Searching for compassion: Producer, director uncovers healing in WWII-focused documentary

Writer, producer and director Stephanie Manesis has a gift for seeing grace in unlikely places.

The 2021 TAP Individual Arts Partnership (IAP) grant recipient has been working on the 26-minute documentary, “Compassion on the Battlefield in WWII,” since 2012. 

While it’s been a decade in the making, with many more stories to uncover before the 26-minute film is complete, Manesis calls the documentary a project built on “love and perseverance.” 

WATCH: The trailer to “Compassion in the Battlefield”

The film addresses three types of compassion: “Compassion between enemies on the battlefield, compassion between comrades on the battlefield, and self-compassion after the war experienced by veterans for things they wish would have been different during battle,” according to a statement on Manesis’ website, zenlilyfilms.com.

Manesis is slowly raising funds as she goes, a battle many artists know well. She used her $2,050 in TAP IAP funding to hire a scriptwriter and has, to date, raised about $25,000 from other grant sources, crowdfunding and the generosity of friends and family.

“I’ve been working on it very slowly for several years. The reason why it’s taking me so long is just the fundraising,” she said. 

A professional copywriter by day, Manesis, who also works in sculpture and watercolor, doesn’t have a formal background in scriptwriting or filmmaking, so she hired a writer, in addition to a story consultant from Los Angeles who are helping shape the narrative.

“The people that I use for filming have been really high caliber with a lot of experience on like History Channel, PBS, ABC, CBS, NBC, that sort of thing,” Manesis said. “Because I have limited experience in the field, I want to make sure that I got the best on my team.”

Seeking compassion, finding healing

While the documentary is evolving over time and she works diligently to secure funding for the project, Manesis and her film team continue to march on, making poignant connections between enemies during times of war. 

“I was originally looking for just stories of compassion between enemies. So basically two enemies that meet on the battlefield and have a moment of compassion, where their hearts connect on the battlefield, and they decide not to fight and they basically put down their weapons,” Manesis said.

During the process of interviewing veterans, this freelance copywriter-by-day also helps uncover something else: healing.

“A lot of the World War Two veterans that I interviewed with tell me that they had never told anybody these stories before. I found that when they met somebody who was an outsider, who was a really good listener, they were more likely to open up into their own families,” Manesis said. “A lot of times they didn’t want their families to know what kind of traumatic stuff they had experienced, and they felt too vulnerable. They might start crying in front of a family member. Whereas it might be easier to just start crying in front of an outside observer who was just a compassionate listener.”

The search continues

Manesis continues to be on the lookout for WWII veterans who are still alive and might be willing to share their own stories of compassion for the film.

Early on, she found a storyteller — and a friend — in Dr. Maurice Bonemeyer, now 97 years old, who shared his harrowing experience facing the Battle of the Bulge in 1944.

“He and a bunch of Americans were surrounded in a farmhouse by a bunch of Germans. … They lined up all the Americans against the wall and a German tank came, brought down his gun and was getting ready to slaughter them all,” Manesis said.

READ: “Courageous compassion: Local film highlights stories of kindness between WWII enemies

Bonemeyer, who knew a little German from growing up around German families in North Dakota and Minnesota, said he could understand the German soldiers as they discussed what to do with the Americans they’d captured.

“Dr. Bonemayer said he heard another German, a young man came in front of the tank, waved his hands and said, ‘You cannot shoot them. We have to take them POW.’ ”

WATCH: Dr. Maurice Bonemayer talk about his experience at Battle of the Bulge. 

Making progress

Manesis expects a rough cut of the film to be completed in the next few months. The goal is to pitch and sell the documentary to public television affiliates around the nation.

Meanwhile, she’s still looking for veterans to interview for the project and hopes to continue to spread the message that peace is possible. 

“When we think of war, we think about killing machines. And we think that we’ve trained these men to go out and kill, kill, kill. And we don’t stop to think that in the middle of a battlefield, that two men may actually put down their weapons and choose not to kill each other,” Manesis said. “And so I’m hoping that we’ll get viewers to think differently about war and to think that if two men on the battlefield can put down their weapons, then why can’t we have a bigger global, more collective action of peace between two countries?” 

Donate to ‘Compassion on the battlefield in World War II’

To help fund Manesis’ documentary project, visit https://zenlilyfilms.com/donate/. All donations are tax-deductible. 

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