What was the United States’ response to the Jewish refugee crisis in the years leading up to the Holocaust? Did America do all that it could to admit those who could still be saved? If not, why?
Almost 70 years after the end of World War II, these are still among the most troubling questions in modern American history. Unwanted, a new feature documentary in development from Overtone Films, will bring this complex history to life as an innovative cinematic narrative. Pending funding, the film will start production in 2015.
Unlike in most documentaries, there will be no “talking-head” interviews or narration. Instead, the story will be told almost entirely through primary source materials—archival footage, photographs, and documents—allowing the events to unfold in real time, as people of the time experienced them.
We see anti-immigration sentiment erupt across an isolationist America still recovering from the Depression. We watch Congress reject initiatives to take in Jewish refugees because, in the words of one bigoted senator, refugees are “systematically building a Jewish empire in this country.” We experience the dilemma of American Jewish leaders, who wrestle with how to advocate for European Jews in the face of record-high anti-Semitism at home. Meanwhile, the Nazis—whose original policy towards the Jews was forced emigration—become ever more brutal as the world’s nations refuse to let in the unwanted.
The film’s script will consist exclusively of original documents, read by voiceover actors (or, where available, in recordings of the original historical figures), underpinned by a powerful musical score and visualized with archival images supplemented by evocative cinematography. By presenting the issue from multiple perspectives and in the context of its time, the film allows viewers to judge how they may have reacted in the same situation, without the benefit of hindsight.
The questions that are raised by this story –about immigration, prejudice, and America’s role in the world— have rarely been timelier. Today, when a rising tide of opinion disputes the necessity of Israel’s survival as a Jewish state, Unwanted will also provide a reminder of a time less than a decade before the founding of the State of Israel, when the world stood by as Jews were engulfed in genocide, and American Jews, however considerable their influence and affluence, were largely powerless to change the fates of their brethren. As one despairing Jewish journalist wrote after the refugee ship St. Louis was turned back from American shores, “All Jews are on the St. Louis and we are all surrounded… Jews have no safe place in this world.” Unwanted tells a story that is vitally important to remember, never more so than now.
About the Filmmaker
HILAN WARSHAW, PRODUCER/DIRECTOR
Hilan Warshaw recently produced, directed, and wrote the documentary Wagner’s Jews, a co-production with WDR/ARTE; the film will be released by First Run Features in 2014 and screened at numerous festivals and other venues in the U.S., Europe, Australia, and Israel in 2013–2014. His television writing credits include A Workshop for Peace (PBS); his video editing credits include Shadows in Paradise: Hitler’s Exiles in Hollywood (PBS/WDR/ARTE; editor and researcher), In the Key of G (PBS), and the miniseries Great Conversations in Music (PBS/Library of Congress). He has taught at Barnard College and has been a lecturer and panelist at New York University, Yale, Boston University and Hebrew College, among others.
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