by Mary Davies
By the time this film came to its premiere screening, many of the interviewed witnesses of these terrible events were no longer alive. Soon there will be no first hand witnesses to speak out of the atrocities. Llion Roberts, the producer of Destination Unknown, spent 14 years travelling the world, collecting and collating intimate interviews and transformed over 400 hours of dialogue into Destination Unknown, a 72 minute harrowing and hard hitting film. The film allows us an insight, not only into the events and experiences during the Holocaust, but also of how the survivors coped with living with what they saw and experienced.
What made you want to visit the camps in the first instance?
Like thousands of people before me, I felt compelled to go. So my brother and I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau. It was when I was there that I saw a photograph of a 13 year old girl, head shaven and in stripes. The caption said she hadn’t lasted 6 months in the camp. She looked so much like my own 13 year old daughter that I couldn’t get it out of my head. So when I returned home, I started researching the camps, I just couldn’t come to terms with the devastation and pain people endured.
What made you stick at it for all those years?
I was put in touch with a survivor of Block 11, the waiting room they called it, by pure chance. Once I heard his testimony, I knew I had to create something to tell the world. Then I was put in touch with someone else, then someone else again, I once travelled to New York and back in a day to get the interview with one person. Many of the survivors said that they weren’t ready 10 years ago to tell their story, but now, they realise they don’t want it to go to the grave with them. Now they have to tell their story, let people know what happened and how they struggled to cope afterwards. I knew I had a part to play in that.
You spent 13 years gathering the interviews themselves, that is a lot of camera time!
Over 400 hours of interviews!
How did you manage to condense it down?
Originally I had envisaged maybe 5 separate TV documentaries, to get all the accounts out there and to demonstrate what difficulties the survivors faced, not just during their incarceration but also in continuing their lives after liberation. It was through working with director Claire Ferguson that a theatrical version was developed. Not something I had considered but definitely a solid way to get recognition for the film and so more people to hear the survivors stories.
How did you feel on hearing the survivors’ testimonies?
Made me a softy! I went from being confident about life, the world and those around me, to thinking about the inhumanity that some people are capable of. I suffered from panic attacks and exhaustion. Obviously not helped by the immense amount of travel I was doing at the time. I once had Trevor McDonald say to me “you need a pillow young man!” There were times when my cameraman broke down after interviews and we all had to take breaks to cope with it. It was important that those we interviewed felt at ease so they felt safe to be open. So there were no clipboards or papers, just conversations over a few sessions with each person.
How did you feel when Pemper agreed to be interviewed?
I was overwhelmed! It had taken over a year to get him to agree but then a further 18 months before he actually sat down with me. He had refused all interviews following a press interview regarding “Schindler’s List”, where a journalist asked him why he had agreed to be Göth’s scribe. He was upset that there was such a lack of understanding of how life was for a Jew in the camps. There were no choices, no options, it was decreed that’s what he would be, he could not say no or he would likely have been killed. After that interview he said he would never again give an interview about the camps. I was so glad that he did. I asked him 4 questions and he finished talking after two and a half hours. But I think he had even more to say.
Why did you decide to have no narrators or the interviewer; yourself in the film?
From the onset there were three non-negotiable rules (1) No Narration (2) Absence of politics (3) Had to be emotive. If any of these three points were not achievable in the cutting room, I would have pulled the plug on the entire project and without any hesitation. I conducted the interviews and had no interest being in-shot, nor to be heard. I didn’t feel qualified to be visually or audibly included and also felt that it would add nothing to the authenticity and intimacy that was required from the interviewees. With the absence of the narrator and/or any celebrity to prop up the film, you’re left with the primary sources, i.e. those who were actually there. This provides the viewer with a film that is authentic, intimate and free from opinion within the testimonies. It is their story. The entire film crew merely provided a funnel for their testimonies to be seen and heard.
When you started the research did you know it would become something more solid for public viewing?
Due to the subject matter involving the worst inhumanity in history by scale, there was never a doubt about how substantial the outcome would be. However, there were many obstacles to overcome and huge responsibilities to consider. I never considered that the testimonies would end up in the theatre. It was my intention to gather as many testimonies as possible and from as many different experiences, i.e. Survival within the camps, partisans, hiding and the Schindler Jews. As the network amongst those who provided their intimate testimonies grew over a decade, the entire perspective evolved and material that I could not find during researching suddenly appeared. The decision to endure the Theatrical route is often chosen for the sake of achieving critical acclaim and of course if you fail to gather interest it can backfire. Luckily, we have received excellent reviews and well beyond expectations.
Do you have any further plans for other films?
Since the this month’s release of Destination Unknown much interest appears to be surrounding the Kraków-Płaszów camp, Oskar Schindler, Mietek Pemper and all those that bore witness to the brutality of the Austrian SS-Hauptsturmführer – Amon Leopold Göth who was the Commandant of the camp. Of the four hundred hours of testimony and filming at various camps throughout Europe, I would say that approximately 25-30% of the recordings over the past thirteen years connect in one way or another with the Schindler, Göth and Pemper relationship and the Płaszów camp. Supporting testimonies surrounding the Płaszów camp and Oskar Schindler include Mietek Pemper, Ed Mosberg, Helen Sternlicht, Marsha Kreuzman, Roman Ferber, Regina and Victor Lewis. We are already looking at using the existing testimonies to provide a more in-depth feature in this area.
Do you have any advice for any aspiring producers?
Certainly, don’t follow our footsteps. With the exception of the Post-Production process, we funded the film all the way to the rough-cut. There are many ways to fund a film and predominantly film makers do not use their own funds and are therefore limited or even free from financial risk. That is the ‘normal’ protocol. Our process was very unorthodox and very risky. Many film makers especially within the documentary feature category will never recover their investment and depend heavily on tax credits or SEIS (Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme) to minimise their losses. Producers should look very carefully at so-called ‘support funding’ or ‘grants’. All too often they are expensive loans with either unrealistic and disproportionate equity expectations, and/or interest rates based at as much as the loan return in full, plus another staggering 50%. They may well work for you if you are desperate for cash or if you have doubts as a producer that your production will succeed. In this case, you may not have to repay the grantor/s. There are ‘serial grant applicants’ out there who manage to make a living this way. Look at the agreements very carefully, regardless of who advised you to accept the funding. We were very lucky to receive significant post-production assistance from US philanthropists, who sincerely believe in the perpetuation of the memory of the Shoah and without them, the film would have remained in the Edit Suite and hence incomplete.
Destination Unknown is in cinemas now