Patricia Iannaci always liked history and TV production — both her parents were teachers in those subjects — but she readily admits to never being the best student.
But when she took an honors class at Bayonne (N.J.) High School during her junior year, everything changed.
That class was about the Holocaust. The teacher, Gene Woods, would interview and record Holocaust survivors, and Iannaci was quickly fascinated not just by the subject, but by the very method of archiving these histories. Eventually, Woods, Iannaci and her father worked together to make a handful of documentaries to display at Bayonne City Hall each year.
“All of them had really incredible stories,” she said. “I didn’t even know I wanted to do documentaries before then.”
Iannaci, who is not Jewish, has since expanded her work to include documentaries on civil rights activists. She took a break from filming Holocaust survivors for a while and had the opportunity to interview and film Jewish civil rights activist Mark Levy after meeting him at her high school. Her documentary of Levy is archived with Queens College.
Now a sophomore at Rowan University, the 19-year-old is getting back into her work on Holocaust survivors, inspired by Rowan’s new Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies’ inaugural program back in mid-November.
Iannaci is also a part of the Thomas N. Bantivoglio Honors Concentration at Rowan, which she joined because she heard there was an excellent Holocaust class in the program, although it was later cut.
When she heard about the Holocaust center’s event, she was sitting in class. After 10 minutes of stewing, she felt compelled to skip class to meet the survivors, Charles Middleberg and Helene Bouton, and ask to film them for a documentary.
“I haven’t worked on one of these since junior year” of high school, she explained, “but then I met the two Holocaust survivors at Rowan. It’s nice to get back into it.”
She has previously interviewed six survivors who live around New Jersey with help from her high school colleagues, but she will be producing this one on her own.
Iannaci, who wants to become a documentarian, is currently double majoring in history and radio, television and film production with a minor in Spanish and an honors concentration in women’s and gender studies and international studies.
She has put a priority on these firsthand accounts of Holocaust survivors and civil rights activist because they won’t be around forever.
“As a historian, primary sources are important to collect, and sometimes they’re not seen when it’s written down,” she said. “I feel like it’s more powerful to record it because if it’s a video and people can sit and watch it, they can understand better. I want to make documentaries about all these times in history that are bad because then if people watch it and they see how horrible it is, then maybe it will stop them from being bad in future generations.”
Iannaci recalled looking for first-person accounts in her high school classes and had difficulty finding them. She wants to be able to create her own sources.
“I just like to find sources of history and figure it out from someone that knows more than I do,” she said.
She added that videos and YouTube channels are a great outlet because they are accessible for many people, whereas written testimonies tend to get lost — in fact, she hopes to have her own channel up and running by the beginning of next year.
This next video she’s producing will be for Bayonne High School’s YouTube channel, Ben TV. It will also be aired at the next Holocaust remembrance ceremony at Bayonne City Hall, which usually takes place in April.
“When you hear the stories, you’re going to want to share them,” she said. “I just think this is something that could have been written in a movie and should have never happened in real life. It’s just nice as a human being to see that people could get over something so awful.”
Iannaci produces all of these documentaries on her own time and for no compensation. For now, she sees it as good practice for the future.
Ned Eckhardt, emeritus Rowan professor of radio, television and film, taught Iannaci in Applied Media Studies last year.
The final assignment called for the students to come up with an idea for a future film and then write a detailed film treatment about it.
According to Eckhardt, Iannaci’s concept was memorable. She came up with a narrative love story between a German guard in a concentration camp and a Jewish woman.
When he asked about the inspiration for her story, Iannaci told him about an interview she conducted with a survivor who said she actually had a relationship with a German guard.
“She had taken the story she had heard from a Holocaust survivor and then put her spin on it as a movie treatment, the way she would tell the story — I knew that she was really something special,” he said. “It kind of blew me away because it was such a mature subject and she really had so many details.”
Eckhardt added that Iannaci has a very upbeat personality, which balances out her serious subject matter.
“For an 18-year-old student to be so interested in that part of history and collective culture was pretty amazing,” he said.
Iannaci admitted that sometimes the stories are so powerful that she ends up “crying through all these stories, — they’re all so incredible. [But] I just wouldn’t want to be the only one that knows. As long as there are survivors out there and I come into contact with them or someone else who needs my help, I will definitely be videotaping them.”
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