State College

Documentarian finds new focus in old story

Seeing the world isn’t the only reason to consider a career in filmmaking, but it certainly deserves prime placement in the brochure.

Making the documentary “Cojot: A Holocaust Survivor Takes History Into His Own Hands” flung Boaz Dvir, an assistant professor at Penn State’s College of Communications, to corners of the globe as near as New York City and as remote as Jerusalem.

He’s returned bearing souvenirs: a collection of footage and interviews that is in the process of being assembled into something resembling the story of Michel Cojot, a French business consultant who embarked on a mission to kill the Nazi who executed his father.

“The themes that underpin this story are as timely as ever. They include the interplay between terrorism and counterterrorism, the current implications of the Holocaust, the search for identity and the pursuit of doing the right thing in an increasingly complex world,” Dvir said.

I learned that allowing the story to alter your project is worthwhile. In fact, it’s the only way to be as a nonfiction storyteller.

Boaz Dvir

Themes evolve — as do films. Dvir stumbled across Cojot’s name in 2010, while he was in France conducting interviews for a documentary on a group of Israeli commandos who flew 3,000 miles to rescue more than 100 hostages in Entebbe.

Cojot played a crucial role in that crisis, but his own personal narrative was too compelling — and deliciously ambiguous — to be relegated to a subplot. Dvir cut a few losses and refocused his approach.

“I learned that allowing the story to alter your project is worthwhile. In fact, it’s the only way to be as a nonfiction storyteller,” Dvir said.

He hopes to have a rough cut of the film assembled by early fall, but portions of it have already screened at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan.

Their eyes light up. They sit up straight. They ask many questions and walk away wanting to learn — and think — more.

Boaz Dvir

In a general, a filmmaker can never be too picky about what kind of an audience his or her work attracts, but Dvir is pleased by the level of engagement on display by the young people in attendance.

“Their eyes light up. They sit up straight. They ask many questions and walk away wanting to learn — and think — more,” Dvir said.

Speaking of “more” there will be additional footage screened at 7 p.m. May 3, inside the halls of Baltimore’s Beth El Congregation. How Dvir’s final cut will shake out is anybody’s guess, but the filmmaker remains confident that he pointed his camera in the right direction.

“I focus on telling the often-unknown stories of ordinary people who, under extraordinary circumstances, become trailblazers and game-changers. Michel is precisely that,” Dvir said.

The documentary is scheduled to air on PBS in 2018.

Frank Ready: 814-231-4620, @fjready

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