In their film, "The Last Survivor" – available in its entirety at the bottom of this page courtesy of SnagFilms – filmmakers Michael Pertnoy and Michael Kleiman present the life stories of four genocide Survivors and their efforts to make sense of tragedy through activism and civic engagement.
The Last Survivor
Writers/Directors: Michael Pertnoy and Michael Kleiman
The full film is available free on
SnagFilms (and at the end of this article). This interview with Michael Pertnoy and Michael Kleiman is part of a series of SnagFilm filmmaker profiles that will be featured weekly on indieWIRE.
[Editor's Note: SnagFilms is the parent company of Indiewire.]
Your movie: In 140 characters or less, what's it about?
THE LAST SURVIVOR tells the stories of Survivors of four genocides as they struggle to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of tragedy.
OK: Now tell us what it's really about.
The Last Survivor is a character-based documentary film that presents the stories of genocide Survivors and their struggle to make sense of tragedy by working to educate, motivate and promulgate a civic response to mass atrocity crimes, with a focus on awareness, prevention and promoting social activism and civic engagement. Following the lives of survivors of four different genocides and mass atrocities – The Holocaust, Rwanda, Darfur, and Congo – The Last Survivor presents a unique opportunity to learn from the lessons and mistakes of our past in order to have lasting social impact on how we act collectively in the face of similar issues today.
In choosing four Survivors who work as activists in the anti-genocide movement, the film promotes the vital importance of Survivor advocacy – the need for genocide Survivors to become leaders in a movement which seeks to remind the world what happens when apathy and inaction prevail. By presenting these stories of loss, survival, and hope side by side, the film highlights the commonalities these individuals share both as Survivors and, more broadly, as human beings. Having shot on location in five countries across four continents, the film asks its audience to consider genocide as an evil that has occurred on nearly every single continent and one that affects all of us as human beings. In the end, the film is above all else an intimate meditation on how one begins to pick up the pieces of a broken life after experiencing such tragedy.
So tell us about yourself. What's your background? Why did you want to make movies?
Pertnoy – I was never really into film growing up. I liked watching movies as much as any other kid but I wouldn’t say that I had any early aspirations to be a filmmaker. It was 1998 – I was a 15-year old freshman in high school. I joined the TV class and within days found myself sitting behind my first edit station. I quickly became enthralled with the process. I had found my natural home in the editing room and never looked back.
Kleiman – Home Alone. I saw the movie when I was 8 and it was all over for me. I watched it repeatedly, memorizing long monologues that I’d perform on dining room chairs for my parents and their friends. And then, when I was around 12, I saw The Usual Suspects. I think that’s when I became conscious of the mind behind the camera and I knew that was what I wanted to do with my life.
What inspired you to make this movie?
We each have our own personal stories that drove us to make this film. Michael Kleiman's grandparents were forced to flee their homes in Belgium when the Nazis invaded – his grandmother spent months being hidden in a barn in Liberated France before finally escaping to Portugal and then the US. Pertnoy was inspired by several trips he took back to the death camps in Poland with the March of the Living Program, where he came to understand the transformative effect getting to know a Survivor can have on one's life and worldview. The collaboration between the two Michaels began in 2007. They agreed that a film was needed that could help their generation understand genocide as a crime that was not relegated to a single generation or ethnic group. They were also both inspired by relationships they had each formed with Survivors and wanted to make a film that was character-focused, allowing the audience to share in that powerful experience.
What was your single biggest challenge in developing or producing it?
From the outset, we knew that we wanted to make a film that left the audience feeling hopeful. We didn't want audience members to reach the closing credits with a feeling of dread – thinking that the world was a terrible place and there was nothing that could be done about it. Our goal was to make a film that showed the tragic horrors of genocide but more importantly, inspired the audience, showing them how the world could be improved and moving them to action. It was not an easy task. The amount of loss each of the four subjects of the film have had to endure is unjustifiable and in many ways incomprehensible. However, we were incredibly fortunate to find four individuals who, despite all they have gone through, have managed to keep a hopeful, even positive outlook on life and the world. These mindsets come across on camera and did the heavy lifting in allowing the film to consider perhaps the most horrific subject matter possible, while remaining optimistic in its outlook for the future. In addition, we made a very conscious effort to film moments throughout the journey of production that struck us as hopeful or beautiful – a drum circle in Tel Aviv, windmills in Germany, the skylines of Manhattan and St. Louis. Doing so helped remind us (and hopefully the audience), that while there is inexplicable evil in the world, it is also a beautiful place.
What do you think SnagFilms audiences will respond to most in your movie?
Without doubt, the film is defined by the strength of the four Survivors it profiles. It is impossible not to be moved and inspired by what each of them has been able to accomplish despite the tragedies they have endured. It is great to watch the film with new audiences as it’s always fun to hear who they respond to. Many are taken by Justin's laugh or Jacqueline's resolve, by Adam's strength or by Hedi's warm nature. But it always seems to be the people who the audiences respond to most. That's something that's very gratifying to see as it was our goal from the beginning to make a film that would allow audiences to form some sort of personal connection to a Survivor.
Were any specific films inspirational to you while making the movie?
There have been a tremendous amount of terrific films – both documentary and fictional – on this subject matter. Many of those have had a large influence on us. Alain Resnais' classic documentary NIGHT AND FOG was a film we watched early on in the editing process. We were quite taken by the film GOD GREW TIRED OF US as much of Justin's story resonates with the story of its subjects. While we were in the throes of the edit – at that point where the film becomes a jumbled mess in your head and it’s hard to see a way to the finish line – we took a break one afternoon and went up to see MY NEIGHBOR, MY KILLER at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. That was a beautiful film about the life of Survivors after genocide and the struggles they face that really moved us and helped us over some turf hurdles with our own edit.
Future projects in the pipeline? Tell us!
We are currently collaborating on our second documentary feature, WEB. The film focuses on the work of One Laptop per Child, a Boston-based non-profit that distributes laptops to children in the developing world. For ten months, Kleiman went down to Peru, living with families in small villages in the Andes Mountains and Amazon Jungle, documenting both their first use of laptops and the internet as well as the relationship that formed between them. Since his return in 2010, the two Michaels have been interviewing some of the leading figures in the tech world – Wikipedia Founder, Jimmy Wales; "Father of the Internet," Vint Cerf; Founder of Foursquare, Dennis Crowley; Founder of One Laptop per Child, Nicholas Negroponte; Former Director of Policy Planning at the U.S. State Department Anne-Marie Slaughter, and many others – considering how the internet is changing our world for better and for worse and the possibilities for global col laboration, dialogue and cultural exchange as millions of people around the planet come online for the first time. The film is currently in post-production and is expected to be released in 2012.