Academy Award-Nominated Director Jessica Sanders On The Holocaust, Racism, & Steve Jobs


We’ve reached a tipping point across America and indeed the world where tensions around race an identity are at an all-time high. During this current US presidential cycle, the issue about police brutality disproportionately affecting the African American community, immigration rights, and violence carried out in the name of religious extremism has put society in a spin.

It is often said that looking back through history and the many atrocities that happened can be a great reminder of why being united is more important than ever. Right now there are a certain political candidates whose campaign is run on a base of fear and division, threatening to take us back to the dark ages of humanity. But when we see examples of the survival and sheer determination of the human spirit in the face of great odds, it ignites a hope that we thought was lost.

One woman who knows this all too well through the lens of her work, is director, writer and producer Jessica Sanders, whose documentary ‘March Of The Living’ released in 2010, is out now on iTunes and Vimeo on demand, and is essential viewing. It tells the story of the last generation of Holocaust survivors traveling to Poland with thousands of teenagers from around the world to revisit the sites of the Holocaust and retrace the Death March from Auschwitz to Birkenau, in a journey of remembrance. Filmed in Brazil, Germany, Poland, Israel and the US, the film tells the moving story of the survivors’ hope of passing down their history and memory of the Holocaust to the next generation.


Jessica, an Academy Award-nominated director, as well as a Sundance and Cannes Film Festival award winning director and producer has an impressive body of work including narrative and documentary films, as well as commercials, and many of the topics she focuses on share a common theme of race and identity.

Her career was launched when Steve Jobs handpicked her to direct Apple’s iPad launch campaign. She is currently directing ‘Picking Cotton’, a feature film based on the New York Time’s bestselling book. This movie is based on a story in her Sundance-winning film ‘After Innocence’, about the rape of Jennifer Thompson, a white college student by a black man who she identified as Ronald Cotton. Ronald spent 11 years in prison before he was declared innocent after DNA testing allowed him to be released.

This documentary showed how Jennifer and Ronald ended up forming a friendship and both became activists for criminal justice reform. In line with our mission to promote women in film and discuss important issues that are relevant to our audience, we had the chance to interview Jennifer about her work, the topics important to her and her start as a filmmaker.

Tell us briefly about your journey to becoming a professional filmmaker?

My parents are documentary filmmakers and my sister is an artist, so I was lucky to grow up in a creative home with great filmmaking mentors. I majored in Film and English at Wesleyan University in Connecticut where my fist student film Los Angles’ did the festival circuit and won several awards. After college the first film I produced ‘Sing!’, a documentary short about one of the best children’s choirs in the country, was nominated for an Oscar. This was followed by my first feature documentary I directed ‘After Innocence’ which won the Sundance Special Jury Prize and was shortlisted for the Oscar. I love all kinds of storytelling, feature, short form, fiction and non-fiction. For me, each genre informs the other.

You got your “big break,” so to speak, directing the Apple iPad launch campaign, tell us how you got picked to direct that?

I directed an autobiographical short film for Sony about growing up in a filmmaking family. The film went viral and won a Cannes Best New Director Award. Steve Jobs and his advertising agency saw the film, which led to my directing the iPad launch spot. This launched my commercial career and changed my filmmaking trajectory at a time when creatively I was looking to explore different genres beyond documentary filmmaking.

The documentaries you have directed are as varied as they are compelling. What drew you to some of the stories you worked on?

For ‘After Innocence’ I wanted to tell the untold stories of wrongfully convicted people to create awareness and change to help exonerees who are often given nothing after spending decades in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. The film has become a game changer in criminal justice reform. Every film is an adventure, I have to love the story and subject because each film can take years to make.

Your documentary ‘March of the Living’, which has just been released on demand, tells the story of holocaust survivors who travel with younger people to places in Poland where many of the death camps were. What drew you to write and direct this film?

I wanted to make a different kind of Holocaust film that felt very contemporary. It’s a critical time where the generation of Holocaust survivors are alive to share their memory with the next generation so I wanted the film to relate to young people. I featured an insightful Brazilian teenage girl, a half Japanese, half Jewish girl from Los Angeles, and a group of kids from Berlin experiencing a journey of remembrance to the sites of the Holocaust in Poland. It’s an international film and a Brazilian production, shot in five languages, it was very ambitious to make.

Can you tell us some of the other projects you are working on and the stories you would like to explore in the future?

I’m prepping to direct the scripted feature film ‘Picking Cotton’ based on the New York Times Best Selling book by Jennifer Thompson, Ronald Cotton and Erin Torneo. The story is an incredible wrongful conviction story about forgiveness that was featured in my Sundance-winning documentary ‘After Innocence’.

What advice would you give to other female filmmakers who have a passion but struggle to find the right opportunities?

Filmmaker Penelope Spheeris who is a mentor, gives this advice that I have also taken to heart, which is to learn the filmmaking tools (how to shoot, edit, etc) so you can have creative freedom and independence. Also, just keep creating, it doesn’t matter how small or low budget it is, look at the amazing film ‘Tangerine’, shot on an iPhone, an inspiration!


You can watch ‘March Of The Living’ on iTunes or Vimeo on Demand today.



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