The TDF Interview: Claire Ferguson

Claire Ferguson has directed a number of high profile documentaries, such as The Beatles in Help!, a film about Richard Lester’s making of the classic Beatles movie, and Concert for Bangladesh Revisited with George Harrison and Friends. She is also a highly respected editor who has worked on films such as Eyes Wide Shut and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, more recently going on to establish herself in the documentary sphere.

Her new film, Destination Unknown, is a powerful and evocative experience, heard through the testimonies of twelve Holocaust survivors, each of whom recall the pain, suffering and attempts to rebuild their lives after living through such unspeakable horrors. Given the age of the survivors now, this is possibly one of the last times we will get to hear first-hand recollections of what occurred in those concentration camps, which turns the film into an important historical document.

Ahead of the release of the film in UK cinemas on June 16, I spoke with Claire about how it all came together, the difficulties she faced and what she took away from her time spent making the film.

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Hi Claire, thanks for taking the time out to speak with us.
No, not at all.

How did you first get involved in the project?
I was contacted by Llion Roberts (producer) who had been accumulating testimonies for many years, before I became involved. He came to me with hundreds of hours of testimony and asked me to look at all this material to see if or how we could make a film out of it, and if so, what would that film could be. So that was our first encounter. The next phase was looking through that material, a pretty intense process that involved cutting the world off and hearing only those voices. It took six weeks just to listen to it all. Then we had to decide how I could best shape all this content into a coherent narrative.

Putting your head into that space for six weeks must’ve been a pretty profound experience.
Yes you’re right, it was, but that was just the first stage watching of it. The period of piecing the film together went on for many months after that. It’s a very intense process, and it affects you, because the stories are so extraordinarily powerful. It stays with you and you never forget those stories. There’s something very unique and intense about hearing memories and survivors stories in their own words. It’s not like reading it in a book, or hearing somebody’s opinion about what happened. It’s not the facts, it’s the survivors telling you how they felt, and how it feels to live now, having gone through such atrocities.

There has been a wide selection of Holocaust films produced across the years – what would you say sets Destination Unknown apart from those?
I think you’re right, the subject of the Holocaust is a very well-trodden path in terms of filmmaking and across all the arts. So, how do you bring something different? I think what is very unique about this film is the feeling I got watching the rushes, wondering how do you live with such pain? How do you make a life having gone through that? The film is less about the facts of the Holocaust or its history, it’s really a story about trauma and how you survive to make a life after that. I think also what is very unique, is the breadth of experiences that the survivors had. For example, we talk about the camps but we also talk about Frank Blaichman, the partisan fighter, who had an incredibly different experience to everyone else’s. What I really wanted to do was show this range of different experiences and to talk about the unique human emotions each of them went through. You’ve got determination, relief, guilt, despair, hope, sorrow – you can really feel that breadth of emotion. The other unique thing about the film is you only hear from the primary sources, there are no experts and no interpretation of events. It’s their voices alone that tell the story, which makes it incredibly powerful.

I loaded my last question slightly, so apologies if it sounded a bit cynical, but I ask because at the start we see survivor Ed Mosberg walking through a packed concentration camp dressed in a prisoner outfit. Yet hardly anyone seems to bat an eyelid, which was quite amazing. Was that to highlight how blasé people’s attitudes may have become to the subject today?
That’s a scene we filmed in Mauthausen (concentration camp) 70 years after liberation, which is where I came in as an observational documentary filmmaker. Ed wasn’t dressing up for the cameras, he was going for the commemoration of 70 years of liberation and we filmed it. There’s an interesting question that the film raises in the testimonies in how everyone deals with trauma differently. There are some survivors who will never go back to the camp because they cannot bear to do that. Marsha Kreuzman said she didn’t want to go back, whereas Ed Mosberg goes back every year. It’s finding different ways to live with the life that you’ve been given. And I agree, it’s something that asks the viewer to question themselves and it makes you feel the pain and trauma. When Ed stands there with the whip, you really feel the power behind that.

You used some fantastic footage in the film. Given the subject matter, I would imagine there was an abundance of material available to you. By having so much to choose from did it become more difficult to narrow your selection down, rather than having to make the best of more limited resources?
Yes, that’s a really good question because the answer is, it’s a massive jigsaw puzzle. The challenge is trying hear their individual stories, while still trying to shape one over-arching narrative for the feature film. It’s probably one of the hardest challenges I’ve ever had to do because as you pointed out, the Holocaust is such a huge subject. There are so many films that you could make, so which one do you make? Ultimately, it’s not a question of the more you have the easier it is, it’s much more complicated than that.

Mietek Pemper – who worked so closely with Oskar Schindler on the list – has been reluctant to appear on film in the past, so how did you manage to secure him as an interviewee?
Llion (Roberts) was really desperate to get that interview and he just persisted. He tried and was turned down several times and eventually managed to get Mietek to agree. It’s very unique footage because Mietek Pemper didn’t really want to talk. We were very honoured to have that in our story especially as he has since passed away and is no longer with us.

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What did you take away from the film personally?
With direct access to such intimate and personal testimony, I have learnt about the subject matter as I never could have done in any other way. It is something that will stay with me forever. I’ll never forget those stories. That is the biggest thing I will take away and hold onto forever. It’s been very humbling to be part of it. I’m very glad to have been asked to do this film and to be able to tell their stories. It’s also been an enormous challenge creating a narrative and making a film from testimony, but it’s been extremely worthwhile and I’m delighted to have done it. All filmmakers like a challenge and the large amount of material wasn’t the only one to overcome. Making a film about the Holocaust brings with it a huge responsibility which can be quite daunting, as it’s such a vast subject.

You have directed before, of course, but much of your career has been as an editor. Has that helped make directing easier – has one informed the other?
Yes, because it’s what I specialise in, essentially how to make narrative work and how to bring it to the big screen. We brought in a lot of contemporary archives, such as the Russian newsreel footage, which is more of an editorial thing but the film needed that to work. One of my biggest questions when I watched the rushes was how do I make the testimony visual? I’ve got people sitting in their front rooms but how do you make this come alive and how do you bring this to the screen without being illustrative. I wanted to let memory just work because you can’t just illustrate somebody’s memory. I wanted to create atmospheres and moments using those archives. The Russian newsreel footage is extraordinary as nobody has really seen that before because not many people know about it.

Finally, have you got anything else coming up you can tell us about?
Well, I am working on some projects but I can’t really publicise what they are right now. There is a really exciting project I’m working on at the moment that is in its infancy, but that will have to be another conversation I’m afraid!

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