Audiences around the country have been moved by performances of “Tikvah,” a powerful oratorio on the Holocaust by Dr. Burton Beerman. The internationally recognized, award-winning professor of music composition at BGSU was inspired to write the piece when he met Toledoan Philip Markowicz, a concentration camp survivor and Talmudic scholar who was writing his memoirs. They collaborated to create a piece that unites music, dance and the spoken word to convey both the sorrow and the hope felt by survivors everywhere.
Now, with the donation of 30 rolls of film by the Eastman Kodak Co., BGSU film students are making a documentary about “Tikvah” so the “concert of hope, enlightenment and remembrance” can be shared more widely with schools, synagogues, museums, theaters and other universities, and even as a theatrical release with an interactive DVD. The film is being shot in part at America’s first Holocaust memorial center, in Detroit, which opened its doors to a film crew for the first time for this project.
“There’s a lot of excitement with the students,” said Jose Cardenas, School of Communication Studies, who is overseeing the project. “It’s rare for students to get to do something of this magnitude.”
Setting the stage
Kodak donated the nearly $6,000 worth of Super 16 mm film stock in response to a call from Cardenas, who has been co-leading a summer workshop in film production hosted by the telecommunications department for the last four years.
As part of the intensive, three-week "Narratives in Film and Television Production" course, students use 35 mm equipment to make a short film. “You don’t see any undergraduates shooting on 35 mm film,” Cardenas said. “People are shocked when they learn we’re doing it.”
Following last summer’s class, he took BGSU students to a Kodak workshop in Chicago, where the company’s representatives were impressed when they heard about BGSU’s course.
Later, when Cardenas and Beerman explored the possibility of filming “Tikvah,” it was quickly decided that the appropriate medium was film because of its archival quality and the quality of the finished product.
Jose Cardenas (left) and cinematographer John Jurko set up a shot.
“Just one phone call is all it took,” and former Kodak representative Ben Stone sent the 30 rolls of 16 mm film by the end of that week, Cardenas recalled. Representatives from Kodak’s In Camera quarterly magazine have also expressed interest in the film.
“We look at each project on its own merits,” said Scott Stevens, Kodak representative. “We’re very interested in promoting film as the preeminent medium, and we try to help universities that want to expand their program or create a program. We do what we can to influence and educate the next generation of filmmakers, and to help them realize their goals.
“Video has its place, but for higher-end productions, film conveys the desired image,” he added.
A rare opportunity
“Shooting film is the ultimate for anybody in the business,” agreed Stephen Hildreth, one of the two student directors and a senior telecommunications major from Sylvania. “From an aesthetic standpoint,” he added, “I don’t think it would have been possible to do this project on video because video is so sharp and cold.”
Assistant Producer Max Eberle, a senior visual communication technology major from Columbus, said that though it is much more demanding than video, film is a more rewarding medium. “Working in film sets a tone that it’s a real production. It’s serious. You can’t rewind it and check the lighting. You must be aware and check each element. Even the person who’s slating feels special.”
Beerman said he has been impressed by the students’ professionalism and expertise in working with the cameras and the complexities of setting up for the shots. “They’ve developed a voice. They’re acting like real professionals here. You forget that you’re working with students,” he said.
The equipment for the “Tikvah” documentary is provided by 30-year veteran cinematographer W.S. Pivetta, whose company, First Avenue Films, Inc., supplies film equipment and support to independent film productions. He is also assisting with instructing the students during the shoots.
Pivetta also supplies the equipment for the summer course, bringing gear to BGSU that students would not ordinarily see, much less use, including 35 mm Arriflex cameras, heavy-duty tripods and lighting equipment. Additional support comes from Visual Products of Wellington, Ohio, and Blue Ridge Motion Picture Studios of Asheville, N.C.
Stepping outside his usual academic roles is producer Dr. Ewart Skinner, chair of the telecommunications department.
Cast and crew
The “Tikvah” production has 25-30 “hard-working, dedicated students” involved as camera operators and assistants, directors of photography, lighting and audio crew members, editors, unit production managers and more, Cardenas said. “We’re having almost two full crews so that the students can gain a wider experience.”
“The film process itself is very exciting,” Eberle said. “Jose knows his stuff so well that it’s great to be working with him, and he’s amazing about remembering in all the projects he does that they are educational experiences. So he takes the extra 10 minutes to stop and explain why you do something a certain way and how everything works.”
The crew prepared for the film by meeting with Beerman and dancer Celesta Haraszti, who will perform the piece’s wedding scene; reading the “Tikvah” score and Markowicz’s memoir, My Three Lives, and visiting the memorial in Detroit. The memorial chronicles the Jewish experience in Europe through displays of religious items and daily living, images from the Holocaust, footage of Liberation Day and life in the displacement camps that followed.
The project entails 20 days of shooting, plus additional time visiting the museum and planning the shots. The film is an artistic documentary, as Cardenas explained it, using scenes from the museum as a visual interpretation of the music.
“We designed the shots using the dolly and the jib,” said Hildreth. “We want to keep the camera moving, almost dancing in itself.”
The actual dancing takes place in the wedding scene, which will be filmed as a scene within a scene of an authentic Jewish wedding, juxtaposing the old world with today’s world. Beerman explained that having the wedding reminds the viewer that “even with the most horrific of human conditions, there is that spark of hope igniting the human spirit that dares to dream.”
Back on campus, in Bryan Recital Hall in the Moore Musical Arts Center, the crew filmed an in-depth interview with Beerman, conducted by co-director Allison Toman, a senior majoring in theatre and film from Amherst, Ohio. “We got a gorgeous shot,” Hildreth noted. Also planned is an interview with Markowicz.
“The editing will be a much bigger part of this project than most,” predicted Eberle, explaining that the film is not being filmed chronologically with the score but that shots and sequences will be matched to the music and narrative during the editing process.
The larger scope of the project involves the crew traveling to Atlanta, Ga., this summer to film an interfaith choir from Ebenezer Baptist Church, Morehouse College, Spelman College and the Temple Singers performing some of the oratorio. Beerman, who is from Atlanta and wrote gospel music as a child, has already partnered on “Tikvah” with the church and other gospel choirs, pointing up the connection between victims of racism and victims of the Holocaust and other forms of oppression.
There are more possibilities for the film to expand as additional support becomes available, Beerman said, noting the enthusiasm the project has already generated.
The entire project has been a collaboration, beginning with the writing of “Tikvah.” Markowicz had begun his memoirs but had not finished them until he met Beerman and the two began to collaborate. They worked together on the narrative of the multimedia piece, which includes music by a saxophone quartet and dance. Markowicz has recorded the narrative, which draws from memory and emotion and focuses on the hope, or “tikvah,” that kept him alive. His granddaughter Andrea, a professional singer in New York, performs parts of the oratorio.
Though Beerman, as composer and executive producer, maintains executive directorship, he allows the students the freedom to interpret his work as they will. “I wrote the piece and the idea is for people to interpret it. These subjects are universal. The only restriction is you can’t change the music,” he said.
A ‘universal theme’
Working on the “Tikvah” project is having an effect on the student crew members that is perhaps even more powerful than the considerable technical and artistic experience they are gaining. “Even though it’s a Holocaust survivor story, it’s a universal theme,” said Stephen Hildreth. “You can relate it to what’s happening in Sudan, in Darfur, even with Katrina. It’s people suffering, and it’s their personal stories of being able to go on with their lives and how you keep living your life and having hope in spite of it all.
“After seeing the Liberation Day videos and hearing Phil Markowicz’s interview, I feel I’ve learned something about how to live your life, how to go on.
“To capture this on film—it’s not just this particular story—it’s the face of survival,” he said.