'An Unknown Country' explores stories of Jews fleeing Nazi persecution to find refuge in Ecuador
The documentary, An Unknown Country, tells the story of European Jews who escaped Nazi persecution to find refuge in an unlikely destination: Ecuador. Emmy winner and director Eva Zelig — herself one of the children born in Ecuador to exiles who had effected a perilous escape and made the difficult adjustment to a country they knew little about — has compiled testimony and archival material into a 90-minute independent film. It has been selected to be screened at the Ecuadorian Film Festival in New York City June 20.
AL DIA: What prompted you to make this project?
How long did it take to make? Was tracking down interviews the most difficult part?
The aim was for the film to be about the country that offered them refuge as much as about the exile experience. The stories exiles told about how they lost all their rights, possessions, and family at the hands of the Nazis, and their heartbreaking efforts to find a country that would give them asylum are fascinating, but couldn’t be dealt with fully in a documentary about the Ecuador experience. I had to discard some absorbing narratives of the European experience to concentrate on the bigger picture.
Another big challenge was the process of gathering archival images, family photos, and vintage documents. It required time, persistence, and ingenuity.
Did the folks who ended up in Ecuador know anything about it before moving there? Do you have a sense of what they thought before and immediately after?
Do you think most folks depicted always felt like Europeans in Ecuador?
We were a group apart and often identified with Europe and the U.S. more than with Ecuador. My interviews confirmed this: most children of refugees invariably described themselves as "citizens of the world." I, too, had always described myself that way despite having been born in Ecuador.
Did you discover information that surprised you?
Another surprising discovery was that the archives of Ecuador's Ministry of Foreign Affairs preserve many records of Jewish exile to Ecuador. It was there I discovered that Ecuador's consuls in Europe had the power of life and death and that some had risked their positions to save lives.
Did most of the families eventually leave Ecuador? Did any remain?
Tell me a little about the actual production and post-production of the film
Terence signed on as a producer and editor, and we started shaping the narrative to see what was missing. The following year I went back to Ecuador for additional shooting, and we continued what was a two-year journey of structuring the story and refining the narrative. The first cut was three hours long, and it took much of the last year to bring it down to ninety minutes.
While we edited the video footage, I gathered archival footage and photos from everyone I had interviewed. Pictures were scanned at high resolution, and many restored with great new digital graphic tools. It was amazing to see two or three inch wide photos, faded and decades old, turn into full screen landscapes we brought to life. Stephen Graziano’s wonderful score, and local music of Ecuador, were the last elements we needed to successfully tell the story.
Tell me about the screenings, and will this be in limited distribution afterwards?
Audience reactions were very emotional. Many of those who attended said they were greatly moved and those who had a connection to the Ecuadorian saga felt the film was their legacy and an important historical document of that community and that moment in history. Soon after, the film was shown to the Jewish community of Quito, Ecuador to an audience of 350. The reaction was equally emotional and positive.
Another screening took place in the city of Cuenca, Ecuador, organized by the university of Cuenca. The film was also screened on opening night of a film series about human rights at a major museum in Cuenca, and in New York at the Lower East Side Festival of the Arts. I’m proud to announce that the Ecuadorian Film Festival in New York, which beginsJune 17, has also selected my film. The screening will take place Saturday, June 20 at Tribeca Cinemas in New York City.
So, we’re getting it out there.... [It has been] exhausting, but in the end well worth it. I began what for me was a personal journey, to tell the story of my community, how it began and developed. From the audience reaction we’ve had at screenings and festivals, I now realize it became a larger, more universal story of emigration, perseverance, and survival, echoed in current events. These people went through experiences many are repeating today. I hope the film fulfills a vital mission in capturing and preserving the stories of those who witnessed and endured one of the most harrowing periods of the 20th century. Recording the stories of their past, giving them shape, has helped me, and I think others, to better understand many aspects of the world today.