Documentary filmmaker and producer Anthony Geffen, industry veteran though he is, admits to feeling nervous when he reflects on his involvement with the Holocaust Survivors Testimonies Project.
The responsibility of doing justice to the survivors of systematic genocide of European Jews and other minority populations in Europe — on a near-unimaginable scale — is undeniably a factor in unsettling his emotions.
That, and the drive to capture vital and delicate human stories in a way that accurately portrays both the dark and light of human nature, and tell them in a way that they are never forgotten, even as the last of the survivors, the youngest of them now in their 70s, pass from the earth.
That task is especially important in an age of so-called “fake news,” when younger generations can’t always discern what’s real and why something that happened so long ago could still matter.
“Some people say ‘The Holocaust wasn’t as bad as we think,’” says Geffen, CEO and founder of UK-based factual production company, Atlantic Productions.
But, he adds, “When you hear the survivors, there is something so powerful about that a) it acts as a deterrent for such a thing from happening again and b) having it come firsthand from a survivor, you understand what happened, did happen, and was probably more horrific than you can imagine.”
The Holocaust Survivors Testimonies Project was initiated by the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation, led by the British government, to record the experiences of those interned in Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War. Those who survived the camps were often starved, tortured and forced to work under inhuman conditions.
The project is part of the British government’s plan to teach future generations about the Holocaust. The testimonies will be part of the new national Holocaust learning center slated to open in London in 2020. Atlantic Productions was appointed by the government to produce the project in 2015.
Since starting work on the memorial project, Geffen says his team has interviewed 112 survivors, as well as a few camp liberators. Each person interviewed was researched and given specific questions about his or her experience. On average, each survivor’s testimony was five hours in length. The survivors who were interviewed ranged in ages from 72 to 97 years and come from across Europe, but now live in the UK.
Geffen says he and his team tried to get a variety of voices for the project, using methods such as social media and camp records to reach out to those who had survived and were willing to share their experiences.
For Geffen’s team, listening to hours of testimony, all deeply horrifying, left some with trauma-like symptoms.
“The stories are absolutely beyond what one could imagine,” he says.
Besides recording testimony, part of the process in this project included verifying the survivors’ memories, as Geffen says people don’t always remember events accurately — especially after so many decades. The team had to go find other sources to make sure the record being provided was accurate.
“Sometimes, when people are elderly, they recall things in their mind that other people have said to them. Then, they almost put (those false memories) into their own words, so you have to be careful it’s accurate, or it would be a serious problem for the future,” he says.
And with the future in mind, Geffen needed to “future-proof” the testimony and capture the memory for future generations. To that end, the team simultaneously shot the survivors’ accounts in 2D, 3D and VR so the testimony could be used on a variety of technology platforms well into the future.
Shooting in virtual reality isn’t new for Geffen, who worked with the London Science Museum on Space Descent VR with Tim Peake andDavid Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef.
Geffen cites the empathetic potential of virtual reality as a key factor in making the stories resonate with a younger audience.
“You have almost an immediate empathy, sitting in that space with that survivor listening to their story. We are very aware it’s the younger generation we need to get this across to,” he says.
Driving the production, the team kept firmly in mind that the content is unlikely to be watched by young generations now and in the future on linear television.
But, technology aside, Geffen says the true focus of the project remains firmly on the people in front of the camera.