Oscar comes to St. John’s

Filmmaker returns to Newfoundland and Labrador — with an academy award-winning film to share

Published on March 12, 2014

Jon Kitzen admits terrorists sped up his idea of holidaying in Newfoundland. The New York native had planned to one day visit the province and go sea kayaking, but ended up here earlier than he expected, having been among the airline passengers diverted to St. John’s during the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

He ended up buying a home here two years later, and living here full-time for a while — two of his three children were born in St. John’s — before eventually renting his home and moving to Vancouver for work.

Kitzen is a filmmaker and an Academy Award winner, having just been presented with the 2014 Oscar for Best Documentary Short a little over a week ago for “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life.”

The film features Alice Herz-Sommer, a pianist, music teacher and concentration camp survivor, thought to have been the oldest survivor of the Holocaust until her death at age 110. Herz-Sommer died at the end of February, one week before the Oscars.

The project came about through director Malcolm Clarke, who was nominated for a 2003 Oscar for his work on “Prisoner of Paradise,” a documentary about Holocaust victim Kurt Gerron.

“He had been approached sometime later to do an interview with (Herz-Sommer),” Kitzen explained. “He originally didn’t want to — when you see all that footage over and over again in the editing room, it affects you. It’s not exactly something you run to. He ended up visiting her at her home in London and having tea, and he thought, ‘Wow, what a great story.’ He called me and said, ‘Let’s put this together.’”

While Herz-Sommer spent time in a feeder camp to Auschwitz, where she gave more than 100 performances, “The Lady in Number 6” isn’t a dark film about a Holocaust survivor. It’s a documentary about everything you wouldn’t expect, including redemption and forgiveness. Herz-Sommer is charismatic, funny, and has no regrets.

“I think the reason it’s a good story is the messenger and the message,” Kitzen explained. “No, she’s not really bitter. It’s actually common — there are people who go through these traumatic things and they say they never want to go back, but it changed who they are and they don’t regret it. There’s almost an Eastern religious-type of message, but you’re hearing it from a very old Jewish woman who was in a concentration camp. She was able to transcend.”

Kitzen’s latest project is “Soldiers’ Stories,” which he bills as the world’s oldest original 3-D film.

Contrary to popular belief, 3-D photography isn’t a new invention — it is as old as photography itself, he said, and there were even 1,200 stereoscopic 3-D photos taken during the American Civil War in the 1860s.

“By World War I, there were little pocket cameras that took thousands of photos,” Kitzen said. “All sides took them. For the most part, you needed a viewer to look at them, and a lot of them were never seen again.”

Kitzen and his team sought out 3-D photos of the First World War from private collections and public sources, then undertook the painstaking task of restoring them. Some were incredibly graphic (the most graphic ones were omitted); others are beautiful and poignant, almost poetic.

Kitzen and his colleagues have taken about 240 of the images and compiled them with interviews with soldiers to make a short film called “Soldiers Stories.” While 3-D film doesn’t necessarily suit every subject, the depth of the images are particularly powerful in this case.

So are the soldiers’ words.

“I had a list of questions for them, like ‘Do you remember the first time you were shot at?’ and ‘Why did you join?.’ Most interviews took anywhere between 30 minutes to two hours. Almost all of the soldiers had a desire to explain themselves, and spoke about things like post-traumatic stress disorder or remorse, even thought we didn’t ask any of that.”

Kitzen said he plans to create a similar film specific to the Royal Newfoundland Regiment at Beaumont Hamel.

“The numbers are just epic and are not easily comprehended,” he said of the number of soldiers who signed up and died. “It will help tell this tale of cultural and national identity.”

“The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life” and “Soldiers’ Stories” will be screened Thursday at the Johnson Geo Centre in St. John’s, starting at 6 p.m. (Oscar will also be in attendance and available for photos). Tickets are available online at ww1movie.com.


tbradbury@thetelegram.com Twitter: @tara_bradbury