A Conversation With ‘Who Will Write Our History’ Director Roberta Grossman
From Hava Nagila (The Movie) to Above and Beyond: The Birth of Israeli Air Force, Roberta Grossman’s films have the rare quality of being both educational and entertaining, empowering and critical. Grossman recently chatted with us about her approach to making Jewish films, her affinity for screenings at SFJFF and what it’s like making films with her life and creative partner, ahead of the World Premiere of her latest film Who Will Write Our History at the 38th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, July 19–August 5, 2018.
JFI: How has your Jewish identity influenced your choice of subject matter for your film projects?
Grossman: I don’t think my Jewish identity has influenced the choice of subject matter for my films as much as I have chosen the subject matter of my films in order to explore my Jewish identity.
I did, however, grow up in a family that was not religiously observant, but strongly Jewish in every other way. When I was little, I lived in such a Jewish bubble that I thought everyone was Jewish! I had no formal religious school training, but absorbed the emotional and intertwining currents of the Holocaust and Israel as the foundation of my evolving Jewish consciousness. When I was a teenager, I joined Hashomer Hatzair. The movement’s slightly transgressive, Socialist-Zionist world view cemented my sense of who I was and who I wanted to be. My films are pretty obviously biographical: they are about Israel, the Holocaust, and the American Jewish experience in the 20th and 21st centuries.
“My films are pretty obviously biographical: they are about Israel, the Holocaust, and the American Jewish experience in the 20th and 21st centuries.”
JFI: You’ve made films on strong Jewish women from Gloria Allred to Hannah Senesh. Is there a common thread between all these Jewish women, despite their different backgrounds across time and location?
Grossman: The common thread is they cared less about what people thought about them, then about what they knew was right. They were not people who complained about the world’s ills, but rather put their own lives on the line to act to make the world a better place. They were and are pretty bad ass.
JFI: You have taken on the different aspects of Holocaust history in your films. What specific questions do you need to think about in terms of representation of the Holocaust on film?
Grossman: The most common refrain I have heard when I’ve told people about films I’ve wanted to make was, “Oh God, not another film about the Holocaust!” Although my usual retort is that I didn’t realize that 6 million films had been made on the subject, I understand the depth of Holocaust fatigue. So, the most important question I ask myself are these: 1. Is the story I am considering making a film about a story that has already been told? If not, 2. Is it a story that will significantly add to the understanding of the Holocaust and to the archiving of Jewish memory? Even if the answer to both those questions is “yes,” the final question for me is 3. Can I live with myself if I do not tell this story? If the answer is “no,” I have to spend the next three or four or five years of my life telling a devastating story. I really do hope, however, not to make another Holocaust film, or at least not for a long time.
JFI: Your life partner, Sophie Sartain, is also your filmmaking partner on some of your projects. How does that work? How does being Gay impact your work?
Grossman: Sophie and I met while working on 500 Nations, an eight-hour documentary series on Native American history. We worked together writing the CD Rom (yes it was a long time ago) version of the project. So right out of the gate, I knew how brilliant Sophie is and what a fantastic writer she is. Sophie wrote and co-produced Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh, wrote and produced Hava Nagila (The Movie), wrote Above and Beyond and was a creative consultant on Who Will Write Our History and we directed and produced Seeing Allred together.
The fact is that almost everything I’ve done has been with Sophie and our editor Chris Callister. The three of us are a team, and I love working with them both. For the most part, working together and living together and having three children together has been pretty seamless. But it’s good to have breathing room sometimes. Sophie made her own film Mimi and Donna and is now directing a film, Birddog Nation, about activists trying to flip the house in November. I’m going to cheer from the sidelines. In terms of how being gay has impacted our work, I don’t think of myself as a gay filmmaker anymore than I think of myself as woman filmmaker or a Jewish filmmaker. Obviously, however, growing up and coming of age in the 60’s and 70’s, I experienced a lot of homophobia compounding whatever “outsider” feeling I had from being Jewish (once I realized the world was not all Jewish!). I think I’m pretty attuned to injustice and admire people who stand up for themselves and others.
JFI: Is it important to you to showcase activists in your films? How have your films been used to make impact in the world in distribution?
Grossman: At this juncture, people who are activists are my heroes. Starting with myself, I want people to be inspired to act by people like Hannah Senesh, Gloria Allred and Emanuel Ringelblum. I hope that the films make a difference, but I’m not the one to ask.
“I don’t think of myself as a gay filmmaker anymore than I think of myself as woman filmmaker or a Jewish filmmaker.”
JFI: What do you hope SFJFF audiences attending the premiere of Who Will Will Write Our History will take away from the film?
Grossman: I hope audiences at SFJFF come away knowing the story of Emanuel Ringelblum, Rachel Auerbach and the Oyneg Shabes Archive that they created in the Warsaw Ghetto. I honestly believe this is the most important unknown story of the Holocaust. I hope my film will change that in a way only a film can do, but making the story accessible to hundreds of thousands of people around the world.
Who Will Write Our History screens at the 38th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on: Saturday, July 21 in Palo Alto; Sunday, July 22 in San Francisco; and Saturday, July 28 in the East Bay. Roberta Grossman will be in attendance for all three screenings. Buy tickets now at www.sfjff.org.