Heir to an Execution

Director: Ivy Meeropol.

Topic: The granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg searches for the truth about her grandparents, who were executed for espionage in 1953.

Financier: The filmmaker started the project herself, until HBO came on with full support.

Budget: About $500,000.

Shooting format: Sony PD-150 and consumer quality, single-chip mini-DV cam.

Why it made the list: The personal involvement of the director; illuminating interviews with other political activists of the Rosenbergs’ generation; compelling archival footage.

Memorable scenes: When Meeropol meets a cousin for the first time, the latter breaks down in tears over his relatives’ mistreatment of her family; the director takes her father and uncle to visit the apartment they lived in with their parents as kids.

Distribution/broadcast status: The film will premiere at Sundance and air on HBO in 2004. Theatrical release pending.

On making the film: As a journalist haunted by the legacy of grandparents who were revered by some and vilified by others, Meeropol wanted to learn the truth about the Rosenbergs and what happened to them. She played with the idea of writing a screenplay or an article, but finally settled on the doc.

“I decided to do a documentary because it would combine these people, who were friends with them, who were in prison with them, getting to tell their stories and the powerful archival footage,” Meeropol says.

She contacted relatives she hadn’t met, many of whom, 50 years later, still reacted with scorn and fear.

“One cousin of my father’s said, ‘What are you trying stir up? Nobody in my life knows who I am,’ ” she says. “I thought that was really tragic.”

Ultimately, Meeropol was able to find some answers and make peace with her legacy. “I grew to accept them as human beings who had to make an impossible choice. I can accept them without holding them up on a pedestal.”

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