Yael Hersonski’s powerful documentary “A Film Unfinished” opened this week in New York and is reviewed by Miriam Rinn on page 32. The film provides an insightful look into how the Nazis used motion pictures as propaganda and manipulated moving images to depict daily life among Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. Hersonski is a most talented documentary filmmaker and the producers of the film, Noemi Schory and Itay Ken-Tor, both of whom I know, are dedicated and sensitive Israeli film professionals who have given us a film that deserves our attention. But a larger question surfaced this month as to who should be able to watch such films and the role that movies should play in the classroom.
The Motion Picture Association of America, the body created by the film industry to classify films, gave the film an “R” rating. This means that children under the age of 17 are not to be allowed in movie theaters without an accompanying adult. This rating system evolved in the 1960s from an earlier approach that imposed strict guidelines on film content and limited artistic expression. The code, created in 1968, was to be administered by an independent ratings body – composed of parents – that would give advance warnings to parents so that we can make informed decisions about which films our children see. Though many movie theaters fail to regulate entry, the ratings system serves as a fair tool for advising parents which films might or might not be appropriate for our children.
Hersonski chose to include graphic footage taken by the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto. I affirm her right as an artist to make these choices and, in terms of what she was trying to present, I believe she made correct choices. Her film is in no way gratuitous and the footage included is appropriate for her stated purpose. But is it appropriate for all ages? Upon hearing that the MPAA gave the film an “R” rating, Adam Yauch, an owner of the distribution company that released the film (and one of the original “Beastie Boys”), protested, claiming in a released statement that “This is too important of a historical document to ban from classrooms.” MPAA rated the film, citing “disturbing images of Holocaust atrocities, including graphic nudity.” Should there be a limit as to who should be able to see this important documentary film? I believe there should be.
While some might feel that Yauch’s protest and subsequent appeal to the MPAA to change the rating (which it did not do) was simply a brilliant public relations ploy to draw attention to the film, it does raise a more important question about Holocaust education – how should film be used in teaching the Shoah? While Hersonski’s film tackles cinematic manipulation, its very release in theaters calls our attention to how film should be used and how we teach our children about the Holocaust.
The use of film as a tool for recounting aspects of the Holocaust, especially for children and teenagers, has changed dramatically over the years. Forty years ago, educators were drawn to the power of film, particularly the documentary film, to recreate and reinforce the shocking realities of the period. They believed that one needed to display the horror, to show the atrocity. If a student did not cry, scream, or tremble, the lesson was deemed ineffective, so the use of graphic films was common. But today the debate continues. Is it appropriate to teach using the “nightmare effect”? If there is a chance that even one of your students leaves the viewing experience frightened and facing sleepless nights, have you chosen the wrong film for your audience? Or is that what needs to be accomplished? How does one present and use cinema as the incredible tool that it is?
Today, psychologists and educators who specialize in teaching about the Holocaust have helped teachers understand that vividly violent and disturbing images can suffocate rather than teach, and that while there is room for differences of opinion, great care must be taken in choosing films on this topic. I believe that the MPAA made the correct determination and an “R” rating does not in any way keep this film from being used in a classroom; it just warns that care must be taken in how it is to be used. I hope that once the film is available on DVD the distributor will provide guidelines, as educators must be made aware that great care should be taken in how they make use of such a film.
I am a great believer in using film in Holocaust education, but I am acutely aware of how it can be misused. If anything, that’s what “A Film Unfinished” is meant to explore. Cinema is a wonderful haggadah for the Holocaust, and I applaud the MPAA for alerting the viewer and parents that care must be taken in who sees this film and how film is to be used.