URI student film on Holocaust to be screened at upcoming events, added to state genocide education

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Harrington School of Communication and Media filmmakers in adjunct professor Rob Cohen's film production class produced "The Fence Between Us," a short film on the Holocaust that will become part of Rhode Island's education resources to instruct secondary school students on genocides. Filmmakers included, from left, Amanda Grace '19, Griffin Alix '20, Grace DeSanti '21 and Kat Fortey '21, posing with Cohen, center. Photo by Nora Lewis

KINGSTON, R.I. – March 28, 2019 – A short film on the Holocaust by student filmmakers at the University of Rhode Island will be screened at some high-profile events in the coming weeks –and will become one of the education resources available as part of Rhode Island’s mandated genocide education for secondary school students.

“The Fence Between Us” will get its URI premiere Monday, April 1, at the Norman M. Fain Hillel Center on the Kingston campus. The film will also be shown during the 35th annual Statewide Interfaith Commemoration of the Holocaust on May 1 at Temple Emanu-El, in Providence.

The 13-minute film was produced in spring 2018 by 14 students in a film production class in the Harrington School of Communication and Media. The film features the first-person accounts of Holocaust survivors set against a narrative and intermingled with commentary from Rhode Island lawmakers, as well as Holocaust scholars from URI.

“I think one of the most gratifying things for me about the film and the experience the students had is what a unique film they’ve made,” said Rob Cohen, a URI adjunct professor and filmmaker who led the class. “I think the students probably don’t know – simply by dint of their youth – what a special film this is. It’s a hybrid of documentary and narrative and archival information. It’s very original, and it’s very gratifying for it be as successful as it’s been and seeing the response that people have given it.”

The URI premiere on April 1 – free and open to the public — will be in the Hillel Center, 6 Fraternity Circle, at 5 p.m. It will be followed by a panel discussion with two Holocaust survivors who appear in the film, retired URI Professor Albert Silverstein and long-time state resident Jorge Gardos. The panel will also include Robert Weisbord, a retired URI history professor and Holocaust scholar, and Paul Bueno DeMesquita, director of the URI Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies.

As part of the event, DeMesquita will be awarded the Avi Schaefer Seek Peace and Pursue It Award, bestowed by the Avi Schaefer Fund. DeMesquita, one of 10 awardees across North America, is being honored for his work as an outstanding campus change-maker who stands up for peace, justice and compassion on the college campus.

On May 1, Temple Emanu-El, 99 Taft Ave., Providence, will show the film as part of the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration, starting at 7 p.m. Gardos, a renowned violinist, will play during the event, and URI student filmmakers Kat Fortey and Griffin Alix will introduce the film. The event is free and open to the public.

Lessons in film and history

The film, made possible by a grant from the Victor and Gussie Baxt Fund in Judaic Studies, includes interviews with Rhode Island lawmakers – Gov. Gina Raimondo, state Sen. Joshua Miller, state Rep. Katherine Kazarian and former state Rep. Aaron Regunberg – who were instrumental in legislation mandating genocide education in public secondary schools, starting in the 2017 school year.

More compelling are the voices of Holocaust survivors Silverstein, Gardos and Alice Eichenbaum, of Providence. For the URI filmmakers, interviewing the survivors proved greater than any lesson on the Holocaust they had ever received.

“Hearing their personal stories and firsthand accounts was a whole different experience,” said Fortey ’21, a film studies major from Franklin, Mass. “In school, you’re just told the information. Hearing it from someone who actually lived through it and experienced things you’ve read about or watched in school was eye-opening.”

“The survivors are disappearing faster and faster,” added Alix ’20, of Southington, Conn. “So, the fact we were able to capture some of them on camera – telling their very real stories, and how sobering that is – is very important for anyone, whether a filmmaker or not.”

The 14 students in Cohen’s class set out last January to re-create the trailer of the 2008 film “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” an approach that Cohen had used successfully in an earlier class. But this project grew far more ambitious – with Cohen throwing out the idea of interviewing survivors, lawmakers, professors, and employing child actors.

“I kind of just wanted to get up and leave,” said Grace DeSanti ’21. “For a moment, I was like, ‘This guy is crazy’ … to think that 14 students are going to care enough, be dedicated enough to pursue this. We have never been able to accomplish something like this. How are we going to do that now?

“But for some reason I stayed,” she added, “and I’m grateful I did.”

The course – FLM 351 – met once a week for four hours, but the class resembled more a meeting of a film production company, Cohen said. Much of the work of creating the film occurred outside the class. The students took on various production roles – director, writer, producer, cameraman, makeup, wardrobe, set design, props – but those roles were flexible, with everyone adopting jobs essential at the time.

“I think it definitely helped everybody in the long run,” says Alix, a film studies major who lent his hand to writing, cinematography, editing and even designed the film’s logo. “With anything in college, you want to do as much as possible because you never know what you might take a liking to in the long run.”

DeSanti, a film studies major from Shelton, Conn., served as a producer, overseeing many facets of the project, large and small, including running to Walmart for curtains or to Providence for set supplies. Fortey was also a jack-of-all-trades, taking part in camera duties, set design, hair and makeup, and props.

Amanda Grace ‘19, of Westerly, R.I., served as a director and assistant director, among other jobs. “I thought it was going to be strange at first,” says Grace, “but it was kind of nice. Obviously as the director, I had to make sure we directed the movie well, but also being assistant director I already knew what the director needed.”

A meaningful outcome

The experience has resonated beyond the wrap-up of the filming, the students said.

“Getting to work on something that important early in my academic career was really interesting,” said Fortey. “I’ve added a double minor – journalism, and justice, law and society. I want to continue making important films about civil rights, civil justice and inequality in America.”

“It helped us experience how a film company would actually work,” added Grace, a film studies major. “It gave us an idea of what we’d be doing in our future.”

The filmmakers got their first reaction from an audience when the film was screened at the West Warwick Public Library in October to open a year-long series on the Holocaust and genocide hosted by the Rhode Island Holocaust and Genocide Education Committee.

“When we showed the film for the first time, a really strange thing happened,” said DeSanti. “Some people thanked us for making it. Nobody had ever thanked me for making something before. I went home and thought, ‘Wow, I’ve actually now put out something meaningful into the world.’”

The Holocaust and Genocide Education Committee, which works with the Rhode Island Department of Education to develop curriculum to assist educators in instruction on the Holocaust and genocides, is adding “The Fence Between Us” to the resources available to educators through the RIDE website, said Marty Cooper, interim chair of the committee, who also helped line up lawmakers to appear in the film.

“I think the film achieved its goal of drawing attention to students as well as teachers and others associated with academics as to why it is important for the Holocaust and genocides to be taught in our schools in the state,” said Cooper. “It is hoped that educators will show the film as a way to introduce the topic to students.”