"An inspiring work that sheds light on one of the darkest events in human history" said, Documentary Competition juror, Mark Rabinowitz, of Platform Media Group. Juror Allison Inman of Nashville's Belcourt Theatre added, "The film examines the power of a promise and uses an emotional and deeply personal story to reveal a cultural code and strength of integrity that is sorely needed in the world today…"
BESA: The Promise follows the quest of Rexhep Hoxha, an Albanian whose Muslim father sheltered a Jewish family during WWII. As the Nazi occupation of Albania grew increasingly brutal and dangerous, Rexhep's father helped the Jewish family escape, promising to hide and protect a set of sacred Hebrew texts until they could safely be returned. But at the end of the war, Albania fell under a communist dictatorship so bleak that no communication was allowed with the outside world. The promise to return the books became Rexhep's when his father died. American photographer Norman H. Gershman, traveling to Albania to document Muslims who rescued Jews in WWII, offers to help.
Director Rachel Goslins tells of the filming. "With the magnetic Norman Gershman as our guide and our muse, we started out making a film about a forgotten history of interfaith friendship and bravery, interviewing WWII survivors from Albania about their past. Along the way we stumbled across Rexhep Hoxha and were pulled decisively into the present by his modern-day quest."
The film follows Rexhep to Bulgaria and Israel as he searches for the family. Intercut with his story are interviews with Jewish survivors and Albanian rescuers, who fill in the history of the period. These indepth interviews are paired with family photos, never before seen archival film, and an exquisite series of animations.
"By the final days of shooting," says Goslins, "as Rexhep moved towards the unknowable culmination of his decades-long search, we were as nervous and invested as he was. The film had become almost incidental to the larger responsibility of bearing witness to the sacrifice and dedication of Rexhep, his family and all of the people who trusted us with their stories along the way. What happened next left all of us breathless."
This is the fifth Best Documentary win for BESA: The Promise, which was also honored in other festivals with a Special Jury Award and a Best Director Award for Goslins. It was produced by JWM Productions, LLC and received a National Endowment for the Humanities Bridging Cultures through Film grant. The moving score was written by Philip Glass. Strong word of mouth has propelled the film - which does not yet have a distributor - into over 50 film festivals around the United States and the world, including Poland, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, England, Scotland, Australia, Israel and Albania, where the film's story takes place.
Director Goslins says, "This film represents the reason I make documentaries. I could not have scripted anything remotely this moving and profound. The fact that Rexhep’s story not only really happened, but that we had the privilege to discover and document it is one of those rare gifts from the documentary gods for which I will be forever grateful. Working on this film has affirmed my faith in human decency and courage."
The Nashville Film Festival is presenting a "Back By Popular Demand" encore screening of BESA: The Promise on Saturday, April 26 at 2:45pm at the Green Hills Cinema.