My favorite documentaries are those that choose to focus not on a specific event or time period, but rather on the people who lived during that event or era. A great documentary can highlight the human element of any story, whether it be exciting or tragic.
There are a million different documentaries involving World War II — ranging from topics such as Hitler's rise to Russia's involvement in the war's conclusion — which is entirely understandable. It was the darkest time in recent human history, and it has had a major effect on the world. With so many films about the war, paving new ground in the WWII subgenre isn’t easy.
“Who Will Write Our History,” the latest film to open at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center, is a WWII documentary that will shake audiences to their core.
The film takes place throughout the war, and it focuses entirely on members of the Jewish community in Warsaw, Poland, as their lives are drastically changed by German occupation and oppression. Starting with the Germans invading Poland, the film explores the life of a Jew in Warsaw at the time.
What really sets “Who Will Write Our History” apart is the narrative tools director Roberta Grossman uses to tell the story.
The film makes use of three distinct storytelling methods: traditional documentary filmmaking, dramatic film reenactments of the historical events and the recital of poems and journals from real-life writers of the time.
The poems and journals come from the Oyneg Shabes Archive, which serves as a collection of writers’ works and experiences, started by Emanuel Ringelblum, who, along with dozens of other Jewish Poles, decided that Jewish history would not be written by the Nazi Germans. They all began writing down their every experience and noted how they were treated by the occupying German forces. They eventually hid the writings in crates in a cellar to serve as a sort of time capsule, which would be rediscovered many years later.
These manuscripts provide the base for “Who Will Write Our History.”
The documentary tells the true stories of families being forced into ghettos in a city that had once accepted them. It delves into the physical and psychological torment that was inflicted upon millions of people. Families struggle not only to stay together, but to stay alive, as more and more people are shipped off to Nazi concentration camps each day.
The film also puts viewers in the shoes of the onlookers surrounding all of this pain, like a cook who served sloppy and bland rations to Jewish communities in Warsaw ghettos. The cook recalls that on more than one occasion, he had to decide between giving everyone some food, but not enough, or giving a few people enough food, while leaving others to starve.
With this kind of unsettling and heartbreaking storytelling of real people's lives, “Who Will Write Our History” makes the audience feel that they are actually in Poland in the 1940s, witnessing these horrific events unfolding.
It’s a heart-rending, scary and emotionally raw film that paints a real picture of humanity at its worst. By focusing on people who actually existed, “Who Will Write Our History” provides a documentary that is equally depressing, angering and captivating.
“Who Will Write Our History” isn’t just some boring History Channel documentary that you watch in high school social studies class — it’s an exploration of the good, the bad and the ugliness of mankind.
Find showtimes here.