Steven Spielberg and George Clooney go way back in show business. In fact, it was Spielberg who gave Clooney his big break on the TV show ER, the actor recalls.
But the two Hollywood heavyweights came together on Thursday evening for a different reason: Spielberg was honouring Clooney for his humanitarian work around the globe, especially in the Darfur region of Sudan.
At a glittery fundraising gala in the vast “Whale Room” at New York’s Museum of Natural History, the director and his USC Shoah Foundation presented Clooney with its Ambassador for Humanity Award. Also on hand to praise Clooney were his co-star in the new movie Gravity, Sandra Bullock, and Jon Stewart of The Daily Show.
“George is the best kind of humanitarian,” Spielberg said. “The humble humanitarian.” The director called Clooney “an unparalleled example of action over apathy”.
Clooney told the crowd of donors that “our job is to make it hard for the bad guys to do what they’re doing, and for the good guys to ignore it.”
The actor also praised Spielberg for his foundation’s work in creating and preserving video testimonies of Holocaust victims for future generations to learn from.
“We have to be able to keep a record of what the powerful can do to the powerless,” Clooney said.
The gala marked the 20th anniversary of Spielberg’s Holocaust movie Schindler’s List, a film that won the director an Oscar and Spielberg says, gave him the idea to start a foundation that would record interviews with Holocaust survivors. To date, the foundation, founded in 1994 and based since 2006 at the University of Southern California, has collected nearly 52,000 eyewitness testimonies on video, in what it calls the largest digital collection of its kind in the world.
In an interview before the gala, Spielberg explained that a new, broader phase of the foundation’s work, begun recently, involves collecting video testimonies from survivors of genocide in places such as Rwanda, Cambodia, and Armenia. “The origins of hatred haven’t gone away,” the director said. The foundation has already begun its work with testimony from Rwanda. The other countries will follow.
Spielberg said the only obstacle to further broadening the foundation’s work is funding, and the group announced during the evening that the gala had raised close to $3.7 million (Dh14 million).
A further goal, Spielberg said in the interview, was to get the country’s public school systems to teach tolerance education. The director said his foundation is working on getting materials to schools to be used in social science classes.
He noted that Holocaust survivors are fast dying out, an even more important reason to preserve their life stories on video — video that can be catalogued and indexed for easy access, which now makes up for much of the foundation’s work.
“The survivor community is vanishing,” he said. “Soon, it will only exist in cyberspace. But it’s a powerful community. We hope that through these testimonies, the survivors can live forever.”
Spielberg himself did not have relatives who died in the Holocaust. But his grandmother helped Hungarian Jews who had fled the Holocaust learn English in the United States. As a three-year old, he says, he learnt his numbers from the “Auschwitz tattoo” of one of the survivors who gathered regularly in his home.
While making Schindler’s List, he said, he met survivors who would come to him and want to tell him their stories, starting from when they were children. “They just wanted me to listen,” he said. “They didn’t want to talk to their children about it. The fact that they wanted to tell a complete stranger what they couldn’t tell a daughter or son really moved me.”