West Meets East. John Kent Harrison presents his film: The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler
The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler is a film about a Polish woman who led a conspiracy that saved the lives of 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto before and during ‘liquidation’ in WWII. The film was made by an American director and shot in Riga. Usually films made by foreigners are not taken seriously by Russian audiences. This film was not only taken seriously at its premier at 35mm cinema on May 28th, people were left in a state of shock. Why?
By Peter Hainsworth
The film is a 96-minute drama, and covers real episodes of a quite extraordinary brave and apparently hitherto virtually unknown Polish heroine, Irena Sendler. At great risk to herself and other members of the Warsaw social services department where she worked, Irena smuggled 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto. She was eventually arrested by the Gestapo and only narrowly escaped a firing squad.
John Kent Harrison
After the war, Irena lived humbly, completely unknown to the outside world. She kept a record of the children who she smuggled out of the ghetto and their new families by recording these details on small pieces of paper which were hidden in a jam jar. Irena’s story only came to the attention of the international media in 1965 when the Israeli Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, Yad Vashem, awarded her the title: Righteous Among the Nations. Only in 2003 did the Polish government award her the highest government award, the Order of the White Eagle. Irena, aged 98, died in June 2008. She did not get to see the film.
Unlike Steven Speilberg’s Schindler’s List, which we have all heard about and probably all seen, John’s film is relatively low-budget and gets by on simple though effective sets and pure emotion.
“I had no interest in making another grand, historical evocation of the Holocaust. I wanted to tell a small story, an intimate story about a family, in this case a Jewish family but it could be any family, yours or mine, hopelessly trapped by the suffocating terror of genocide,” explained John to the audience at the Moscow premier on the 31st of May.
The screenplay, written by Harrison and Lawrence John Spagnola, was based on the 2005 biography The Mother of the Holocaust Children by Anna Mieszkowska. The film stars Anna Paquin as Irena, and Marcia Gay Harden as Irena’s mother, both actresses being Oscar winners. Croatian actor Goran Visnjic plays as Stefan Zgrzebski, who she married after the war.
At the premier the Latvian, Israeli, Polish ambassadors, as well as the first secretary of the Canadian embassy, all spoke. John told me he was nervous as to how Russian audiences would take his film. After all, it was made for American TV, and thus had to be ‘nice’ enough to satisfy ‘broadcast standards’ which monitor the amount of violence and risqué material allowed on US national channels. The film is a sponsored presentation of the Hallmark Hall of Fame, the flagship of an enormous feelgood greeting card company.
Sitting in the front row, John looked behind to see how many people had got up during the screening. Nobody left. People were crying. A general state of shock set in. I asked John during an interview the next day what on earth happened: “I was very surprised that the reaction was so strong. My way of directing movies is to plug into the under-currents of the emotions, and follow them. It seemed like the audience completely connected with that; they were deeply moved and basically speechless by the end of the movie.”
The suffering of women and children, something that you don’t need a million or 50 million bucks to portray is a universal theme. The four hundred or so people who saw that film at the end of May did not watch a film made by an American producer in Latvia, using Polish actors and actresses who spoke English with a Polish accent, and which was subtitled in Russian. We watched a film about human suffering and compassion, full stop.
If anything, the restraints created by ‘Broadcast Standards’ and the Hallmark Hall of Fame ended up being a blessing in disguise, although this was something John wasn’t aware of before coming to Moscow. Russian cinematographers have never favoured explaining things which are obvious. People here are far too clever to need detailed explanations. Look at Tarkovsky, at Pudovkin, at the classics. They are essays in understatement. Detailed explanations insult the Russian viewers’ dignity in that they curtail the God-given right to use imagination.
This is something completely misunderstood, it seems, by the majority of western directors trying to make movies about serious themes. Plugging into the collective emotions underlying events and following them through, even if that might mean a little improvisation here and there is OK. A strong, director-led movie works fine in Russia, as long as the director is as clever or more clever than the audience. But that is not always the case, particularly when the director is from another culture.
Here we find combinations of the banal and the horrifying, such as children singing competing with each other to sing a cheerful song the best, as they are marched off to a death camp; a young boy from the ghetto trying to buy bread in an ordinary bread shop in Warsaw and being shunned by ordinary people; this sort of scene had a profound effect on the audience at 35mm.
The film raises some interesting questions. For example, how exactly do you persuade a Jewish parent to let their children be adopted by Christians, in a predominantly Catholic country? Is religion more important than life itself?
“Irena Sendler first had to persuade Jewish families to give up a child. Can you possibly imagine that conversation! And then she had to find Polish families outside the ghetto who were brave enough to hide these children when the penalty for such an action was immediate execution,” commented John.
John Kent Harrison is a Canadian filmmaker who originally hails from London, Ontario, and has lived for the past 25 years in California. He is best known for his TV Mini-series such as: The Water is Wide (2006), Pope John Paul II (2005), and Helen of Troy (2003). Before TV, his best known feature film was ‘Beautiful Dreamers’, about that great Canadian poet, and dreamer, Walt Whitman.
The film was shot on location in Riga, which John describes as being ideal: “Although I intended to shoot the film in Warsaw, I found very little that was usable for such a specific location. I considered Lithuania but felt ambivalent about what I saw. Finally, I was persuaded to visit Latvia and I remember driving through Riga and suddenly shouting for the driver to stop. I jumped out of the car, ran towards some abandoned buildings and disappeared through a hole in a crumbling brick wall. When Igor and the others found me, I looked at them with the radiance of St. Paul on his way to Damascus, ‘It’s one stop-shooting!’”
The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler will be shown on Russian TV. Watch the PASSPORT web-site to find out when. DVDs will be available shortly.
John himself hopes to return to Moscow to make a film that would be a Russian story, set in Moscow and the countryside.
“It appears there is an audience in Russia for my way of telling visually compelling and deeply emotional stories. It makes sense to come back and work with Russian filmmakers and actors. It would be fun.”