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Who Will Write Our History

Movie review by
Michael Ordona, Common Sense Media
Who Will Write Our History Movie Poster Image
Powerful Holocaust docu has disturbing images, stories.
  • NR
  • 2019
  • 95 minutes

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We think this movie stands out for:

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Features extraordinary examples of courage, compassion, foresight, the will to survive.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The courageous contributors to the Oyneg Shabes Archive risk their lives to preserve testaments to their culture and a horrific chapter in human history. Based on their writings, several of them are deeply connected to others' struggles.

Violence

No actual acts of violence shown. But their grisly aftermath -- in form of mass graves or bodies left in streets -- is prevalent. Disturbing images are seen, upsetting stories are told, including accounts of rape and murder, sometimes of entire families.

Sex

Nonsexual nudity in archival footage, in photographs of Holocaust victims' bodies.

Language
Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Who Will Write Our History is a Holocaust documentary about an archive of personal histories kept by Jews facing death in the Warsaw Ghetto. The movie's narrations come from these writings by people who were trapped in that tiny section of the Polish city, experiencing starvation and brutality at the hands of the Nazis. Viewers can expect to see disturbing images from archival footage and photos; there's discussion of atrocities, including rape and the murder of children. Polish actors Jowita Budnik and Piotr Jankowski are among those who play real people in the film's re-enactments; Joan Allen and Adrien Brody read narrations from the found texts, which features extraordinary examples of courage and compassion.

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What's the story?

In WHO WILL WRITE OUR HISTORY, re-enactments introduce viewers to a doctor and a journalist who live among Jews trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto and are members of a secret society dedicated to preserving personal histories of the Holocaust, written as they're happening. The Oyneg Shabes Archive was able to compile about 30,000 pages of documents, cultural posters, official pronouncements, and artifacts before it was buried by its keepers, almost all of whom eventually died at the Nazis' hands. This heavily re-enacted documentary takes its dialogue from those extraordinary diaries.

Is it any good?

No matter how many movies are made about it, the Holocaust will likely never lose its power to shock and sadden; this documentary finds an angle that will be new to most viewers. The courage and foresight that it took for those imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto's nightmarish conditions to risk their lives for a kind of time capsule -- a testament to not only horrific crimes but to their own lives and culture, should none of them survive -- is remarkable. As the Nazis' tactics graduated from institutionalized starvation to open genocide, the society's contributors realized that their writings could end up as evidence at murder trials, including their own. That the dialogue of Who Will Write Our History is from those very documents -- and that the filmmakers found archival footage to accompany much of it -- makes the film particularly powerful.

That said, the filmmakers' reliance on re-enactments is discomfiting at times. Without them, of course there would be no way to visually represent certain moments described in the texts. But you start to feel a bit uneasy watching actors giving so many performances in a film that's intented to be a documentary. The filmmmakers use cinematic cues to announce when footage is staged -- primarily shifting from black-and-white into color -- but the line still occasionally blurs. Viewers are pulled out of the moment, wondering whether the horrible act just shown was real. Still, the unique story angle -- the crafting of the Oyneg Shabes Archive -- and the often haunting actual texts make Who Will Write Our History a worthy entry in the canon.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the disturbing images and stories in Who Will Write Our History. How did they affect you compared to similar situations in fiction films? Why do you think that is?

  • Was the archive project an important one? Why?

  • How do the featured stories demonstrate courage and compassion? Why are those important character strengths?

  • How does this film fill in your historical knowledge of the WWII era? What questions does it answer, or what important context does it give you? How does it add to your understanding? Does it humanize history for you?

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