Why the Polish gov’t has this left-wing Israeli filmmaker in its crosshairs

What happens when a film challenges one of Poland's nationalist myths? Barak Heymann found out the hard way when his latest documentary questioned the number of Poles who saved Jews during the Holocaust.

Barak Heymann doesn’t think of himself as a “real activist.” This is a striking declaration, considering the nature of his work as a filmmaker, his vision for the film school which he directs, and his life with friends, community, and the world around him.

For over 20 years, Heymann and his brother Tomer have produced, directed, and created films and television series spanning a myriad of subjects and characters in Israeli society. From films about a bilingual school in Wadi ‘Ara [Bridge Over the Wadi, 2006]; to Saar coming out as gay and HIV positive to an Israeli family [Who’s Gonna Love Me Now, 2016]; to Alfonso aging with a healthy libido [Dancing Alfonso, 2007]; to profiling former Knesset member and lifelong communist Dov Khenin [Comrade Dov, 2019], social issues are always center stage in Heymann’s work.

In 2021, Heymann took over leadership of the film school at Beit Berl College, with the dual goals of contributing to the training and resourcing of the next generation of Palestinian-Israeli filmmakers, and of deepening the proximity and affinity of his students with activism and social causes.

In his latest film, “High Maintenance,” Heymann follows the late Dani Karavan, an eccentric artist and pioneer of landscape and environmental sculpture whose works appear around the world. Karavan, who was a fierce opponent of Israel’s occupation, passed away last year after the film premiered at the Jerusalem Film Festival. In the film, Heymann meanders around Israel and Europe looking at Dani’s works of art as he interacts with his wife and daughters, colleagues, and friends about politics, love, aging, and art.

Barak Heymann (left) and Dani Karavan.
Barak Heymann (left) and Dani Karavan. (Heymann Brothers Films)

In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, Karavan faces a dilemma after he is commissioned by the Polish government to create a piece in front of the Jewish Museum in Warsaw commemorating the 7,000 Polish “Righteous Among the Nations” who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Karavan grapples with the possibility that he and his installation will be exploited to further the nationalist agenda of the Polish government, which could seek to inflate the numbers and role of these individuals instead of admitting the fact that they were a relatively tiny number.

His fears of a clash with the Polish authorities came true. Recently, representatives from the Polish Film Institute, which provided Heymann with a grant of NIS 188,000 [$54,500] to make the film several years ago, suddenly insisted upon seeing the film, stormed out in the middle of the screening, and demanded their money back, since the film includes experts who claim it was uncommon for Poles to save Jews during the Holocaust.

The controversy takes place at a time when Poland finds itself firmly in the grip of an ultra-nationalist right-wing government. Embedded in this regime is a desire to retell the story of the Holocaust by portraying Poland and the Polish people in a better light — and the most effective way of going about this is to clamp down on critics, police the public discourse, and control the historical narrative.

Heymann thus found himself in a difficult predicament — either return the money, or alter the film more than a year after its release. In the meantime, together with some friends and colleagues, he launched a crowdfunding effort to try to raise the lost funds, which quickly surged past its goal. Heymann is continuing to collect funds, pledging to donate the surplus to Polish anti-fascist and free speech organizations. For him, the campaign is about showing that there are still many who refuse to have their memory hijacked and their art censored.

I spoke with Heymann to understand how he is dealing with the situation, and what he sees in the connections between art, politics, filmmaking, and activism.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start with this moment that you’re in. Does it catch you off-guard, or are you used to this from being an activist at home?

I wouldn’t call myself an activist, because I would be giving myself too much credit. I know real activists who devote their life to the struggle and invest most of their souls, energy, skills, time, and bodies in the fight for justice. But that’s not me. I direct and produce films, more than 25 of them in the last 20 years. I try to bring my agendas, thoughts, and feelings into these projects, but it’s something that I do first of all for myself, even if later on it can influence people and move them into action, like the campaign did just now.

What about right now? What is going on with you and the Polish government?

Right now I’m in the throes of an artistic, political, financial, and international crisis. I didn’t know that my film, “High Maintenance,” would create such drama. How could one know? Dani’s work was never executed because of the political situation in Poland. The commissioner of his work, an American Polish Jew living in the United States, was supposed to pay for this big monument. He decided in the end to cancel the project because he realized that the Polish government would take advantage of Dani’s work to convince everybody that Poland was one big righteous nation during World War II, and that everyone was busy risking their lives to save Jews.

So the work was never made because of this feeling of manipulation? 

It was a combination of factors, but the politics was very present in the discussions in and around the film — the feeling of being manipulated by the Polish government. I told Dani, “You know, they won’t let you write the accompanying texts that you would want next to the piece,” and he said, “Don’t worry, Barak, don’t worry. Even if they write something imperfect, I’m going to be there at the opening of this monument, and I will say whatever I want with my mouth. I will speak my heart. I will say everything.”

This was around the time when the Polish government passed a law preventing people from referring to concentration camps in the country as “Polish” camps, or saying anything about Polish collaboration with the Nazis. There were several discussions about this while I was filming, some probably in part because I was filming.

Dani was dealing with the biggest thing in his life, the piece which was meant to be his last piece ever. He finds himself with mixed feelings. Some tell him to do it. Others tell him it’s not the right time. He goes to an expert from Yad Vashem who tells him it is not the right time because of all of the ultra-nationalism in Poland. He goes to his wife, Hava, and she convinces him to do it anyway. Everyone is influencing him. He told me: “This will be the first-time in my life — and I am already almost 90 years old — that I am creating something so controversial before it even exists, before people even see it. Only the idea of it is already blowing their minds.” He was amazed and almost in fear because of it.

The first criticisms did not come from the Polish far-right or the Polish government. It came from several thousands of Jewish people in Poland and other places in the world, who opened a Facebook page saying they didn’t think Dani should make a monument in memory of only the good people, the Polish righteous. They felt that this disrespected the memory of all the Jewish people who were murdered in Poland, which most Polish people did not intervene in and sometimes participated in. But they also specifically took issue with the monument because the site it was planned for was itself the site of a murder and was thus deemed “holy land.”

This was in a way an internal Jewish debate, but it’s actually a war about Holocaust memory. At first, the Jews were angry at Dani for the planned monument, and now we’re dealing with the Polish government being angry about the way we tell the story.

But the film is not only about this. It’s about aging and losing your memory, about partnership and relationships, about Israel and internal politics, and about Dani Karavan himself.

Did Dani understand what he was really getting into? In the film he was a bit remorseful by the end.

Yes, but not in such a dramatic way. It was a dilemma. As a director, I’m happy to have something like this happening because it gives some energy and conflict and emotions. Right now [in the film] he is losing his memory, which is a heartbreaking thing to see. And right now, he is creating a monument for people to commemorate brave people from the past.

When the film came out, we told the Polish Film Institute that we wanted to release the film soon because Dani is 90 and doesn’t feel good, and so I wanted to release it in America while he was still with us. They said, “go ahead.” We dutifully sent them the film — they didn’t watch it.

And then, after almost a year, they finally remembered to watch the film and freaked out. They hated it because in the film, you see segments of those conversations with Dani, about the monument in Warsaw and the Polish righteous people, and you hear people saying things which [officials] don’t like to hear at all. They refuse to allow that to be in the film. A Polish Jewish journalist who was interviewed in the film told me that the government is now trying to prove that most of the Polish people helped the Jews. This is, of course, a lie.

It’s a rewriting of history, a hijacking of memory.

They heard what Yehuda Bauer [an Israeli historian and leading Holocaust scholar] said, which freaked them out the most. Dani goes to see Bauer in his house in Jerusalem, who tells Dani, “Look, you are saying that there were 7,000 righteous Poles. Let’s say it is 10,000 just for the sake of generosity, even 100,000. But what about all the rest? There were 20 million people living in Poland at that time. What does this say about the rest of the people?”

Dani got deflated, thinking Prof. Bauer was about to say that he shouldn’t do it. But then Bauer brings the highlight of this meeting: “This is why you have to do this work. This is why I supported it and why it’s important. It shows the small brave group against the big group, so you should give them respect.” You can see this aspect in the work that Dani was planning to create; a few small lights, while all around is dark water. It shows that those righteous were only a few in a sea of silent people.

Kind of like so-called “real activists?”

One of the reasons why this work touched me so much is exactly because of that. When you go to demonstrate in a Palestinian village in the West Bank, which is literally fighting for its life, you are maybe among 10 Israelis. You ask yourself: “Where is everyone? Why are there only 10 of us?”

Do you feel that there’s a connection between what you’re experiencing with the Polish government and what you experience with the Israeli government?

Absolutely. Both governments are right wing and nationalist, very scary and racist. In Israel, since I am part of the privileged group in society as a Jewish Ashkenazi man, I don’t experience hardship on a daily basis like Palestinians who live right next to me. I was never asked to cut anything from a film, never asked to compromise, and never silenced.

Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour in her home in the town of Reineh, near Nazareth, August 23, 2017. (Oren Ziv)
Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour in her home in the town of Reineh, near Nazareth, August 23, 2017. (Oren Ziv)

My Palestinian friends who live in Israel cannot say that about themselves. When the poet Dareen Tatour writes a poem and posts it on Facebook, it can be dangerous. She can get arrested. This is a radical thing that would not happen to me even though I say far more brutal things than she does.

How does the Israeli government impact you in your daily life and work? 

In my private life, I’m not sure if I feel the impact. It’s a slow process of mind control. For example, to make this film, I signed a contract with the Rabinovich Foundation for the Arts stating that it would not include content that would defame the country. This is something which, if I were a real activist, I would not agree to sign, and I would be willing to pay a heavy price and sacrifice my work, because I cannot make a film without this money.

So I said to myself: I don’t give a shit about the clause. I will do whatever I feel like doing in the film. I didn’t think there would be protests or flags or anything like that in this film when I signed the contract; the film was not supposed to be political, but I’m glad that it is. I didn’t pay too much attention to the sentence; I noticed it, and I remember saying to myself: I’ll do it because I have to, but I will not censor myself. Never.

Look what’s happening now with the Shomron Fund. They’re holding a film festival for settlers in the occupied territories. This is part of the process of mind control because they’re saying this is a legitimate part of Israel, and so it’s only natural to have a film festival there. And it’s not just some fringe festival. Israeli filmmakers and film funds are all part of it’s becoming very official.

Given what you talked about in terms of privilege and the impact of the far right, how do you show up as a white man in this world to promote the kind of change that we all want? What do you bring in and what do you leave out?

I try to bring important elements of myself into the films.There is one amazing scene that didn’t make it into “High Maintenance,” where Dani and I go together to demonstrate in front of the Rwandan Embassy [in 2018, the Israeli government announced a plan to deport 37,000 Africans seeking asylum in Israel to third-party countries like Rwanda and Uganda; due to public pressure, the deal was never sealed]. We were the only white people among thousands of Black people. When we talked about it afterward, he related it to the Polish monument. We said to each other: “Would you risk your life and the lives of your kids now to protect someone who escaped from Sudan or Eritrea? Not just helping, but knowing that you might be killed for helping?”

And then this whole thing with the Polish Film Institute blows up. They are basically blackmailing me and threatening me to make this film completely different without mentioning anything about what the Poles are responsible for. I didn’t think for a second that I should change my film, but I’m in trouble now with the money, and that’s why I launched the crowdfunding campaign. It’s not just about the money — it’s about sending a statement that there are a lot of supporters in Israel and around the world who refuse to be censored about this issue by the Polish government.

I always thought if I got in trouble — which I always assumed I would — it would be in Israel. I never imagined this would happen to me in Poland. Everything that happens to me now vis-a-vis the Polish government is something that I wasn’t not prepared for. Thinking about it in a way related to the Israeli government, and the things that our successive prime ministers and ministers of culture are doing and saying is very scary.