This month JFI is highlighting the work of its 2017 Filmmakers in Residence on the blog. JFI champions independent filmmakers working with Jewish themes through the annual JFI Filmmaker Residency program at the Ninth Street Independent Film Center. First launched in 2012, the filmmaker residency program provide conceptual, logistical and communications/marketing support to selected filmmakers.
Melinda Hess is a Jewish artist, film editor and currently Director and producer of documentary films. Her career spans thirty years in film, video and interactive media. Her background as a film editor inspires her interactive video sensibility and narrative approach to non-narrative storytelling. Melinda will be working on the project Letter from Cloudcroft while at Ninth Street Independent Film Center. This is Melinda’s second year in the JFI Filmmaker Residency program.
Extended Q&A with Melinda Hess
What is unique about the two-person POV in telling the story?
The film is expressed through two personal perspectives separated by 70 years- my father’s from letters he wrote in 1946 to his parents and my journey decades later, piecing both the personal and historic story together. My perspective is personal because I am trying to understand my father, my family and the secret he kept from all of us. Are there ways that my personal family story mirrors the national, historic one? What memories, myths, secrets from my family’s story might connect to other lives, stories and truths?
My father’s perspective through his letters is unique and an authentic, first person, eye witness lens. Since my father was writing to his parents it’s just raw observations and emotions. The letters provide an intimate interior perspective to both my father’s relationship with my grandparents and as a witness to a moment in national history. An ordinary person’s perspective on what becomes a historic national project.
The combined perspective covers over 70 years of history and reflects social awareness and values of the time periods. My father’s perspective covers the past through the immediacy of events unfolding in real time in 1946, conveyed in his correspondence. My journey through his letters take us into the past in a more transparent 360 degree view than my father had at the time. From the present moment looking back, I’m able to explore the reality of the German rocket scientists in the Holocaust, and the grim reality behind the V2 rocket production at Dora-Mittelbau concentration camp. Moving from the past to the present my journey follows the progress of the V2 rockets and the Nazi rocket scientists to the Space Race and the moon.
Can you talk more about how the project links two seemingly disparate topics – the Holocaust and the American Space Program?
First, there aren’t many stories that link the Holocaust to Space exploration in terms of content alone. As a Jewish filmmaker, to tell this story from a personal perspective means bringing my sensibilities and values as a Jewish woman and daughter to the content.
One of the most important things to me about being Jewish is having a set of values that feel part of my DNA. Issues of justice, fairness, equality, liberty, transparency are things I think about and inform the way I see the world. Viewing our film’s core story within these lenses, as well as the culture of American Jewry from the 1950’s to the present, offers a different perspective.
For me it’s a matter of transparency and accountability- not only by the US government but by all the corporate and governmental entities that knew and benefitted from the rocket slave labor of Holocaust. It’s one of the legacies of the Holocaust that is not as well known as so many others, and the lives of the victims who suffered and died while making the rockets has not been publicly honored in this country. Their story is part of the trajectory that enabled Americans to land first on the moon using German wartime technology. Its not a matter of right or wrong- it’s more about acknowledgment, reconciliation, and transparency- all of which relates to our contemporary culture and politics. It’s a personal story yet also about my country’s past, reverberating to the present day.
There’s something so private about opening a letter – how is that contributing to your understanding of the project?
From the moment Patricia and I discovered the letters we knew we had a great story and a wonderful property that could be mined and expressed in various artistic ways for unique media experiences. The first project is this documentary film, but we have mapped out aspects of the story we intend to develop for VR & AR platforms – both within a museum exhibit and as stand alone experiences. With some of our scholar advisors, we’ve talked about creating a book that would feature some of my father’s letters with accompanying essays from content experts.
What kind of support or help are you looking for at this point in the production of the film?
Much of our focus at this point in production is on fundraising and creating partnerships with organizations for support, networking and outreach. Its wonderful being in the Bay Area, with so many resources both in the Jewish and tech communities. It’s all about networking, and gaining access to individuals, companies and organizations that can make a difference in getting this film produced this year. Some of the work is about expanding our network of supporters and some about just raising funds for production. For instance, we’d love to have personal introductions to people at foundations, tech companies etc. who might be interested in the film and lending support. We’re happy to present and pitch to anyone that might be able to help.
It’s really true when people say that it takes a community to make a film like this. From monetary funds to camera equipment, computers, hard drives, car rentals etc- there are so many ways for people to get involved and support a project. We invite members of JFI and the Jewish community here in the Bay Area to get involved with our film, to help in whatever ways they might be able, to contribute expertise and of course donate funds.