The camera is running. A teenage girl fixes her hair and looks straight into the lens. Behind her you can see a modest and colorless living room.
“This is my life now, strange, huh? I can’t really believe it, but this is it,” she says to the camera. “What is happening outside is becoming more and more dangerous. I am afraid of what might happen.”
For several weeks she has not been allowed to go outside, not to mention going to school. “I’m scared,” she says a moment later, her eyes welling up with tears. “I cried for half an hour now. I simply feel bad. Everybody’s telling me to be careful because it is about to happen. But I don’t believe it will.”
The teenager's first video, about five minutes long, was posted on YouTube two weeks ago. Since then, every few days, new video clips are added, featuring a girl who seems to be bright and sensitive revealing how she is confronting a new reality of isolation and danger. Her comments expose deep fear, sadness and loneliness, but at the same time creativity, love and dreams as well.
These clips are not, however, just another series of selfie videos that have been posted in their millions in recent weeks on social media, in which the subjects describe a daily routine that was suddenly interrupted, and how they are dealing with it.
The management of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam could not possibly have foreseen that their production would coincide with the outbreak of the coronavirus that has shaken up the entire world, when it began work three years ago on one of its most ambitious projects, “Anne Frank, Video Diary,” which has just been launched.
Since the 1950s, when the young girl who hid from the Nazis in an attic became one of the best-known symbols of the Holocaust, her famous diary has been adapted in dozens of film versions, television series, a virtual reality experience – and recently in the form of a graphic novel in Hebrew that's due to be turned into an animated film. Now for the first time Anne Frank’s story has morphed into an internet diary. And this is perhaps its most radical iteration, in which the diary “Kitty” is replaced by a camera with no nickname.
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In contrast to the immediate distaste that might be aroused by video diaries, one realizes that this is a fascinating project with many good qualities. They stem from the very fact that its creators in effect surrendered Anne Frank’s unique place in our collective memory, by tossing her diary into the stream of endless social data of our times, where the biggest star in the Netherlands is a priestess of YouTube makeup clips named NikkieTutorials.
If movie versions of the diary dealt to some degree with the past and with the memory of the Holocaust, the strength of the new internet endeavor – in addition to the fine quality of its production and direction – lies in the fact that it plants Anne Frank in the present. It is filmed on video, disseminated via YouTube, and it's quite clear that the fleeting glimpses of the streets of Amsterdam were recently filmed.
In opting to emphasize the present, this project distances itself, whether deliberately or not, from the unique story of Anne Frank as a historical event, and forces us to confront tough questions about the way in which we deal with and treat human tragedies in general – and mainly, those taking place right now.
“When we learn history we do so because it makes us think about what makes us humans, and that is something that can happen all the time,” Ronald Leopold, the director of Anne Frank House, tells Haaretz in a phone conversation from Amsterdam. “What was done to Anne Frank was the work of human beings. And if we want to learn from history we need to look in the mirror and see that this was something that we as human beings are capable of, and I think that should be the lesson of history.”
Leopold explains that the decision to create the video diary – which has subtitles in several languages – stemmed from the need for Anne Frank House to find new ways to tell the history.
"Not just the Anne Frank House but I think each and every institution that deals with history has to think about new ways to tell the history, to tell the story. Because it’s more than an alteration of a generation that we are facing; we are facing a paradigm shift. Half of the 1.3 million visitors that we have – obviously not under these circumstances, of course, we are closed now – but half of them are under the age of 30," Leopold says. "We have the fourth and maybe even the fifth generation visiting the house. And that is very different from the way history is being transmitted within the framework of families of the second and third generations."
The visitors, he adds, "come from all corners of the world, the distances in time and geography are increasing, and I feel we really need to tell the story in new ways and try to reach these generations in the world that they live in, and they live in worlds that are dominated by an exploding media landscape. They read fewer books, and probably don’t watch films that were made 10-20 years ago."
'Truly a coincidence'
The launch of the new project at a time when most of the world is in isolation, Leopold says, "was truly a coincidence because we were planning to publish it in this time frame. What you see is that the relevance of history and literature is being influenced by the circumstances that people live in.
"When you look at the comments on the YouTube series you see that many, many people do connect it to the lockdown situation that they are in. I think a much more striking difference, and also a difference in principle, is not so much whether or not Anne’s situation was more horrible," he continues, "but I think from a moral point of view, there is a huge and important distinction between something that is being done to you by other human beings and something that is being done to you by a disease or a natural disaster. That is, hopefully, the distinction that people will reflect on when they make this connection.”
Was your project influenced by the Israeli initiative “Eva Stories,” recounting the story of Eva Heyman (a Hungarian girl who also kept a Holocaust diary) by means of Instagram?
‘No. No, no. We already had been working on it – in 2018 the producers came up to us with this idea, and we decided to start the project. 'Eva Stories' came right in between, but it actually did not affect the project at all. The differences are huge, except for the fact that both projects make use of social media. I think that there is quite a difference between Instagram and Youtube, and there are also different stories and different approaches.
"Although I’ve always been fascinated by the story of Eva Heyman, maybe also because I’ve lived in Hungary for a while, I knew of the book even before the book became well known once again. There are striking similarities with Anne Frank’s book, both [were] published by the parents, in Eva’s case by the mother, and of course with the huge difference that the book of Eva was not preserved."
To some degree you have turned Anne Frank into a kind of influencer, another social media personality, who may be driven by the need for attention and recognition.
“It might be a bit technical but this is for me the difference between vlogging and a video diary. I know people call it a vlog but to us this is a video diary. I feel there is a huge difference. It is made with much more integrity. But this 'fame-hungry' thing is something we need to think about when it comes to visits to Holocaust sites. You have probably also seen the selfies being made in Auschwitz, and selfies are being made in front of the Anne Frank House and in front of Yad Vashem [the Holocaust center in Jerusalem]."
While one's first reaction to these clips is disgust, Leopold says, "I think as educators we should ask ourselves this question: Will it give us any chance or opportunity to share this history that we think is so important for this generation as well? It’s also a way of showing interest, even though it’s in a very unfortunate way. Is there a point of entrance for us to jump into? I think that once we start to condemn right away that’s the end of conversation.”
For the role of Anne Frank the producers of the video diary cast 13-year-old Luna Cruz Perez who plays the part with great talent.
The last episode of “Anne Frank’s Video Diary” will be posted on the internet only on May 4. ״I won’t spoil it for you,״ says Leopold.
Will there be historical revisionism?
“No. I can tell you, no, we are not doing anything else than what happened. It is strictly following the diary. We are not making up things.”