Alumnus brings WWII photographer’s story to screen, wins Sundance award

School of Cinematic Arts alumna Caroline Friend (right) made a film about World War II photographer and soldier Faye Schulman’s (left) real life and career (Photo courtesy of Caroline Friend)

When filmmaker Caroline Friend decided she would write and direct a short film about a real World War II photographer and resistance fighter, she knew it would be an extraordinarily important story to tell.

She didn’t realize just how important, however, until she met the photographer, Faye Schulman, herself. In February 2017, Friend went to Schulman’s home and told her she would create a short film about a portion of her life, titled “Under Darkness.”

Friend, a School of Cinematic Arts alumna, was awarded the Horizon Award for up-and-coming female directors for her film at the Sundance Film Festival, where she screened a two-minute scene to a crowd of over 100 people.

Friend also wanted to tell a story she felt was overlooked, and she hopes the film inspires people to learn more about the Holocaust and the Jewish partisans who resisted the Nazis in irregular military groups during the war.

“[Faye] wanted her story to be told, and she wanted audiences to learn about everything she went through and her family went through and millions of other Jewish people went through in World War II,” Friend said. “It’s even hard to explain what it meant to me, but it made it all the more important to make the movie as accurate as I could and as impactful as I could.”

When Friend screened the scene, which depicts Nazi soldiers directing Faye to photograph them, she said the audience at Sundance was palpably tense. When the scene ended, a quote from Faye appeared on screen, explaining that there was a Jewish resistance during the Holocaust, and she had the pictures as proof. At this moment, Friend said audible gasps could be heard in the room.

“Under Darkness” was made possible by a Alfred P. Sloan Foundation production grant that funds student films related to science. Friend’s film shows Schulman not only taking photographs but developing them as well through a chemical process.

As a student at USC, Friend produced and directed several films about war and won the Shoah Foundation’s Student Voices contest for a short documentary she directed about Holocaust survivor Helen Lewis. Having studied history, film and television production, Friend said she was often intrigued by the “resilience of the human spirit” during wartime.

Thomas Miller, a practice of cinema arts professor, served as Friend’s mentor while she worked on “Under Darkness.” He helped her reign in Schulman’s story and whittle the essential components down to a 20-minute film.

“[Schulman’s] story is important because sometimes we lose sight of the people that you don’t know were important in documenting our history,” Miller said. “It’s a really good film. [Caroline] should be really proud of herself.”

Miller said he was impressed by Friend’s dedication to researching Schulman’s story -—she even traveled to interview her and gained permission to use Schulman’s photos after the credits of the film.

Kally Khourshid, who plays Schulman in the film, echoed this admiration for Friend’s attention to detail. Friend felt a responsibility to honor the accuracy of “this turbulent, dark time,” Khourshid said, especially since Schulman’s family entrusted Friend with her story.

“This was one of the most meaningful projects I’ve ever undertaken,” Khourshid said. “It’s a giant responsibility to be an actor and a lead in a film that is not only based in World War II but also asks you to step into the shoes of a real person that’s still alive.”

When visiting then-97-year-old Schulman, Friend was able to see Faye’s photographs of herself and her brigade during the war, which she kept in an album almost like “family photos,” Friend said. Seeing these photos and talking with Schulman helped her understand and connect with her subject even further, she said.

“In that moment it just made me realize that this person actually went through all these experiences,” Friend said. “She has [the photos] in her life because they’re a part of her life.”

Friend said she will submit the project to other film festivals across the country over the next year. USC will also host a screening of “Under Darkness” and other Sloan grant films on Feb. 11, where Friend will also appear on a Q&A panel.

“The experience making ‘Under Darkness’ was the most incredible experience of going to USC and … the opportunity to tell Faye’s story was absolutely life-changing,” Friend said. “This is the type of movie I want to make for the rest of my life.”