Q&A with CARY WOLINSKY, Producer
Q: How did you come across this story, and why were you drawn to it?
CW: I met Rick and Laura Brown years ago and was immediately drawn in by their dreams, projects and teaching methods. I created several short articles about their projects for National Geographic magazine. When they told me that they wanted to reconstruct a synagogue in Poland, I warned them they might find it difficult politically. They pushed ahead anyway. Yari, John Rubin (Executive Producer of the film) and I realized that the Brown’s dream was becoming an important story that just needed to be documented.
Q: Did you have a particular interest in Jewish history before this project?
CW: My focus had always elsewhere. I worked as a National Geographic photographer for more than 35 years. My work took me to China as it opened and the Soviet Union as it crumbled. I followed the life of the 18th century botanist Joseph Banks and the career of General Douglas MacArthur. My stories sent me on explorations of traditional cultures of India, Japan, Turkey, Peru and Papua New Guinea. Working on Raise the Roof became the Roots journey I never intended to take. As the research unfolded, I began discovering clues to my own cultural identity.
This was the Roots journey I never meant to take. While making the film I began discovering my own heritage. I knew little of my Polish-Lithuanian-Jewish background. I equated Poland with the Holocaust and I had no desire to visit. When I did, it was to photographs Auschwitz for National Geographic magazine. It was every bit as horrific as I had expected.
Q: How was the film funded?
CW: Finding funding was difficult. Broadcasters had become fixated on “reality” shows and “sensational” series. The American Jewish community was skeptical about the project being built in Poland. We decided to ask the public for help. We ran a Kickstarter campaign online and raised the initial funds we needed to get to Poland and document the building and the painting. As the project began to accrue good press, we were able to find more donors but we never got fully ahead of the funding needs. We continue fundraising to insure that the story of the remarkable Gwoździec synagogue is seen throughout the world.
Q: What are some of the challenges and rewards working as a father-son team?
CW: Story-making was already our family business when Yari was born. I was a photojournalist, my wife Babs, a graphic designer. We traveled eight months each year. Yari traveled with us to China when he was six months old and had been around the world before he turned five. He became steeped in story development, research, travel, exploration and learned that editing is a critical part of the creative process.
We work together on story ideas. Otherwise our skills and interests are complementary. I love working on research, logistics, visual concepts, and lighting. Yari loves shooting, editing and the technical aspects of the craft. Babs helps us craft the visual look of every project. We count on each other to go off and do what we know how to do best and we lean on each other when we run into problems.
Because he will be editing the film later, Yari knows what he needs to build a scene when he is behind the camera on location. Yari is a great editor. He is calm, organized and constantly reevaluating the story’s potential and shaping it as we gather hundreds of hours of footage.
As we are shooting, we ask ourselves, “What are we seeing here and how does it fit in the film?” One of the joys of working with Yari is that I get to see the story through his eyes as it develops.
Q: You spent much of your career as a National Geographic still photographer. To what extent did still work prepare you for this project? How different is filmmaking from shooting stills?
CW: The editorial and logistical challenges are roughly the same whether making stills or a film. A great deal of time is spent researching and planning for both. The actual shooting time is small by comparison. When making stills, I am trying to compress a lot of storytelling into a single frame. In filmmaking we are building scenes from multiple shots. Filmmaking is often more intrusive because we need more people behind the camera to make moving images and record good sound. Stills offer a less directed, non-linear form of storytelling. In a film we take our audience on a journey we have envisioned.
At National Geographic, I had the good fortune to work with brilliant editors and a technical team who did the hard work of putting out the magazine every month. Our approach to filmmaking requires us to be “hands-on” through the entire process from concept to finished credits.
Q: What is your favorite scene in the film, and why?
CW: There is moment in the film when we see Ariel, a painting leader, finally master the brush stroke and create a beautiful Hebrew letter. In that moment I feel the painters of the 18th-century and this young painter from the 21st-century become one.
Q: You’ve made several short films together, but this is your first film of feature length. To what extent were you able to predict the amount of time and effort you’d need to complete this long-form project?
CW: I underestimated the effort needed to create this feature length documentary by a factor of at least 10. I thought it would be as simple as starting with work the needed to create a 20-minute film and multiply by 4 or 5. I was wrong!
Q: This is a complex story. How did you go about building a structure for the film?
Yari and I set out to structure the film in much the same way that the Browns educate by building something that is nearly lost. Learning how this building was made leads to an understanding of who built it and why. The rebuilding the Gwoździec synagogue unearthed a vibrant and creative Jewish culture that had been tightly woven into the fabric of Poland for a thousand years.
Q: What did you learn while making this film that most surprised you?
CW: 1000 years of Jewish life in Poland! These remarkable wooden synagogues with their incredible paintings! The Browns say in the film, “We aren't Jewish and we aren’t Polish. We didn’t know the history of these synagogues.” Well, I am Jewish and I am Polish and yet I was learning something new every day.
I particularly enjoyed our interviews with historians Maria Piechotka, Antony Polonsky, and Tom Hubka. Each of them brought history to life for me.
During the filming of Raise the Roof, we saw an international group of students moving the massive ceiling panels to seven cities around Poland. At each stop, they set up and painted the intricate murals attracting a local audience. People came to ask questions, tell their own stories and, sometimes, join in the work. We were witnessing the reconstruction of the Gwoździec synagogue in Poland, a symbol of a cautious optimism of a new generation and a growing dialogue between Jews and Poles about the past and the future.
Q: Describe a production challenge or crisis that made you stronger … or least offered a lesson that you might apply in future films?
CW: I had been spoiled by the full force and funding of the National Geographic Society for most of my working life. Working on a tightly budgeted independent film forced us to innovate. Luckily the Browns are born innovators. For the long dolly shot of the many painters working in Wrocław, Rick and Laura cobbled together a ladder with two bicycles. We mounted the camera on top of the contraption and Yari shot while Laura steered.
Q: What would most like to stay in viewers’ minds after they’ve watched your film?
CW: I would like the viewers of Raise the Roof to take with them the knowledge that before Jews died in the Holocaust they had a vibrant, creative culture in Poland for more than a 1000 years. I would like them to be inspired by the Browns as they turn their big dream into a reality and by the power of their teaching ideas. Most of all I would like them to share this story with others.
When I describe Raise the Roof I sounds like an ad for a fantasy film: The film is about a remarkable dream and a journey of re-discovery. It is a story of larger-than-life characters. One that starts with tragedy and ends in triumph. Well, that’s all true!