When I was invited to make a documentary about Irene Butter, I did not realize how profoundly our deepening acquaintance would change my outlook on life. As a child of parents who had fled the Third Reich and were separated from family members during the Nazi persecution, I grew up in a fearful environment, where trust and loving-kindness were in short supply. My parents’ trauma colored my childhood and adult perceptions, but filming Irene’s interactions with students made me re-evaluate that fear-based consciousness. In spite of the suffering she endured, she was able to celebrate the joy in life, and see the good in everyone.
As we filmed, I saw how Irene’s full embrace of life affects the young people she teaches. During our second shoot, at a charter school in Detroit, I watched the students surround her to talk and get hugs after she addressed them. She welcomed them into her heart and into her arms. Young people are able to receive strength and courage from her, because it is shared with such love.
Never a Bystander took five years to complete. I had no sense of how to structure the narrative when we began, but knew that I wanted it to be more than a Holocaust movie. Irene’s childhood experiences in Nazi Germany provided the foundation of the story, but my challenge was how to weave in the identity she claimed for herself after the Holocaust. Because Irene’s philosophy of empowered activism takes so many forms – educating young people, honoring global change-makers, and working personally on Arab-Jewish issues – I struggled to find the film’s center. It could have been a much more political story, but ultimately, it’s not a movie about politics, it’s about heart. What called to me most was the outpouring from all those students, newly awakened to the realization that they can survive anything and make a real difference in the world.
As a wheelchair user, I never thought I would be able to be a filmmaker. I can’t do my own filming because I cannot hold a camera and move at the same time. Most directors hire camera people anyway, but for me, doing camera work was never an option.
Access was also a problem at times when Irene gave presentations in amphitheaters. But I am grateful that I have been able to pursue this work at all. I developed a passion for film in my twenties, and was finally able to follow my heart when I retired from a profession in health care administration and no longer needed a job that provided health insurance. I was lucky, because I had friends and acquaintances who were active in filmmaking, particularly Laurie White, who invited me to get involved with her wonderful film Refusing to Be Enemies: The Zeitouna Story. My role on that film was small, but without it, I might never have tried making a film myself.
Truthfully, as a new filmmaker, I still find it hard to believe that I completed Never a Bystander. I was blessed with the support of so many people, from Suzanne Hopkins, the veteran teacher who arranged classroom shoots where we could actually hear students’ questions, to my cameraman Keith Jeffries, my documentary film instructor Donna Ryen, and my senior editor Elie Mosseri, who helped me give shape to the film when I was struggling.
Lastly, of course, there was Irene, whose confidence and personal example fueled me onward. One of my favorite scenes in the film shows Irene sharing letters from students she has met. One of them articulated my feelings exactly: “You have inspired me to make my life a story worth telling.”
My dream is to see Never a Bystander in classrooms everywhere, so Irene’s inspiration can continue to open hearts and inspire hope.