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Against All Odds: The Decade-Long Journey to Bring 'Sugihara' to the Screen

By diane estelle Vicari

Chiune Sugihara (right) wlth his wife, Yukiko. From 'Sugihara Conspiracy Of Kindness,' which airs on PBS on May 5. Courtesy of diane estelle Vicari

In February 1995, I was invited by the Shoah Visual History Foundation, for which I was an interviewer, to an event at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. The museum was honoring Yukiko Sugihara, the widow of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat who, during World War II, saved thousands of Jewish refugees through his position as ambassador to Lithuania. I knew that night that I wanted to tell the story of Chiune Sugihara to the world.

I was working for Greystone Communications, a production company that produced for A&E and The History Channel, among others. I could not get Greystone's interest. My only option was to go solo.

I did not have any business relations in Japan, where the Sugihara family resided, so I contacted someone I knew in the record industry who did business there. I was able to get information about the family and a company in Japan, Dentsu, Inc., which had commissioned the rights to Mrs. Sugihara's book, Visas for Life, and had hired Barbara Kopple to tell this story. Well, there was my first dead end. But somehow, some months later, the rights became available again.

The challenge was just beginning. My communication was always through this music connection; direct contact with Dentsu, Inc. wouldn't happen until much later. I sent my budget and proposal and the answer came back: "We need a name director." I had worked with a very talented director, Robert Kirk. I felt he was perfect for the task: Rob is Jewish and an expert in World War II history.

At first he wasn't too keen--he had stayed away from "Holocaust stories," since they were too close to home--but once I explained to him that the Holocaust was the backdrop and that the story was of humanitarian content, he slowly warmed up to the idea. I set up a meeting with Sugihara's oldest son, Hiroki, and Anne Akabori, the co-founder of the Sugiharas' Visas for Life Foundation, and they approved of Kirk to direct the project.

Meanwhile, Dentsu, Inc. had agreed to the budget as long as half of the funding would come from the US. Kirk and I had both worked with an independent company that we thought would fit the bill. They loved the project but somehow conflict began during negotiations and another year of work went out the window.

While this door closed, Kirk had begun negotiations to launch a production company with a renowned music post-production house, Alan Ett Music Group, which in 1998 formed Creative Productions Group (CPG). The Sugihara project was one of the company's first major independent projects. I had a production company, funding and a "name" director. I was finally going to be able to tell the world about Chiune Sugihara. Four years had gone by; pre-production began in spring 1999. We completed our first cut in April 2000.

The first major breakthrough was a chance to screen the film at the United Nations in April 2000. I had developed a very close relationship with Eric Saul, one of the consultants on the project and the founder of the Visas for Life: The Honorable and Righteous Diplomat project. Saul was also responsible for bringing the Sugihara story to the attention of the Museum of Tolerance. He was invited to set up an exhibit at the United Nations in New York and, since he loved the documentary, thought it would be most appropriate to show it as part of the exhibit.

Following that screening, the UN screened the film at its Geneva office in July 2000. Then, at the recommendation of Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Museum of Tolerance, Udi Epstein of Seventh Art Releasing approached us to represent the documentary. He advised us to cut the film and enter it into the Hollywood Film Festival--a challenging request, since we no longer had any funding. But everyone pulled together and we screened on closing night--and we earned the award for Best Documentary. We were on our way, I thought.

In attendance at the closing night screening was IDA Board member Barbara Gregson, who suggested that I enter the film into the IDA Awards competition. In December 2000, SUGIHARA Conspiracy of Kindness received the 2000 IDA Pare Lorentz Award, which would change the course of this little film that no one had wanted.

In January 2001, I monitored a panel on music for IDA, and the panel included composer/conductor Bill Conti, whom my husband, music scoring mixer Tommy Vicari, had approached to tell him about Chiune Sugihara. Bill then composed and donated the thematic score for the film. Also that night, filmmaker Silvia Gambardella asked me why I hadn't sold this "amazing" project. I asked her if she knew anyone at PBS--my dream home for the project from day one. She offered to contact Jacoba Atlas' office. A few days later, Gambardella wrote me: "Coby Atlas got back to me. She wants to see your documentary as soon as possible and said you should call her."

Atlas was truly excited about the film. By April 2001, we were referred to Sandy Heberer, senior director of factual programming at PBS, and script rewrites began. We all agreed that our 102-minute festival version needed be cut to fit a 90-minute slot. After extensive conversations and correspondence with Heberer, we were close to a final script when...September 11, 2001 descended upon us all.

On October 1, 2001, I received an e-mail from Heberer that broke my heart: "I am so sorry to say that I don't have good news...PBS has been rocked off its normal programming course by the events of September 11...The best I can do is to get you a letter affirming that PBS will distribute the program to our stations via PBS Plus."

Festival directors continued to request the film, though. The most important aspect of why this film stayed alive was the audience. Friends told friends, who went to their communities, their temples and to festival directors and requested that the film be shown.

While I was hopping from city to city promoting the film, many people tried to sell this film, with no real commitment to do so. A couple of broadcasters showed interest, but the story would have had to fit their "format," which was not the story we had set ourselves to tell. In the end, no one was really interested.

But Sugihara's story kept my heart beating. At my most discouraged point, when I thought I had done all that I could do and had given up on trying to get a broadcast for this film, I went with my husband to see Roman Polanski's The Pianist. Halfway through the film, I could not breathe. What right did I have to not tell the story? So many survivors had opened their hearts and their homes to me, a stranger! So many talented people had invested in me because they believed in me, including my life partner, who had financially supported this endeavor from the very first night!

In April 2002, I attended Hot Docs, and one night I went out to dinner with a number of other attendees. I sat next to Melanie Wallace, senior series producer at NOVA. She asked me what I had done as a documentarian. She had heard of the Sugihara story and asked if I had a tape to share. The next day I gave her a copy of the film as I had done to producers so many times before, not really expecting any result. On June 13, 2002, I received the following e-mail: "Dear Diane...we really like your film. Let's talk to see where things are and what we can possibly do to help."

Melanie shared the film with Paula Apsell, senior executive producer at NOVA, and a meeting followed. I related to them the history of the film with PBS, and they committed to help us shepherd the film through the system and pick up where we left off. They both believed in the film and agreed that PBS was the best home for it. They approached Atlas, who had remembered the film very well. Since Wallace and Apsell were both based at WGBH/Boston,that would be the presenting station. 

We still needed to raise enough money to cover all associated costs of editing, packaging, website, etc. But with a commitment for a national broadcast slot on PBS, fundraising was less daunting. We planned a campaign that included screenings around the country to support our goal for a broadcast. 

The campaign was not easy. I even screened for one person in the audience--a rabbi, who asked me if I wanted to cancel the screening. I said, "No, we both came a long way to see this film!" Everyone helped. Some wrote us checks for $10.00, but every dime counted.

In the end, with the support of WGBH and its foundation development team, as well as some very generous individuals, we raised the money to make my dream a reality. It had taken two more years. I am grateful for the support of the Freeman Foundation, the US Japan Foundation and the Righteous Persons Foundation.

Our final cut was delivered at the end of February 2005. It will air nationally on May 5, Holocaust Remembrance Night, in a stand-alone, 90-minute primetime slot! A truly happy ending to a long ten years journey!


diane estelle Vicari is first vice president of IDA's Board of Directors.