The first feature-length film of any filmmaker’s career is often a daunting, all-consuming process. For R. Harvey Bravman, there was something even more important at stake.
Bravman is the producer and director of “Soul Witness, The Brookline Holocaust Witness Project,” a documentary that was derived from more than 80 hours of videotaped interviews of 36 Holocaust survivors and three other witnesses to Nazi death camp atrocities that had been conducted on behalf of the Town of Brookline, Mass. in the early 1990s. All of the people who were interviewed by Lawrence Langer, one of the world’s foremost authorities on Holocaust testimonies, were residents of the town or surrounding communities.
Four years ago, Bravman, a longtime owner of a video production company who has been active in his community by videotaping interviews of the annual youth award recipients, was approached by town officials about whether the tapes could be edited. They had been locked in a metal closet for more than 20 years.
Bravman put his business on hold and devoted more than 80 hours a week over seven months with two film editors to produce what would become the 65-minute documentary. He was determined to bring out the never-seen-before footage for public consumption, using his own savings to fund much of the project.
“When I was editing this, these are people who told their story because they thought it would have value to society,” Bravman said. “This was long after some of them had died. Their voices were finally going to be heard and I was going to be the gatekeeper for what was going to be heard and what wasn’t. That responsibility just weighed heavily on me.”
‘Soul Witness,’ which was completed last year, will be brought to Westchester for the first time with a Nov. 1 screening at the Bedford Playhouse. It has sold out theaters throughout the greater Boston area during the past year.
The work that Bravman and his editors endured to bring the story to viewers was exhaustive. First, the film needed to be digitized, then Bravman had to decide how to be true to its subjects and the subject matter by taking such extensive footage and boiling it down to about an hour.
He created two criteria for inclusion: any account had to be witnessed firsthand by the person speaking, and no matter how compelling the testimony, had to add something to the story, Bravman said.
Then, he decided he would divide the film into segments – their lives before the war, growing intolerance, the camps, resistance movements and the affect their experiences had on them about 45 years later.
For some, the stories they shared were the first time they spoke about their experiences. A central theme was family.
“They wanted you to know who they loved, who they lost and a lot of them not knowing why they were the only ones from their family to survive,” Bravman said with a quivering voice.
One interviewee surmised that a letter from his mother that he carried around helped him survive. He figured that he had needed to live because if his mother survived, his death would cause her too much pain. Another told of how he believed he was going to the crematorium and gave away that day’s allotment of bread to his mother when he saw her on the other side of a fence because it wasn’t going to do him any good.
The difficultly of listening to stories of unspeakable tragedy took its toll during the editing process.
“You have to view the same person saying the same thing over and over and over again,” Bravman said. “It’s etched in your mind and a couple of editors. I tried to replace them. They were doing a great job and I was worried about them and they refused to leave the project because they were so dedicated to it.”
Bravman is hopeful that some of the proceeds from the screenings can fund entries into a few major film festivals. He remains optimistic about an eventual theatrical release on PBS, HBO or another network.
For more information about “Soul Witness, The Brookline Holocaust Witness Project,” visit www.soulwitness.org. For tickets to the 7 p.m. screening on Nov. 1, visit www.bedfordplayhouse.org. It will be followed by a Q&A.
Martin has more than 30 years experience covering local news in Westchester and Putnam counties, including a frequent focus on zoning and planning issues. He has been editor-in-chief of The Examiner since its inception in 2007. Read more from Martin’s editor-author bio here. Read Martin’s archived work here: https://www.theexaminernews.com/author/martin-wilbur2007/