Oscar Shmoscar! A disappointing night for Lincoln at the Academy Awards didn’t phase director Steven Spielberg one bit. Two days later, he announced the arrival of the IWitness Video Challenge, a program linked to his Shoah Foundation designed to give schoolchildren access to the testimonies of Holocaust survivors. The release of the program coincides with the 20th anniversary version of Schindler’s List, which arrives today on Blu-ray. In a lively press conference, Spielberg spoke about the effects of the Shoah Foundation and the ways that making Schindler’s List literally changed his life.
Question: How has your perception of this movie’s impact changed, and how does it tie in to this material you’re releasing with the Shoah Foundation?
Steven Spielberg: I can’t believe it’s been 20 years. It doesn’t feel like 20 years at all. And we’re almost to March 1, which was the first day of filming Schindler’s List in Krakow. Over the last few decades, I’d always hoped that the film and the Shoah Foundation would know no bounds of age or generation or geography. I’ve never believed more that acts of kindness don’t have to be random, and in an age when we have unprecedented technological advancement, I was sure that our consciences would evolve along those same lines. But sometimes it seems as if there are still people immune to the notion of empathy or compassion. People who see disturbing images on TV or the Internet, who see instances of bullying or discrimination, and stand silent. So many in the world refuse to bear witness and do something about it, and in many cases, technology has become a vehicle for voyeurism rather than a vehicle for change.
This persistence of inaction is one of the reasons I think the Foundation is even more important today. It’s established this new project, the IWitness Video Challenge, which we’re hoping embodies the same message as Schindler’s List: that profound positive change can come from the act of a single individual. Students can listen to testimony from Holocaust survivors on IWitness, and decide how to use that information to better their communities. They can then put together video essays discussing its impact on their community and the larger world. We can hopefully use this to show the power of acts of kindness, and to demonstrate that empathy is never better expressed than with action. Maybe someday, kindness can become more of a natural reflex and less of a random act.
Q: In 1994, we didn’t really have the Internet. At what point did you decide that the Shoah Foundation was going to be more than just video archives?
SS: In 1994, we were doing all our testimonies on VHS. We were transporting the cassettes back to California for indexing and cataloguing, which took years. We didn’t have all of the malleable pliable tools to access or index this. These testimonies were in dozens of languages, and we had to fly in translators to index and subtitle everything in English: people from France, from Germany, from Poland, from Hungary, all over Eastern Europe just to make these testimonies accessible. The original dream was that students could access these testimonies in the classroom. We called it the Five Ts: Teaching Teachers to Teach Tolerance. So iWitness arose out of that, and made use to the tools as they arose to bring these testimonies to as many classrooms as they could.
Q: Do you believe that Schindler’s List is the film that’s made the most impact out all your films?
SS: Yes, by every measure. I still think Schindler has made the most amount of material change in the world. When I went to Poland 20 years ago, I quickly realized that this wasn’t just a natural reflex of my filmmaking instincts. This was going to be something that changed my life. I didn’t presume to think that this was going to have an impact on the world entire, I just knew that I wasn’t going to be the same when I came out of it.
Q: Has your view of the film changed as new generations have been exposed to it?
SS: I thought the film was a stepping stone. Most movies are posited in terms of the various ancillary markets. It’ll be in theaters, and it’ll come out on DVD, and it’ll come out on television, and that will be it. The shelf life of Schindler’s List has renewed my belief that films can do good work in the world, but it’s up to the people to allow those images to last, and to do something about it. We can’t bring the people in as filmmakers, by any other means other than moving them and making them want to do more.
The Shoah Foundation has succeeded, I think, in that it’s helped put a human face on the Holocaust. We read about the Holocaust in school, and we see names and dates and facts and figures. They don’t give you a chance to connect with a soul who survived this, who literally lost everything they had to this, but who survived and has now become a teacher him- or herself. That’s what the Foundation can bring. It’s up to the students and teachers and people who go see movies to let the connection reverberate in their lives.
So many survivors won’t talk about what happened to them to their children or family members. But they will talk to a camera, and then pass the video cassette on to their children and grandchildren. They can let the medium speak about things they can’t bring themselves to talk about in the same room as their family. That’s something we’ve been able to do for them.
Q: What pushed you to make Schindler when you did?
SS: My parents didn’t experience the Holocaust, but it was an open and regular subject in my household. I saw a lot of documentaries, but I was a passive witness. I wasn’t doing very much about it, I was just taking it all in. I couldn’t imagine that something like that could happen in the 20th century. It was just too unfathomable. My first experience learning to count was on the arms of Holocaust survivors. My grandmother taught an English class in Cincinnati to Hungarian Holocaust survivors, and they had the numbers on their arms. They helped me to count, they taught me to count with the numbers on their arms. So it was a part of my life, an impact on my life even though I didn’t have a direct experience with it.
The head of Universal Studios has read about the original book by Thomas Keneally. He sent me the New York Times Book review the same week that E.T. opened in 1982, then he optioned the rights. I credit him for introducing me to the story. It took me ten years not only to develop the screenplay with Steve Zaillian, but to find the courage to make the film. I couldn’t have made the quantum leap from E.T. to Schindler’s List right away, and jumped right into Schindler’s List after that film. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t have the tools and I didn’t have the maturity. I had to sort of work my way up to it, always being afraid of the enormous responsibility of telling a story of the Shoah. It took me ten years to improve my skills and my maturity. Making movies like The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, which were adult pictures. I had to do that before I could even explore the notion of making Schindler’s List.
When we finally started making it and I got to Poland, and we were shooting on the very sites where it all took place, I realized instantly that, as a Jew, I wouldn’t have survived five minutes there in 1943. It was a profound experience. I had this idea, that when I was shooting a scene that tells a survivor’s story, that I would invite the survivor to come back to Poland to be witness to this scene we were shooting about their lives. Most everybody turned down the offer. They had not been back to Poland since the Holocaust, and I could certainly understand their feelings. But four or five very courageous women – not men, but women – took us up on our invitation, and came to Krakow to witness the scenes that we were shooting about them. There was this one woman who said, “Please listen to my story.” I said, “We’re telling your story!” She said, “You’re telling one small portion of my story. You have to listen to all of my story.” That conversation with her was the catalyst for the Shoah Foundation. She was so willing to unburden herself – or at least speak to me about it. Would there be others to speak as openly? That’s what started it.