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Love in the Time of Horror: 'Steal a Pencil for Me' Tells a Tale of Survival

By Bob Fisher

Steal a Pencil for Me takes the audience on a journey with Jack Polak and Ina Soep, who were born and raised in Amsterdam, Holland. They met while he was a struggling accountant in an unhappy marriage and she was a 20-year-old beauty from a rich diamond family. Holland was a neutral country at the beginning of World War II, until the Germans invaded the country in 1940. Holland surrendered in five days.

The Dutch government had records of who was Jewish and where they lived. The Germans subsequently rounded up and sent more than 112,000 Dutch Jews to concentration camps. Jack, his wife and Ina found themselves in the same barracks. Jack wrote secret love letters to Ina with pencils on scraps of paper, and their love gave them the will to survive.

Jack and Ina were among some 5,700 Dutch Jews who survived the Holocaust. The couple migrated to the United States, got married and raised a family. Steal a Pencil for Me is a rich tapestry of cinéma vérité, archival film, conversations with Jack and Ina and stylized sequences of their love letters.

There is an unforgettable moment when Jack and Ina are surrounded by friends and family at their 60th wedding anniversary celebration. The 94-year-old man looks directly into the lens and plaintively says, "The whole world knew what was happening. I still don't understand why no one did anything."

The documentary was produced by director Michèle Ohayon and cinematographer Theo Van de Sande, ASC, who are also husband and wife. Red Envelope Entertainment, a wing of Netflix, is their producing partner.

Ohayon was born in Morocco and raised in Israel, and Van de Sande was born and raised in Holland. She has compiled an eclectic range of 10 fiction and documentary credits, and he has shot some 50 narrative films and 10 feature-length documentaries. Ohayon earned an IDA Award nomination in 1993 for It Was a Wonderful Life, and IDA and WGA Award nominations in 2005 for Cowboy del Amor. Ohayon also earned Oscar, DGA and Independent Spirit Award nominations in 1998 for Colors Straight Up.

Steal a Pencil for Me premiered earlier this year at Holocaust Commemoration Day at the United Nations in New York. The film is making the rounds on the global festival circuit from Jerusalem to Woodstock and the Hamptons, and is rolling out to theaters in selected cities, including Los Angeles and New York, in November.

IDA recently caught up with Ohayon and Van de Sande for a conversation about their film.

IDA: How did the idea for Steal a Pencil for Me originate?

Michèle Ohayon: I came across Ina and Jack's original love letters from the camps. They wrote about their day-to-day lives, [in] emotions and details that you don't read in history books. I was very moved by the way they tried to cheer each other up with words when everything else was taken away from them. I was inspired by the notion that love can perhaps be stronger than death, and since they survived there was a rare opportunity to tell a unique and dramatic Holocaust story with a somewhat happy ending.

IDA: What kind of research did you do besides talking with them?

MO: I have many shelves filled with books I read and pictures I looked at. I also went to Holland to see what kind of footage existed in archives to make sure there were sufficient visuals to tell the Dutch part of the story. I tried as much as possible to tell the story with images. Talking heads wouldn't show the audience the horror of the Germans arresting people, looting their homes, shipping them to concentration camps, or the horror of the camps. I also didn't want to use the generic footage that the archive houses send you on a tape labeled: "HOLOCAUST." We searched everywhere to find unique, not over-used footage.

IDA: What did you find?

MO: In Holland, I found a 16mm film of the first camp they were at-Westerbork--that I had never seen before. Apparently, the commandant of that transient camp was so proud of his "model" camp that he wanted to show it off. He ordered a film crew from Nazi Germany to film the camp. I used much of this footage, which shows trains going in and out of the concentration and extermination camps on one hand, and on the other hand, the cabaret shows and concerts that they put on in the camps. I also found film in national and private archives and at a museum in Holland, and an 8mm movie that a dentist took through his window as Nazis were rounding up people to ship to concentration camps.

We found more footage in Germany, Belgium, London, the United States and France. We were very moved when we found a picture of the actual liberation train that Ina was on that she had never seen before. Those are the moments that you live for during tedious, time-consuming research.

IDA: What did you find in Germany?

MO: We contacted the Memorial Museum for the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where Jack and Ina were prisoners. They said there were only a few drawings that inmates drew. Everything else was either destroyed or lost. Obviously, the prisoners were not allowed to take movies or still pictures. The only footage was taken by British soldiers when they liberated the camp.

IDA: How long did it take to produce Steal a Pencil for Me?

MO: It took five to six years, partly because we made Cowboy del Amor in the midst of this project, and had to put Steal a Pencil for Me aside for two years. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know, but I realized we had to finish. Jack was in his 90s. He would call me every week and ask, "When is this film going to be ready? I want to see it in my lifetime!"

IDA: What was your basic plan when you started shooting?

MO: I had a concept and a basic three-act structure as a starter. It included an introduction covering pre-war days and how freedom was taken away bit by bit, as well as the beginning of their love story. Act Two was the main drama of survival in the camp as conditions worsened and the love story intensified. Act Three is the resolution, liberation, survival and their lives after the war.

IDA: Give us an example of what you filmed.

MO: I asked Jack and Ina if they would go to Holland and Germany to visit their camps with us. I didn't want a big emotional explosion you normally see when survivors visit the camps. I wanted to hear their memories in the places where things happened and their reactions to the environments.

In Camp Westerbork, Jack ran into a group of Dutch children and their teacher. He uses every opportunity to educate people and create awareness of what happened on a human level. Jack approached the kids, and told them his story while we kept shooting. In this cinéma vérité scene, a magic moment happened; you can't plan that.

IDA: How did you make them and others comfortable with the camera?

MO: Jack and Ina have done interviews in the past, so they were used to the camera, but this was different because it was so in-depth. I made an extensive list of questions after reading their letters. I always started with the easiest questions about their earliest memories of life in Holland. By day two, they were totally comfortable, and we addressed more dramatic and intimate issues. I had to peel away the 60 years of layers of memories under which their pain was hidden, so they could share their deepest feelings.

IDA: Will you give us an example?

MO: Jack told us how he saved a piece of bread for emergencies when he was in the Bergen-Belsen camp. He refused to give it to his hungry sister. He felt guilty about that for the rest of his life. When his sisters saw the movie, they were so happy that Jack finally shared that memory because it had haunted him for some 60 years.

IDA: How did you get them to open up that way?

MO: You need to develop rapport and trust, so people feel you are going to handle their stories as truthfully as possible, and with respect and integrity. Once they understood that, they opened their hearts and their home.

Theo Van De Sande: We use a very non-intrusive way of shooting. It is just Michèle, me, a sound man and a production coordinator. We don't even use a monitor. We hang out with the people to make them feel comfortable with us. I never use intrusive lighting. When possible, we adjust our angles for perfect available light like a still photographer chooses his shots. I only use two small light units to enhance what already exist or to create some special lighting. All our crew fits in one normal car, and equipment just in bags, no fancy aluminum cases. We wanted the images to work with the words in a poetic way. I was a little concerned because they are older people. I thought briefly about using a filter in front of the lens, especially for Ina, but that wouldn't be honest. In a documentary it only looks and feels realistic when you don't veil the reality.

IDA: Were there rehearsals before you shot interviews?

MO: Nothing with the subjects was rehearsed or staged. When we were in Holland, we took them to the homes and streets where they grew up and asked them to share memories of that period. We did the same at the site of the concentration camp. I chose locations that best reflected the subjects they spoke about.

IDA: How about their letters?

MO: Their letters were written on tiny scraps of paper. They agreed to let us scan the surviving letters so we could reproduce their written words in the film. Theo and I created stylized sequences with a poetic tone, and Kate Amend, our fantastic editor, and I decided to use the letters as a through-line, interwoven into the sometimes harsh images. The contrast between the poetic and the real created a dramatic tension, enhanced by [composer] Joseph Julián González' beautiful score and Theo's signature blue and gold.

IDA: What role does music play in the film?

MO: The music is there to enhance but sometimes counter the image/scenes. It also creates a consistency and a sort of glue that smoothes transitions. Kate cuts to music, so very early on we set the musical tone in the tempo. Then, Joseph created a beautiful, original score that works with the images and words. I think this film was an act of love for all of us.

IDA: What did you learn from this experience?

MO: It's the hardest film I have ever made because we had to tell so many stories about the past and present. We had to capture the atmospheres of pre-war Amsterdam, the camps and their love story using archival footage and interviews. At first, I asked myself how are we going to connect all these elements. But once I found the structure, everything fell into place beyond my expectations. I didn't anticipate the emotional impact that the film would have on audiences. People across the board--from the United Nations to festivals--have given us standing ovations and overwhelming reactions. We feel blessed and hope that Ina and Jack's courage and openness will touch as many people as possible.

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Bob Fisher has been writing about film preservation and cinematography for over 25 years.