Part of the filming for a PBS documentary about the Holocaust by local filmmaker Keith Famie took place at the Berman Center for the Performing Arts in West Bloomfield. For part of the filming, Detroit resident Curtis Bates sings as members of a choir escort Holocaust survivors into the Berman Center, as video photographer Brendan Martin films.

Part of the filming for a PBS documentary about the Holocaust by local filmmaker Keith Famie took place at the Berman Center for the Performing Arts in West Bloomfield. For part of the filming, Detroit resident Curtis Bates sings as members of a choir escort Holocaust survivors into the Berman Center, as video photographer Brendan Martin films.

Photo provided by Keith Famie


Filmmaker Keith Famie attempts to engage younger generation with Holocaust documentary

‘This is not your typical PBS historical documentary’

By: Mark Vest | West Bloomfield Beacon | Published October 27, 2021

 Part of the filming for a PBS documentary about the Holocaust by local filmmaker Keith Famie took place on the stage of the Berman Center for the Performing Arts in West Bloomfield.

Part of the filming for a PBS documentary about the Holocaust by local filmmaker Keith Famie took place on the stage of the Berman Center for the Performing Arts in West Bloomfield.

Photo provided by Keith Famie

WEST BLOOMFIELD  — Just over two years ago, local filmmaker Keith Famie listened to a Holocaust survivor speak to a group of high school students at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills.

Famie, who is a Farmington High graduate currently residing in Novi, described the talk as powerful, inspirational, touching and painful, with “great” information.

However, despite the impact of the message, something stood out to him.

“Some of the kids asked questions and so on, but I really didn’t think they got it,” Famie said. “I thought, ‘I don’t really think they’re connecting with this.’ It’s not that the message wasn’t great; it’s just that the generation gap was just too large for them to be able to identify with (someone) 80, 90 years old talking about their past as a child.”

Instead of merely letting it go as a passing thought, Famie decided to do something about his observation, and his background put him in a good position to do so.

After being a finalist on the 2001 reality television series “Survivor: The Australian Outback” and hosting his own Food Network series titled “Keith Famie’s Adventures,” Famie became a documentary filmmaker in 2004.

Since making that decision, he has been awarded 11 Michigan Emmys.

His role provided Famie with an ideal outlet to turn his observations from that day at the Holocaust Memorial Center into a documentary that has the potential to be viewed by a nationwide audience.

“Shoah Ambassadors” is set to premiere Nov. 11 at the Emagine Theatre in Novi before airing on PBS locally Nov.18 and then, “eventually, the country.”

Famie provided a synopsis of the documentary.

“It’s really a story about the Holocaust, but it’s a much bigger story than that,” he said. “There’s been several films on the Holocaust, of course, both in film and in documentaries to tell the story. … I wanted to find a way of telling it differently and engage (a) younger population, the non-Jewish generation, to understand the significance of the atrocities of World War II.”

Famie’s idea for the documentary was to find two young, non-Jewish people who knew “very little” about the Holocaust.

Part of the criteria also included that both of those individuals needed to have a “unique” talent that could be used to express the journey they were to go on to learn more about the Holocaust.

After  some “deep-dive” research, Famie decided that Detroit resident Curtis Bates and Rochester resident Hailey Callahan were the ones he wanted to help tell the story for “Shoah Ambassadors.”

Bates, 20, is a Detroit Cass Tech graduate currently taking classes at Wayne County Community College. He is a singer, songwriter and rapper.

Callahan, 23, graduated from Rochester Hills Stoney Creek High School before going on to attend the College for Creative Studies in Detroit.

Bates wrote two songs that are featured in the film.

The inspiration for one of the songs, “Never Again,” came when he visited with Rene Lichtman, a Holocaust survivor.

“Rene is a painter and was a child Holocaust survivor who was hidden in Paris. He was explaining to Curtis what he thinks about when he paints,” Famie said. “The film opens with Rene painting, but you don’t know what he’s painting until the very end of the film. He paints this final message, and Curtis lifts it off the easel and holds it up to the camera. That final message inspired the song ‘Never Again.’”

Callahan worked with different pieces of glass and clay for the documentary, along with visiting with and interviewing Holocaust survivors.

“She re-created the train car that actually sits in the Holocaust Memorial Center out of glass, with butterflies flying off of it,” Famie said. “The unveiling process was done with the glass train car on a table and a turntable as she talks about why she did this, with the big train car behind it and five cantors from local synagogues singing a prayer. It’s a pretty powerful scene and very powerful message that she explains to her youthful peers of why she created that and what inspired her.”

Callahan recalled first learning about the Holocaust in seventh grade. She said it seemed “crazy to believe.”

“Now, being older, hearing it again, there’s an emotional side where it’s like, ‘I can’t believe people experienced this, and they still carry on every day; they get up and they smile.’ … It’s a lot different, learning now.”

Bates also recalled learning about the Holocaust in school, but he said it was a period in history he “vaguely” knew about.

“I didn’t know much,” he said. “I never really even thought about it from the perspective of people who were actually there, who actually survived it or had family members who were survivors. I didn’t think about the Holocaust being close to me, as far as my life.”

Bates said being part of “Shoah Ambassadors” as “one of those mind-openers.”

“Even though these are things I learned, they’re memories for people,” he said. “They’re things that are embedded in people’s brains way different than they are mine. Hearing how it affects them, I learned even more.”

Famie expanded on the roles Bates and Callahan play in the documentary.

“A lot of it is their experience as the moment unfolds,” he said. “There are some points where they do some narration, but most of it is them in the moment. … You step into this world and go on this journey, if you will — this uncovering journey of the Holocaust with them. And then you’ll hear at the end what they got out of it and how it impacted them.”

All of the filming for the documentary took place in Michigan.

At the time Famie spoke about the film, the project was in its final editing stages. Filming began in July of 2020.

Famie’s aspiration for “Shoah Ambassadors” is a lofty one.

“I wanted to see if our approach could generate something different, unique, educational, inspiring and timely, that can last for many generations. So, that was the overview thought of what I was trying to create,” he said.

Famie said he “naturally assumed” that everybody knew about the Holocaust.

However, upon doing some probing, he found that wasn’t the case.

“I started taking a deep-dive into the understanding of our current generation, even the generation in their late 20s, early 30s, and I was astonished on how little knowledge they have of the Holocaust,” Famie said. “I couldn’t imagine that they didn’t know, and why didn’t they know? Did they not care? … Or maybe it wasn’t served up to them in such a way that they could digest it because there’s so much coming at our youth from so many directions, for so many different reasons, (that) it’s hard to maintain a rhythm of thinking, focusing or learning, for that matter.”

Famie said that, for the first part of the documentary, he wanted to “prove” the lack of understanding that exists about the Holocaust, and he did so via random interviews with young people at a mall.

“Knowledge of the Holocaust is really limited,” he said. “And so, that energized the vision I had, and our team. … This is exactly why we’re telling the story. This is exactly the audiences.”

Famie shared who the documentary is not primarily intended for.

“I explained to the Jewish community, ‘This film is not for you. It’s not for your families. This film is for a sector of society that maybe you don’t cross paths with on a regular basis,’” he said. “And so, probably, if you ask me one of the most difficult parts, it’s for me to always remember to step into the young person’s shoes. In cutting the film and telling the story, I have to remember this is not your typical PBS historical documentary. This is a different type of film.”

What started out as a topic about a piece of history she learned about in school has become so much more for Callahan.

She discussed her current perspective on the Holocaust after being part of “Shoah Ambassadors.”

“It’s so scary the way it happened,” Callahan said. “I feel like it creeped up on everyone. . … We can’t have that happen again.”

For more information about the documentary, visit shoahambassadors.com.

For more information about Famie’s work with Visionalist Entertainment Productions, visit v-prod.com.