Some movies do far more than just entertain. They enrich our understanding of the past in a way that helps prepare us for the future.
Take “Defiance,” the World War II actioner which came out late last year. The film tells the remarkable story of the Bielski brothers, Polish Jews who fought back against Nazi invaders despite incredible odds.
Movies in Toto reached out to Mitch Braff, executive director of the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation, to find out how it’s using the film, now available on DVD, to educate students about their heroics and the complicated morality behind their actions.
Toto: Tell me about your foundation’s educational outreach effort tied to the Daniel Craig film “Defiance.”
MB: We have developed a new curriculum and DVD, “Teaching with Defiance” that we launched in conjunction with the film’s release on DVD last week. The DVD has 16 clips from the film that are supported in the printed pieces, as well as nine of our own short films (narrated by Larry King, Ed Asner, and Tovah Feldshuh), as well as video interviews form former Bielski partisans, including Aron Bell — the only surviving Bielski brother, played by George MacKay in the film. We are planning to bring this to 40 communities nationwide in the next year.
Toto: Did your foundation have any input during the film’s creation? If not, were you worried when you first heard about the film that it might not tell the story as accurately as possible?
MB: We reviewed the script about three years ago. Clay Frohman, the co-writer, contacted us and wanted our feedback, which we gladly gave them. [Director] Ed Zwick and Clay did a great job with all of the research and due diligence, and we are very happy with the historical accuracy they achieved.
Toto: What are the key elements in the film you focus on, and what are some ways students can follow up on the lessons taught during the movie?
MB: We have 16 clips from the film, ranging from 50 seconds to three and a half minutes focusing on History, Ethics, Leadership, and Jewish Values. Each of these sections has four clips, and a printed guide has questions and commentary on each of them. We look at the film as much more then part of a history lesson, but a way to look at some of the larger, ethical issues they had to deal with such as killing, stealing, and revenge. For some of the sections we have the students debating each other from the different points of view the two oldest brothers, played by Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber.
Toto: People often take it for granted that students know all about the monstrous Nazi regime. Is that true, or are they unaware of the horrors associated with Hitler’s reign?
MB: The Holocaust and World War II are studied in most schools, and I think most young people are familiar with the Germans and what they did in at least broad strokes. What is not known, is the story of the Jewish partisans — 20,000-30,000 Jews, many of them teens, who fought back against the Germans and saved thousands of lives.
Toto: Has your foundation used other films as educational tools, and what are the main benefits of using movies as an educational device?
MB: We have made nine of our own films (www.jewishpartisans.org/films) which are documentaries based on over 40 interviews with surviving partisans, but they do not feature Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber. Having A-list actors in the film brings the attention of our work to a much broader audience. When the film came out, the traffic on our website went up nearly 10 fold. The benefit is that everyone wants to see “Defiance,” and that makes our job much easier in reaching teachers and their students with this new material.
If people would like more information about the Teaching with Defiance Educator Institutes please email email@example.com or visit our web site.