Gayle Donsky, director of "Faces of Genocide"
Gayle Donsky, director of "Faces of Genocide"

New short film focuses on genocide, and how to stop it

Gayle Donsky’s long tenure as someone attempting to educate the world about genocide had a simple beginning, at a Jewish Community Relations Council meeting in Marin 15 years ago, when activist Gerri Miller stood up to speak.

“She held up the J., and the front of the J. was about the genocide in Darfur,” Donsky said. “And she said, ‘How can we, as Jews, not do something about this?’ That was the beginning.”

Now Donsky is premiering the short documentary she produced and financed, “Faces of Genocide,” on Nov. 11 at Fort Mason in San Francisco. In it, she attempts to answer some weighty questions about why genocide happens again and again, and how the world can come together to stop it.

“I’m hoping that this film will be an educational tool in the United States and around the world,” she said.

The 32-minute film was directed by Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton, and it’s narrated by veteran actor Peter Coyote, a New York-born Jew who has lived in the Bay Area for some 50 years. Donsky is credited as one of the film’s three writers.

The film incorporates footage of interviews with genocide survivors that Donsky used in a previous short video she made. It’s a group that includes Helen Farkas, a Burlingame resident and Auschwitz survivor who passed away at 97 earlier this year and who spent more than four decades serving as a living witness to the traumas of the Holocaust by speaking to Bay Area high school students.

Chivy Sok, Cambodian genocide survivor
Chivy Sok, Cambodian genocide survivor

The premiere will be followed by a panel that includes two of the genocide survivors profiled in the film, Chivy Sok of Cambodia and Ramajana Hidic Demirovic of Bosnia. They’ll be joined by Beth Van Schaack, a visiting professor of human rights at Stanford University who, until recently, had a high-level job in the State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice, working on issues of mass atrocities, including war crimes and genocide. The panel will be moderated by C. Dixon Osburn, head of S.F.-based human rights organization Center for Justice and Accountability.

Donsky also has the backing of a number of organizations that have agreed to spread the word about her film, including the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish World Service, the S.F.-based JCRC and the JFCS Holocaust Center, which is run under the auspices of Jewish Family and Children’s Services.

After that fateful day in 2003 when the J. cover was hoisted as a rallying cry, Donsky, a Mill Valley resident and former psychotherapist, has spent many years working to educate the world about Darfur. So has Miller, a retired teacher and longtime activist and Belvedere resident. In fact, in 2008, the two women shared a big JCRC honor with Martina Knee, winning the Tom Lantos Memorial Humanitarian Award for their work on Darfur.

Yet the failure of the international “Save Darfur” movement to actually stop the killing has been difficult for Donsky to comprehend.

“It boggled my mind that after everything was done — unprecedented movement — it didn’t stop the genocide,” she said.

As the years went on, Donsky just couldn’t let it lie.

“I was so troubled by: What was the problem? Why did we not succeed?”

So she pursued that question in making the film. “Faces of Genocide” probes why atrocities happen by examining the ubiquity of genocide through the lens of recent calamities in Bosnia, Darfur, Cambodia and other places. Donsky doesn’t pretend to have the answers, but she thinks progress can be made and looks to the possibility of better and more effective international institutions to make a difference.

But no matter what progress is made, Donsky says she’ll never forget what she’s learned about genocide, and hopes her film can be a powerful teaching tool for others.

“I grew up knowing about the Holocaust,” she said. “I think for most Jews, it just sears in our memory that something like this could happen.”

“Faces of Genocide.” 4:30-7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 11 at Cowell Theater, Fort Mason Center, 2 Marina Blvd., S.F. Free with registration.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.