In 1993, while exploring Ukraine’s Gypsum Giant cave systems, caver Chris Nicola discovered several partially intact man-made walls, a key, a comb, and other signs of past inhabitation. Extremely intrigued, Chris set out to find the story behind the people of Priest’s Grotto cave. What he discovered was the amazing story of 38 Ukrainian Jews who hid in the caves for over a year and a half during the Holocaust.
After extensive research and many years later, Chris tracked down some of these survivors who were now in their 70s and 80s. From his research and meetings, he created a feature-length documentary detailing their stories and the incredible underground journey that took place. This movie was titled No Place On Earth. To film it, he enlisted the help of a large crew including veteran director/producer Janet Tobias who took over as director. Janet knew that filming in the depths of such a large cave would be physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging. Therefore, she would need someone who knew what they were doing underground. This is where West Haven, Conn.-based photographer Christopher Beauchamp comes in.
Christopher is an experienced adventure and outdoor photographer. He has extensive knowledge of working in underground environments as well as actual expedition experience in Priest’s Grotto cave. Although he’d never worked on a feature film before, his experience in production, caving, and shooting underground secured him a seat on the team as one of the directors of photography.
The job was pitched to Christopher simply and enticingly — “how would you like to go back to Ukraine?” Christopher soon found himself jumping into a project that would take six years to complete. A few setbacks related to financing issues, the health of the survivors, and a myriad of unforeseen details meant the film took longer than expected to get off the ground. Production began in earnest in 2010 when the survivors were brought back to Ukraine. Christopher wore many hats during the long production.
The project evolved through quite a few stages over a number of years, and likewise, my role expanded as I was able to showcase my versatility and a willingness to get down and dirty to make things happen. So that evolution went from being a photographer with a caving background to being a cinematographer/director of photography. Even within that sphere, my caving background was being called on to address safety issues.
For instance, there were shots needed of the survivors emerging from the cave. They had already filmed the exterior of the entrance from one location, so we had to go back and use that same location for it to match. Unfortunately, when I got there, I was informed that the entrance was actually a 300-foot vertical pit. So I was tasked with rappelling in and assessing the safest way to rig a platform inside the cave to create a space for the actors, quite a few of them children, to emerge from. We had a fairly large crew for most of the stages of the film and some extremely talented cinematographers with way more experience and credits under their belts than I. But, quite frequently, there were shots that would have been very difficult for the more traditional film crew to capture — that was a large part of what I was tackling.
There was so much involved in creating the film that Christopher initially believed it couldn’t be done. After meeting the survivors and realizing that they were not regular people, the scope of the project felt more realistic. Also, Christopher was heartened by Janet and her approach to the project.
Her uncompromising drive to achieve her creative vision and what she believed the story could be was quite an inspiration.
As for the one of the biggest challenges, the caves themselves, he describes the environment with some mixed emotions.
Getting to work in the caves is sort of a dream come true, such beautiful remarkable places but also so harsh and exhausting. They’re extremely tough on equipment. Not dark, yet completely devoid of all light, 100% humidity, water and mud everywhere, and irregular spaces often requiring crawling through slop. I imagine if the rental houses could’ve envisioned where we would be taking their very expensive equipment, they might’ve very kindly shown us the door.
However, the best part of this entire project for Christopher was working with the survivors.
Obviously it was a very emotional experience for them, but also a source of humble pride. For Saul, one of the survivors, it felt like it was the completion of his life’s work. He survived the cave, went on to raise a family, start a business, and have a regular life. Coming back to show the cave to his granddaughter was the completion of that, a sort of coming around full circle. It was a real privilege to be a part of. Their story is hugely inspiring and they’re genuinely likeable people who invited us into their world. I’d like to believe I’m a little better for it. This was a really special, one of a kind project.
Variety said the film was “gripping and moving. A Substantial contribution to Holocaust cinema.” The Hollywood Reporter called it simply “astounding.” Catch the trailer for No Place On Earth, which opens in New York for its theatrical run on April 5th and will be coming soon to theaters across America.