Spielberg, Pinchuk Make Ukrainian Holocaust Film

KIEV, Ukraine -- Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation for Visual History and Education has joined forces with Ukrainian tycoon and outgoing lawmaker Viktor Pinchuk to make what they hope will be “an exceptionally powerful and emotional” documentary on the Holocaust in Ukraine.

Steven Spielberg (L) with Viktor Pinchuk (R) and wife Elena Franchuk.

The premiere of the film is scheduled for this September, to coincide with the 65th anniversary of the massacre at Babi Yar, a large ravine near Kyiv, where approximately 34,000 Jews were murdered by the German SS over the course of two days, beginning on Sept. 28, 1941.

Uncovered at this site was a mass grave, where 100,000 Jews and others were killed by the Nazis from 1941 to 1943.

The film will draw primarily on video testimonies of Ukrainian Holocaust survivors found in the digital archives of the Shoah Foundation.

“The documentary will address the tragedy of Babi Yar and the larger history of the Holocaust in Ukraine,” said Douglas Greenberg, chief executive of the Los Angeles-based Shoah Foundation, at a private meeting with Ukrainian journalists during his visit to Ukraine on March 28.

Greenberg said the project is the product of a dream shared by Spielberg and Pinchuk, who met a year-and-a-half ago in the United States.

“We’ve always wanted to make a documentary film about the Holocaust in Ukraine, because it’s such an important chapter [in the history of the Holocaust],” said Greenberg.

“And on the other side, there was Mr. Pinchuk, who was also interested in the subject,” he added.

Spielberg established the Shoah Foundation in 1994 after finishing work on his Oscar-winning “Shindler’s List.” The aim of the foundation was “to videotape and preserve testimonies of Holocaust survivors and other witnesses before it was too late,” said Greenberg.

The Foundation has since collected 52,000 video testimonies from Holocaust survivors in 56 countries and in 32 languages, including 3,200 testimonies from Ukraine.

According to Greenberg, the organization is now working on ways to bring these testimonies back to the countries where they were collected “for educational purposes,” by creating educational programs and documentaries, for example.

The Ukrainian project will be the Foundation’s seventh documentary on the Holocaust in a language other than English, according to Greenberg.

Revealing personal interest in the success of the film, the Foundation’s director noted that both his and Spielberg’s families hail from Ukraine. For Pinchuk, who is one of the richest men in Ukraine, there is a personal element to his involvement in the project as well.

The powerful businessman was raised in a Jewish family in Dnipropetrovsk and is currently known for his support of the Jewish community in his native city.

“For Mr. Pinchuk, the project is, first and foremost, a desire to take part in something that would eventually benefit the wider world community,” commented Frenchman Thomas Eymond-Laritaz, head of Pinchuk’s staff.

“But it is also a sign of respect to the Jewish community of Ukraine,” he said.

However, the film’s producers are not willing to discuss either the project’s total budget or the Ukrainian-Jewish businessman’s exact contribution.

“All I can say is that the funding from the Foundation’s side came from many donors in the Unites States, who helped to collect the testimonies to begin with, while Pinchuk provided immediate production funds in Ukraine,” said Greenberg.

The documentary, which will be about 70 minutes long, is being filmed in Ukraine and is directed by the Ukrainian director Serhiy Bukovsky. The 45-year-old, who is not Jewish, has more than 20 years of experience in documentary filmmaking and has won awards at a variety of film festivals in Ukraine and abroad.

Greenberg said they had no intentions of recruiting an American director, as “he would not be able to make an appropriate picture of Ukrainian history.”

Although the majority of the materials used in the documentary will be from the video archives of the Shoah Foundation, Greenberg said that approximately one-fifth of the film will feature fresh footage taken in Ukraine in the last year. Among other things, this includes interviews with elderly Ukrainian Jews, who still remember what the Jewish community was like before the Holocaust, said Greenberg.

Film director Bukovsky said he shot footage at a number of locations – mostly towns in western and central Ukraine, where there were large Jewish settlements – to provide the cultural and historical background for the film.

“Because there are no video chronicles of the Holocaust, we are looking for other solutions to avoid having just ‘talking heads,’” said Bukovsky.

“It is not the kind of film where you can do much creative directing, but I am trying to make it as engaging as possible,” he added.

Greenberg said that unlike the Foundation’s projects in other countries, the Ukrainian documentary will also feature testimonies by Ukrainians who helped Jews during the Nazi occupation.

For Bukovsky, avoiding moralizing in the documentary has been the toughest part of his work on the project.

“The biggest challenge for me has been finding a balance between educating and moralizing in the film,” said Bukovsky, adding that his task as a director is to spur people on to make their own conclusions, rather than to sermonize.

The producers say they did not reach a final agreement regarding how and where the documentary would be distributed, but the plans conceived are rather grand.

“We do expect [the film] to be broadcast on Ukrainian television, and we also hope to release in Ukrainian theaters,” commented Greenberg.

According to him, the film will be released in both Ukrainian and Russian, the languages spoken in Ukraine, and will also be subtitled in English for viewings in the Unites States, Europe and Israel.

“The story of the Holocaust in Ukraine is different from its story in other parts of Europe, and we think that it needs to be told in other parts of the world as well,” said Greenberg.

Greenberg said he hoped the film would eventually be distributed in Ukrainian schools, as well. The Foundation is in the process of creating a teacher’s guide that will help Ukrainian teachers make better use of the documentary in their lessons on the Holocaust, he said.

Meanwhile, Kyiv’s Jewish community is looking forward to the film’s premiere and has high expectations.

“There have been quite a few documentaries about the Holocaust made in Ukraine, but the good ones were few,” said Leonid Finberg, head of the Kyiv Institute of Jewish Studies.

Finberg, who has assisted Bukovsky with use of the Institute’s archives, expects the film to be “original and moving.”

“This is a story that isn’t Ukrainian or American, Polish or German,” echoed Greenberg.

“It’s a human story, and from this point of view, the fact that it’s going to be told about Ukrainians and in the languages that Ukrainians speak makes it very important for your country,” he said.

Source: Kyiv Post