Maya Angelou
'As Seen Through These Eyes' filmmaker Hilary Helstein and Dr. Maya Angelou (photo courtesy of Hilary Helstein)

Maya Angelou: ‘As Seen Through These Eyes’

by Hilary Helstein

As I watched the memorial celebrating Dr. Maya Angelou over the weekend, I was deeply moved by the words expressed by former President Bill Clinton. “Maya called our attention with a clarity and power that will wash over people as long as there is a written and spoken word. Caged Bird was the first manifestation of her great gifts. She called attention to her belief that life is a gift manifest in each new day.”

Since her death, I have thought about how I was one of the blessed people who was touched by Maya Angelou personally. I remember the first time I met her and how nervous I was. It was to talk about my film, As Seen Through These Eyes – a labor of love project for many years about Holocaust artist-survivors who created a legacy through spiritual resistance.

Maya was escorted to our table at Hal’s in Venice. She was tall, majestic and elegant. You immediately felt her indomitable presence when she entered a room. Maya had agreed to narrate my film. She told me how honored she was to be a part of As Seen Through These Eyes and then shared why and how she came to the decision.

She told me about her rule in getting involved in a project such as this. She had to be moved to tears. It had to get under her skin. She went on to tell us that she watched the rough cut three times. The first time she cried through it. She was moved. She wanted to watch it a second time to absorb what she missed the first time. She cried again. She was moved. She vowed that she wouldn’t cry the third time, but if she did, she was onboard.

She said, “I am Auschwitz. I am a survivor. I know the heart of survivors. They were the caged birds.”

I marveled at her words. And then she offered her poem for our film. And thus the relationship began. The task that lie ahead for me was not one I took lightly; putting words in Maya Angelou’s mouth.

A few weeks later we arrived at her home in North Carolina to read through the narration that Maya was to record in the following days. I was terrified what she would say, but Maya was gracious and gentle. At the end of the run through which began with the poem, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” I asked Maya to tell me in her own words what the film meant to her in her heart.

She laid her palms on the table, closed her eyes and put her head down like she was going into a trance. And suddenly the most profound and prolific prose flowed out of her. She ended with “… The human spirit may be dragged into a cavern of blood thirst and cruelty, but the one miracle of life is that the spirit may soar into the sunlight saying, “I bear hope upon my shoulders and faith in tomorrow.”

She wearily lifted her head up and in a hoarse whisper said, “I’m done.” She was spent. I was awed.

The next day we went to the recording studio. Maya prepared for the voiceover recording. She read through the script and paused when she got to the last few paragraphs. A hint of a smile crept across her lips as she said, “This sounds like something Maya Angelou would write.”

The film went on to win awards all over the world. And I owe part of that to Maya. She poured her heart and soul into this film and it was the only Holocaust film she ever narrated. And although Maya Angelou herself was not a Holocaust survivor, she identified so deeply with the victims who survived and triumphed in the face of adversity.

I will always be grateful to you, Dr. Maya Angelou. Thank you for that gift and may your memory be a blessing.

Hilary Helstein

About Hilary Helstein

Hilary Helstein began her work in the humanitarian field with Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation, where she directed/produced over 250 interviews with survivors, liberators and rescuers. Her commitment to teaching history initiated the 10+ year journey in creating the award winning documentary, As Seen Through These Eyes (narrated by Maya Angelou, co-produced by Sundance Channel), collecting testimonies from Holocaust artist-survivors, including Simon Wiesenthal. Hilary's passion for film led her to co-found/serve as Executive Director of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, now in its ninth year. She started her career in feature film development for Tom Hanks. Please follow on Twitter: @LAJFF

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