Over the past couple of weeks, we at IDA have been introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which runs from July 30 through August 19 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 conclude this series of conversations, here is Jason A. Schmidt, director/producer of The Labyrinth.
Synopsis: Memory, art and hell collide as an Auschwitz survivor finally confronts the horrors of his past after 50 years of silence. Marian Kolodziej was on one of the first transports to enter Auschwitz. He survived five years imprisonment and never spoke of his experience until after a serious stroke in 1993. He began rehabilitation by doing pen-and-ink drawings depicting his horrific experience. His drawings and art installations, which he called The Labyrinth, fill the large basement of a church near Auschwitz. Through the blending of his testimony and graphic drawings, this documentary explores the memories and nightmares that were buried for years.
IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?
Jason A. Schmidt: I guess it just happened organically. Although my family has been in the film industry since the 1930s and I had fallen in love with movies at an early age, I never thought I would end up in the family business. After some personal events forced me to re-examine my life and my future, I decided to move from Athens, Georgia, to Los Angeles to pursue a career in film. I started out working as a PA on commercials and independent films. I actually worked for Errol Morris on a Honda commercial. He was in post-production on Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr at the time and was constantly having to deal with different obstacles to finish the film. That was my introduction to the documentary film world. After directing and producing a number of industrial and educational videos, I made my first documentary. I thought I was going to be working on huge blockbusters, but I ended up traveling the world and capturing real life. I just love telling stories.
IDA: What inspired you to make The Labyrinth?
JAS: A friend in Germany had made a film about a zen retreat at Auschwitz, In Spite of Darkness, and asked me to edit it. After seeing the raw footage, I was struck by the story of one survivor, Marian Kołodziej. I showed the footage to my brother, Matt, and we both decided that a film needed to be made about this man and his amazing artwork. We approached my father, Ron Schmidt, who was a producer on In Spite of Darkness, with the idea, and everything took off from there. I moved to Munich to edit, and did pre-prodution on The Labyrinth there.
IDA:What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?
JAS: Besides the monetary and logistical obstacles that you would expect filming a
documentary in Poland, one of our biggest obstacles was our subject, Marian. He and his wife were more than accommodating in giving us access to The Labyrinth and talking to us off-camera, but once we set up for the first interview, things weren't so easy. First, Marian didn't want to be on camera, and second, he felt his drawings spoke for themselves and there was no need for him to tell us the stories behind them. After several frustrating hours of trying to figure out how to get through the interview, we decided to walk through The Labyrinth with Marian and just talk. Of course we had handhelds filming as we did this. The next day, we set up for our second attempt at an interview, and everything went wonderfully from there. It was an honor and a blessing to be able to spend so much time with Marian and his wife, Halina.
I would say the hardest obstacle to overcome in post-production was choosing which of his many stories and drawings to focus on for the film. We had over 15 hours of interviews to sift through, plus material from the introduction to his book of drawings and previous testimony he had given to the Auschwitz museum. So selecting both the drawings--there are over 300 of them--and his words, all of which are powerful, was a challenge.
IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?
JAS: We actually set out to make two films--one about his entire life, and one focusing on his testimony as told through his drawings. The later is The Labyrinth. After spending several hours walking through Marian's Labyrinth, I decided that I wanted to take an audience on the same moving and powerful journey I had. From the beginning, I envisioned immersing the viewer in The Labyrinth, but it wasn't until I had physically walked through it that I was able to see how I was going to attempt to accomplish that. As I mentioned above, the hardest thing about post-production was choosing which of his many stories to concentrate on. In the end, I came away from my experience of Marian's Labyrinth with a sense of hope. And despite the subject matter, many in the audience have done the same.
IDA: As you've screened The Labyrinth--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?
JAS: We have had several small private screenings. Many in the audience have cried during the film. As moving as the story is to me, I wasn't expecting it to have that kind of effect on an audience. Some of the reactions to the film have surprised us. The dialogue and number of conversations the film has started is amazing. One woman saw the film and discussed it with her father, a Holocaust survivor. He told her stories about the Holocaust, which he had never done before. She told us she wept as she listened to her father, and that it was an incredibly powerful moment in her life. It is reactions and discussions like this that make the process even more enriching.
IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?
JAS: I have pretty eclectic tastes when it comes to documentaries. I'm a big fan of Errol Morris. The Interrotron is such a brilliant device for interviewing. I was lucky enough to hear him personally describe the process when I worked for him. The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War are two of my favorite films. I am also a big fan of Ken Burns. His films are documentary poetry. The Civil War changed the way I viewed documentaries. There are a lot of other documentaries and filmmakers that I like, but those two stick out as great artists, storytellers and innovators of the documentary genre.
The Labyrinth will be screening August 13 through 19, as part of the DocuWeeks Shorts program, at the the ArcLight Hollywood in Los Angeles.
To download the DocuWeeksTM program, click here.
To purchase tickets for the DocuWeeks Shorts program in Los Angeles, click here.