Stacey Snider and Professor Thomas Russell, Theatre and Media Arts
In May of 2002 I sat in the riverside backyard of Igor Slavec on a picnic bench with my camera poised. As the Alpine river Sava moved slowly behind him, Igor told me about his family’s history in their village, Struževo, about his father’s experience in WWI, and finally about the predicament in which he found himself in 1943, as an unwilling conscript in the foreign army occupying his homeland. Igor is one of a unique group of WWII participants, confused and exploited, whose story I want to share in the form of a documentary film.
Most Americans have never heard of Slovenia; few Europeans might guess correctly at its political circumstances during WWII; and until the last twelve years, only the Slovene veterans, themselves, among their countrymen knew exactly what happened to those boys found wearing German uniforms. The essential facts are that in April of 1941, Germany invaded, partitioned, and occupied Slovenia, and soon thereafter began to collect the small country’s young men to augment Germany’s military. Conscription of the occupied Slovenes, though expressly against the principles codified at the Hague Convention, was enforced violently and included over 80,000 young Slovene men.
The communist Yugoslavian government, which was already establishing power before the War finished, aggressively suppressed any information about Slovene participation in the German army, treating the returned conscripts as traitors and barring them from any national veterans’ recognition or benefits. It has not been until the mid-1990s, several years after Slovenia achieved independence from Yugoslavia and half a century after the German surrender at Rheims that groups of these men have dared to gather and begin telling their stories.
The rationale for this project was straight-forward: these men are old. Slovenia is still in the earliest stages of recording this forbidden history, and it is losing its primary sources faster than it can find them. While it’s unreasonable to expect everyone to feel deeply about preserving a few stories from an obscure region, these are still souls with identities and experiences. One of the fundamental tenets of documentary filmmaking is the responsibility to give a voice to the voiceless, and I can’t help but feel that if I do not lend what technology and skills I have to these expressions, no one will.
During the month I spent in Slovenia in 2002, I talked to these men in their homes and offices, attended their meetings, visited libraries and museums, and recorded hours worth of videotaped interviews, which would serve as the body of the script. After I returned home, I spent three months translating and transcribing the interviews, and began the process that has occupied me for the last year. In January of 2003 I received an ORCA grant to organize the interview and research material into a documentary script.
My first task was to divide the interview material horizontally, that is, pull from each transcript information relating to similar subjects—education, family, how each was contacted or found by German officials, experiences in the army, capture or escape, and the return home, for example. Once the elements were identified, the story began to take shape. Even a “non-narrative” film like a documentary has some kind of story structure, and I wanted to present these individual accounts as a singular, “braided” story, the different men’s experiences woven together around the general chronology of the war in Europe.
Once I had the interview material worked into a comprehensible narrative order, I went back through with explanation and transitions in mind. I wanted to avoid the convention of a faceless voice-over narrator through the whole thing, but I found there were places where necessary information could be communicated most efficiently with a little bit of spoken narration. In other places I used primary sources—speeches, print declarations, news items—to convey important historical information. However, even when I had found all the pertinent facts and documents, there was still the question of how to present it.
Documentary scripts are different from fiction film scripts in that there is no definitively prescribed way to format the information. Many documentarians don’t script at all, but instead put together general outlines and do their “scripting” in the editing room. I prefer a much more planned approach, and chose a common two-column format with the audio on one side and the video on the other. When I had decided on all of my audio and collected my print information, I then went through the whole script filling in the video side, deciding who would be on screen when, what images and footage to use with which audio bits, and even inserting some animated graphics. The revision process involved the discovery and development of some important audio and visual motifs—the tapping of a typewriter, for example, as texts appears onscreen, or the juxtaposition of Hitler’s spoken promises with the violent images of his military realities.
For all of my effort, this script is not a finished product. That is not to say that it is unpolished or incomplete—I have been working on this project for over two years, and am pleased with its present form. A script is, however, defined as a part of a process, a step toward something else, and until a film is shot, cut, and released (and sometimes even after that), the script is still necessarily dynamic. At this point, the next important step is to stop the paperwork and get down to the business of editing. I have talented friends in the film department whose help on this project, in the specific areas of editing, computer animation, and production, could conceivably give this film a life beyond my own computer files. I hope someday soon to make the unbelievable and heretofore untold story of these lonely soldiers available to an American audience.