Using the Power of Film to Mitigate Hate
“I have always liked to write, but making a film is more interesting because you get to make your stories visual,” said day student Rachel Schlesinger, a member of the Class of 2018. “There’s something about a film that is more universal and accessible than words on a page.
“I love the medium so much,” added Schlesinger, who enrolled at St. Stephen’s in sixth grade and took her first film class as a freshman. In that course she learned to write stories for film and to use a movie camera. Her first projects were short commercials. “My sophomore year I started to get more serious about filmmaking. I spent about six months working on a documentary about flaws in the American education system. I spent months editing it, but it always felt like clips strung together.”
Despite not completing that first film, the process taught her a valuable lesson. “Even a documentary needs to be written out, scripted,” said Schlesinger, whose next film project was decidedly more successful. The idea emerged from plans for a family trip to Lichtenfels, Bavaria, her maternal grandmother’s hometown.
“My grandmother lived a normal life until Hitler came to power,” she explained. “On the ‘Night of Broken Glass’ [Nov. 9, 1938], Hitler sent soldiers across Germany to destroy Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues. My great-grandfather was a businessman; he was arrested and jailed. That night my grandmother, Inge, hid from the Nazis in the attic of her home. She was 9 years old.”
When Schlesinger’s great-grandfather was finally released, the family fled Germany. They immigrated first to England and then, nine months later, to Queens, N.Y. Schlesinger, who was familiar with her family history, decided to make a documentary about her grandmother’s return to her birthplace. “I wanted to know what it meant for her to go back, to visit the town where she grew up,” Schlesinger said. “I thought it would be a way to teach people about what happened to the Jews.
“The coolest part of the whole trip was hearing my grandmother talk about feeling triumph and forgiveness,” Schlesinger said. “She told us, ‘Hitler tried to kill me and my family, yet here I am, surrounded by my offspring and their children.’”
For Schlesinger, editing the footage into a compact five-minute film proved challenging. She spent five months honing the footage. Film instructor Mike Dolan helped her through the process, teaching her how to use the equipment and providing valuable feedback at different stages of production.
“Rachel persevered to make a powerful and beautiful film,” said Dolan, film instructor and associate director of St. Stephen’s Theatre Focus. “At first she struggled to condense the footage; editing is extra challenging when the subject is so close to home. She also worked with a local sound engineer to edit and mix the sound to be as effective as possible. She had a great experience with this part of the process because she saw how complex it is, and she worked with industry professionals who collaborated with her in the same way they work with professional directors.”
Schlesinger’s determination paid off, and the resulting documentary, “Inge,” was accepted into the 2017 SXSW film competition. Hers was one of only 20 short films produced by high schools students shown at the prestigious film festival. Her work on the film also was recognized during this year’s Scholastic Art Awards. In addition to winning a Gold Award and being named an American Vision Award nominee in the regional competition, she was selected a “Best in Grade” award winner in the national competition. That honor gained her entrance to the prestigious national awards celebration in New York City.
Schlesinger appreciates the recognition her film has received, but is most interested in sharing her grandmother’s story with others. “I want to share her story with as many people as possible,” she said. “I want people to understand that you have the power to control the amount of hate in this world.”