The award-winning Holocaust documentary, Misa's Fugue, has played around the world.
On June 22, viewers in Berks County and the Lehigh Valley will have the chance to watch the film when it makes its official television premiere on 69-WFMZ-TV.
The documentary was co-created by independent filmmakers and Fleetwood Area High School students and teachers.
Misa's Fugue, a 90-minute film that weaves art, music, history and technology with emotion and inspiration, tells the extraordinary story of Holocaust survivor Frank "Misa" Grunwald.
History shows that nearly 1.5 million children were murdered during the Holocaust between 1933 and 1945. Grunwald was one of fewer than 300 children to escape death from the "camp-ghetto" at Terezin (or Theresienstadt) in the Czech Republic, a facility used by the Nazis as a tool of deception.
Grunwald is now 80 and living in Fishers, Ind. More than 66 years after his liberation, the twists, turns and torments of his four-year ordeal and miraculous survival have been artfully documented by a collaboration of more than 200 former and current students, 10 teachers who spanned six different departments in Fleetwood Area High School, a small handful of independent filmmaking professionals, and five international organizations.
Misa's Fugue began with Gaston's happenstance introduction to Grunwald, an epiphany and scribbles in a notebook some 22 months ago at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Belfer "Next Step" Conference in Indianapolis.
After hearing Grunwald's story and viewing several of the hundreds of family photos that miraculously survived the war, Gaston asked Grunwald if his story had ever been documented. Grunwald said yes, but not to his satisfaction. A retired industrial designer and adjunct professor at Purdue University, Grunwald connected with Gaston over a mutual love of the arts and agreed that he would be willing to share his life with students in a school several hundred miles away.
Following his meeting with Grunwald, Gaston called his then-colleague and U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum teacher fellow and 10th year Social Studies teacher, Jennifer Goss. He pitched the idea and then asked her to help him produce the film, placing her in charge of procuring the initial funding. Goss, said,
"The entire film has been community funded," he said. "The initial donation came from the Jewish Federation of Reading. Other community groups and individual donors came on board and helped to bring this project to life."
Gaston, who had 15 years of experience in the film industry prior to becoming a teacher, directed the project and served as producer and as one of the screenwriters. Goss, a noted Holocaust educator, produced and also served as the film's historical consultant and assisted with the screenwriting.
The project took off and grew in ways that the pair hadn't imagined. "It has consumed every spare second of our lives for nearly three years," Goss said. "It's become just so much more than a simple film."
The film premiered in Reading in April 2012. More than 400 supporters, local notables, students and their families were in attendance. The premiere was accompanied by a display of the student artwork that is interwoven throughout the film.
Since the premiere, the film has been selected to participate in several prestigious film festivals, including the Phoenix Film Festival, the Philadelphia Film Festival, the Zagreb (Croatia) Jewish Film Festival and the Greater Reading Film Festival. In July, it will play at the New Hope (Pa.) Film Festival, which was recently dubbed the "Sundance of the East" by major news media outlets. It is also slated to play next month in Australia at the Jewish Holocaust Center in Victoria.
Misa's Fugue has also garnered several awards. The Pennsylvania School Press Association awarded its Rachel S. Turner Award to the project in November. The film also recently won five Telly Awards, a prestigious award in the film industry. The film was recognized for its achievements in the categories in Education, Production, Art Direction and Historical Biography.
It also won the highest Telly Award, the Silver Telly, in the People's Choice category.
In October, the film was specially screened for staff and volunteers at the U.S. Holocause Memorial Museum. It has even garnered attention from Emmy-award winning actor Michael Constantine and Playtone Productions co-founder Gary Goetzman. Both personally reached out to the producers to share their positive impressions of the film. Goetzman has also written a letter of support for the project.
Since April, the team has distributed 1,000 DVDs of Misa's Fugue at nominal pack-and-ship costs to high schools, non-profits and museums that illuminate Holocaust history and to project donors. Funding from backers, such as the Jewish Federation of Reading, the Albright College Holocaust Resource Center, the Pennsylvania Holocaust Education Council, local synagogues and many anonymous donors are enabling that plan, as well as other education partnership projects.
Gaston has been humbled by the experience and grateful for the opportunity.
"This man trusted me with his legacy," he said, noting his life will forever be galvanized by his friendship with Frank Grunwald. "It is a huge responsibility that I never took lightly.
"I hope everyone who sees this film realizes the underlying message of education that goes beyond a classroom, a textbook, a standardized test," Gaston said. "This is a lesson and an experience about humanity these kids will remember the rest of their lives." According to Goss, who now teaches at Robert E. Lee HS in Staunton, Va., the project was truly "life changing."
The students who participated agree.
To extend this mission, the pair is distributing the film on a "not-for-profit" basis fueled by donations. Their goal is to get it into high school and university libraries and classrooms across the country and around the world. To date, the film has been shared in numerous states across the country and at least a dozen other nations around the world.
On Saturday, June 22, Misa's Fugue will air on WFMZ-TV at 8:30 p.m.