I've been a fan of Michele Ohayon's for a long time. Not only for her great movies, but, every time I hear her speak, I'm always impressed at how articulate she is on her own creative process and why she makes films the way she does. Her films, for me, are always deeply affecting, mostly for their human scale, their humor and their engaging storytelling. For a nonfiction filmmaker, working in a visual medium means constantly translating "reality" into good cinema, and this is something in which Ohayon has become quite proficient, no matter what kind of story she's telling. And you don't get that good cinema without some kind of substantive relationship with your subjects, most of whom aren't quite sure what's going on when they sign up to have their lives captured on film for a time.
I met Michele and saw her latest doc, Steal a Pencil for Me, at this year's Woodstock Film Festival. The screening I attended was packed and the subjects of the film in attendance. To a person, members of the audience were extremely moved, not only by the film itself, but also by the presence of these two camp survivors. Since the spring of '07, Steal a Pencil has been traveling the world appearing at numerous festivals and special events. Last April, Michele was invited to screen the film at the UN as part of its Holocaust Outreach Program. This event appears in the film showing the subjects of this love story, Ina and Jaap Polak, being honored following the screening. The director and her subjects were also recently feted at a special screening sponsored by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum that sits on a hill overlooking the city of Jerusalem.
The Yad Vashem honor was particularly touching and special for the Moroccan-born Ohayon since she was raised in Israel and learned her craft at the Film & Television School at Tel Aviv University. In 1984, she received the Israeli Best Film Award for Lahatz (Pressure), one of the first dramas about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After moving to Los Angeles in '87, she continued to make award-winning films, including a nomination for an Oscar for Colors Straight Up," her second feature-length documentary. In 2005, Michele made the documentary-comedy Cowboy del Amor, which garnered a Writers Guild Association award for best documentary screenplay, as well as a nomination from the International Documentary Association. During the making of Cowboy, Michele discovered a book called Steal a Pencil for Me: Love Letters from Camp, Bergen-Belsen and Westerbork, an epistolary history of Jaap Polek and Ina Soep's love story in those camps (Jaap was married at the time to another woman). Translated from the Dutch, these salvaged letters were sent clandestinely on found scraps of paper and describe their daily lives in the camps. They also write about their growing love for one another; despite their dire situation, they look forward to a future when they will be together. And they remain so, to this day.
Executive produced by Ted Sarandos, and having run the gauntlet of qualifying for the Academy's much-coveted shortlist by rolling out its theatrical run in the midst of its festival run, the film continues to inspire and move people everywhere it screens. And as for Jaap (who goes by Jack) and Ina, they are now traveling the world sharing their story with theater audiences, thousands of school children, and other survivors of the war. From leading a very quiet life in Westchester County, New York, to becoming international symbols of perseverance and hope, their story is extraordinary in so many ways.
Still in Motion (SIM): Anything new or interesting happening with any of your projects since we last spoke?
Michele Ohayon (MO): When I have a “go,” I will definitely let you know, but right now, it’s a little premature. I have two other docs in the works and one fiction project that’s in development. We’re starting to talk about it—I can’t write right now. Once the Writers’ Guild strike is over, we can move forward. Everything’s progressing; I have no complaints.
SIM: How’s Steal a Pencil performing? How were the theatrical runs, responses from audiences?
MO: Things have been going great. After I saw you at Woodstock, we went to the Hamptons and then, I went to Jerusalem to receive the Yad Vashem Award.
SIM: That must have been amazing.
MO: It was! They put together an event and a screening at the Jerusalem Cinematech, which holds about 400 people; they invited a lot of survivors. They brought them on buses from all over the country to see the film. They also invited a lot of Dutch Jews who went through the war. For me, it was kind of nerve-wracking, because these are the people who actually went through it and, of course, you always have this concern. What if they see the movie and object to how things are portrayed? The reactions had been fantastic everywhere else we played, but the Israeli crowd is a tough one; they’ve seen everything about the Holocaust. But I could feel about 20 minutes into it this deep emotion, this engagement. At the end, people were just in tears and a lot of them told me that this film hit very deep emotions.
SIM: In what way were they moved by your film that may have been different from all the other portrayals in film they might have seen?
MO: Well, it’s a different experience for everyone. First of all, on a historical level, the whole chapter of the Dutch Jews during the war—there’s been this stance that the Dutch were extremely helpful to the Jews across the board, and that wasn’t entirely the case. On a personal level, people reacted to how accessible the subject matter was—the love story, the human story. That’s why Yad Vashem is so grateful for it. They’ll be able to use it, to show it as part of the archive, to show it to high-schoolers to say, “These could have been your parents, or your grandparents,” and have another generation be moved by it. This is the other level that I’m getting now here in the United States—parents who went to see the movie tell me that they went back to see it again with their children. For me, that’s major; that’s really important to me.
In Israel, there were cases where somebody would come up to me after a screening and would tell me that he had seen his name in the movie. I assumed it was someone who appeared in my “thank you” list in the closing credits. But he said to me, “No, my name was in the movie. You filmed the deportation list to Bergen-Belsen; you zoom in on my name. I was there; I was on that list. I survived. Here I am!” Those are the kinds of moments where you just can barely breathe—it’s incredible.
There’s a daughter of this guy I mention in the movie. He was Ina’s uncle and he was put on a cart and taken away. This woman was also sitting in the audience. And she came up to me to tell me she was his daughter. And I never met her; I never knew she existed. History, film and life touch and those moments are really grand moments that go beyond film.
SIM: That is extraordinary. Your body of work, as a whole, is interesting. Each project is so different from the other. From talking to you, I know that this film, in a lot of ways, is special. As a filmmaker, as an artist, what were the biggest challenges for you, in this case? The historical element needed to be so spot-on, of course, and you’re getting a reaction that that is, indeed, what you’ve accomplished, otherwise Yad Vashem would not be honoring you or the film. Personally, too, from what you said at Woodstock, you had gone deeper, in a way, than in other projects.
MO: You know, even people with whom I work, tell me that this is the most accomplished work of mine to date. To be honest, when I went into this project, I really didn’t know that it was going to be like that. It was such a challenge, in my mind, as to how I was going to put all of these elements together. How was I going to make a film that was going to be carried by two older people about something that happened in the past? I had so many questions that made me more anxious about this film than any other film I’ve done. All the other films, I had in my head right away. For this one, I didn’t. It started to shape up as I was shooting, but I really did not see the whole entire picture right away. Sometimes, the film reveals itself during research, during shooting, and it just becomes this intuitive thing about knowing what it is you need to capture, to get. And when you do shoot it, you know why you needed it; you then know where things are going. This is the thrill of documentaries, because you don’t know when it’s going to hit you, when you’re going to figure that out. I mean you might have the first vision, the concept, the way you want to make the film and all that, but how it’s going to look in the end is another thing. Some people never have that; some people wait until they have the footage and then figure it out. I can’t do that. I have to have a very strong idea before I go into it.
SIM: You already have your narrative structure. You’re a writer, too. I think that informs your filmmaking quite a bit.
MO: Yes, and even if that narrative structure changes, it doesn’t matter. As long as I have something I can start from, a foundation. In my best scenarios, I wish that this will happen or that will happen, but I know that something entirely different may happen, too. You run all the different scenarios in your head before you start. I’m speaking for myself; I have to do that. Otherwise, you end up with 700 hours of footage that you can’t even look at—it’s too much. You have to have an idea of what you want to shoot. I shot 70 hours. With all the things I had to capture in the US and Holland, that’s not much. That’s extremely economical for a typical documentary ratio [of footage to running time].
SIM: That's efficiency at work. Because you knew what this needed to look and sound like, what were the technical tools you needed to have at your disposal that were vital to the project, on which you refused to compromise?
MO: I knew I wanted to shoot on high definition [video], and nothing less. We shot on hard tapes the first half of the movie and then, my DP [Theo Van de Sande], found out about this new camera, the Panasonic 200, that uses the P2 card. So it’s just data; there are no tapes involved. We decided to take a chance and try that. We had to go to Holland to shoot and we didn’t want to cart around this big high-definition Sony camera with a lot of cases, all the import/export gear in tow. So we took this little camera that looks like a regular video camera; you don’t have to go through customs. It worked for us. The quality was amazing. But it was kind of scary because the footage is just data. There’s nothing concrete; it’s data that you download onto your computer and that’s your film! If there’s a glitch, you’re dead. I did lose a couple of scenes, to be honest. One of them was very important to me and I really lamented that for a while. But it’s the same when you shoot on film. Something can be exposed, and there you go. There’s always something. That’s part of the risk. But it was worth it because we were very mobile. In my next film, I’m going to shoot the same way, all on data cards.
SIM: It did look really beautiful. Shooting like you did, that also speaks to the intimacy, too, of what you were shooting. Here you have two people who really gave you so much. They really opened their lives to you and there was a trust there that was quite palpable. Were they surprised, at all, at how un-intimidating it was?
MO: I decided to start with their interviews, probably because I thought it would be the easiest thing to go to, to be able to get them into it, to put them at ease. So we went to their home in Westchester [the county directly north of New York City] and did three days of intensive interviews with both of them. The first thing I remember is Ina telling me, “I never get emotional. So you’re only going to get the facts out of me.” And a day or two into it, we started talking about the boyfriend she lost [in the war] and all that, and she just broke down. And Jack, as well, when he talked about not giving the piece of bread to his sister, he totally broke down. We reached a point of understanding and a bond, so that basically they surrendered. In fact, they made a choice to go back to that painful place that they’d been trying to put away for sixty years for the sake of the film. They felt that I could be trusted. From then on, it was a beautiful process of opening, especially for Ina who was very proper, closed, conservative.
I just got an email last week from one of her sons. Her two sons appear in the movie and they saw the film at the United Nations and loved it. In this email, he said to me, “You know, I wanted to tell you, on behalf of our family, not only do we thank you for the movie, but thank you for helping our mother to open up. She has changed.” That’s priceless to have someone like Ina, who’s not a young woman, allow herself to go through such a healing process and come out a changed person. For me, this was amazing, and even more so, to hear it from her son. I was standing there sobbing, reading this email on my stupid Blackberry! This is why I do this, why I go through the torture of making a movie happen, especially documentaries, leaving your kids behind, traveling to all these strange places. It can be a big sacrifice.
SIM: How long was this process? How long did it take you to shoot?
MO: The whole thing from start to finish took about five years to make. But during those five years, I also was working on Cowboy del Amor, which took two years.
SIM: And did you always know that you wanted to use Kate Amend to edit it? [Kate is one of the top documentary editors working today and I started hearing her name as soon as I started learning about the business of making docs. She is also an extremely kind, well-loved person and her professional dance card is always full.]
MO: Absolutely. She cut Cowboy del Amor and we had a fabulous time. It was also a new genre for her. It was a comedy; it was cinema verité—she was just dying to do it. But then when I came to her with Steal a Pencil, she said, “No! I can’t do another Holocaust movie.” She just didn’t want to after cutting The Long Way Home and Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport. I told her this was a different kind of Holocaust story—it’s a love story, it’s poetic. So she agreed to do it, and told me it would be her very last Holocaust film. But I had to wait for her for almost a whole year for her to be available. I think she also was stalling a bit, because she knew it wasn’t going to be fun. But she’s so extremely happy with the movie. She’s over the moon with the reaction the film’s received.
My team is a very small team. They’re like my band. We go everywhere together, to the festivals and other events. When we opened in New York, everyone was there to do Q&A and Kate was there, as was my composer, Joseph [Julian Gonzalez]. And the audience reaction made them feel so proud to be a part of this. We really had no idea that it would be such a powerful film. Kate also told me that she’ll be forever grateful to me for giving her an editorial/co-writing credit. Editors have a lot to do with the writing of the film and they’re never really acknowledged for that. I want to set a precedent for that credit to be acknowledged for other editors, as well. She can use that for future projects and demand that she receive that writing credit.
SIM: It’s very important. I often hear, especially from documentarians, that their editors really do very much have a hand in the crafting of the film. Tell me how Ted Sarandos got involved.
MO: Ted has known me for years because when they started the whole Netflix thing, they called and said that they’d heard about Colors Straight Up, and asked if I wanted to give it to them to distribute. It was already out of circulation and I thought that the Netflix service was such a great idea. So I gave them the film and also gave them It Was a Wonderful Life, and they both did very well on the service. They saw Cowboy del Amor in Austin where we opened with it at South by Southwest and wanted that, too. And I thought that was great, but I needed to find a theatrical distributor for that film. And since Netflix didn’t do theatrical, I told them they’d have to wait. They wanted a guarantee that they would get the DVD distribution, and so they offered to participate [financially] in the theatrical distribution.
It was the first film Netflix released theatrically. They did well with that and asked me what I was doing next. I had already started Pencil and so I told them I was in the middle of production on this new film. But I thought that they would never go for a film with this subject matter or be interested in something like this. They asked me to send them what I had, the raw footage, a proposal and I did. Ted said that anything I was doing, he’d want to be involved. So that was that—he gave me some money to finish the film. We’re partners on this film and we have a great relationship. Even though their budgets are very small, I feel like I’ve found a home. I’m not sure I can do every film with them, but they were instrumental in this film getting made. I wouldn’t have been able to finish it without them. It’s so hard to find money for a film like this.
SIM: No grant or foundation money?
MO: No. I don’t do grants; it’s so time-consuming and the results are so minimal. I don’t write grants; I don’t know how. I basically went through the normal channels, the HBOs of the world. They all turned me down. I hit a dead end. I put my own money into it because I wanted to get the interviews done before it was too late—my subjects are older people, Jack's had health problems. So it was, pretty much, my production company and Netflix who funded the project. And some private money, here and there.
SIM: You spoke before about how important theatrical is to you. Do you see that changing at all? Are you pretty intent on continuing to release theatrically?
MO: A lot of the theatrical we do the way we do because of the Academy’s rules. We had to open in 14 cities and 10 states to qualify by a certain date [to vie to be on the nominee shortlist]. Now, that’s changing. Next year, we only have to do, I think, just a New York and/or Los Angeles run. I don’t know exactly since the rules aren’t published yet.
Secondly, there’s Michael Moore’s idea and I think it’s a brilliant idea. I told him I would help him with that, to go to the Arclights, the Landmarks, any theater chain that shows independents and propose that they give over one screen in their multiplexes to documentary. Documentaries are making money; they’re capable of doing decent box office. Sometimes they do better than a mainstream movie. Michael was honored this past year at the IDA’s awards gala with a Lifetime Achievement Award. He wasn’t there but he sent a message and the message was about that. He gave examples of some mainstream movies that did abysmally at the box office and he said that any documentary is capable of making more money and can certainly bring more than ten people into the theater screenings. I think it’s important that people start recognizing that. Okay, it’s not going to be $100 million, but it’s going to be enough for the theater owners to seriously consider us as commercial contenders theatrically.
It’s important to me because I make theatrical documentaries. I don’t make documentaries for television. When I film, when I frame, when I design the sound, I’m thinking feature, I’m thinking big screen. I’m not thinking small screen. And the films play as such. They play much better on the big screen than the small screen. You don’t really get the quality of it when you see it on TV—all films look alike. I don’t know how to think small screen. You also lose the impact of a lot of the sound. I come from fiction so it’s a weird kind of breed, one that utilizes a lot of fictional elements in documentary storytelling. I’m trying to tell the story as I would in fiction. People are being entertained, yet you’re dealing with reality, dealing with facts, sometimes using archival documentation.
SIM: Hybridization is talked about a lot—an amalgam of fiction and nonfiction to tell a story cinematically. Is that tricky territory for you or is that just part of the way you craft a film? In this particular case, you were working with people’s lives, people who were still very much alive. Is that ethically tricky for you? You need to be true to their story.
MO: Oh yes, absolutely. When I say “fiction,” I don’t mean inventing things. I’m using that word in terms of craft—the way you tell the story. Instead of just chasing people around with a camera, you’re planning your shots, your sequences, the way you’ll shoot coverage, getting as many angles as possible so that your editor can actually cut it to make it more exciting, more dynamic. It needs to be lit well. It needs to sound good. It needs strong story structure. And yes, the actual story is real; I can’t change that. Especially when you do a Holocaust movie. There’s an entity that Kate calls the “Holocaust police,” and those people look at everything very carefully. We were both trying to be extremely accurate in the footage that we chose, in not mixing up one camp for another. What most people don’t realize is that it’s very easy to say that you don’t have footage of, for instance, Bergen-Belsen, so why don’t I just put a shot of Auschwitz in there? Nobody will know. We never even considered doing that. Even when you think of all the soldiers and the liberators, you need to be accurate about who liberated who. Sometimes, that’s not so easy to distinguish. You have to be extremely accurate. Again, we would not have gotten the blessing of Yad Vashem if it wasn’t 100% accurate. But then someone might come to me one day and tell me it wasn’t exactly like that.
We’re filmmakers; we’re not historians. We try to do the best we can. There is no ethical issue at all. Truth is number one. The question is how do you tell the truth in a way so that your audience is entertained and, mostly, moved. That’s where the craftsmanship of being a filmmaker comes in. It goes beyond what kind of [documentary] school you come from, the purer, “capture-the-reality” school or my school of capturing the reality, but then interpreting it in my own way. It’s imperative that you put your stamp on it as a filmmaker. That’s what I’m mostly interested in.
SIM: In my opinion, it’s a little disingenuous for anybody that presents any piece of media to say it hasn’t been crafted for presentation or, to use your word, interpreted.
MO: That’s exactly what we were addressing on that panel in Woodstock. [Michele participated in a panel discussion with other nonfiction filmmakers and moderated by critic, David D'Arcy, called "Where Journalism Ends and Filmmaking Begins."]
SIM: That was one of the most engaging, brilliant panels I’ve attended. It was interesting to hear about each filmmaker’s story on how he or she traversed that territory. What else about this film changed you as a filmmaker, in terms of what you might do next? You’ve been making films a long time and are quite accomplished, but do you have more confidence now, after doing this project? Do you have more of a sense of your voice as a filmmaker?
MO: That’s an interesting question. I think because every time I try to do something different, I still see it all as a learning experience. I do trust my experience and instinct. But I think you have to be really humble about it in order to get the truth you’re looking for, and have that happen every time you make a film. If you’re overconfident and you go and just start shooting, you end up, I think, not getting what you want. I try to go back every time to that place where it feels like a new experience. Every time I get confirmation that I need to continue trusting my instinct. There were a lot of things in this film, for example. When I would go to test screenings, someone would say, “Oh, you don’t need that,” or “That doesn’t really work.” And I disagreed; for me, it worked! I knew the audience would get it. Maybe I have to shorten a sequence or trim something, but I can’t get rid of it. I see those strong moments. I experienced this even with Kate. She would tell me something wouldn’t work and, again, I disagreed. And when I show it and get that audience reaction, then that gives me the confidence you’re talking about, the confidence in trusting what I’m doing. That’s what you get with experience.
Personally, this film taught me a lot. Not just about the Holocaust and things like that, but to try and celebrate the moment and trying to live life more. It made me realize things can happen at any moment and if you don’t live the moment, you’ll miss out. That was something I learned growing up in Israel. We always celebrated, almost every day, because tomorrow, you might be dead! And in living in the US for the last twenty years, that kind of got lost a little bit, forgotten, you know what I mean? This story reminded me.
SIM: Life is very comfortable and safe for us, for the most part.
MO: Exactly, and what is there to worry about? That brought me back to that rooted feeling. Ina and Jack are so inspiring, so real, so trustful, nothing to hide, extremely open. It was a very, very spiritual journey. And while they’re down to earth people, there’s a part of them that understands what they went through and are making the best out of it. And to turn this into a learning experience for themselves and others—educating children, touching as many people as they can.
SIM: Did they feel privileged in any way, telling their particular story on film? And executed and told so beautifully on top of that?
MO: I don’t really think they had an idea about it. They didn’t really know what the outcome would be. It was hard for them sometimes. We spoke and shot for hours and hours at a time and I’d have them do things a few different times, like walking back and forth across a bridge. Jack would get really tired! Sometimes it was a pain in the ass for them to have a camera around and they’d have to let me know when they had had enough. So it wasn’t easy. The one thing that they struggled with, not being filmmakers, was how I was going to put this together—they really had no idea during shooting how all of it was going to fit together. They didn’t see a “movie” in their story but they decided to do it because I told them it was going to happen, basically [laughs].
And now, they have a new life. They’re speaking everywhere; they’re traveling everywhere. I’m still getting emails every single day from people who’ve seen the film and wrote because they had to react and let me know how deeply it affected them. I have never had that with any of my films. I got that reaction from Colors and Wonderful Life because they hit to the core, too. But I certainly didn’t get as profound a reaction from those films as I have from this one.
SIM: That must be very satisfying. So many filmmakers never get to experience that, that feedback on such a massive scale.
MO: That’s what makes it feel so much like a calling, some kind of service I need to perform. It’s the only thing I know how to do. I’m feeling humble about the fact that I have an opportunity to do that. And have people react to that. I do sometimes feel a bit like a public servant.
SIM: What story is out there that you’ve thought about for a long time that you want to tell?
MO: I know that I have to go back to Israel and make a movie there, the place where I started. I had a meeting today about a project about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I made a lot of movies about that when I started out, but that was 20 years ago. It’s looking a little different today and that’s one story that I feel I need to return to. I still want to tell a story from Africa—I still haven’t touched the whole African part of the world and I don’t know what that story is going to be, but I feel something is there that’s very attractive for me. Perhaps, there is a story centered on American politics, something along those lines. There are a lot of stories I still want to tell. I gotta speed up though [laughs]. With a movie taking, on average, five years of my life, I’m not sure how many more I have in me.
SIM: Each project does take a chunk of your life.
MO: And there are things that take time to put together. Obviously, number one is having some budget to work with. If you don’t have a budget, you have to scrounge around for money, ask for favors, they put you on the night shift because you can’t pay—it slows down the process! When there’s money, you go much faster. And secondly, I do like to take my time because I have kids. I don’t want to disappear for two or three months at a time, so I shoot a bit, come back, spend time, go back. So it’s my choice to take the time, in that regard. But like now, with this new project, if it’s going to happen, I’m going to have to be finished with it in six months. So I’ll have to take a different approach.