The Last Survivor: Regarding the Pain of Others

by |
08/12/2010 5:00 PM |


In Philippe Garrel’s Frontier of Dawn, the character played by the director’s son Louis philosophizes: “The day the last concentration camp survivor dies, World War III will start.” I’m still not sure what that line means in Garrel’s film, but I was reminded of it during Michael Pertnoy and Michael Kleiman’s documentary The Last Survivor, which plays tonight at the Walter Reade, with its four stories of people responding to genocide across generational and cultural barriers. The filmmakers began work on a documentary about Holocaust survivors (underwritten by a number of Jewish foundations), but the film expanded in scope, and also follows younger survivors of more recent ethnic violence in Africa: We follow a young Swedish woman interviewing an elderly Holocaust survivor for an oral history project; a survivor of the Rwandan genocide turned activist speaking in front of the UN and Florida schoolchildren; a Cambridge-based nonprofit relocating a displaced Congolese in St; Louis; and, perhaps most intriguingly, a survivor of the Darfur genocide now living happily in Israel.

The filmmakers (one of whom, I should say, is an old friend), mix observation and interviews with occasional lyrical interludes. Each story is as gently sympathetic and touching as you’d expect, but the film’s great value is in their juxtaposition, suggestive of human interconnectedness in the broadest sense, and—with its stories of young women reliving the Holocaust experiences of elderly women, and young displaced Sudanese Muslims welcomed in the land of Holocaust survivors—bold in its implication of a moral duty to remember the lessons of other tragedies as much as one’s own.