By Sam Ball
I grew up surrounded by stories; it’s why I became a documentary filmmaker. My grandparents were fabulous storytellers and I loved listening to colorful accounts of their lives, including mythical descriptions of far-flung family, optimistic tales about starting a new life in America, and difficult stories of surviving the Nazis in Europe. Their stories made the past come alive. They made history part of my own experience.
Storytelling has always played a central role in the Jewish community. From the first maggids (religious storytellers) to Sholem Aleichem, who reached a mass audience in the golden age of Yiddish newspapers, to great American writers like Cynthia Ozick and Will Eisner, who invented the graphic novel, Jews have told stories to engage a community, wrestle with history, and chart a way forward.
It’s perhaps no accident that many American filmmakers are Jewish. Here in America, Jews found a freer, more fluid society than the European and North African countries they left, and they took advantage of that opportunity to contribute to American culture, and help create American myths. According to Joseph Campbell, myth is the collective dream of a people. The Talmud and the great novels and films of Jewish artists are part of our collective dreams.
At Citizen Film, we believe that storytelling is inseparable from the work of building and sustaining communities. We also believe that storytelling is education: parsing stories draws a line between past and present, and allows us to see today’s struggles in historical context. Whether you call it tikkun olam or seeking to make the world a better place, Citizen Film’s media projects draw on history to invite tough questions and inspire action when confronted with complex issues.
For the past several years, Citizen Film has been working closely with educators at Columbia; Stanford; the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Michigan; and several other major institutions, with the help of partners like The Covenant Foundation, which – along with the Jim Joseph Foundation – seeded our New Media in Jewish Studies Initiative.
Through that initiative, we’ve launched projects including American Creed, a PBS documentary and multiplatform public engagement project, asks, “what does it mean to be American?” which has also spurred a robust student-engagement campaign. (To watch the film, go to www.pbs.org/americancreed.) Guided, around the country, by local chapters of Facing History and Ourselves and the National Writing Project, students are creating their own digital essays and videos exploring American identity. Our work with Facing History and Ourselves includes curriculum designed specifically for Jewish high school students across the country to explore their own part of the American story.
We’re also working with scholars Jeremy Dauber and Sebastian Shulman to create a definitive website and multimedia portal exploring the life and work of Sholem Aleichem, “the Jewish Mark Twain.” His first-person descriptions of the upheavals Jews experienced 100 years ago still speak to us today. His stories about a mischievous and keenly observant boy who flees Europe for America are particularly resonant.
What We Carry With Us: A Refugee StoryLab is a storytelling collaboration with Francesco Spagnolo, curator of University of California, Berkeley’s Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life. As part of his work curating objects and stories, Spagnolo collects the prized possessions of refugees who escaped persecution in Nazi-controlled Europe. Our project also works with new refugees who have fled oppression and have resettled in the United States thanks to programs that were established by American-Jewish organizations in response to the Holocaust.
What We Carry with Us fosters meaningful exchange between today’s refugees and the Jewish community, and builds bridges between the Jewish community and others who are concerned with the current refugee crisis. Thanks to new media technologies that enable real-time, face-to-face storytelling in public spaces, our project has engaged tens of thousands of people.
From these projects and many others happening around the country, I’ve learned that storytelling can be a powerful tool for building empathy. Storytelling can create a bond between a Jewish man who fled Germany in 1938 with his family, and a young gay Ugandan man who fled his country alone in 2014 after watching his partner stoned to death by a government-sponsored mob. When they unite to share their stories with audiences, through documentaries, in-person or virtually through the multimedia storytelling events we’ve created, the conversation is more impactful than when they tell their stories in isolation. Each man left his country carrying his most precious belongings in a small backpack. Each of them began anew after suffering political oppression. Each of them now counts their stories among their prized possessions.
Sam Ball is co-founder and director of Citizen Film, a San Francisco-based documentary media company that generates dynamic storytelling through multi-partner initiatives, ranging from PBS programming to sculptural multimedia installations in public spaces. Citizen Film’s projects combine compelling stories, education, and civic engagement and have been exhibited at many of America’s most prestigious documentary venues, from the Sundance Film Festival to MoMa-NY; and from parklands in San Francisco to Jewish museums around the world.