the creator and originator, also the first investor, of one such cultural event in Zagreb. Pretty soon after the first “Zagreb Jewish Film Festival”, I was lucky to be joined by the famous double Oscar Academy Award winner and the Holocaust survivor, Mr. Branko Lustig, who is the honourary president of the Festival. Ever since then, Mr. Lustig actively participates and helps choosing film material, holds lectures for the young about his personal experience in Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen concentration camps. He also participates in defining the direction and development of all key segments of the Festival, including the activities implemented into the Festival’s programme throughout the year. Domestic public interest for the Festival is growing more every year and with support from the organisation of the Festival, including financial support from numerous intellectuals and other prominent arts representatives, both home and abroad, the Festival becomes an attractive destination for various foreign guests, investors and donours, with the emphasis on the American domain.

The question of culture, language, history – and in accordance with the Holocaust, and generally the position of Jews in the world – in the last two years it also focuses on subject matters which various minorities today seem to deal with – whether these are of national, sexual or religious nature. The Festival is more and more occupied with the idea of spreading tolerance in practice and in all segments of the society – with special objective and learning to respect diversities, the tolerance being the very basis of a healthy society. By keeping it as basic reference to all segments of the programme, the Festival provided a lonesome regional monument to tolerance – in both, cultural and educational terms. So far, through its actions and gaining recognition from numerous institutions and individuals alike, it is proven that the Festival offers a programme, very much needed – not only on a cultural development level but also in the more sophisticated area of tolerance and respect for diversity in society, which experiences depreciation, recession and moral crisis.

For the most part, the films’ repertoire is consisting of the exceptional, mostly awarded – feature films, documentaries and short films about the Holocaust and tolerance, while most evening projections are current production, focused on contemporary life situations, thematically close to the Festival. In the last six years, there have been more than 210 films presented. Definitely one of the most interesting among these films, is an Israeli-German documentary – “A Film Unfinished”, which investigates the truth behind one of the most mysterious nazi-propaganda films ever recorded within the Warsaw Ghetto. In it, various notes intertwine, made by people living in the Ghetto and during the propaganda film making – with statements from survivors who still remember that film shoot. Also for the very first time, the documentary includes a rare segment of questioning protocol by a German camera man. Comparing those recorded scenes to reality behind the very camera, “A Film Unfinished” shakes up our uncritical trust in the power of recorded material and the way in which we perceive history.

Of feature films, I’d like to point out “Sara’s Key” – which opened the Festival last year. It is a French film, starring Kristin Scott Thomas, playing the role of an American journalist married to a French man. She is hired to write an article about the notorious raid, known under the name “Vel d’Hiv”, that was implemented in Paris, during 1942. While working on her article, she discovers a family secret that will forever link her to the destiny of a young Jewish girl called Sarah. Kristin, playing Julie, finds out that the apartment – where she intends to move in with her husband Bertrand – was in Bertrand’s family possession 60 years ago, when Jewish lodgers were deported from it. Julie is determined to invetigate further what happened with that Jewish family. The more she discovers about – especially about Sara, the only survivor of the raid – the more she learns about Bertrand’s family, France – and herself.

SD: Historically speaking, is the Holocaust considered a collective guilt of the society?

NP: It’s a complex question. The word holocaust comes from the greek word that means “completely burned” (shoah in Hebrew), but if we realise the fact it marks a period of more than a decade – from 1933 til 1945 – during which the nazis have persecuted and killed Jews, as well as people of other nations and religion, it is also hard to ignore the fact all across Europe, there were concentration death camps, where during the Holocaust, approximately 60 million people were killed. After facing these facts, it is hard to conclude whether the society had avoided any collective guilt for the Holocaust, considering the escalation of the brutal measures by the nazi authorities and their helpers. The pinnacle of all this being “The Final Solution” (or “Endlösung”), in nazi terminology serving as an euphemism for mass killing and extermination of the entire European Judaism, as well as the systematic killing of the Roma, homosexuals, mental patients, the disabled, politial opponents and many, many others…

SD: Unfortunately, we are witnessing this constant “boom” of the right wing extremism, as well as the social narrow-mindedness – in Croatia, throughout the last 20 years, again has risen this inexplainable, bizarre fascination with NDH iconography. How sensible are the younger generations regarding history facts and how big the victims have they become due being imbued with this sick illusion of “better past”, often by their elders?

NP: We are very aware of the rise of right wing extremism today, in Europe, America and especially in our region. Complete operation and activities that we present in public, are focused particularly on educating and warning people about the neo-fascist ideas, symbols and such actions throughout history, with pointing out the reflections of it in today’s world.

Considering all this, the 7th “Zagreb Jewish Film Festival” will speak out more about today’s problem of nazi and fascist activities – through film, education programmes and exhibitions. It’s important to point out “Educational mornings”, intended for young people, that continually run from 2009 – the programme dedicated to educate about the Holocaust and the need for tolerance and respect for diversity, all in order to establish happy coexistence, intended to motivate the younger ones to practice tolerance in everyday life. We are very focused on educating and warning about the omnipresent neo-fascist iconography in public, on the territory of the former Yugoslavia – including the graphic speeches of hate, as invoked by the skinheads, neo-nazis and hooligan extremists, the speeches of hate we often turn our heads away from instead facing the problem.

These symbols are all around us today, we witness them daily – sometimes very well hidden behind big spectacular sport events, especially football games, as well as music concerts or ideas of patriotism. The environment in which we live, the environment in which the Festival operates, neither properly woke up and faced the horrors that happened, nor it clearly faces the consequences of these horrors – that is why this Festival became an important public platform where, year by year, louder and louder, and with bigger public interest, it is to remind of these horrors of the dark history of mankind, which are not to be forgotten!

SD: Today, with greater access to information, it is astonishing how dilemmas still happen to shape opinions in the society – especially regarding hystorical events, and tragedies among them – despite the fact, these tragedies happen to be well documented and covered by surviving witnesses. According to you, where is it that the educational system is at fault – just like many other systems are at fault – when it comes to dealing with social prejudice against the Holocaust and similar examples of human suffering?

NP: As far as teaching about the Holocaust in our school system is concerned, the evident problem is in the curriculum’s rather reduced schedule. That leads to a necessity of interdisciplinary coverage – through a variety of school subjects; history, ethics, religion, Croatian language and the like. If there is a good dialogue between teachers, pupils can be more adequately approached with such a complicated theme. However, if this method fails, the adequate education of young people also fails. As a result, there are pupils that know very little – or nothing – about the Holocaust. This is what we witness in most of the Festival’s “Educational Mornings” gatherings. As part of every “Educational Morning”, tiny questionnaires are given to pupils, through which we get more of a real picture of their education regarding the Holocaust – as well as their evaluation of the Festival’s offered programme of institutional education about the Holocaust.

SD: We are living in time when tragedies of ordinary people are often exploited for someone else’s political goals. Unfortunately today, due such actions, the Holocaust of the Jews during World War II became the subject of tasteless relativisation. How much can justified reminders of one tragedy reduce the intensity of the other one, more current tragedy – the one in mind unfortunately being the Middle East conflicts? As a promoter of “Zagreb Jewish Film Festival” and an active participant of the Jewish community, what are your views and opinions of the situation?

NP: As I am not living in that area, it is actually hard for me to be objective. My life principle is that every man must have the right to life, the right to opinion and the right to realisation – regardless of whether one’s own opinion or attitude is close to mine, or not. What matters the most is that all of us must realise our differences can be transcended without killing and hatred, by mutual respect of dissimilarity and individuality.

SD: Speaking of tolerance as the Festival’s main focal point, indicating compassion and empathy with those who survived the horrors of Holocaust – and according to the previous question – is there space in the Festival’s schedule for these, more current themes? In that context, a Palestine production film – a story told from the “other side”? Can JFF contribute to a more proper dialogue between two sides that are still at conflict today?

NP: The Festival transformed from Jewish film into a tolerance festival at the request of the audience – by recognising the messages we continually and clearly carried out through our prepared film programme throughout the years, that were recognised by the public as universal, key issues of which we should speak out here and now. Ever since the first Festival, our programme is consisting of films dealing with the subject matter of the Middle East conflict, without taking sides. It’s interesting to view the broadness of democracy in Israel, considering the fact many films carrying out the story of the Middle East conflict are mainly documentary and openly criticise the political activities of the state of Israel, whom at the same time, these films are financially helped by.

SD: Is the Festival, in terms of some of its segments, a political festival after all? If so – how necessary do you find it needs to be politically active? Or does it tend to stand aside, speaking objectively and observing all the problems and complexities surrounding one particulacular tragedy, which remains the ultimate symbol of suffering of innocent people?

NP: Considering the fact, this is a Jewish film festival, that it is focused on a certain minority, there is a necessary political tone to it, although the Festival’s very intention is to speak by humanitarian means, to present its contents and make it interesting on both, cultural and educational level. However, on some level – mainly due regional issues – I guess, political context is hard to avoid. Still, the Festival sends its message in various forms – especailly as a minority type of festival, recognising and actively speaking about other minorities’ problems – whether these problems are of ethnical, religious, sexual or other nature. With that in mind, the Festival considers and presents a much wider picture of social issues we’re all dealing with on a daily basis – which makes this whole event reaching far beyond lonesome issues of the Jewish Community alone. The Festival speaks about contemporary problems – in recent years, through cultural programmes, we intensively speak of problems that Roma, women, children, homosexuals and other marginalised communities and groups deal with: the injustice we’re all aware of, witnessing its practice against others, who are different. Thus we become interesting to the media, but we also get attention from high political structures.

SD: This year starts the 7th “Zagreb Jewish Film Festival”. In the context of the Holocuast, what were the topics present previously and which topic will be this year’s main focus of the Festival?

NP: In recognising various needs of the society, in terms of publicly questioning the tolerance and the democratic social practice, we ourselves become the Festival of Tolerance. From the very beginning, it has defined various topics – “Children – victims of the Holocaust and the wars”, “Righteous among the Nations” and “Women In Holocaust”. With the sixth Festival we’ve become even more focused on tolerance due which it shapes and presents its programme.

A shortened version of the Festival is prepared to be presented in the cities of Rijeka and Sarajevo. In Zagreb, for the first time, the Festival will be held in two locations – at the Cinema “Europa” and “KIC” (The Cultural Information Centre), between 19th and 25th of May. On both locations, we will provide screen projections of more than 50 films, both of domestic and international production, in the category of short film, documentary and feature-length film. In Rijeka and Sarajevo, there will be presented a selection of twenty films altogether chosen from the main programme schedule. In most part, the selected films have won numerous awards on other world film festivals. Besides those recorded and presented in mother tongue, we arrange all films to be properly translated, that way making them accessible to visitors from abroad. The audience is also invited to participate in discussions with other participants of the film festival, after each projection. In order to reach as many visitors of the Festival, the tickets are free of charge.

Zagreb Jewish Film Festival starts on May 19 until May 25, 2013
For further information please visit: jff-zagreb.hr

Image detail: Saturn devouring one of his sons (Francisco Goya, oil on canvas, 1819 – 1823)

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