Hanover Evening Sun - November 16, 2003

Hanover, Pennsylvania  
Sunday November 16, 2003

Capturing others' lives on film

Independent filmmaker travels near and far to get the story

Evening Sun Style Editor

Jake Boritt remembers as a 15-year-old watching the ground-breaking Ken Burns film series "The Civil War." As the film ended, he could hear the words to a letter written by soldier Sullivan Ballou recited, accompanied by the music, "Ashokan Farewell." Stark images of Bull Run battle-field appeared onscreen.
"It is essentially a love letter from the soldier to his wife. It is also farewell, as the soldier is killed a few days later," said Boritt, who has never forgotten the magic of that moment of film. "It is a very simple piece of film making. No fancy camera work or digital effects, no Hollywood stars. Just a voice, a fiddle, wind and a few images of a field. Yet it may be the most singularly effective piece of filmmaking I have ever experienced."

Now 28 and a filmmaker himself, Boritt will be speaking Tuesday in the Gilbert H. Grosvenor Auditorium of the National Geographic Society in Washington. His discussion, part of the National Geographic Live Tuesdays at Noon series, will follow the airing of "Adams County USA," a feature-length documentary written, produced and directed by Boritt. Said Ken Burns about the film: "I enjoyed every minute of it. Boritt proves impressively that all good history is local. Bravo!"

It is projects such as this - those with a strong personal angle – that appeal most to Boritt, although his work as an independent filmmaker has taken him from inside the news office of the New York Police Department to the underbelly of the Mafia in Hollywood to the jungle highlands of Borneo. "I work on films for a variety of reasons," he said. "I chose to focus on documentary films primarily because the people that tend to gravitate towards the field do it for the passion about the subject and the craft of film making."

Boritt got his start while still a student at Johns Hopkins, where he became involved with a fraternity that included among its alumni the founder of The Shooting Gallery, one of the hottest independent production companies of the 1990s. (The company has since gone bankrupt due to the bubble burst.) He did an internship with The Shooting Gallery and spent a summer in Los Angeles working at The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and at National Geographic Television. "I realized I didn't particularly want to work in Hollywood," he said, explaining his later move to New York City for a stint with ABC News.
Since then, he's worked on documentaries in various capacities - "from researcher to production assistant to producer to editor to director to bagel slicer," he said. In 2001, he worked with David Grubin Productions on the PBS documentary, "Young Doctor Freud." That job, he said, taught him much about the craft of making documentaries and the importance of balancing the creative aspects with good management and organization.

"I think the average television viewer would be astounded to know the amount of work that goes into producing a single hour of quality television," he said. "While I was working on 'Freud,' David (Grubin) was also producing a film called 'Kofi Annan: Center of the Storm.' At times, I worked on this production as well, following Kofi Annan in the months following the September 11 attacks."

One project continues to haunt Boritt - one that is both very personal. And very inspirational to him. That is a film he calls "From Budapest to Gettysburg: A Uniquely American Journey." It is about his father Gabor Boritt's experiences growing up in Hungary under Nazi and Communist regimes, then escaping to the United States, where he went on to become a leading expert on Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.
Last month, Jake accompanied his father Gabor and his aunt Judith Boritt to Budapest, where they had lived on the edge of a ghetto during World War II. His father and aunt survived the Nazi occupation of Budapest and the city's eventual destruction. Their grandfather's family was sent to Auschwitz. After the Nazis were defeated, the Soviet Union occupied Hungary.

In 1956, the Hungarian people rose up against the Soviets. "My dad was part of the protests, including one in which a 25-foot-high statue of Stalin was torn down," Boritt said. "When the Soviets put down the Hungarian Revolution with 3,000 tanks, my dad and aunt fled the country. We retraced their escape route through tiny villages and rugged hills on the Austro-Hungarian border." Boritt has shot more than 40 hours of footage on that film and is awaiting funding to finish it.

"I think my father's perspective is unique," he said. "He is both an immigrant to America and an expert on the most American of all topics, Lincoln and the Civil War. I imagine this must inform my work. My dad chose to come here and make a better life for himself and his family. And, for the most part, he has - although Hungary has awfully good sausage and wine." For more information on "Adams County USA," see or contact Gallery 30 or Adams County Historical Society.