Expressing the Inexpressible: A short film about a Holodomor survivor and insights into communicating genocide to Western audiences

Yuliya Fedorovych

Communicating genocide to Western audiences is beyond challenging. Western viewers, in most cases, lack a frame of reference for the scale and horror of killings that occur during a genocide. “My Name is Eugenia Sakevych-Dallas” is a short film about a Holodomor survivor that attempts to bridge this gap and explain the history and events of the Holodomor to Western viewers.

Watch “My Name is Eugenia Sakevych Dallas”  

Eugenia’s story is one of struggle and suffering during and in the immediate aftermath of the Holodomor. She not only survived these horrific events but later had a successful career in the United States and was an outspoken activist. She contributed to the U.S. Congressional investigation that declared the Holodomor a genocide. While Eugenia’s story is unique, her account of the events of the Holodomor is similar to numerous other survivors’ stories. Telling these stories will not only raise awareness about the Holodomor but can also prompt meaningful dialog about the crimes of the past. However, for that dialogue to be as productive as possible, it must go beyond informing the audience about the crimes committed against Ukrainians. It must also foster a sense of empathy and a desire to take action to prevent the tragedies of the past from repeating themselves. Eugenia’s story can do just that. It has the potential to both inform Western audiences about the tragedy of the Holodomor, foster a sense of empathy, and uplift the viewer. It is a prototypical example of a story that can prompt the audience to take concrete actions to prevent similar tragedies in the future.

Artists and designers face several common challenges when attempting to create work about genocide. First of all, crafting an engaging and seamless narrative that is historically accurate is rather challenging. Secondly, for the audience to engage with the story and get inspired to take action, the story must not leave them feeling hopeless. Finally, the narrative should be accessible to those who have not experienced similar hardships. Some of these challenges are even more pronounced in the case of the Holodomor. This genocide was concealed from the world for almost half a century. Moreover, a famine killing millions might seem incomprehensible to a Western audience. It’s crucial that artists and designers carefully consider these challenges as they create materials aimed at communicating genocide to Western audiences.

Maintaining historical accuracy

Communicating the events of genocide necessitates credibility and historical accuracy, lest it contribute to deniers’ efforts to hide the crimes of the past. Ensuring historical accuracy while communicating the events of the genocide is challenging because genocides often occur in times of political and social upheaval, and the perpetrators often attempt to hide what happened. Moreover, genocide survivors talk about their experiences from their subjective, human perspectives and are not omniscient. In the context of the Holodomor, maintaining historical accuracy is particularly challenging because of Soviet efforts to conceal their crimes. During the Holodomor, the Soviets closed their borders and spread propaganda in Western news media. In the aftermath of this genocide, they intimidated witnesses, stifled investigations, and classified archival materials. As a result, to this day, some of the history of the Holodomor remains unclear, and the exact number of victims will never be known.

Designers can address these challenges by fastidiously verifying historical information and carefully considering the artistic purpose of including any subjective information. To craft the script for “My Name is Eugenia Sakevych-Dallas”, I deconstructed Eugenia’s autobiography book, “One Woman, Five Lives, Five Countries” (1998)1, to create a visual summary of the book and structure information for further verification. After that, I validated Eugenia’s account and timeline of events by consulting historical materials and historians.

A visual summary of Eugenia’s book “One Woman, Five Lives, Five Countries”

However, many of Eugenia’s personal experiences are impossible to fact-check. Moreover, “One Woman, Five Lives, Five Countries” is a complex narrative that often delves into events that are deeply important to the author but not necessarily to the story of the Holodomor. Therefore, in crafting the script for my film, I had to exclude aspects of Eugenia’s life story and include some of her personal experiences. In doing so, I carefully considered the purpose of particular omissions to her story, while keeping my ethical responsibilities in mind. 

In the film, Eugenia’s direct quotes are presented using the visual style of handwritten notes, scrolled on pieces of paper, and read by a female narrator. The information in those quotes, can’t be fact-checked. But, it is nevertheless very important to the narrative as it helps provide a human perspective and makes it easier for the audience to understand and relate to Eugenia.

A frame from the film with a quote from Eugenia’s book

However, I wanted to ensure that I placed Eugenia’s life story into the context of historical events. Therefore, I intersperse known historical facts throughout the film in the form of paratext (i.e., white text on the black screen). This paratext appeals to or expands the audience’s baseline knowledge of the period and region of the world.

Visual style for communicating historical facts (paratext)

Balancing representations of death and violence

Genocide is an amalgamation of different forms of violence, including forced displacement, physical harm, mass murder, sexual violence, and psychological violence. The violence therein can overwhelm, traumatize, or numb the audience to the scale of the horror. Based on my own experience, visiting exhibitions about wars and genocides can leave one feeling depressed and helpless in the face of inhuman cruelty. I learned that this feeling is not unique. In 2014, when researchers and designers started redesigning the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda, they polled visitors about their experience at the memorial. The research showed that many visitors were deeply affected by the stories of the victims and survivors but left the site with a sense of hopelessness and defeat. To transform this sense of defeat into a desire to contribute to social justice, the researchers redesigned the memorial using a framework dubbed The Inzovu Curve

The Inzovu Curve maps the prototypical experience of a person who encounters the stories of genocide victims and survivors. The name of the curve is inspired by its shape, which is reminiscent of an elephant trunk (the word ‘inzovu’ means ‘the elephant’ in the local Rwandan language Kinyarwanda). This framework maps the viewer’s journey in such a way that they encounter and reflect upon the atrocities of the genocide by hearing stories of incredible human strength and bravery that inspire them to take action.

The Inzovu Curve Framework by UX for Good

In the context of the Holodomor telling an engaging story that not only communicates the atrocities but also leaves the audience with a sense of hope is rather challenging. Many of the witness testimonies about that period are anonymous and focused on specific instances of death and violence. Moreover, full and cohesive stories of survivors’ lives before and after the Holodomor are rarely available. 

I selected Eugenia’s account because it captures the darkness of the Holodomor and the weight of the trauma she carried throughout her life, but also has moments of joy and resilience which highlight the strength of the human spirit. In crafting the core narrative of the film, I mapped Eugenia’s experiences onto The Inzovu Curve. Thus the story moves along the elephant’s trunk starting with her early childhood experiences, moving down into the trauma of collectivization and the famine, and then moving up following the end of the Second World War and the development of Eugenia’s successful career in the West.

Eugenia Sakevych-Dallas’s life story following the Inzovu Curve

Overcoming the limited capacity for representation 

Visualizing horrific occurrences like genocide for viewers who have never witnessed such things is extremely challenging. People can understand facts, like numerical death tolls, and begin to empathize with victims. However, they will never be able to fully comprehend a survivor’s experience. This challenge becomes even more apparent when producing media that is intended for a wide audience. In attempting to communicate the atrocities of the genocide to a broad audience, we risk turning tragic stories into “cheap consumer goods”.[2] For example, around half of America3 watched the 1978 television miniseries Holocaust, which tells the story of a fictional Jewish family. However, Nobel Laureate and Auschwitz survivor Ellie Wiesel called the miniseries kitsch and “an insult to those who perished and to those who survived”.4 The series no doubt brought attention to the events of the Holocaust. However, it oversimplified and trivialized them diminishing the scope of victims’ and survivors’ tragedies.

It’s crucial that the stories of genocide survivors are communicated with moral responsibilities in mind in a way that’s respectful to victims and survivors. At the same time, it’s important to craft the story in a way that Western audiences can understand and relate to. Navigating these two factors necessitates a balanced narrative. The narrative must engage the audience and provide a sense of hope, but not mislead the audience or trivialize the events of the genocide. An engaging and balanced narrative requires three things: Images to visualize the events of the genocide to an unfamiliar audience, words to place those images in context, and silence to provide the audience time for reflection. 

Creating a balanced narrative about genocide

Creating a balanced narrative that visually represents the events of the Holodomor has its own set of challenges. First, the majority of Westerners have no frame of reference for the scale of genocide. Western audiences lack a frame of reference for millions of people dying slowly as a result of famine. Second, there were systematic efforts by the USSR to conceal their crimes, which means few images exist to visualize the events of the time. All of the historical photographs that exist were taken in secret and do not fully capture the scale of the tragedy. Photographs are the primary medium through which Western audiences encounter genocide in educational settings. This lack of photographs makes it difficult for them to encounter and comprehend the predicament of victims. 

In “My Name is Eugenia Sakevych-Dallas” I build upon the limited historical and personal photographs from that time to recreate Eugenia’s photo album. The photos in that album come to life and walk the audience through her story. Hand-drawn elements round out the limited set of historical photos and fill in the gaps in an artistic yet credible way. To better convey the emotional tone of Eugenia’s story, I also use multiple visual and conceptual cues. For example, the film’s color scheme changes throughout the story to better convey the tone of the narrative. It starts brightly colored and becomes progressively darker and less saturated during the events of the Holodomor. The bright colors then gradually reappear as Eugenia builds her life in the United States. I utilized paratext—historical facts written in white text on a black screen—to set the emotional tone of the narrative as well. The paratext invades the plot and informs the audience about the upheavals of the time. It is unsettling, unpredictable and forces the story to unfold in a different direction.

Dynamic of the film’s color palette

Expressing the Inexpressible

Communicating genocide to Western audiences is ultimately fraught with difficulty. Artists, designers, and filmmakers are faced with the complex task of expressing the inexpressible. That is conveying events almost unimaginable in scale and horror. To do this we must craft a seamless and historically accurate narrative. We must communicate these events to an audience that has not experienced similar hardships and ideally inspire the audience to take action. Only through careful design choices and analysis can this task be accomplished. I hope that “My Name is Eugenia Sakevych-Dallas” bridges this gap and explains the history and events of the Holodomor. I likewise hope that it inspires the viewer to take action and contribute to the cause of social justice.

1 ISBN: 0-88100-107-4

2 Remembering Imre Kertész (1929-2016) by Abigail Wheetley

3 Holocaust: How a US TV Series Changed Germany by Damien McGuinness  

4 TV View by Ellie Wiesel

5 Art and the Holocaust: Trivializing Memory by Ellie Wiesel

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