The Sarasota Jewish Film Festival commenced this past Sunday and is in full swing as the director of An Article of Hope, Dan Cohen, visits Sarasota to accompany his film. An Article of Hope is a documentary that tells the story of Ilan Ramon, former Israeli fighter pilot and later the first Israeli astronaut and his part in the tragic Columbia space shuttle mission. We here at SRQ Backlot had the fortune of speaking with Dan Cohen about what inspired him to tell this story and how it evolved throughout the seven-year production period.
“I’m a confessed space-geek; I live and breathe space exploration,” Cohen declares, “A couple weeks after the accident I saw an article buried in the back of the paper about this little Torah scroll that Ilan Ramon had carried with him into space.” Cohen explains how this article intrigued him both as a filmmaker and as a follower of Judaism; “I looked at it and thought wow, what an interesting way for me as a filmmaker to tell a holocaust story to a new generation.”
The story begins with the shuttle’s failure to land but from that somber start we’re taken on an inspirational journey as we watch not only Ramon’s course towards becoming an astronaut but also the story behind the Torah scroll which he took with him to space. Ramon was an extremely successful fighter pilot and quickly worked his way up the ranks of the Israeli army leading to nationwide recognition and eventually his designation as a Payload Specialist on the Columbia shuttle. During his near five years of training for the mission (an unusually long time due to a slew of mission push-backs) Ramon became close friends with Joachim Joseph, or “Yoya,” who was a physicist on the Israeli team that assisted Ramon prior and throughout the mission from ground level. Joseph, a survivor of the Holocaust, acquired the scroll while he was held at Bergen-Belsen Nazi concentration camp. A rabbi at the camp gave Joseph the scroll as a gift. The rabbi took great lengths to perform Joseph’s Bar Mitzvah upon learning of his approaching 13th Birthday. Joseph accepted the scroll on the condition that he would share his story of survival and the atrocities of Bergen-Belsen with the world; the Rabi was confident that Joseph would make it out of the camp though he himself would not. Deeply touched by Joseph’s story, Ramon, son of two Holocaust survivors, asked if he could take the scroll with him on the mission and Joseph happily obliged.
Sketches are used to illustrate the scenes that depict the concentration camp and Cohen went to great lengths to acquire them. The sketches were done by an inmate at Bergen-Belsen and Cohen was able to obtain the sketches from his sister. “I was looking for a new way to tell this story and I found these sketches,” Cohen explains. “The sketches themselves are so ghostly, it’s not what’s in them it’s what isn’t.”
This is just one of the tasks Cohen took on in the making of this extraordinary documentary which took years to make. “Go find some money, film a little bit, go find some money, film a little bit and then try to pay some bills,” he continues, “you really have to be passionate about the story to make a documentary at this level.” Eventually, Cohen was able to find the funding he needed and even had Tom Hanks sign on as one of three executive producers. The documentary, though popular amongst film festivals, both Jewish and traditional, was originally intended for television and premiered last year on PBS. Though Cohen is thankful to have the documentary syndicated, he really enjoys attending film festivals for the opportunity to interact with his audience.
This story is a beautiful in-depth look into what it means to be a survivor and the message of hope is clear throughout its narrative. Cohen manages to incorporate an uplifting tone throughout the film even in its moments of monstrosity and tragedy. Ramon’s decision to take the Torah scroll into space was his effort to demonstrate that even from the depths of hell, one can make it to the heights of space; it’s a impactful story of the endurance of the human spirit.
Be sure to catch tonight’s seven’o’clock screening of An Article of Hope at Lakewood Ranch Cinemas and stick around for a Q&A with Director Dan Cohen.
Watch the trailer for An Article of Hope below: