LOS ANGELES—Filmmaker Hilary Helstein startled and fascinated me when we spoke recently about her new film, As Seen Through These Eyes.
“Holocaust film is always in black and white. They lived it in color. They saw it in color.”
Her unique documentary is told from the perspective of children, and the art they courageously made during their years in Nazi concentration camps—and the color is vivid.
Those who were still alive to be interviewed by Helstein were all young children at the time of WWII.
“Can you imagine living in it in color as a child? The fire is red, the blood is red.” The artists make a point to convey the truth of their experiences with whatever tools they had.
Hilstein’s intention was not to make an academic presentation, but rather a testimony of the human spirit, and the immeasurable value of art and expression.
I spoke with her about the film’s 12 year odyssey from Poland, Israel, Vienna, Prague and the U.S. on a quest to understand how the human spirit prevails and flourishes in environments of death and devastation.
Haunted by an image she saw years prior, the quest to understand the genesis of the art was set in motion. The petite blonde director traveled the world to hear the stories behind the images in order to convey an intimate portrayal of the work.
One of the artists interviewed, Dina Gottliebova, explained how she was recruited by Dr. Mengele, the infamous Nazi who carried out torturous experiments on humans as if they were lab animals.
Gottliebova was tasked with painting the gypsies and capturing their skin tones accurately. She recounts on camera, that one of her subjects was a beautiful young woman named Celine, who had become ill. Gottliebova would sneak her bits of her meals in hopes of saving her life. The artist wanted to depict her with a blue scarf around her head like a Madonna, though Mengele insisted that her ear show.
“He wanted skin tones,” says Helstein, “She wanted beauty. Art crosses language and cultural boundaries. Everyone can interpret and explore it for themselves” says Helstein who is herself an artist.
The film and its message transcends the Holocaust genre to become something more universally applicable. When asked if she felt that art, made from those who suffered was intrinsically better, Helstein replied, “It doesn’t make it better, it makes it more honest…They still suffer, but they found a way, then and now, to survive.
“So much hope in their stories, knowing they could be killed for doing the art. It was an act of rebellion.”
Renowned writer Maya Angelou narrates the film, and according to Helstein, she was her one and only choice for the job. Angelou begins the film with a recitation from her famous book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
“It was about human beings that all suffered. Human beings had a visceral need to create” explains Helstein.
Although you can never fully understand the magnitude of the Holocaust, Helstein has learned from her mission, “Human beings have a lot more power—the soul is powerful.” She concludes, “The creative spirit cannot be extinguished—there is victory in that.”