The setting wasn’t ideal, but the moment was. Mika Brown instinctively sensed it.
Filmmaker Ted Green was casually chatting a few years ago with Eva Kor amid the disarray of items stored in her attic. Green was in the early stages of crafting the documentary, “Eva: A-7063,” about Kor’s life as a Holocaust survivor and her path toward forgiving the Nazis for atrocities that killed more than 6 million Jewish people during World War II, including her parents and two sisters. Kor and her twin sister, Miriam, survived the sadistic experiments by the notorious Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland.
Green, as writer and director, aimed to tell the Terre Haute resident’s story in cinematic form.
As he spoke with Kor that day, his co-producer of the documentary, Brown, filmed the attic’s relics as background footage.
That’s when Green told Kor, “I can’t imagine how alone you must’ve felt throughout most of your life.”
Kor broke down. She wept and began sharing the emotional burden she’d carried for decades, beyond the details of the Nazi tortures that she had often publicly described. Kor had “decided it was time to open up her full story,” Green recalled.
His cinematographer, Brown, recognized what was happening. She slowly shifted her video camera’s focus from the attic’s relics to Kor. An exercise bike and other stuff cluttered the backdrop, but that didn’t matter. Kor’s words and emotions superseded the scenery.
“Mika did the exact right thing,” Green said. “She knew there was no time for us to reframe this scene, because we were in the moment.”
Afterward, Green and Brown walked out of the house beside Terre Haute’s Adams Boulevard.
“We looked at each other and said, ‘Wow, now we have a story,’” Green said. Two years and 90,000 miles of traveling through Europe later, their documentary debuted to widespread praise. Kor and her message of forgiveness enjoyed international notoriety, right up to her passing on July 4, 2019, on another journey to Auschwitz.
Brown’s camera work captured the visual elements of Kor’s story, complementing Green’s writing and direction. “Mika had this way ... of getting ‘that shot,’” Green said.
Brown’s instincts have led to numerous awards, from the now-acclaimed “Eva: A-7063” to her exploits as a camera operator at major sporting events for television networks. Those efforts have also earned her induction into her alma mater Terre Haute South Vigo High School’s Hall of Distinction. Brown will be inducted in a ceremony in September at the Country Club of Terre Haute, along with former South history teacher Dave Heath and Class of 1976 architect Alex Lamis. (That ceremony, originally scheduled for April 18, is postponed until this fall, because of coronavirus concerns.)
Since the documentary’s release nearly two years ago, Brown has been working to get “that shot” at NBA games for Fox Sports, college events for the Big Ten Network, Indianapolis Colts games for CBS, horse racing at the Kentucky Derby and a variety of other sports for NBC, and auto racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The 33-year-old Terre Haute native serves as a freelance camera operator, on call for TV networks. The demand for her work led Brown to move to Indianapolis several years ago.
She’s busy week after week, with the exception of the current shutdown of sporting events because of the coronavirus pandemic. Amid all those varied assignments, Brown is often in a unique position.
“It’s very rare that I work with another female [camera operator],” she said. “And that’s been a challenge. It’s definitely a man’s business.”
Most of those colleagues see her as another camera operator. Most.
Brown ran a camera at this month’s PGA Players Championship in Jacksonville, Fla. The tournament was canceled after one round because of coronavirus concerns. While shooting the first-round action, Brown fielded a question from an older male cameraman. “Have you ever operated a handheld camera before?” he asked her.
She’s been filming sports and news for nearly 15 years.
“I’ve had people tell me they didn’t think I could handle working in the pits at the Indy 500,” Brown said. “They said, ‘It’s hot. You’ve got a camera on your shoulder all day.’ I feed on off that. I feel like I’ve got to hustle more, work more.”
Physically, she’s quite up to the task. Brown works out at a gym routinely, has dabbled in triathlons and enjoys swimming. She was a standout athlete in five different sports at Terre Haute South, before graduating in 2005. Her athleticism emerged long before South, though. She played pickup games with the boys in her neighborhood as a kid, and kept going when she entered Woodrow Wilson Middle School.
“I’ve been doing that since I was nine years old,” she said.
Flexibility helps Brown in her work. A camera operator at a network-televised professional sporting event is expected to be in the right place at the right time, all the time. Decisive plays and questionable officiating calls get repeatedly replayed and analyzed. Viewers expect definitive footage in those situations.
“Your goal is to go out there and be perfect every night,” Brown said. “And, if you aren’t perfect, you learn from it.”
Pursuing a passion
She felt a calling to that pressurized line of work as a teenager. Brown admits she didn’t focus well in most of her high school classes, but connected with visual courses such as yearbook, newspaper and broadcast. South teachers Carol Nasser and Patrick Killeen encouraged Brown’s interest in photography and photojournalism. She entertained thoughts of attending film school, studied at Indiana State University, and finally decided to leave college and pursue her passion as a camera operator.
She was already working part-time as a photojournalist at WTHI-TV, then.
“It was kind of scary,” Brown said. “At that time, not a lot of people weren’t going to college.”
She spent three years at WTHI and another three years at WTWO-TV, also a Wabash Valley station. It was during her time at WTWO that Brown got paired with reporter Elyse Evans on an assignment to join Eva Kor’s annual trip to Auschwitz. Kor routinely invited students and teachers from the region to visit the camp, now preserved as a museum and to learn about the Holocaust.
The assignment was a learning experience for Brown, too. Then 24 years old, she had never been outside the United States, knew little about the Holocaust and only knew Kor as the woman who founded the CANDLES Museum on Terre Haute’s South Third Street. Brown also had recently lost her beloved grandfather to Alzheimer’s disease, was watching her mother recover from breast cancer, and was herself coping with depression and anxiety.
She’d grown up with love and support from her single mom and grandparents. Eventually, Brown realized she was different from many of the kids around her. She was gay. She wasn’t ashamed, but wasn’t comfortable acknowledging it aloud. She didn’t want to be defined by one aspect of her life.
“I was very naive,” Brown said. “I struggled to find my own way.” At one point, she tried to end her own life.
Then, the Auschwitz assignment came up. “When I was most in need, I got this opportunity,” she said.
Shared sense of liberation
Brown, Evans and others joined Kor on the trip in early 2010. Bitter cold temperatures dominated her time in Poland, but Brown began a warm relationship with the diminutive Kor.
Brown was amazed by Kor’s energy and optimism, exhibited at the very site where mankind’s darkest acts had been perpetrated. Kor often sang and danced while guiding tours through the former concentration camp. Her buoyant spirit reflected a change from years of understandable bitterness directed at Dr. Mengele and the brutality of the Nazis. Kor was now encouraging others to free themselves from pain by “forgiving your worst enemy.”
Watching Kor shed her burden inspired Brown to do the same. As Kor sang and danced, Brown let go of her own hurt from being bullied in school and in the past for being different.
“What I saw there, and what I learned from her, so much just changed for me,” Brown said.
Kor had rescued her.
“One-hundred percent, I would say she saved my life,” Brown said. “She enhanced my life. She changed my life.”
Six years later, a job at WFYI in Bloomington led Brown to video an interview with Ted Green about his documentary on the 1955 Indianapolis Crispus Attucks High School state championship basketball team. Like Brown, Green had met Eva Kor, and her name came up during the interview.
“It was like a light bulb went off in both of our heads,” Green recalled.
That led to a two-year adventure to create “Eva: A-7063.” Once all the exhausting and exhilarting work was completed, the documentary premiered in spring 2018 at Indianapolis. After the show, Brown, Green and Kor reunited backstage in Clowes Hall. They embraced in a group hug.
“I can’t even imagine how powerful that was for Mika,” Green said. “I’m proud of her.”
So is Patrick Killeen, her broadcasting and yearbook teacher from South. “I believe that she will continue to have a positive impact on all of the people with whom she surrounds herself, and all the millions of others who will get to know her through her work,” Killeen stated.
Since the documentary’s release, Brown has been enjoying her sports work and extra time with her family. “I want to tell stories that matter. I want to do good in the world,” she said.
Her first trip to Auschwitz, and sharing Kor’s sense of liberation, remains fresh in Brown’s mind, even a decade later.
“I try to apply that moment to every aspect of my life,” she said.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.