Born in Montreal in 1954, René Balcer is an internationally acclaimed and Emmy-Award winning showrunner, television writer, filmmaker, director and producer. Renowned for writing and producing the television series “Law & Order” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent”, he has also worked on a variety of other projects, including the series Jo (2012), the documentary The No Name Painting Association (2013) and the television film For Justice (2015). He now presents, as co-director, co-writer and Executive Producer, the compelling documentary Above The Drowning Sea (2017) in its the first UK screening in partnership with Pureland Series at BAFTA.
Tell us about Above the Drowning Sea – what’s the story?
Above the Drowning Sea tells the story of how thousands of Jewish refugees trapped in Nazi Austria and facing extermination escaped to the one country willing to take them - China. They escaped through the intercession of the brave Chinese consul to Austria, Ho Feng Shan, who defied the Nazis and his own government by issuing visas to the refugees, visas that allowed them to leave Austria and board a ship to Shanghai. Just as importantly, they survived by the grace of the residents of Shanghai’s poorest neighborhood who allowed the refugees to live among them at a time when they themselves faced hunger, disease and brutality at the hands of their Japanese occupiers. The film has been well received at festivals and screenings across the US, China, Hong Kong and Europe so we are delighted to be able to bring this story to a UK audience thanks to the Pureland Series who have helped us to organize the first ever UK screening of Above The Drowning Sea at BAFTA on March 8.
How did you first come across the story of Consul Ho Feng Shan?
My wife, who is Shanghainese, told me years ago about the Shanghai Jews and Ho Feng Shan. She herself heard the story from her parents - and from the mouths of former refugees. My wife grew up in the US and in Thailand. Former refugees would approach her family after hearing them speak Shanghainese (Shanghai dialect) and tell them how Shanghai saved their lives.
What prompted you to make the documentary?
The short answer is the 65 million refugees currently on the move worldwide. History may not repeat itself but it does rhyme. I wanted to see the refugee crisis through a historical lens, to find what we might learn. The plight of Jewish refugees in 1938 and for example Syrian refugees today may not be exactly analogous, but the perils both groups faced and the excuses given by countries to exclude them are eerily similar. What I found is that in 1938, these thousands of refugees did not survive through some grandiose humanitarian act by any government or some NGO or religious entity. They survived through the acts of individuals sacrificing their own safety and sharing their meager resources out of nothing more than their common everyday humanity. No one told Ho Feng Shan to sign visas, no one told the residents of Hong Kew to welcome the refugees. Individuals can and do make a difference. I think that is a good lesson to learn, one apparently that we need to learn again and again.
This must have been a particularly tough story to unfold. What aspect or element in particular did you find resonated most strongly with you?
All our interview subjects, Jewish and Chinese, were children or teenagers when these events took place. I was moved by how much they are still affected by what they experienced. One former refugee talks about seeing Chinese children dead from starvation and disease wrapped up in straw mats and waiting for the Monday garbage collection. Even though seventy years have gone by, he had to struggle to control his emotions as he talked about it. The other thing that resonated was just how resilient the refugees and the Chinese who welcomed them are. The refugees of course went through great turmoil, but so did the Chinese - a civil war, Japanese occupation, the deprivations of Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution. And yet the Chinese and the refugees emerged with their generous spirit intact.
How difficult was it to find the materials and testimonies necessary to tell this story? Did you encounter any challenges or reticence in the process?
The refugees and the Chinese were very happy to share their recollections. The challenge was mostly a logistical one - the film is shot in six countries across four continents. As for the archival material, that was a little more challenging; we tried to use historical footage that had not been seen before, footage that conveyed a certain intimacy or detail. For example, the red balloons with swastikas - I’d never seen them before. Leave it to the Nazis to be masters of merchandising. Of course, this kind of footage hasn’t been commonly used for the good reason it’s not easy to find. Our research team deserves high praise for ferreting out this stuff.
Tell us more about the hand drawn animations that permeate the documentary and so beautifully capture some of the memories of the refugees and the families who sheltered them.
My co-director and co-writer Nicola Zavaglia has used animation in a number of his documentaries - in fact in the first documentary we did in 1978, Nicola used naif paintings to illustrate the Italian immigrant experience. Animation is very effective to illustrate a state of mind, to convey a unique way of looking at the world that live footage cannot. It is also less expensive and less cumbersome than dressing a period set, hiring actors, etc. This time, since many of our witnesses had been children during the war, we felt that animation would help convey a child’s experience of the refugee story. Our terrific animator Suzie Synnott drew her inspiration from the paintings of Charlotte Salomon, a Jewish German artist who was murdered at Auschwitz at the age of 26.
The documentary frames the tragedy faced by thousands of mid-twentieth century German/Austrian Jewish families seeking refuge within the contemporary refugee crisis. How do you place these two historical moments in conversation? And where do you place Above the Drowning Sea within this dialogue?
As I said earlier, there are parallels between the two situations. Not exact parallels, of course, but to a child in the middle of it, homeless, afraid, cold and hungry, those distinctions matter little. And the excuses given by governments today to exclude refugees echo those given by the governments of 1938 to exclude the Jewish refugees. In 1938, Australia said it was afraid of importing a racial problem and that refugees would exacerbate the country’s unemployment. Franklin Roosevelt said that German spies and terrorists might hide among the refugees. Any of this sound familiar? It’s probably the only time that Donald Trump has ever channeled Franklin Roosevelt. As for Above the Drowning Sea, film can show people as what they are, but it can also show them as what they could be. Some 25,000 Jewish refugees were saved through small individual acts of courage and generosity.
What would you say is the legacy of Consul Ho Feng Shan’s extraordinary intervention on contemporary Shanghai and Jewish communities globally?
Even though Ho Feng Shan worked in the service of Chiang Kai Shek’s KMT, he has been embraced by today’s Chinese communist government. The city of Shanghai has renovated a former synagogue into the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, “Little Vienna” has been spruced up and the Chinese have made targeted overtures to attract Jewish tourists and investors. The Chinese government may have political and economic reasons to co-opt the rescue of the Jewish refugees, despite the fact that the refugees were saved precisely because there was no government in Shanghai in 1939. Still, the Chinese people who know the story are rightfully proud that their countrymen in 1939 helped the Jews survive. They did so, I believe, because it was in the Chinese character to do so. Antisemitism was largely unknown in China then. But maybe the bigger factor was the Confucian upbringing of most Chinese at the time. Confucius taught that we are all born equal - it is only through education and filial duty that we distinguish ourselves. The Chinese had no reason to think less of the Jews because they were Jewish or poor or homeless. As one Chinese witness says in the film, “They were just like us.”
The Pureland Series invites inspirational speakers and like-minded people to share their visions of a world grounded in compassion, empowerment, spirituality and creativity. The series is hosted by the Pureland Foundation, supporting charitable endeavours to promote social, spiritual and emotional wellness. It also aims to enrich lives through art and music.