Interview with filmmaker Roberta Grossman
Roberta Grossman (1959) is an American filmmaker whose work explores social justice as well as historical themes. Her most recent documentary film, Who Will Write Our History, tells the story of the Polish-Jewish historian Emanuel Ringelblum, who attempted to document life in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Second World War. Grossman chose to complement documentary footage with dramatizations based on eyewitness accounts: “In my opinion, the dramatizations in the film are more authentic than the archival footage: it makes the words from the archive come alive.”
Your film is about the important Oyneg Shabes archives, which are a key source for Jewish history during the Nazi occupation. How did you first learn about these archives and what made you want to make a film about them?
“I learned about the story of the Oyneg Shabes from a review of Sam Kassow’s book Who Will Write Our History? When I started reading the book, I was shocked! I have spent my whole life reading about the Holocaust and have made several films dealing with this era. I had never heard of Emanuel Ringelblum and the secret archive of the Warsaw Ghetto, however. I believe this is the most important unknown story of the Holocaust and I decided to make a film that I hope will bring the story to millions of people around the world in the way that only a film can do.”
The film is a mix of documentary footage and dramatizations. Why did you decide on this form?
“The film is about a place that no longer exists, the Warsaw Ghetto, with characters that are no longer alive. The existing archival footage and photographs of the Ghetto were taken by the Nazi propaganda units working to show the Jews incarcerated there in the worst possible light. Yet, with the Oyneg Shabes archive, we have this rich trove of extraordinary eyewitness accounts. I wanted to create visuals that could live up to that writing. Frankly, my goal was to make a film with the gravitas of a documentary and the emotional pull of a dramatic feature. In my opinion, the dramatizations in the film are more authentic than the archival footage: it makes the words from the archive come alive.”
With voice-overs by Adrien Brody and Joan Allan, you have some big Hollywood names supporting your film. How did you get them involved in the project?
“I was fortunate enough to work with Joan Allan on my earlier film Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh, in which Joan voiced the role of Hannah Senesh’s mother. When I reached out to her again for Who Will Write Our History, she was gracious enough to say yes. She is, quite simply, a wonderful, soulful, intelligent actor. I’m very lucky. Casting director Heidi Levitt cast the voice-over actors. She had a prior relationship with Adrien Brody and was generous enough to reach out to him on behalf of the film. Amazingly, he said yes.”
Next year it will be officially 75 years since the Second World War ended and because of that there also seems to be a renewed interest in its impact. What do you think the history of the Oyneg Shabes archive can teach us for the future?
“That the truth matters. That wars and genocides start with propaganda, lies, and denigration of “the Other.” That when we see attacks on minorities and the press, we need to do everything in our power to nip them in the bud. I had no idea when I started the film eight years ago, it would be released at a time when it would be so depressingly relevant.”
Roberta Grossman is the maker of the film Who Will Write Our History. Get your tickets here.