Steven Oritt on Uncovering History Hiding in Plain Sight in “My Name is Sara”

It wasn’t until Sara Shapiro was well into her fifties that she felt even remotely comfortable sharing the details of her teenage years spent in hiding in Ukraine during World War II, finding shelter on a farm where she couldn’t confide to the family running it that she was of Jewish descent. Being Ukrainian, the family were more likely to be sympathetic towards her when they themselves were caught in a war in which they were regarded as subhuman by both sides of the warring factions as Nazis carried out orders from Germany to capture what territory they could and Russians defending the land still would pillage what they could from their neighbors, yet they would never know for the two years she spent working for them in exchange for only food and a roof over her head, living in constant fear of what would happen if someone discovered her true identity.

Still, it was incumbent upon Shapiro not to let this history disappear, having no other trace of her parents to refer back to after they urged her to flee from their home in Korets when they stayed behind and the memory has now become immortalized on screen in “My Name is Sara,” which follows Sara (Zuzanna Surowy) from the age of 13, evading capture by holding her breath for an fathomable length of time in the Korchyk River before she finds her way to an area where she hopes there won’t be too many questions asked. She avoids raising suspicions by keeping quiet and pretending to be Catholic as she helps Pavlo (Eryk Lubos) and Nadya (Michalina Olszanska) raise their two young boys on the land, but director Steven Oritt makes an auspicious feature debut as he channels the terror that was a part of everyday life during the Holocaust, even in communities that were far removed from the greatest atrocities being committed at the time.

The road to get “My Name is Sara” to the screen hardly seemed any easier when plans to open in theaters in the summer of 2020 were upended by a global pandemic, but the enduring power of the story made it a standout at festivals around the world both virtually and physically, finally making its way onto the big screen this week as it begins its run in America. Recently, Oritt spoke about convincing Sara’s son Mickey to share her story with the world, navigating a multinational production and being conscious of the weight of the film’s subject matter while not letting anyone on set be overburdened by it.

I’ve heard that Mickey, whose mother’s story this was based on, was actually resistant to turning it into a film, per her own reluctance to talk about it until recently. What was the process of getting this to the screen?

Mickey was just not looking to make a movie about his mother whatsoever. In fact, he really didn’t know many of the details of her story until quite recently, simply because she was so closed down and refused to really talk about a lot of it. But about six years ago, Mickey took a trip over to Ukraine and retraced the steps of his mother’s survival story with a mutual friend of ours Andy Intrater, the other executive producer on the project, and Andy and I had been looking for a feature idea for a few years. We have a production company that has done a few documentaries, and Andy’s parents were survivors and he does a lot of work in that area, so he knows the region well and he brought Mickey over there and really showed him a lot of the steps of her journey after finding out what she went through. When they got back from the trip, Andy and I had a conversation [about] the remarkable story of Mickey’s mom. They sent me her testimony that she had given the USC Shoah Foundation, and I was just immediately taken with it. I thought that it would make for a great film, so we started convincing Mickey that we should do this. We brought on David Himmelstein, a screenwriter who wrote a wonderful screenplay based off of Sara’s testimony, and we basically shamed Mickey into doing it. [laughs] Now he’s so pleased and says this is the thing he’s most proud of in his entire career.

I didn’t feel too uncomfortable asking since he’s been very much on the record about that.

No, it’s no secret. We talk about that very openly at Q & As and it’s pretty remarkable that Mickey and the whole family, really, was able to learn a lot about his mother’s story, through the process of making the film.

It comes across that Sara’s great skill is being a listener in order to evade being turned over to the authorities, but I imagine having a passive protagonist is a narrative challenge. What was it like to break the story?

Sara passed away in 2018, but I interviewed her a few times and the first time that I interviewed her, I asked her how does a 12-year-old child survive such an ordeal? Immediately, she said by listening and she explained that she really almost played a mute and was just so careful with every word that she shared. At that moment, things crystallized for me about who the character was, but as you point out, having a passive character is a very difficult thing to hang a film on, and we knew we also did not want to be inauthentic to the real story.

The finished film is 90-95 percent accurate, but the real liberties that we took were really in inventing a few characters simply because if we showed Sara revealing her inner turmoil or her real desires, it would’ve been a reveal to her employers. For example, Sara said that every Sunday, [the family] went to church and that the mother was very religious and obviously in order to fit in, Sara would’ve had to have known the rituals of communion and confession, so we intuited that may have been an opportunity to bond with this priest character. While Sara never specifically said she developed a relationship with him, we fleshed him out to be able to reflect some of what you would want your main character to be able to go after.

You’re actually able to give a real sense of the entire community there, which must’ve required even more research beyond what Sara knew from her own perspective. What was that like to flesh out?

It was very important for the producers and I to make a very historically accurate and authentic film. We started consulting with Steven Smith, who was then the executive director of the Shoah Foundation, along with a number of other historians and ethnographers here [in the U.S.] and in Ukraine and ultimately in Poland where we filmed the movie. We really tried to stay true to the facts of certainly the timeline and the region, and it was important for us to be authentic with our actors. We had Germans for German-speaking roles, Russians for Russian-speaking roles, Ukrainians for some of the Ukrainian-speaking roles, but then because we shot the film in Poland and chose to have them speak English, we used Polish actors for our principal roles.

You have such a strong cast, but if they had to be fluent in English and be based in Poland, did that limit the pool of actors you could choose from?

In Poland, anybody under the age of 40 speaks English, but anybody over was still learning Russian when they were in primary school, so their English isn’t as good. Erik Lubos, the actor who plays Pavlo is 47 and did not speak much English whatsoever, nor did our lead actress Zuzanna because she was 14 years old when we first met her. She had never acted before, and we did an open casting call and saw about 350 young women around Poland. We screen tested her after she had learned a little English, and I worked with a translator every step of the way [since] I did not speak Polish prior to going over there. We had a dialect coach who works specifically with actors to teach the phonetics of the English language and it encumbered the process a little bit, but we were pretty set on not bringing any American actors over into the roles or any British actors, as we felt they may have stood out a bit. There are some purists who take issue with the fact that it’s in English and I understand and respect that, but we made the film primarily for an American audience, and this is my first feature film and the actress’ first acting experience, so we felt as if we made it in Ukrainian, we would’ve been stacking the deck against us, so that’s ultimately why we went to go with it in the English language.

What was it like finding the right location to film in?

It was not easy. Initially, we wanted to film it in the region where it took place in Ukraine, well before there was any political instability in that area, but the reality is there were a few productions that were currently being made or going into production in Ukraine and we felt as though we would’ve had more talent available to us if we shot it in Poland, so we partnered with Watchout Studio, a Polish production company out of Warsaw that’s very respected, similar to a Participant Media [in the States], and by virtue of really getting their stamp of approval, it really allowed us to cut to the head of the line and choose top Polish talent in front of and behind the camera. And because the film takes place in an Orthodox Church and not a Catholic Church, there’s only one region in Poland that’s not Catholic, we filmed in Bialystok in the Northeast, very close to the Belarusian border. It is the most precipitous part of Poland and we knew that we could hopefully bank on some winter because obviously if you’re trying to replicate Ukraine without snow, you’re not doing a very good job of it.

Amazingly, you get the sun and the snow, so how long a shoot was this?

We shot in three different filming segments, the bulk being in the summer and then we shot some in the fall and then in the winter, so filming was spread out across seven months. It was ultimately about 50 days of principal photography and then did all of our post-production [in Poland] as well.

Even for a seasoned director of dramas this seems like a tall order to keep the right vibe on set for that long with such heavy subject matter. Was it a burden?

No, I had been wanting to make a feature for a long time and my background was in commercials and music videos, so when everything aligned and the opportunity presented itself to make this film, I felt so fortunate and grateful and I have a very infectious energy and that really set the tone on set. There’s a scene in the film where Sara says goodbye to her parents the night before the ghetto in Korets is to be liquidated and this was almost a word-for-word real scene that played out between she and her parents. [Sara’s] mother tells her that she has to leave because her survival is their revenge and right before our first day of principal photography, I got up with my translator in front of the cast and crew and I told that story. I said, “For those of you who have read the script and know the scene, this is something that Sara’s mother gave her explicit instructions to follow, which she ultimately did and by being here as a part of this film, you’re participating in that. We’re all participating in that legacy of sharing this story.” That really was something that I think I imbued into the set culture early on and we had a wonderful experience making this film. I just consider myself very fortunate to be in the position to make it with Mickey and Andy and because of that, there wasn’t too much of a heaviness on set.

What’s it like getting your first feature out there in the world?

I’m pinching myself that we’re in this position. It’s been a long road and the film was supposed to be released in June of 2020, but obviously, the world had different plans. Ironically, the story is even more salient and germane to world events now than it was two years ago and prior to anything ever happening with the war, I would often say at Q & As in discussions about the film, the film is really more the Ukrainian experience than it is the Jewish experience because with the exception of about five scenes, Sara is playing a Ukrainian and that is something I take a lot of pride in – that the film looks at the effects of the war not only on a young Jewish girl, but also the Ukrainian people. When we were making it, there was no way we could anticipate what is happening now, but clearly it’s very relevant.

“My Name is Sara” opens on July 13th in New York at the Quad Cinema where there will be Q & As following the 7:20 pm show on July 23th and 14th, on July 22nd in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal and the Encino Town Center, and will expand nationally thereafter.