When senior Greg Irwin and graduate student Syuzanna Petrosyan submitted their short film Play for Your Life to the Student Voices Short Film Contest, they were aiming to move audiences and show a side of the Holocaust that was often left untold. Winning the contest came as an added bonus and welcome surprise for both.
The film focused on musicians who, after being placed into concentration camps, were forced to play music to drown out screaming coming from those killed by gas chambers or Nazi gunfire.
The film was inspired by recorded testimony from Alice Herz-Somner, a pianist who was the oldest living Holocaust survivor until her death in February at the age of 110.
Irwin and Petrosyan chose clips from the Shoah Foundation’s archives.
“It was definitely tough because we have to keep watching these moments and figure out how to make sure the emotions of these people being filmed will translate to the emotions of the audience,” Irwin said.
Herz-Somner closes the eight-minute film with a moving quote.
“Life is a school — we have to learn — and I learned this: Be thankful for everything.”
Petrosyan noted Herz-Somner’s message perfectly summed up the aim of the film.
“Alice’s message says it all: to be grateful,” Petrosyan said. “I hope the film inspires others to get more involved in human rights movements.”
Both Irwin and Petrosyan have a passion for human rights issues. They intern at the Shoah Foundation, which gives them the opportunity to get involved with human rights awareness activities on and off campus.
“Last year, I went to Rwanda as part as of USC Dornsife’s Problems Without Passports program with the Shoah Foundation,” Irwin said. “I got to interact with survivors of the Rwandan genocide and hear their stories.”
Irwin, a senior majoring in international relations, hopes to pursue a career in the entertainment industry following his graduation this spring.
“I currently have one feature film written that is going through rewrites now, which I wrote with a friend of mine who I’ve known since seventh grade,” Irwin said. “We are trying to get it passed around to studios right now.”
Petrosyan, however, has different goals. Though successful in the film contest, she mentioned she has no desire to work in the film business. A master’s candidate in the public diplomacy program at Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, Petrosyan holds a specific passion for exploring human rights issues and abuses in history.
“I just want people to know you don’t have to be a filmmaker to create a documentary,” she said. “Editing took the longest because I didn’t know much about it and had only learned it a few months before Play for Your Life was made.”
Both found the experience of looking deeper into the Shoah archive to be very meaningful.
“It was pretty amazing to have that level of recognition and success with our film; someone even shouted ‘Bravo!’ at the end of our screening, which was neat,” Petrosyan said. “It was a great feeling since we had such passion for our project and a team of incredibly talented judges, including Rwandan filmmaker Eric Kabera. It was really special that we won.”