Judy Maltz, a journalism professor at Penn State University, had an amazing story to tell. Maltz, who produced and co-directed the film No. 4 Street of Our Lady, was descended from a family of Polish Jews who had survived the Holocaust thanks to the efforts of a woman who almost single-handedly saved the lives of 15 people by hiding them in her small home for two years, risking her life by feeding and caring for them all during the Nazi occupation of their small town.
The details of their dramatic story of survival had been preserved in Maltz's grandfather's diary, which he had kept during the two years hiding in Francisca Halamajowa's hay loft, as well as by four members of the group of 15 who were still alive today.
When Maltz shared the story and the diary with two film professors at Penn State, Richie Sherman and Barbara Bird, the trio set out on a three year journey together to document the story, returning with the remaining survivors to the town of Sokal, now part of the Ukraine, and capturing an unbelievable tale of courage in one of humanity's darkest hours.
The documentary, which has already won awards and critical praise at several film festivals, was shown once last week, and will screen again on Friday. We spoke with Bird and Sherman about the film, their experiences, and the importance of film festivals for independent filmmakers.
How did the three of you meet and decide to start working on this movie?
Richie Sherman: A couple of us in the faculty had a show with some of our recent short films and Judy was one of the audience members. She talked to Barbara, and Barbara talked to me, and we decided that it was something the three of us were interested in collaborating on.
Barbara Bird: Judy had the idea of turning story of her family's rescuer, Mrs. Halamjowa, into a documentary for some time. She also had her Grandfather, Moshe Maltz's diary, which he kept from 1939 thru 1945, recounting the Holocaust experiences of the people of Sokol, Poland. Moshe Maltz's diary had been translated into English, and as soon as I read it I knew that the historical events had all the narrative and drama for a compelling film.
How difficult was it to track down all the people who appeared in the film?
Barbara Bird: Two of the families, Maltz and Kindler kept up with each other in the U.S. and Israel, and Mrs. Halamajowa and her relatives in Poland, so people had been in touch. A third family, Kram, we only located toward the end of the production period.
Richie Sherman: We contacted all of the families, but we also decided we needed to go back to this place, visually we wanted to be able to take the audience to Ukraine. We found a guide who we hired to scout locations and look for people in that region who might be able to help us. He was the one who was able to track down what we believe are the last two adults left in the town who were around during that time.
With the international travel and the length of the production, was it a challenge to get the funding necessary to make the whole project happen?
Barbara Bird: People were fascinated by the story, which we don't think of as just a Jewish story because the hero is a Polish Roman catholic single mother...so while we spread the word very vigorously, funding came to us steadily.
Richie Sherman: That really was one of the most difficult things, and one of the reasons it took us so long. The three of us have full time jobs as well. We're not film industry people, we're teachers, so it really took us a long time to get through that part of having enough money to do what we thought was best for the film.
How important is the festival circuit to independent filmmakers?
Richie Sherman: It's extremely important. Part of this is just getting the word out, getting people to see the film, but also making contacts with people. When distributors start getting involved, which was our goal was to get a distributor, we knew we needed to have a track record. We know that they want to see that the film has been externally validated, that film festivals recognize that it is a successful film. It's an interesting thing. On one hand you're there with your film, and you want to meet people to talk about your project, but on the other hand, it's exciting to be at a film festival because there are other people making their films, and you get exposed to that. The film festivals create a community that you follow.
What has the response been to your film so far?
Barbara Bird: Our audiences, from the very first screening, have been emotionally very moved by this story of ordinary people pushed into extraordinary circumstances by history and the outrages of the Holocaust. The survivors in the film - and people after seeing the film - can't help but ask themselves, "what would I do?"
Richie Sherman: One of the things to get used to as a filmmaker is how often you get rejected from film festivals, but we're doing well. We've been in at least 20 or so festivals and we've won five or six prizes.
Have you gotten any closer to securing distribution?
Barbara Bird: We have an international distributor, Seventh Art Releasing who is handling promotion and sales of the film worldwide.
Richie Sherman: We worked really hard to get ourselves in a position where we could get all the way to the end, and then if we got a distributor, we're just basically handing them the discs. They can go promote the film, look for television in international and domestic markets. We're just starting the process with them, and it's new to all of us at this point.
No. 4 Street of Our Lady will be shown at the Lucas Theatre Nov. 6 at 11:30 a.m. You can find out more about the film at www.streetofourlady.org.