You may know Jon Kean as one of the many faces that populate Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District school board meetings, the Vice President of the board lending a helping hand in shaping the policy and culture of SMMUSD schools. In addition to his school board duties — when he can find the downtime — he’s a budding documentary filmmaker.
Kean’s latest film, ‘After Auschwitz’, details the lives of six women and their lives after the Holocaust “interacting with the changing face of America in the second half of the 20th century.” Kean discussed his career and documentary with the Daily Press before ‘After Auschwitz’ has a special screening Wednesday, May 9 at Laemmle Music Hall.
You’ve been acting since ‘91 and had your first writing gig in ‘99– what was it that initially interested you in directing, and how did you transition to directing?
I moved to LA in 1989 to study acting with Sanford Meisner. Figured I’d see where it led me. While I did make a living for a few years doing commercials and TV shows, I also created a theatre company, so I always had multiple interests. In 1997, after finishing an off-broadway play, I decided to try my hand at writing. Two years later, that film was sold at the Sundance Film Festival and I had more options. In 1998 I had my last acting gig. The business changed and what I wanted to do changed as well.
Could you summate the transition from Jon Kean, actor/writer/director to Jon Kean, school board vice president?
It’s a completely straight line! Doesn’t everyone do it that way? I mean, Reagan did it. I won’t mention another more recent example.
My interest in Holocaust education, which started decades ago fits, in so well with our new focus in SMMUSD on social justice and building empathy. From that point of view, it’s a seamless fit.
You’ve made Swimming in Auschwitz and now After Auschwitz; what is it about the subject matter that fascinates you, has you revisiting?
When dealing with the Holocaust, you are dealing with an “absolute”. It is an absolute evil. That means we don’t have to explain it. Although it does seem that more and more people are losing the facts of history. Plus, once you’ve spent any amount of time with survivors, you want to spend more. The six women in my films have made me a better person. It’s almost selfish that I get to do what I do.
Can you run me through a day of your school board and life duties, and then working on the film?
I try to compartmentalize. Like today, I spent the morning prepping for the film release and then the afternoon prepping for our meeting tonight. Tuesday is always SMMUSD day. You find a balance. I definitely don’t have many hobbies anymore though. Not sure if people understand that the school board is a 20-30 hour a week volunteer job.
As mentioned in your director’s statement for the film, parts of the world are still espousing and practicing anti-semitism, genocide, fear of the other– this film has been in the works for years, but does it feel poignant/important/timely to have released a film amidst this hate, as well as fears stoked by our current administration?
I do feel that we are now in a world where it is not enough to just get your way. One side has to win and the other side has to lose. We can’t disagree, we have to crush the opponent. So communication is impossible. No one works to understand the other because everything is a zero-sum game. But, I am incredibly worried about the shift in our country toward the “others” in our society. “Good people on both sides” of Charlottesville sickens me. There is no such thing as a good Nazi. The Nazis were responsible for the Final Solution, the attempted destruction of European Jewry. How do we find ourselves in a society where we can find good in that?
We need to build empathy and understanding and sadly our politicians are making that very hard to do.
How important is it for you to carry the torch of these women’s stories as well as to educate others about the Holocaust and the years that followed?
We only have 5 or so more years with survivors who really understand what happened in the camps, like Auschwitz. I am dreading when that day comes. I’ll do my part, others will do theirs, but losing the eyewitnesses will be hard. Even now, only 9 states have mandated Holocaust education. At the same time. What do we teach about Rwanda? Kosovo? We have a long way to go on understanding history. I am very hopeful about the youth today though. They seem a bit more energized to make change. I also can’t wait to get to Montgomery, Alabama to visit The National Memorial for Peace and Justice where we can honor the memories of thousands of lynching victims. We as a nation need to address our own past and the ugliness of many chapters. It is all a part of understanding and connecting. If you can understand, you are connected. Too often we fail to do so.
How did you find the women in the film and how have their stories affected you?
15 years ago I interviewed 18 people for a film that became Swimming in Auschwitz. The stories of these six women were just so dynamic that I had to make the film about them. Plus, we so rarely hear stories of war through female voices. I felt it was different and engaging on a new level. There was so much more emotional depth. And like I said, my life is so much better for having known these six amazing women.
Most difficult part of making this film?
The hardest part was fitting 420 years of life from six people into an 80-minute film. There is just so much to combine. Editing was really a three-year process. I used four completely different cuts of the film before settling on the final version.
What have you personally learned from these women and the making of this film?
I learned that we do not go through life alone. Everyone, at some point, will need support from those around him or her. I also have learned to try to see things through other’s eyes and not through my own lens. And I’ve also learned that the next project should not cover 6 subjects over 70 years each!
What do you hope audiences will gain from this film?
I want audiences to grasp a basic fact: liberation was not a good day. That simple idea is what made me make this film. It’s so obvious but I had never thought of it. After that, I think every audience member has their own experience, but at the end of the day, I believe the lesson of this film is a pathway to empathy.
I know critical accolades take a backseat to getting this story told, but how does it feel to have strong critical acclaim from outlets such as the NY Times and Washington Post? 100% on Rotten Tomatoes?
You forgot The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Hollywood Reporter and the LA Times! Plus, a major reviewer is about to label us “One of the best films of the year”. But all that really doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t get people to the theatre. Reviews and articles like this are fun to do, but if they make even 2 people go out to see the film, then it is a huge success. Look, I’d always rather get a nice review than a bad one. I’m not without ego. But this story just seems to have touched something in audiences and I am really loving watching how it affects people.
Biggest hopes for the film and your budding career?
I want the film to stay in theatres for a long time, especially in LA. It’s a universal story, but the second half of it all takes place here! It’s our local history combined with world history. I showed the film at the Aero and there’s a line where a lady says “My Uncle had a diamond factory in Santa Monica and my cousin said that’s the nicest place to be, so we went there”. The audience went wild for it. I really want this film to resonate locally. As for me, I want it to work. I want to make the next film and the one after that. I just want to work.
For more information about the film and screenings, including Holocaust survivors speaking and Q and As with special guests, please visit afterauschwitz.com