November 2, 2000
Documentary examines life of "Japan's Schindler"
Diane Estelle Vicari and Robert Kirk cheered when the Japanese foreign ministry apologized to Chiune Sugihara's family this month.
The filmmakers' acclaimed documentary, "Sugihara: Conspiracy of Kindness," which screens at the International Jewish Film Festival this month, helped build the international pressure that pushed Japan to posthumously acknowledge its greatest Holocaust hero.
"Sugihara" tells of the diplomat who defied his government by issuing thousands of visas to help Jews flee Kovno, Lithuania, on the cusp of the Shoah. For four harrowing weeks in summer 1941, Sugihara worked 16-hour days to complete the visas before the Russians shut down his consulate. He scribbled more on the ride to the train station while leaving the country; still more on the railroad platform while desperate Jews clung to the window of his train compartment. "He was so exhausted, like a sick person," his widow, Yukiko, recalls in the documentary.
Because of Sugihara's courage, more than 40,000 Jews, survivors and their descendants, are alive today. But disobeying orders cost him dearly. After the war, the "Japanese Schindler" was dismissed from government service and reduced to menial work. He spent his later years working in Moscow, where he lived alone in a squalid hotel room. "He barely smiled," Sugihara's grandson says in the movie.
The attention granted "Conspiracy of Kindness" is helping to right the old wrong. This year, the movie won best documentary at the Hollywood Film Festival; there was a standing ovation at a United Nations screening and Japanese leaders have expressed interest in a private screening. Just last month, the filmmakers won the prestigious International Documentary Association/Pare Lorentz Award.
Producer Vicari, 45, who took up filmmaking eight years ago, accepted her prize while recovering from pneumonia contracted while completing the documentary. "It's been an incredibly long, difficult journey," she says,"but also an incredible honor."
Vicari admits she's the last person one would expect to obsess for more than four years about a Holocaust-themed film. She grew up French-Catholic in the flat farm country outside Montreal, the daughter of a barn-and-silo painter-contractor. Not a single Jew lived in her town, she says, and not a single word was taught about the Holocaust at her Catholic school.
"There wasn't any anti-Semitism, but there was terrible racism," adds the producer, who defied her parents by riding her bicycle onto the Indian reservation or meeting Iroquois friends at a Dairy Queen three miles from home. When her neighbors spewed epithets about Native Americans, she knew they were lying.
That explains why Vicari was riveted when she learned about the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis. In 1994, Vicari, a fashion designer-turned-filmmaker, volunteered to work at Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, where she was appalled to discover she knew next to nothing about the Holocaust. She immersed herself in Shoah research, sat in on interviews and then began to interview survivor after survivor.
But the endeavor took its toll. Vicari suffered nightmares after every interview - until she chanced to learn about Chiune Sugihara.
The scene was a reception honoring the diplomat's widow at the Museum of Tolerance in February 1995. Tiny, graceful, soft-spoken Yukiko Sugihara recalled the sad crowd outside the Kovno consulate; the Jewish women gazing at her with "great sorrow" or pleading with clasped hands.
"Previously, I had learned only about the victims and the perpetrators of the Holocaust," Vicari says. "Learning about Sugihara was like a pearl."
Director Kirk, who is Jewish, admits he previously turned down every Holocaust-themed project that had come his way. "I was chicken," he says. "I thought it would be too painful. But Sugihara's story was uplifting."
"Conspiracy of Kindness" posits that the diplomat dared disobey his government because he was an iconoclast: He defied his father by refusing to enter medical school; he quit his post in Manchuria after witnessing Japanese atrocities there; he spoke fluent Russian and German and was, Kirk says, "an internationalist."
Vicari, for her part, hopes to dedicate the rest of her career to subjects worthy of Sugihara. Her next film will expose neo-Nazism in the U.S. "We see the Holocaust as something outside America, but we're wearing blinders," she says. "We don't realize that hatred is alive and well among us."
"Sugihara" screens 7:30 p.m., Nov. 14, at Laemmle's Music Hall in Beverly Hills. For information, call (818) 786-4000.