Documenting the Arab-Israeli Stalemate
Some aspiring filmmakers might flinch – or even turn their camera away – when attempting to document controversial, gut-wrenching subject matter. But like a moth to a kerosene-dosed flame, Evan Grothjan 15 FAV gravitates toward hard-hitting cinematic projects that undoubtedly trigger a powerful response in his audience.
This fall the Ohio native will embark on a two-week trip to Israel withMarian Marzynski, the renowned filmmaker who came to RISD in 1972 to help form the school’s nascent Film/Animation/Video (FAV) department. After the two got to know each other via an internship experience this past summer, the Emmy Award-winning documentarian invited Grothjan to work on his latest film: an ambitious project to offer a firsthand perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an incredibly complicated and intransigent international stalemate.
“I don’t want to be a war photographer – I’m not masochistic or courageous enough to do that,” Grothjan admits with surprising candor. “But I’m really interested in documenting cultures that have been affected by conflict. This trip will be a precursor to me finding out what I want do professionally.”
With the aid of a guide (called a “fixer”) and a second cameraman, the small film crew will set up a home base in Jerusalem to go back and forth between the war-torn areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Once situated, the filmmakers will interview those whose lives have been inextricably altered by the ongoing conflict. For Grothjan, the trip will actually be his first out of the country.
“I really have no idea what to expect – but I’m prepared to hit the ground running,” the FAV junior says. “Marian has contacts there – and he’s so good at meeting people that I’m really not worried.”
In preparation of the trip, Grothjan spent his summer editing down footage for a Polish version ofNever Forget to Lie, a gripping, personal documentary that chronicles Marzynski’s own and others’ childhood experiences growing up as survivors of the Holocaust. In one especially compelling scene, the filmmaker points to the window his mother jumped out of to escape the Warsaw Ghetto – the largest of all the Nazi-controlled Jewish ghettos in Europe during World War II. The American version of the film aired on PBS’s Frontline last May.
“This version of the film digs a bit deeper,” notes Grothjan, pausing to work through his thoughts. “Because the Polish audience is [so] familiar with the history, we cut some of the political commentary to focus on the cultural tension that existed between the Christian and Jewish communities.”
In filmmaking circles – and especially among alumni who studied at RISD in the 1970s – Marzynski is considered a living legend. After rising to fame as a radio host in Poland, he has spent most of the last four decades working as a filmmaker outside the country.
Interestingly, says Grothjan, the artist downplays his role as a well-known public figure. “He was theRyan Seacrest of Poland in his time,” his new protégé explains. “He couldn’t walk down the street without someone recognizing him. I think that’s why he hates fame.”
In addition to learning how to slice scenes and manipulate sound files, by working with the experienced Polish filmmaker, Grothjan has been learning some insider secrets of the trade. “Marian believes in panning from left to right in each scene to make for smoother cinematic transitions,” he notes. The small, but significant, trick actually “helps the flow of the film.”
After filming in Israel this fall, Grothjan anticipates the crew will return at least once during the winter to shoot more footage. He’ll then assist on a final cut of the film, which is slated to air nationally on PBS at a date as yet to be determined.
“It'll be amazing to have my name on the credits of a feature-length film while I’m still a student at RISD,” notes Grothjan. The experience of living and breathing contemporary world history in the making may, in fact, be the opportunity of a lifetime. But whatever assisting Marzynski on the film brings, “this is definitely something that I expect will separate me from the pack,” Grothjan says with excitement.
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