Love survives the Holocaust in doc “Steal a Pencil for Me” from Academy Award nominee Michele Ohayon (“Colors Straight Up“). An unhappily married couple is imprisoned at a concentration camp in 1943, and they are surprised by the arrival of the man’s mistress at the same camp. Years earlier in Amsterdam, Jack, an unassuming accountant, first meets Ina at a birthday party, a 20-year-old beauty from a wealthy diamond manufacturing family who instantly steals his heart. But Jack’s pursuit of love will be complicated; he is poor and married to Manja, a flirtatious and mercurial spouse. When Jack’s wife objects to the “girlfriend” in spite of their unhappy marriage, Jack and Ina resort to writing secret love letters in the concentration camp, which sustain them throughout the horrible circumstances of the war. Along with her Oscar nomination, Ohayon won prizes at the SXSW Film Festival and San Antonio CineFestival for her doc, “Cowboy del Amor.” “Steal a Pencil for Me” opens in limited release Friday, November 9.
Please introduce yourself…
I was born in Casablanca and grew up in Israel. After serving in the Israeli army, I graduated from Tel Aviv University (Film and Television), and I made my first film at the age of 19. I then moved to Amsterdam, Holland and lived there for three years, then came to the United States to further pursue a film career.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved?
At first I was interested in theater. At the age of 12 I was directing a “troop” of kids in my ‘hood, putting up plays and shows for the neighbors… I also loved to dance, and choreographed a few dances for shows at school. I stumbled upon filmmaking when I got an internship with an editor at Israeli TV. I fell in love! The combination of directing actors and the technical possibilities in telling a story in images were mind blowing to me. I found a well of creativity awaiting for me to explore. I then decided this was what I wanted to do and the rest is history…
How did the idea for “Steal a Pencil for Me” come about?
I came across the book “Steal a Pencil for Me” which is a collection of the love letters that Ina and Jack wrote to each other in the camps. Since Jack was married (though unhappily), he and his new love Ina had to hide their relationship and resorted to writing secret letters, which they smuggled to each other.
The letters blew me away — they contain description of the every-day life in the concentration camp, details that you can’t find in history books. I was moved by their tremendous love for each other, their optimism and will to survive despite the circumstances. Their story was an example of how the human spirit can live and rise above the circumstances, as horrendous as they may be.
I decided to tell this unique love story, and thus make the subject of the Holocaust accessible to the audience, as it is told from a very intimate, poetic point of view.
Elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…
“Pencil” is my forth feature documentary film. Until “Pencil,” all my films were shot in cinema verite style, scenes unfolding as we film. In [this film], the biggest challenge was how to tell a love story that took place 60 years ago and keep it compelling… How to make a 94 year old and an 84 year old carry a movie? How to overcome “Holocaust fatigue” and tell a fresh tale…
My approach was stylistic and focused on creating a three-act structure with emphasis on the beauty of images as a contrast to war images. The contrast between the war backdrop and the personal events created a dramatic tension. Since the love letters were the through-line, I decided to give the film a poetic tone.
In order to achieve that, I decided to film first all the verite scenes I could get. Since the couple did survive and were able to tell their story themselves, this was the starting point. I then dug and searched with my team for any archival footage and pictures that existed throughout the world, trying to avoid the generic, over-used graphic images. I viewed hours and hours of footage. I begged archival houses all over the world to search, to dig and to expose what they had. It paid off.
We then tackled the visualization of the letters with the help of my extraordinary director of photography, Theo Van de Sande, who gave the re-enacted sequences an exquisite look. By now my amazing editor, Kate Amend, had many layers of footage to work with, from verite, to archival, to stylized sequences and stills of the couple. A tapestry loaded with details and nuances built a rich canvas serving this unique story. An original score by my composer Joseph Julian Gonzalez enhanced the emotional experience of the film.
My ultimate goal was to make the Holocaust, an unimaginable historical genocide, accessible to all viewers, 12 years and up.
How did the financing for the film come together?
Netflix/ Red Envelope Entertainment have been my home for years. They understood my vision and the potentail of the film, and together with my company, Diamond Lane Films, we embarked into this rewarding journey.
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker?
I fell in love with comedies after making “Cowboy del Amor.” I would like to make more of those…you have to either make people cry, or laugh or both. I am after powerful stories, with a humanistic aspect that can be told visually. I like to explore new genres and a different way of crafting a film. I am also venturing into fiction filmmaking, but documentaries are my passion.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
Right now I direct and produce, as well as write fiction as a WGA member. I started out as an editor/director and loved it, but don’t see myself pursuing editing. I wanted to know and learn all aspects of filmmaking so I can communicate with all my team memebers and convey my vision as clearly as possible.
I would [still] like to explore music videos since I love music and pay a lot of attention to sound in general in my films. I wouldn’t mind producing for other filmmakers if they have a strong vision and I can help them make it happen.
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
Working with tiny budget but have a say on every aspect of the film. Independent films grew to bigger budgets and more of a hybrid between guerilla and main stream.
What are some of your recent favorite films?
“Into the Wild” – loved it!
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
Make a film straight from your heart. Follow your instinct at every step. Make strong choices and make your mark!
Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.
Making “Colors Straight Up”! — gave a chance to Watts kids to shine on screen and enjoy an Oscar nomination, and be role models in their communities. When I create a film that makes a concrete difference, I feel that I have achieved my goals.