Magda Watts cuts two slits in a clay head and nudges them open. White plastic eyeballs eerily appear; the vague blob is no longer blind. With another tool she sculpts a deep wedge, forming a mouth through which a voice, a song, a scream can escape. Carefully she tends to the dolls' eyes, noses, teeth, hair, hands, and bellies. She ties their ties, buttons their buttons, fits their shoes. For Watts making rag dolls from scraps began as a childhood hobby, a pastime that would evolve into an invaluable craft and an elaborate art form.
The intricate and lively figures -- a seamstress at her sewing machine, a laughing rabbi sporting a wiry beard, a bespectacled clerk smoking a cigarette -- are a microcosm of a world that disappeared before Watts's eyes, providing a poignant counterpoint to the horrors from which they and their creator emerged. In 1944 fifteen-year-old Magda Segelbaum, her family, and more than 17,000 others from their small town of Nyiregyhaza, Hungary, were taken to concentration camps. Magda and her sister Shari lived through the tragedy together and then separated, Shari returning to her birthplace and Magda emigrating to Israel. "In the camp I made my dolls because I needed to survive," says Watts, who traded figurines made of refuse for extra food from the Nazis. "And today I make my dolls -- again to survive."
After the war Watts persevered, becoming an artist and documenting her ordeal in the early Nineties. Inspired by Watts's memoirs, Gulliver Academy film teacher Jennifer Resnick decided to make a film. Enlisting director and coproducer David Fisher, who recently collaborated on the movie Bro, they created the powerful hourlong documentary Liberation of the Spirit: The Journey of Magda Watts, which screens Thursday at the Miami Jewish Film Festival.
The pair convinced Watts not only to share her story but also to return to Eastern Europe in 1996 to see Shari and attend the March of the Living, a program that takes teenagers and Holocaust survivors first to Poland to witness concentration camp remnants and then to Israel. "[Magda] was very resistant up until literally we got on the plane," recalls Fisher. "There was a point when Magda said, “This is a nice idea. You can interview me in Elat [Israel], take pictures of the dolls, but I'm not going back there.'" In the end Watts did, asserting on camera as she prepared her bags: "I'm afraid, but I have to go."
All proceeds from the nonprofit independent production will benefit the March of the Living, that is, as soon as the filmmakers can scrape together the last $30,000 of their $200,000 budget. While Fisher hopes the film will receive the wide release it deserves, he's more than satisfied to know the profound effect the experience has had on those involved. "It's really not a historical documentary; it's documenting the journey back and the closure that happens," he explains. "When Magda walked up to the barbed wire and she touched it, that's the first time she's convinced the electricity's not [still] running through the wires."