Photo courtesy of Veronica Wood.
“I want to use the medium of film to help people explore history,” said Rob Cohen, a film and media studies professor at the University of Rhode Island. Professor Cohen explained that this goal is the baseline for his students’ work throughout the year.
This past fall he taught a production class where he instructed his students to create short films about the Holocaust that would later be incorporated into the curriculums of Rhode Island middle schools. Cohen has had experience working with this topic in the past. He described his Holocaust documentary, “Kinderblock 66: Return to Buchenwald,” as one of the achievements in his career that he is most proud of.
This film tells the story of Antonin Kalina, a prisoner in the concentration camp Buchenwald, who used what little authority he had within the camp to help protect the lives of 1,500 children by hiding them from the Nazi’s. The film focuses on the children that are still alive today, who were saved by Kalina, as they return to Buchenwald for a ceremony held for the sixty-fifth anniversary of the camps liberation.
“I had made what I hoped was a very powerful human story about heroism,” said Cohen. He was even invited to screen and discuss his film in front of the United Nations.
Based on the success of this film, Professor Cohen was given a grant to teach a production course based around Holocaust themed filmmaking. Cohen said he was inspired by a piece of legislation that was passed in Rhode Island in 2016, that mandated all middle schools to educate their students on the Holocaust.
“Rhode Island is one of only seven states that mandate students study the Holocaust at that age,” said Cohen.
He explained that he decided he wanted this course of his to focus on creating educational film pieces that could become a part of that new curriculum. Cohen described the way he broke this class down into the production of two different types of films: documentaries and narrative fiction. The small documentaries created detailed the artifacts and experiences displayed at the Holocaust museum in Washington D.C., and the short narrative pieces were meant to educate students in a more artistic manner.
The documentaries were created out of footage captured from a trip that Professor Cohen’s class took to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. Cohen said, “Each student that went on the trip was given a camera and tasked with examining one part of the museum and creating footage around it. Afterwards they were asked to record their impressions of the museum and the thoughts that came to them while they were inside of it.”
Caleb Arseanult, a sophomore film student at URI and a student in this particular class, described the trip to the museum as, “Unlike almost any other museum I’ve been to.” Arseanult continued by saying that, “It was very somber and there was an aura of respect. The people at the museum were quiet and patient. Everyone was captivated by the images and the words presented to them. It was a very unusual and unique experience.”
The second part of the production class involved creating narrative pieces on the topic of the Holocaust. Cohen explained that his class created three separate films: “The Kite,” “Hate Doesn’t Happen Overnight” and “What Did You Learn in School Today.” He gave details on the last film, saying that it took place in an animal shelter and that the setting was designed as a metaphor for incarceration. The film follows a little boy who goes to an animal shelter and falls in love with a disabled kitten. After seeing it inside its cage and sensing its emotions, the little boy decides he wants to take in that kitten instead of one of the healthier cats.
Arseanult worked heavily on creating the film, “Hate Doesn’t Happen Overnight.” Preparing for this film required him to do countless hours of work into the Holocaust and the history of anti-semitism. In brainstorming for this film he “was inspired by thinking about how the Holocaust didn’t happen in a vacuum. There were thousands of years leading up to it that created the environment of hatred surrounding the Jewish people. ‘Hate Doesn’t Happen Overnight’ was a presentation of history of anti-Semitic incidents.”
Professor Cohen said that he is waiting to present these films to the Rhode Island school system until the end of the semester because he is teaching the course again currently and is waiting to combine the new ones created with the old and turn them in together. He hopes that children will understand why this terrible incident happened and learn how to prevent hatred and prejudice from ever becoming so mainstream again.
According to Professor Cohen, the film class was “intellectually rigorous,” and he assigned copious amounts of readings on the Holocaust to his students in order for them to be educated and prepared to create. Cohen also explained that in order to be prepared to create their own documentaries on the subject, they watched many in class so as to better understand the genre.
“We watched a film called Shoah, which is the Hebrew word for Holocaust.” said Cohen. “Many people, particularly in Israel, don’t use the word Holocaust but instead use the word Shoah. My class watched this film which was an amazing eight hours long.”
He believes that the films that his students created will have a much deeper impact on these school age children because they were, “Created by young people, for young people.” Cohen explained how important it is to him to not think of it as simply creating yet another Holocaust film. He said that he was actually tentative at first about agreeing to make his own Holocaust documentary because he didn’t want it to have that moniker.
The story presented in front of him was just so fascinating though that he had to take the opportunity. “There are an infinite number of stories connected to this extraordinarily shameful moment in human history and the job of telling those stories doesn’t end. It’s not the same story over and over again, each is complexly different and that’s why I couldn’t resist,” Cohen explained.