Ben Ferencz is a name we should know. But we don’t. His name should have the same recognition as Gandhi, Mother Teresa, or Martin Luther King, but he remains unknown.
Ben Ferencz is 99-years-old. His life story is extraordinary. He has lived through the World Wars, and he tweets! What has he done to deserve such recognition, to be ranked up there with saints and heroes, Ferencz is the only surviving Nuremberg prosecutor. Ferencz stood in the courtroom in front of Nazi SS officers who were accused of killing men, women and children in their towns and villages. He has seen history and is a living witness to the genocide that has since occurred. His secret is hope, optimism and keeping his mind active.
Barry Avrich was inspired after seeing 60 Minutes profile Ferencz to make a documentary about him and his contribution to society. Avrich’s documentary Prosecuting Evil is extraordinary as it is gripping as Avrich tells Ferencz’s story. I caught up with Avrich to talk about the rush to film and deliver the documentary.
When was the first time you heard Ben’s story, was it through a newspaper article or how did you discover it?
I had never heard of him. I think like many Americans; he remained in his 98 years, an unsung and an uncelebrated hero. He should have the recognition of Mother Teresa or the Dalai Lama or Martin Luther King. I’d never heard of him until 2017. when 60 Minutes ran a profile on Ben. I saw that on Sunday night, on Monday, I had located Ben and was on the phone with him. I said, “I have to make a film about your life.” He said, “Fine. Let’s do it. Let’s go.” In two weeks, we were rolling. I felt that not only as a duty to the world to hear his story, but I felt a commitment to him and show it to him while he was with us. That was really important to me, and I’ve never worked that hard in post-production in my life to get a rough cut of the film done and rush to see Ben in the Winter. It was an expedited six months of post-production to get to him and to show him the film. His reaction was emotional and fulfilling.
What was that like for you, as a filmmaker to sit down with him? He is an unsung hero. He’s gone through so much, and he’s still alive. You have the main source.
That’s it. I’ve made close to fifty documentaries and so many of them have been about people who are dead or in jail. To have a living hero/witness was spectacular. I literally had to turn the camera on and let Ben tell his story. Then, I’d illustrate it with great footage and other interviews. It’s a very simple film, but it’s extraordinarily powerful.
What I really loved about it, in a lot of documentaries, there’s always a tragedy or something that happens in their childhood, but this was just one positive turn after another. He’s also so alert.
I’ll see him this Fall. He’s done a dozen screenings with me. We did a private screening at the International Criminal Court. He continues to fly and be active at 99-years-old. He was a prosecutor at Nuremberg, and that was great. He goes on to do so much more. It’s so incredibly powerful.
How do you craft the story and condense it down when there’s so much to tell?
It could have been a six-part series. There is no doubt about that. Ben’s life lends itself to that. We just acquired his life rights to develop as a scripted film. I think in this, the challenge with Ben’s life is there are so many acts and so many adventures. I spent fifteen hours filming him. I was flying around the world, and it was a very difficult editing job.
After the film was made, Ben enquired about a couple of other heroic stories that weren’t in the film, and I said, “Ben, you never told me those stories.” He just has so much. In nearly fifty films, it was just the hardest editing job ever. I felt the right amount of time and the right selling points were there that were really illustrated and reflecting his life. It was not easy. It’s a film I’ve seen over and over. I’m thrilled every time I watch it with an audience because it’s entertaining given the subject matter.
What was it like to hear him talk about the events and the Holocaust?
Anytime I sit down to do an interview, and I’ve done a lot of interviews, my process is that I don’t use notes. I study very hard because if you and I can have a very in-depth conversation without us losing eye contact, I’m going to have a powerful interview. Add on the effort of sitting down with Ben Ferencz who has seen history over and over and so much detail. It was extraordinarily intimidating, emotional at times. He was getting weepy and I was weeping. It was tough. It was re-living living history with this man. We had four or five cameras, but with him, I couldn’t take my eyes off of him.
That’s the impact of him, you wanted to hear everything he had to say.
I think the one thing watching this is realizing how one person can make a difference. He did make a difference.
What I took away from the film was Ben’s sense of optimism. It’s so easy to throw the world out given what’s going on politically, and from a human right’s perspective, all over the world. Ben has seen the worst of it with the Second World War. He’s seen it over and over and over again, all over the world from the Middle East to the USA and beyond. He remains optimistic. I take away two lessons from him; his sense of optimism. You have to keep having a sense of conviction about things, and then hope that there is a better day and a better world.
His sense from a geriatric perspective of staying relevant. We’re all aging, and people give up. This is a man; there’s no question, that the lesson in keeping one’s mind active is the answer. You can’t fool or cheat death. God forbid you have dementia. Ben has kept his mind active. You can sit down and have a conversation. There’s no pretension about him. He is who he is. He’s not distracted by glittery objects. He is a man who stays focused. He’s completely fascinating. I think he’s one of the most interesting subjects I’ve ever covered.
Did he tell you his secret to life?
He reads constantly. He has an iPhone. He’s on the internet. He’s not a typical person who has gotten older and says, “I can’t deal with technology, so to hell with it.” He has stayed relevant.
He had to keep moving. He feels that. With that comes being active. He swims and he does push-ups. The swim is a metaphor for this man who keeps active, and who keeps moving. He keeps swimming upstream and that’s why you see it in the film.
In the age of seeing documentaries such as RBG, the message is inspiring and there’s so much more here.
What was your biggest challenge here, you talked about the editing?
The biggest challenge in editing is that it’s a double-edged sword. You want a choice. The worst thing is to be in an editing room and not have a choice. To not be able to challenge the editor to look at a different story or different perspective is never a situation I never want to be in. The other edge is to have too much. In Ben’s case, the real challenge was, this wasn’t purely a Holocaust or Nuremberg story. This was a story about a man who is continuing to make history and to change lives. Nuremberg was only the beginning. It’s a fascinating trial. Again, the challenge was to show a man as relevant as he was then, as he is today. That is the key.