CC Students, Alumnus, and Professor Investigate Holocaust Mystery in New Documentary Film

  Pema Baldwin ’22 , Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies Dylan Nelson, and  Maya Rajan ’22  meet to discuss the documentary film project they are working together on, “The Liegnitz Plot.” Photo by Gray Warrior
Pema Baldwin ’22, Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies Dylan Nelson, and Maya Rajan ’22 meet to discuss the documentary film project they are working together on, “The Liegnitz Plot.” Photo by Gray Warrior

It was a day unlike any other. Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies Dylan Nelson found herself standing in the basement of a house in Legnica, Poland, filming a historical love story … but her team was actually trying to solve a historical mystery. Could a Nazi officer have stolen precious stamps from Holocaust victims, and then buried the purloined collection in this very basement? That’s the rumor her film’s protagonist, Gary Gilbert, had heard – and that’s the rumor the crew was seeking to confirm.

How did she get here? Nelson collaborated with her creative team — Gilbert, a former “Seinfeld” writer, and director Dan Sturman, a former investigative journalist and frequent block visitor in Film and Media Studies — to produce “The Liegnitz Plot,” a documentary film following Gilbert’s unconventional efforts to confirm the Nazi stamp story. Gilbert’s tactic: a fake movie shoot. His goal: to find and return the stolen stamps to their rightful owners, hopefully delivering a small measure of justice more than 70 years after the Holocaust.

“I knew I wanted to make a film about the Holocaust,” Nelson explains. “But a common challenge with documentaries is, how do you avoid preaching to the choir? The fact that Gary was going on a genuine quest — no matter its result — and the fact that we had a Holocaust mystery that was genuinely unsolved made this story feel important, exciting, and ripe for documentary treatment.”

Equipped with just three clues (a story from Gilbert’s neighbor, a tattered map of Legnica [previously Liegnitz, Germany], and a list of initials including “R.W.”), the team set off, not knowing what they’d find. Little by little, more details came to light, and the team members found themselves in the midst of conspiracies, paranoia, greed, and an inside look into Poland’s unfortunate surge of present-day antisemitism. 

Back stateside, Nelson enlisted the help of two CC students and an alumnus to help the team bring the documentary film to life. Thanks to CC’s Faculty Student Collaborative Summer Grants program, Pema Baldwin ’22 and Maya Rajan ’22 worked as post-production assistants, joining Skye Schelz ’21 as Nelson, Sturman, and the editorial team put together the story.

“The work of our post-production assistants was essential,” Nelson emphasizes. “Besides conducting footage and story research and, of course, experiencing the tedious side of filmmaking — how the sausage is made — Pema, Maya, and Skye were the first viewers of the footage, and their feedback is shaping how we tell this story.” 

Pema Baldwin ’22 spent his time on the project perusing the Shoah Foundation's Visual History Archive, a collection of over 50,000 video testimonies from Holocaust survivors. After transcribing archives, he created drafts for the film’s editors.

“It’s really interesting hearing about a significant historical event from individual perspectives,” Baldwin muses. “It makes you think about history not as this neat chain of events that fits together, but as a bunch of confusing experiences of frightened people trying to survive. I think that we can draw a lot of parallels from that to how we view current struggles.” 

Maya Rajan ’22 also transcribed personal stories of Holocaust survivors, working specifically with the film’s master chronology document. In addition, she viewed clips from the documentary, offering feedback based on her research.

“Before ‘The Liegnitz Plot,’ I only had experience in short films,” Rajan shares. “I had no idea how much work, research, organization, and collaboration it takes to sculpt a feature-length story.”

Nelson agrees. “Documentary filmmaking requires significant infrastructure building,” Nelson says. “We had 350 hours of raw footage and thousands of clips. We needed our assistants to help create a robust organizational system, and they also showed us how viewers would respond. When you’re looking at so much material, it’s easy to lose perspective and miss either little details or the big picture.

“For example, after seeing our footage of antisemitism in Poland, the assistants told us we weren’t offering hope or showcasing the important work many groups were doing to promote Jewish culture. We changed the cut dramatically as a result. If a moment in raw footage resonated with them, we would put it in the scene. Their creative feedback was critical to the process.” 

From the beginning, the team behind “The Liegnitz Plot” had one main goal: to bring Holocaust stories to light and encourage the world to remember the atrocities of the era. 

“I think this is an important story to tell through film because of the audience it can reach,” Baldwin notes. “People who may not otherwise watch a movie about the Holocaust might tune in for the mystery and drama of it all, and then, before they know it, they’re confronted with something unexpected.” 

“But this film is much more than a Holocaust story,” Rajan adds. “It also speaks to territory, trust, history, and nationalism.” 

The collaboration among the team is an important aspect of the unique CC experience, bringing the lessons that Nelson teaches in her classes to life with real-world practice.

“One of the unique elements of CC is the close relationships that faculty and students develop,” Nelson says. “It’s extraordinary to me how well I get to know some of my students. And when they get to work on faculty projects, they gain a new perspective and extend that distinct CC learning experience.”

Nelson looks forward to using the grants program again in the future, hopefully with the distribution process of “The Liegnitz Plot.” “Distribution is a long way away, though,” she says. “We have many miles to go before we sleep. But I’m glad Pema and Maya could be along for the journey.

“There’s only so much you can teach and learn in a 12-unit major. Programs like this and other collaborations in the sciences, arts, and humanities help students obtain real-world preparation.”

Maya Rajan and Pema Baldwin’s experience with Nelson’s project did just that. While Rajan says that she’ll present a fictional film for her senior thesis, working on “The Liegnitz Plot” sparked a deeper interest in documentaries. Rajan and Baldwin both have several short films under their belts, and Baldwin is eager to work on more documentaries in the future. He views the work as valuable and enjoys watching the parts come together to create a cohesive whole. 

“Documentary filmmaking requires real tenacity and gumption,” Baldwin says. “You need a completely open mind because it’s nonstop problem-solving, and that’s what makes it so exciting to me.”
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