Slated with weekly sessions of Hebrew school from the age of five to 14, I've seen more Holocaust documentaries than I can remember — and many I can never forget.
Some of the most powerful entries painted the tragedy with a daunting grandeur; others, of equal effect, related with the audiences through vivid personal stories. What makes an account of this historical black mark most commanding is its will to carry forth full force with its message, not to safeguard the public from the atrocities inherent in the subject matter. 50 Children, which aired Monday night on HBO, tells a wonderful story of two individuals — Philadelphia residents Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, who traveled to Nazi-occupied Germany on a mission to rescue 50 Jewish children from the clutches of the monstrous reign. The documentary, narrated by Alan Alda, interviews a handful of the now-grown beneficiaries of the Kraus' heroism, touching softly upon the great deeds of the American couple in the face of Hitler's growing tyranny.
But as far as Holocaust documentaries go, 50 Children is a softball feature. It is beyond unfortunate that in discussion of such a time, the simple idea of leagues of children in danger is not enough to thematically capture the severity in question. Such is the shortcoming of 50 Children, a film that treads a bit too lightly when its subject warrants weight and agony.
One could argue, instead, that 50 Children aims to shed a light on a beam of shining light in this dark era, that glowing positivity being Mr. and Mrs. Kraus. And in doing so, it earns the luxury of shying away from some of the most explicity horrors of the time. After all, it is remarkably important to highlight the hope in episodes of tragedy. In showcasing this, in delivering a story of 50 young boys and girls rescued thanks to the Kraus family, 50 Children does the tremendous service of exemplifying hope in the most hopeless of times. But as an instruction to those only learning about the Holocaust, 50 Children seems to fall short of capturing the era. There's almost too much hope in this film; 50 Children, as an artistic project, neglects to instigate a presence of this unparalleled conflict, instead entrusting the viewer's knowledge of the Holocaust to fuel the necessity for the Kraus' deeds.
But it is important to never lapse in this endeavor, to never free ourselves from the present memories of the Holocaust. 50 Children's task is well-intended and inspiring, but it lacks an important component of telling an uplifting story about a dark time: the illustration of the dark time itself.
Follow Michael Arbeiter on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter
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A shot of a gun pointed at a harmless little kitten. A dismembered head lying by itself in the middle of a road. A look at teenagers beating themselves with chains in the name of God. These are just a few of the shocking moments seen in HBO’s new documentary series VICE — a program that tackles the kind of stories that mainstream media overlooks or is afraid to approach.
In Episode 1, host Shane Smith and correspondent Ryan Duffy take the viewers on two completely different journeys. In the first story, Duffy explores the ins and outs of the election process in the Philippines, and uses satire to compare the election season to hunting season. In Part 2, Smith embarks upon a more emotional venture to share the stories of children suicide bombers who work for the Taliban.
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The show begins with Duffy’s story, “Assassination Nation.” The cameras follow him as he meets with the country’s governor, who is about to begin another campaign. Remembering the 100 plus people that were killed during election season in 2010, Duffy ignores the country’s political tensions and dives right into the deepest and darkest waters of the story. He and his team do a great job at exploring both sides of the issue; there’s no denying that they have incredible access. In one scene, Duffy literally sits in the backseat with the governor during a military convoy. In the next, the rebel militia general is taking him on a tour his secret camp.
While most reporters would be scared s***less to be put in these situations, Duffy does it with a smile, and even interjects his sense of humor throughout. In one shot, the camera focuses on an innocent kitten that has a gun pointed at it — perhaps meant to represent in inevitability of assassination attempts on the governor's life, no matter how much security he has, or touching on the illegal manufacture of guns by the rebels.
The show’s ironic tone continues to develop as Duffy again joins the convoy of the governor. All of sudden, the trip is halted when hundreds of men start getting out of their cars with guns to protect the governor. While we are at first led to believe that the rebels are about to attack, it turns out that the governor just has to use the bathroom.
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While Duffy's story is riddled with humor like this, Smith's takes a different form of narration. There are no slight jabs in this half. It’s just a serious and emotional story about the poor Afghan children who the Taliban brainwash to act as suicide bombers. While Smith takes us through the story by interviewing children who made failed attempts at bombings, and chatting with high ranking officials who condone these death missions, the cameras add images of extremely distrubing scenes to drive his points home. Shock value at its highest takes form when the camera captures shots of a severed head lying in the middle of the road and teenage martyrs beating themselves with chains. One scene even displays piles of bodies after one such bombing occurs — and the segment even opens up with footage of 9/11.
Yes, these scenes are graphic, but they serve their purpose. Viewers are called to understand the emotional warfare waged on these children and used to turn them into killers. And in the end, you are left viewing the kids not as heartless murderers, but as innocent children who are unable to control the fact that they are getting brainwashed by mad men.
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This show may dare to push the odds of what’s acceptable in front of the news camera, but you couldn’t expect anything else from an HBO news series produced by Bill Maher.
VICE premieres Friday night at 11 PM on HBO. Tune in.
Follow Lindsey on Twitter @LDiMat.
[Photo Credit: HBO]
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