Short Film Corner 2022
Samara Hutman, Co-Founding Director
& Lily Ericcson, Animation Director
A Prayer For My Mother: The Eva Brettler Story
May 26, 2022
A Prayer For My Mother: The Eva Brettler Story is an animated film that chronicles the extraordinary saga of Holocaust survivor Eva Brettler – a child facing brutality and profound loss who finds sustenance in faith and her own dreams for the future. From the loss of her parents to a forced death march across Europe, young Eva survives Ravensbruck and Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camps, the destruction of her family, and the near destruction of European Jewry to emerge, with a tender heart and faith intact, crediting the goodness and decency of helpers and caretakers she encountered along the way.
The Righteous Conversations Project is a collaboration of Holocaust survivors and teens founded in Los Angeles in 2011 to meet the precious moment of intersection between the last living witnesses to the Holocaust, and the young generation to whom they will hand their living memories, and the lessons they have to teach us for enduring stewardship.
Hi Samara & Lily, it’s great to be able to talk with you, how have you been keeping after everything that’s been happening?
Samara: Thank you. Certainly this has been an exhilarating experience. Our project is founded on the power of creative collaboration and the capacity for art to connect us to our humanity, so being in Cannes for the festival and sharing our stories with other filmmakers and meeting their work is a peak experience for all of us. There is a great deal of joy here and that has been renewing for all of us after the disconnection and grief the world has experienced in the last half decade.
What does it mean for you to be in the Cannes Short Film Corner and part of the American Pavilion Emerging Filmmaker Showcase with A Prayer For My Mother: The Eva Brettler Story and what do you hope to take away from this experience?
Samara: One word answer- WOW ! But really, it is like a dream come true. At the Righteous Conversations Project (RCP) we have been working steadfastly, intensively and assiduously over the last 12 years, focused on “making” and not exhibiting. We realize this is a precious decade for the last generation of survivors of the Holocaust. Now in their 80’s and 90’s they continue to carry the history in their hearts and souls. For them to see their stories interpreted by young people through the magic of film and animation and then for those films to be showcased at the Short Film Corner and AP Emerging Filmmaker Showcase is a fulfilment of their deepest commitment to, as Eva Brettler often says, quoting Elie Wiesel, to "speak for those who can no longer speak for themselves". I think this is something film is able to do so beautifully. To bear witness to human experience, and in that process, to dignify it and to uplift our dreams of what is possible. As my Rabbi Sharon Brous says, to envision "a world not only as it is but as it should and could be".
Lily: Being at the American Pavilion feels like such an honour. The pavilion is such an open and friendly space with these incredible artist who have been so willing to share their insights with us. So many of the films here are giving legitimacy and making space for people and events that have been pushed to the margins.
How vital are platforms like Cannes SFC in championing and supporting the short film format?
Samara: Critical, really. Short films, from a programming POV can be seen as slight and hard to exhibit. But really they are exactly the opposite. They are a reduction sauce of meaning, distilled down, like rare perfume, to the essence of the story. Spare, and poetic. And exhibited together, they hold the possibility for so much truth and beauty, often telling stories that features cannot tell. The more we lift them up, and nurture the genre and its makers, as they are doing this week at AMPAV, the more we will appreciate their power and their importance at the table.
Can you tell me how A Prayer For My Mother: The Eva Brettler Story came about, how did you get introduced to Mrs Brettler and what was it about her story and experience that inspired you to make this short documentary?
Samara: This film is the culmination and realisation of a long held hope and dream. I first met Eva Brettler not long after we conceived of The Righteous Conversations Project. From the beginning I knew she would be important to me and to the work we were setting out to do, and I was not wrong. Each year we hold a summer workshop where students from across the city of LA and nationwide. We have been trying to make this film every summer for a decade at our annual summer workshop. Every summer there was a different reason it wouldn’t work. And every summer we asked the question: maybe this summer ? Covid quarantine only reinforced the fragility of life and time. After two years of working virtually we met again ing person at Harvard-Westlake School and said, THIS is the summer we will make Eva’s film. And , thankfully, we finally did. Masked and vaxed and tested and socially distanced, did. And A Prayer For My Mother: The Eva Brettler Story was conceived and born.
What was the message you wanted to tell with this film and do you think you achieved that?
Lily: Because this film was directed by 13 students, at first there were 13 messages that the film wanted to tell. Eva survived because of the help of many people, both in within her family and complete strangers. So, the bravery and empathy that those people showed was always something the students wanted to show. Also how those hero’s actions formed and changed Eva’s own identity.
The animation is powerfully evocative and captures something truly genuine about Mrs Brettler’s story. When working on a short documentary like this how do you go about planning the style of animation you want to create?
Lily: Well, the film is actually animated entirely by the students we mentored at our summer film program. The students are middle and high school age and have varying levels of experience with film and art. Some have never taken an art class before, and since the film was animated within a two week duration, the student needed to jump really quickly into production. Each student choose a section of the film that they wanted to animate and so you can see those various styles woven through the work. So the students worked at different scales (the largest scene created was 3 feet wide, and the smallest was 6 inches) and with different materials (paint on glass, cutout paper, pastel, 3D models). They coordinated the colours and amount of motion in each scene to follow the emotional shifts each of these moments carried.
What was the biggest challenge you faced making A Prayer For My Mother: The Eva Brettler Story?
Lily: Because Eva’s film was created during the 11th year of the Righteous Conversations Project, we had students in the program who had been a part of multiple other films from previous years. Through the program we watched them grow and really start to find their own directorial voices. So, during the process of turning over an hour long interview into a film under ten minutes long, these students really had to work together to let go some moments they were fighting to keep in the movie.
When making a film like this how important is the collaborative nature of filmmaking?
Lily: So so so important. With students with varying experiences they were constantly turning to each other for support. They were also learning by seeing each other’s animations day by day.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking and animation?
Lily: When I was younger and was asked what I was interested in I always would have said art, but not really film. I fell into animation when I was photographing paintings I was working on. I would take a photo, then work on the piece a bit more and take another photo. I became more interested in the motion that the photos showed than the still images. Stop motion animation can be a vary intuitive way of making moving images.
Samara you are the co-founder of The Righteous Conversations Project, can you tell me how this project came about?
Samara: In 2011, a small group of daughters and their mothers, at Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles set out to meet the moment and connect the last generation of first hand witnesses to the Holocaust and teens for creative collaboration, meaning-making and legacy work. It was a generative and deeply creative idea that that has enjoyed the gift of supporters and the challenges of foes, but in the end we have done what we set out to do and we hope the work speaks for itself for generations to come.
"I have heard some people or film critics say that the Holocaust stories have been told already. But I have had the privilege of diving deeply into these stories and I believe their telling, like all of humanity’s stories, will never be done."
Over the past 10 years The Righteous Conversations Project has produced over 100 student films, what has been the most valuable lesson you both have taken from the projects you have made?
Samara: I have always loved Margaret Meads quote : “ Never underestimate the power of a small group to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has”. In Hebrew there is the concept and word: Hineni ( here I am ). That’s it, really. We saw a piece of work that could be done. We stepped forward. Hineni, with creative communitarian spirit. And we made some poetry and beauty and friendships, and we supported each other, young to old and old to young. And we said, heartbreak does not have to be weathered alone. And we witnessed each other, Hineni. And we co-created work that we hope will inspire others to find the stories and activist places and spaces where we need to show up for each other, Hineni. As Eva’s story teaches us, we belong to each other, ultimately. In the film (and her real life story), after Eva’s mother dies she is alone in a concentration camp, a tiny Jewish girl in a dangerous and brutal time. She is approached by a stranger who asks her why she is alone and not returning to her barrack. Eva says: “I don’t belong to anyone”. The kind stranger says: “Oh yes, you belong to me. You look just like my niece and from now on call me Tante”. We do belong to each other. And the planet belongs to us and we to it. And all the children who struggle and suffer are ours and we are theirs. And in that commitment to mutual belonging we will achieve more of a world as it could and should be than as it is. The children are counting on us to show up. Hineni.
Finally, with the continued rise of antisemitism in the US and across Europe stories like Eva Brettler’s are salient, what more can be done to ensure that stories like this are heard, shared and lessons can be learned from these experiences?
Samara: There are so may wonderful institutions and individuals working hold and keep this history. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem, the Shoah Foundation and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and so many regional museums and storytellers. The Holocaust took the lives of more than 6 million Jews and 1.5 million Jewish children whose only crime was being born Jewish. I have heard some people or film critics say that the Holocaust stories have been told already. But I have had the privilege of diving deeply into these stories and I believe their telling, like all of humanity’s stories, will never be done. So I guess my answer is to the audiences to say, stay curious and open to always learning more about all of human history as each individual human life is a universe unto itself.
Thanks to interviewers like you, I have hope that the world can continue to learn and integrate the lessons from this, and other, brutal chapters in our beautiful and sometimes horrifying human story. We do, and always will, belong to each other.