There have been so many stories about the Holocaust you may think there’s nothing new to tell, but odds are you’ve never heard this one. The moving tale of a group of several thousand European Jews escaping from Nazi Europe to find refuge in an unlikely destination forms the basis for a new documentary film. Currently garnering support from members of communities as diverse as the arts and human rights campaigners, the film is a poignant testament to the resilience of the human spirit. Actor, artist, and activist Beata Pozniak, who has long championed the urgent need for stories told by and about women, said the fact the story was virtually unknown and that it was being made by a woman, from a woman’s viewpoint, along with her respect and admiration for that woman, is what led her to become one of the producers on the project. Pozniak Daniels says, “I always look for stories that make you stop and think, and that can change your point of view. I found that in this story.” Below, Cultmachine's Maureen McCabe talks to the woman behind this powerful new film: Emmy Award winning producer and writer EVA ZELIG.

Eva Zelig
Maureen McCabe: Eva, tell us about your new documentary.

Eva Zelig: AN UNKNOWN COUNTRY is an independent film that tells the story of Jews who fled Europe, escaping the Nazi Terror to find refuge in an unfamiliar and exotic destination: Ecuador. Featuring first-hand accounts and archival material, the story will open a window on the exiles’ escape and difficult adjustment as they remade their lives in an unknown land.

MM: That’s a fascinating story that’s never been told before. What drew you to it?

EZ: My family was among those who found refuge in Ecuador. I was born there and always felt their heartache at having lost family and home, and their sense of not belonging to their adopted country.

In 2010, I learned that a group of children of the refugees--some of whom I vaguely knew from childhood--was planning a reunion in Ecuador. While preparing to attend the reunion, I began to read accounts of some of the refugees’ experiences of how they managed to escape Europe and how they made new lives in Ecuador. As I read the stories, I saw a need to tell them to a wider audience and that’s when I decided to produce the documentary.

MM: So you have a deep personal connection to the subject?

Shooting AN UNKNOWN COUNTRY - with an interviewee

EZ: Yes, my family landed in Ecuador, escaping from Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia. Most of my relatives who stayed behind were killed by the Nazis. My family did not fare too well in exile, because of bad luck and difficulties in adapting to this new land. The cultural divide was too great, and they always felt like exiles. So I wanted to explore the issue of identity and find out how my family’s experience compared to those of other refugees.

MM: Did your personal connection help or hinder you in filming the documentary?

EZ: Neither. However, I was always torn about whether to make the project a personal account or remain an observer. Because of my experience as a TV producer telling other people’s stories, so far I have been an observer. I must add that even now, as I continue to work on the film, I am still deciding whether it will be a more personal statement.

My personal connection did help in one regard: I was able to fully understand the context of the stories and empathize with the experiences people shared with me.

MM: This film deals with two different cultures meeting, meshing and perhaps clashing. Is this a subject that particularly interests you?

Shooting in the streets of Ecuador
EZ: Yes, the subject of converging cultures is of particular interest because I experienced it growing up in Ecuador. Even though I was born there, I never felt I belonged, and knew I would depart one day.

Ecuador was not a country of immigrants like the U.S., Brazil, or Argentina; there was no tradition of absorbing outsiders in large numbers, so the refugees stood out. The local people, though friendly and welcoming, called all foreigners gringos--not just the Americans. Even the kids of refugees who were born in Ecuador were often called gringos. So, many did not feel they truly belonged in the country where they were born. That was my experience. We were a group apart and often identified with Europe more than with Ecuador. My interviews of both, refugees and their children confirmed this: They invariably described themselves as being “citizens of the world.” It’s also how I described myself.

MM: Did the experience of filming the documentary change you in any way?

EZ: It made me aware of how little I knew about the Jewish community of Ecuador. Because of my family’s difficult circumstances, we hardly participated in that community’s life. I hardly mingled with the kids who were children of refugees. At the time, it didn’t seem to matter. Today, I feel that had I fraternized with that group, I might have felt less estranged.

MM: Were you surprised by anything you learned while filming?


Eva Zelig is an award-winning producer/writer whose work has appeared on PBS, The Learning Channel, New York Times TV, ABC, National Geographic TV, Consumer Reports.

Eva won an Emmy award for the documentary Killer Virus that aired on The Learning Channel. Also for TLC, she produced Transplant: The Clock is Ticking, a documentary nominated for a Cable ACE award. She has also been honored with two CINE Golden Eagles, Gold Apple from National Educational Media Network, Pinnacle Award from American Women in Radio and TV, and a Gold Medal from International Film and TV Festival of New York.

For the popular award-winning PBS series, Innovation, she produced 20 programs about cutting-edge advances in science, technology, health and the environment. She also produced for the PBS series, Close to Home: A Moyers Report on Addiction, the PBS children's series, Planet H20, and We Also Dance, a documentary about blind dancers.

Eva has produced educational videos for schools and museums, including the Nature Museum-Chicago Academy of Sciences, Brooklyn Botanic Garden and Grand Teton National Park. She teamed up with the American Museum of Natural History and Environmental Defense Fund to create the award-winning multimedia traveling exhibition, Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast. The exhibition received the American Association of Museums Curators Award.

In 2009 Eva produced three episodes for the 13-part PBS series, Art Through Time: A Global View. She’s now working on a series about music education for New York’s PBS station, Thirteen/WNET.

EZ: I was surprised to learn that the archives of Ecuador’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs contain so much of the story of Jewish exile there. Although in the old days Ecuador was underdeveloped in many respects, the government kept good records.

Even more surprising was to learn that many of the exile families and individuals flourished. I was surprised by the extent of the refugees’ important contributions to Ecuador’s industry, economy, culture, and the arts. And I was impressed by how many exiles and their children expressed gratitude to Ecuador for providing a safe haven and by how many exiles loved Ecuador and never wanted to return to Europe.

MM: What made you want to be a documentary filmmaker?

EZ: From an early age, I wanted to be a journalist. I became a TV producer and enjoy the challenge and creativity of producing TV programs and films. I felt compelled to become an independent documentary filmmaker when a couple of years ago, I became fully aware of the complex and fascinating stories of the Jews in Ecuador.

MM: What drives your creativity?

EZ: The need to share stories.

MM: Do you have any favorite directors that have especially inspired you?

EZ: Ken Burns, Michael Moore, Albert and David Maysles, Werner Herzog.

MM: What have been the biggest challenges in developing the project?

Shooting AN UNKNOWN COUNTRY - preparing for an interview
EZ: One of the biggest challenges has been to create a balance between stories of persecution and escape and those of arrival in Ecuador and the struggle to survive in this new land.
The stories the exiles told about how they lost all their rights, possessions, and family at the hands of the Nazis, and their heartbreaking efforts to find a country that would give them refuge are fascinating, but could not be dealt fully in a documentary about the Ecuador experience. I was, therefore, forced to discard some fascinating narratives of what happened in Europe to concentrate more time on the Ecuadorian experience.

The record of persecution of Jews in Europe during the 30’s and 40’s is well documented, so this topic had become secondary to the saga of the refugees’ adaptation in Ecuador. I hope the film to be as much about the exile experience as about the country that offered them refuge.

Another big challenge has been fund raising. For independent documentarians this is a continuous process that takes enormous time and effort. Often I spend more time fund raising than producing.

Also challenging has been the process of hunting for archival images to illustrate the stories of the refugees. Some stories are fascinating, but without photos or
footage, they cannot be properly told in a film. This is a challenging process that requires a great deal of time, persistence, and ingenuity.

MM: You mentioned the challenge of fundraising. At one point, you turned to Kickstarter for help. Was that a good experience for you?

EZ: The fund raising campaign on Kickstarter was a hair-raising, challenging, and wonderful experience.

Shooting AN UNKNOWN COUNTRY in Ecuador - Selecting Photos
I was lucky to reach my funding goal, but the process required daily, constant attention to myriad aspects of fund raising, in particular making contacts far and wide. Some days were exhilarating, some were dispiriting, but it was a unique learning experience and ultimately most rewarding.

MM: What do you hope viewers will take away from the film?

EZ: I hope viewers will take away new knowledge of a little-known story that emerged from the Holocaust, and that they will learn about this small republic that opened its doors to the refugees. The film is as much about the exiles as it is about the country that offered them refuge when other countries closed their doors to them.

I also hope viewers will take away a lesson in survival and perseverance as shown by this group of exiles who witnessed and endured one of the most harrowing periods of the 20th century. I hope viewers will be inspired by how the persecuted can conquer adversity, build new lives, and create a vibrant community in a faraway land vastly different from their own.

MM: You’ve said this is a film about survival and perseverance. Is perseverance a virtue that you feel you possess or would like to attain?

  • Gold Medal-New York Festivals: Planet H2O
  • Emmy-Outstanding Coverage of a Continuing News Story: Killer Virus
  • CINE Golden Eagle: Killer Virus
  • Cable ACE Award Nomination, Transplant: The Clock is Ticking
  • Gold Apple, National Educational Media Network, Killer Virus
  • International Film & Video Festival Award/CINE Golden Eagle: The Power of the Spirit
  • American Association of Museums Curators Award: Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast
  • CINE Golden Eagle: A Sound Idea
  • Gold Medal/International Film and TV Festival of New York: You Won’t Feel a Thing
  • Bronze Apple, National Educational Film and Video Festival: Allergy Blues
  • Pinnacle Award-American Women in Radio and TV: You Won’t Feel a Thing
  • Media Award, American Society of Anesthesiology: You Won’t Feel a Thing
  • Media Award, NY State Society of Anesthesiology: You Won’t Feel a Thing
  • Emmy-Outstanding Magazine Format Series: INNOVATION
  • Ohio State and John Muir medical Film Festival Awards
EZ: I learned about perseverance seeing my family’s struggle to survive despite serious setbacks and bad luck. I left Ecuador for the U.S. at a young age and had to find my way on my own. This required perseverance, so I suppose I have acquired this quality, though it surely doesn’t match my parents’ ability to bounce back and forge ahead despite difficult times. Anyone who embarks on an independent documentary without an independent income has to know the meaning of perseverance!!!

MM: How is the production progressing? Do you have a timeline in mind for when you hope to release the film?

EZ: Work on the documentary is progressing. However, fund-raising often requires that I stop production to apply for grants. That’s most time consuming. With the help of prior donors we are launching a campaign to raise finishing funds by mid-September. We finally have edited a rough cut of the intended film and hope to have a final cut by October of this year. If I meet that deadline, I could release the film at the end of 2013.

MM: Thank you, Eva. We look forward to seeing AN UNKNOWN COUNTRY!

Shooting AN UNKNOWN COUNTRY - conducting an interview




Maureen McCabe has a Master’s Degree in English Literature from UC Riverside and is a graduate of USC’s Master of Professional Writing Program. She lives in Southern California with a very spoiled dachshund.