The Video Challenge encourages students in schools across the country to hear directly from the video testimonials of survivors recorded and archived by the Shoah Foundation, and prepare their own videos explaining what they’ve learned and how they can use it to better the world around them, not unlike Oskar Schindler himself.
“In an age of unprecedented technological advancement,” added Spielberg, “I was sure our consciences would evolve along those same lines, along with those advancements in technology. But sometimes it seems as if there are still people immune to the notion of empathy, of compassion. People who see disturbing images on media and on television, and people who watch, let’s say, a clip of random violence or discrimination or bullying on YouTube, and stand silent. So many in the world refuse to bear witness and do something about it. I find that in many cases technology is becoming more of a vehicle for voyeurism than a vehicle for change. And this persistence of inaction is the reason that the mission of this foundation I think is as relevant today, more so today than ever before.”
Spielberg went on to explain that of all his films, he finds Schindler’s List has been the most impactful “by every measure.”
“From someone who lacks perspective,” he laughed, “I still feel that Schindler’s List is the film that has made the most amount of material change in the world. When I went to Poland at the end of February, twenty years ago to the day, to start work on Schindler’s List, I quickly realized after a couple days of filming that this just wasn’t a natural reflex of my filmmaking instincts, this was going to be something that was going to change my life. I didn’t presume ahead that it was going to have any effect on the world entire, but I knew that this was going to be something that would transform me forever.”
Spielberg explained how his transformation from popular filmmaker to Oscar-winning director and humanitarian affected his life and career. It began when he was introduced to Thomas Keneally’s Booker Prize-winning novel Schindler’s List (originally Schindler’s Ark) back in 1982.
“It took me ten years not only to develop the screenplay with Steve Zallian, but it took me ten years just to work up the courage to make the film. And I know I couldn’t have made the quantum leap from E.T. to Schindler’s List. That would have been impossible to make that the film I did right after E.T. – I wasn’t ready. I didn’t have the tools; I didn’t have the maturity to tell the story then. And I had to sort of work my way up to it, always being afraid of it, of the great responsibility to tell any story of the Holocaust to the Shoah. So it took me about ten years to sort of increase, I think, my skills, increase my own maturity, to be able to make films like The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, which were adult pictures. I had never made an adult picture before those two films. Before I would dare to even explore Schindler’s List on film. When it finally came time to tell the story, like I said before, I went to Poland and I realized quite instantly through shooting in all the actual locations where it happened, that as a Jew I wouldn’t have survived five minutes there in 1943, 1944, 1945. So it was a profound experience.”
The experience not only resulted in a film that educated the world to the horrors of the Holocaust, but earned Spielberg his first Oscar (for Best Director) and led to him forming the Shoah Foundation.
Explaining the foundation’s origin, Spielberg remarked, “I had this idea… When I’m shooting a scene that tells a survivor’s story, let me see if the survivor would be willing to come back to Poland to be a witness to the scene we were shooting about their lives. Most everybody turned down the offer. They did not want to. They had not been back to Poland since the Holocaust. I can certainly understand that. But four or five very courageous women – not men, but women – took us up on our invitation, and came to Krakow while we were shooting to witness the scenes about their lives that we were exploring, that we were retelling.”
“And it was this one woman who said to me, ‘Please listen to my story.’ I said, ‘I’m telling your story.’ She said, ‘You’re telling this much of my story. You have to listen to THIS much of my story! Will you have the time to sit with me? Let me tell you everything.’ That moment with her was the catalyst for the Shoah Foundation. That’s when I realized, ‘If she is so willing to unburden herself, or at least enlighten me and share the crimes of humanity that were perpetrated on her and her family with me, will there be others that will talk as openly as she is willing to speak?’ That’s where the whole idea came from.”
Introducing the foundation’s latest program, Spielberg said, “With the utmost hope of what is to come, I’m here to announce the next step in the Shoah Foundation, the IWitness video challenge. The idea behind the challenge is the same idea as what was behind Schindler’s List – that profound change can occur when even one person makes a positive choice. Students will listen to testimonies from IWitness. They’ll develop insight into how to use those testimonies to draw conclusions about how they can better their communities. And then build a video essay telling the story of how they made their community – and how they participated in making the world – a better place. The student who submits the most impactful video will be invited to Los Angeles next year to present their video as part of the USA Shoah Foundation’s twentieth anniversary in 2014.”
“When we were making Schindler’s List,” he added, “that Talmudic idiom ‘He who saves one life, saves the world entire’ was the statement that moved me to form the Shoah Foundation. This morning it’s that same statement that makes me believe in the seemingly limitless possibilities that I think could come from IWitness. We can use IWitness to show the power of random acts of kindness, the significance of contributions to community, and the idea that the very best way to teach empathy is with examples of it, so that maybe someday kindness will be a natural reflex and not just a random act. So thank you very much. I’m looking forward to what everybody will bring to this.”
Schindler’s List finally arrives on Blu-ray tomorrow, March 5th from Universal Home Video. For more on the Shoah Foundation’s IWitness Video Challenge, please visit http://iwitness.usc.edu