Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeks™ Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which runs from August 3 through August 30 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films—the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.
So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Doug Shultz, director/producer/writer of Defiant Requiem.
Synopsis: A memorial concert reawakens the story of an artistic uprising in the Nazi concentration camp, Terezin, where a chorus of 150 inmates confronts the Nazis face-to-face...and sings to them what they dare not say.
IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?
Doug Shultz: Since I was a kid, there was never any doubt that I wanted to make movies. In college I was a film major, but I also was also studying so many other things, from African studies to linguistics and performing arts, I didn't want to give any of that up. So the best way for me to combine all of those interests was to shift my focus to documentary. Now I get to indulge my main passion—making films—while remaining a perpetual student.
IDA: What inspired you to make Defiant Requiem?
DS: Defiant Requiem actually began long before I got involved. [Music conductor] Murry Sidlin came across this incredible story of Raphael Schächter [the Czech composer who conceived and led the performance of Verdi's Requiem at Terezin] many, many years ago, and has spent the better part of a decade tracking down chorus members and other Terezin survivors to put together his Defiant Requiem live performance. Sidlin came to our company, Partisan Pictures, about six years ago because he was bringing his concert-drama to Terezin and was looking for a production company to capture the performance. Once the concert was in the can, everyone started to think, well, maybe this isn't just a concert film—maybe it's something bigger about Terezin. So the next few years were spent raising money, interviewing survivors and ultimately figuring out what the film was going to be. But the real inspiration and motivation for all of us was just what an astonishing story this is. What Schächter and the other inmates at Terezin did was absolutely epic. It deserved to be done right.
IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?
DS: One of our many challenges was really finding the focus of the film, and also, what the visuals would be. When we started, we knew of only two existing photographs of our main character, Raphael Schächter, and we had very little else to work with in terms of imagery. So our first big challenge was pretty basic-what are we going to see? Another challenge was simply the very sensitive subject matter-how to dramatize it tastefully and artistically. Also, the world of Holocaust scholarship can be very political, so we knew we had to get it right, not just in terms of historical accuracy but for the survivors, in tone, in the details...everything. Eventually we were able to get a few more photographs from Schächter's niece in Israel, which was a great surprise. Then we settled on a restrained kind of dramatization-just enough to pull the audience into the world of Terezin in a cinematic way, but without going over the top.
IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?
DS: The film evolved from a concert film into a film about bringing a concert to Terezin, into a historical film that uses a concert as its catalyst and narrative thread. As often happens, the focus narrowed tremendously as we got into the edit room and really started zeroing in on what was most powerful and most necessary for the story. Once we started going through the interviews and putting the script together, it became clear that the film really belongs to the survivors and to Raphael Schächter, and that his story would be representative of everything else that was going on at Terezin.
IDA: One editing question: You work with two story lines-one, the foundational one of Raphael Schächter instigating and inspiring his fellow prisoners at Terezin to perform Verdi's Requiem as a visceral act of affirmation, defiance, revenge and hope; and the other, the present-day one of Murry Sidlin bringing this powerful story to life with an equally affirmative performance in the very same venue. Talk about the process of creating this structure of past and present informing one another.
DS: Murry's concert serves as the window in and out of the historical narrative, and figuring out where and how often to make that transition was tricky at first. As we began editing, we realized that every time we came back to the present-day storyline it was like a breath of fresh air-welcome relief from the melancholy of Theresienstadt. The performances by those soloists are so powerful and transportive—they bring an emotional weight to the story that no words ever could. So we capitalize on this by drawing a connection between the build-up to Murry's memorial concert with the lead up to the first performance of the Requiem by Schächter's choir.
IDA: As you've screened Defiant Requiem—whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms—how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?
DS: The reaction so far has been overwhelming, and most have fallen along similar lines: In general, people have been astounded by this incredible story, which they never knew, and have been captivated by the amazing, expressive survivors in the film. It's also interesting to see people moved to tears by the music-it's a testament to its power and to why Schächter chose the Requiem in the first place. The best feedback, though, has been from the survivors, who loved the film and said, "You got it right."
IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?
DS: As a college student in Kansas, I wrote a fan letter to Jonathan Demme and asked him to send me a copy of his documentary Haiti Dreams of Democracy, which he kindly did, along with several other docs he had produced. Those films were probably my first documentary inspiration in the true sense of the word. I also loved his later film, The Agronomist. One of my all-time favorite docs that had a big impact on me was David and Laurie Shapiro's Keep the River on Your Right. Some other recent favorites are The Cove, Man on Wire, Bowling for Columbine, The Island President...I'm a visual person, so I draw as much inspiration from features as I do from documentaries. I like docs that tell a real story, but draw you in like a feature film.
Defiant Requiem will be screening August 3 through 9 at the IFC Center in New York City and August 17 through 23 at the Laemmle NoHo 7 in Los Angeles.
For the complete DocuWeeksTM 2012 program, click here.
To purchase tickets for Defiant Requiem in New York, click here.
To purchase tickets for Defiant Requiem in Los Angeles, click here.