Claire Ferguson talks Storytelling, Trauma and Team Work in DESTINATION UNKNOWN

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Claire FergusonIn Destination Unknown, British documentary filmmaker Claire Ferguson uses interviews with Holocaust survivors that capture on film the most intimate and painful memories of traumas experienced in the Nazi death camps and the ongoing suffering they have caused throughout the victims’ lives. The survivors’ vivid descriptions are supported by archival footage. The combination of current testimony from surviving elders with images of what they lived through is absolutely devastating. Destination Unknown is an important addition to the canon of Holocaust films. Read what filmmaker Claire Ferguson has to say about making the film and the responsibilities of documentary filmmakers.

JENNIFER MERIN: How did you become involved in the making of this Holocaust documentary?

CLAIRE FERGUSON: The film’s producer Llion Roberts came to me in 2013. He’d been gathering testimony for 14 years, and he asked me to watch it with a view to making a film. My question was what film could be made of this? There have been so many Holocaust films, how could we make something fresh and relevant?

MERIN: So, what did you learn by asking that very challenging question? How did asking it guide your approach to the film?

claire ferguson posterFERGUSON: After doing a lot of research on the Holocaust and related aspects of WWII I found I almost had to unlearn all of that: to put it to one side and listen to the stories afresh, as though all of this was brand new. Partly, that’s to escape unconsciously repeating the same patterns as previous accounts of the Holocaust, partly it was to force me to really listen to what the survivors were saying, and what they meant. It helped the process of making a film that tried to see everything through the eyes of the survivors themselves, with no narration and as little authorial view as possible.

So what I learnt from this whole process is that there was no single unifying experience: every individual’s experience was unique and contrasting. We spend so much time trying to simplify and turn events into a narrative that we forget how we’re changing it in the process.

MERIN: What did you learn about filmmaking from making Destination Unknown?

FERGUSON: Every film is unique and has its own set of challenges. In this project, the process of structuring the narrative was the most challenging I’ve ever encountered. That kept me constantly on my toes.

MERIN: Why is Destination Unknown so relevant for the present social and political environment worldwide?

FERGUSON: When I came on board to direct in 2014, I knew that these were voices were not going to be around forever, and were about to disappear from living memory, and that was a major component in deciding to take on the project. I felt honoured to have the opportunity to bring these voices to the screen.

Of course, by the time the film was being shown, in 2016, it started to feel that there was some kind of neo-fascist convulsion occurring in Europe and the US, something that would I think have been impossible to believe only a decade ago. I think the two are linked on some level.

MERIN: What were your biggest challenges in making the film?

FERGUSON: A big concern when taking on this project was the sense of responsibility. The Holocaust is a vast subject and the more you learn about it the more it becomes unfathomable. Given that film is a visual medium, how does one “illustrate” a memory, a testimony, a nightmare, a living trauma? The answer is, you can’t. What I tried to do is not to use archive in a literal way. I try where possible to use archive and visuals to evoke an atmosphere from which we can let the memories come. Being non-literal gives the audience more emotional space to think and feel for themselves.

clair ferguson with survivor

One of the great debates with anything relating to the Holocaust is how do we say the “unspeakable”: that is to say, it is something that is literally beyond our powers of speech. I think there are generally two approaches: one is to show every brutality and crime that you can, to make the horror unignorable. There is a role for that, but it also carries the danger of dehumanising, of swamping the real people with numbers. So there is a second approach, of showing only the personal, of telling the stories of individuals, so that when we are lost in this world of horror with nothing else to cling on to, we can cling on to their humanity. It’s the thing that makes them real for us, and helps us to gain some sense of this as a reality more than a set of unimaginable numbers and facts. Sometimes, it’s the tiny personal details that reach out emotionally to the audience: Victor singing at the gates after liberation, looking for his childhood sweetheart, makes me cry every time I hear it, “Rega, Rega Victor is here!”


MERIN: You’re dealing with your characters’ deeply personal and most distressing experiences. How did you gain their trust and facilitate their storytelling?

FERGUSON: I was fortunate in that there were already established relationships, as the film’s producer Llion Roberts had been talking with and interviewing the participants for years. That meant that when it came to going back to film them or interview them again was easier as there was a basis of trust.

For example, when Marsha Kreuzman talks about being haunted by nightmares of the war, she was willing to open up to us, but I don’t imagine that she would have done had we been complete strangers.


MERIN: The interviews are intermixed with images from the Nazi death camps and other wartime realities. How did you source the archival footage and decide what to use?

FERGUSON: Much of the wartime archive is in the public domain, so that was substantially a case of looking through endless hours of material on potentially relevant aspects of the war, always with an eye for the unexpected detail that will lock the audience into the reality of what’s happening. Trees in glorious blossom behind surrendering German troops, a toddler being dragged along in a cardboard box at a displaced persons’ camp.


There are literally hours of newsreel of bodies in the camps, and it’s awful how, after a while, the law of diminishing returns kicks in. Your brain adapts to what you’re seeing, and it becomes less shocking. That was another reason to hold back on the more gruesome visuals. There are films that set out to overwhelm the audience with the horror, like Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog, but for this film I wanted to keep the audience with the living, with their fear and dread.

Practically, the most difficult archive to source was from the Eastern front. There is newsreel of guerrilla action and of partisans hiding out in the forest. We needed to acknowledge that this isn’t necessarily verité newsreel, of course, but the greater problem was actually getting it from Russian archives. Fortunately our archive researcher Aileen McAllister has great contacts there who were able to physically go to the archives and get the film to be scanned. Something that doesn’t really happen in Europe any more!

Finally, for the last section of the film we used a lot of family-held archive, and that was a case of pestering the families until they looked into dusty boxes and under beds.


MERIN: You’ve worked in both narrative and documentary film. Which do you find most gratifying? Which do you think has more social and political impact?

FERGUSON: I learnt my trade in fiction. It’s so distinct from documentary, some of the thought processes are so wildly different that it’s difficult to even compare them. At the same time, I think a lot of my skills in terms of building scenes, building and maintaining character, are things that I carried across from fiction. Even ten years ago those things weren’t particularly at the forefront for documentary makers. One thing I’ve noticed is that it’s got much more common now for documentaries to be thinking overtly about those things in a way that would make sense to a fiction filmmaker.

A few documentaries achieve a sharp social and political impact. I worked on The End of the Line, for instance, which helped to trigger a whole series of changes in relation to our relationship with the sea as a food source. But I have a real fondness for documentaries that primarily explore character, and that’s something where I think there’s a commonality with great fiction films. If you’re lucky, you can give people a film that slips into their hearts and has a social impact in that way. I remember watching Mike Leigh’s Meantime as a teenager, and it having a profound effect on my developing sense of the value of other people’s lives. Ultimately, I’m as interested in how film works on us empathically as I am on the individual issues.

MERIN: You’ve worked with a number of highly acclaimed filmmakers. Of these, who has had most influence on your own work?

FERGUSON: I already mentioned Mike Leigh, and I was fortunate enough to work on his typically brilliant All or Nothing. Mike’s workshopped approach to developing a script gives his films a depth and sense of reality that has continued to influence me in documentary. At the other extreme, perhaps, I worked on Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Terry explores reality through fantasy, it’s a completely different approach. It was a dream to work with him. I think I learn most from filmmakers who do something really out there.

In terms of documentary, one of my most enduring influences was working with Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill on Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer. I knew at the time this was going to be an incredible film. I learnt so much of the reality of documentary making from Nick’s relentless search for the right story, the right tone, the right resonances.

MERIN: Do you think that being female gives you a distinct perspective and/or way of handling storytelling and the filmmaking process?

FERGUSON: I’ve always been drawn to stories about trauma, but I don’t know whether that’s particularly a female thing. I don’t know how I would feel differently as a man, so I don’t know the answer.

MERIN: What are your plans for the future?

FERGUSON: I’m working on a music documentary at the moment. It’s been a while since I’ve worked on a music documentary, and I’m looking forward to doing some things in that world again. I miss the music. Documentary making can be such incredibly draining work. For me, there’s nothing so rejuvenating as getting to watch someone making fantastic music: it keeps me strong.

MERIN: What advice do you have for other female filmmakers who are trying to make their way through a still male-dominated industry?

FERGUSON: The film industry can be a very tough place for women. There’s additional pressure if you want to have a family. The only advice I have is to stay strong, to choose projects that you’re genuinely passionate about. Surround yourself with a team that will support each other. You’ll need it.

MORE ABOUT CLAIRE FERGUSON: Claire Ferguson is a British documentary filmmaker who started in drama, working on films such as Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Terry Gilliam, 1998). She made her name in feature documentaries with Nick Broomfield’s Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer (Tribeca winner 2003) and Concert for George (Grammy winner 2005). Other work includes The End of the Line (Puma Social Impact award 2011), Guilty Pleasures (Grierson nominee 2011) and the multi-award winning Up in Smoke (2012). She story produced the Emmy nominee Growing Up Down’s (2015). Her directorial work includes the 5 x Platinum selling The Beatles in Help! and The Concert for Bangladesh Revisited.

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