When Tsipy Gur discovered Emmai Alaquiva, she knew that she had found gold. Alaquiva, an Emmy-award winning multimedia professional, “is extremely creative and someone who I am excited to work with,” said the Israeli executive director of Classrooms Without Borders. Nonetheless, getting Alaquiva to join her on a trip to Poland was a bit more challenging.
“As an African-American male, to go over to Poland, I was absolutely terrified,” said Alaquiva.
So although the director agreed in principle to participate in the CWB excursion, actually showing up wasn’t as simple.
As close as a week before the group departed, Alaquiva was “using excuses” in order not to go, he explained.
“I cannot even find the adjectives to describe how terrified I was” of venturing to the radically unfamiliar place.
He was really “worried,” remarked Gur; however, “I felt that he needed to get out of his comfort zone.”
So, alongside students, staff and teachers, Alaquiva traveled with Gur to Eastern Europe to chart a living history of 20th-century Jewry.
As transformative of an experience as it was for Alaquiva, the payoff may be even greater for others. While relying upon his expertise in direction, production and composition, the Pittsburgh native crafted “Ghetto Steps,” a short documentary about the 2016 trip.
Unlike other Holocaust related films, “Ghetto Steps” has a multilayered and spiritually rousing feel reflecting the director’s personal narrative.
The cinematographic construction reflects “the voice in my ear,” which was saying to me, “Tell the story in a soulful, emotional way, in a different perspective than a Jewish cinematographer would.”
Such is evident from the visual and audio mix of chants, narrative voice-over and juxtaposed historical and present-day footage that surrounds the opening scene of the nearly 16-minute piece.
In a departure from more traditional movies, “Ghetto Shots,” with its mesmerizing score, relies little on violin or klezmer music to set the stage for past Jewish life. Instead, Alaquiva places the voice of Avi Ben Hur, a CWB educator, over colorless shots alongside extemporaneous participant reaction to inform viewers. Similarly, camera angles capture talking heads in the way that one would encounter another person in conversation. The sights and sounds created onscreen consequently create an effect virtually simulating the partaking of the tour.
Perhaps more impressive is Alaquiva’s use of silence. To encapsulate the unspeakable elements of the Holocaust, the Pittsburgh native allows the filming to do the talking. His reel takes on a particular dignity when presenting a Holocaust survivor returning to Auschwitz or detailing a teenager tracing the perfectly preserved train tracks into the death camp. By restricting the actual participants’ reactions, Alaquiva allows the viewer to confront the magnitude of the moment in a largely personal way.
Sharing such junctures offered a profoundly meaningful challenge, said the director.
“This isn’t some trip to Kennywood Park, this is a trip to [a place where] millions of people were destroyed,” he said.
Prior to working with CWB, Alaquiva had never completed a Holocaust-related project. Nonetheless, the charge was well handled by the professional, said Gur.
“I loved working with him because he brings a different perspective to the group.”
Apart from a special screening at the Holocaust Center last week, “Ghetto Steps” has already been seen by scores of digital viewers, including those which awarded it a 2017 Telly Award for best general documentary.
Working on “Ghetto Steps” was “truly an experience that was transformative to my life,” noted Alaquiva.
Although the Holocaust largely affected Jewish people, “I want all of us to learn how [we] can come together as a human race to be more understanding of each other,” he said.
“My hope is that the film can open conversations on how we can become better people for our families, our communities and for the world. This is the only way we are going to get better as a human race, to understand each other’s stories.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.