Coastal Studies Scholar and documentary filmmaker David Conover ’83 screened his eight-minute film created for the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum on Wednesday in Kresge Auditorium. The event was followed by a conversation with Conover and Professor of English and Cinema Studies Aviva Briefel.

A stark contrast to his typical ocean and outdoor-focused works, Conover’s film provides Auschwitz visitors with a portal to witness the horrors of the camp prior to their entry into the primary gateway. With the exception of Wednesday’s audience of Bowdoin students and community members, the film will be shown exclusively on-site in the newly-renovated cinema room at the visitors’ center, starting in four or five months. 

Conover has spent the last 25 years producing films that explore human relationships with the earth, often focusing on the ocean. Since 1992, he has been executive producer and director of the Camden, Maine-based production company Compass Light, which has received over 250 commissions from various publishers and broadcasters, including PBS Nova and the Discovery Channel. Conover has also taught two Bowdoin courses in documentary film: Seashore Digital Diaries in the fall and Science to Story: Digital and Beyond this semester. 

Conover’s Auschwitz Gateway Film serves as a preamble to the visitor experience and aims to prepare the museum’s annual 1.5 million visitors, who come from a variety of geographical and cultural backgrounds, to experience the camp. 
“The challenge was how to position people for what really is the most important experience, which is just being there and being in this authentic place,” said Conover. 

The film included archival images and video clips superimposed with contemporary shots of the camp. Conover and his production team shot and framed exact picture-frame matches, filming in locations that have been photographed in the archives. 

The aerial drone shots, revealing the magnitude of the camp through picturesque grassy landscapes, were juxtaposed against the harshness of black and white photographs of people in the camp.

“There is something very beautiful about the way [the film] establishes and constructs the shots initially, and then recreates a history of what this place actually is through the superimposition of color and black and white,” said Briefel. 

Though documentation of the camp is scarce, the film employed photographs from the Lili Jacob collection, an archive of 180 photos taken by Nazi photographers. Several video clips were taken by Ukrainians who came to the camp in January of 1945 while it was closed but still occupied. 

Many photos in that collection were taken with the agenda of dehumanizing Jews and other people in the camp, depicting them almost exclusively in crowds. The bias of the camera informed the way the images were contextualized in the film. Using research conducted by the museum, the film superimposed nametags onto the families portrayed in the photographs to restore their individuality. 

Briefel and Conover discussed the poignancy of seeing photographs from Auschwitz camps for the first time, and our tendency to resist looking at the harsh and often disturbing images.

“There’s this paradox that it is really an unknowable experience and yet you’re compelled to convey it,” said Conover. 

Conover didn’t see a necessity for dramatizing the film in any way. His decision to make the film dispassionate was guided by knowing that people would be there experiencing Auschwitz for themselves.

“Although we were displaced in the sense that we’re here in America and not actually at the camp, we still get a sense of being there,” said Emiley Charley ’17. “It lets [visitors] remember history for themselves,” she added. 

By providing an entry point to experience the legacy of such a significant landmark with a devastating history, Conover’s film makes no claims to make sense of the events that took place in Auschwitz during the Holocaust.  

“This is really an atrocity; it’s not a tragedy,” said Conover. “There’s no real counterweight; it’s just horrible, and that’s it.”