Behind the Zapruder Film


Isabella Lopez, Co-Editor

In the age of instant communication, it seems as though we as a society have become almost numb to the daily bloodshed that is broadcast across news outlets and social media, but it wasn’t always like this. On November 22, 1963, Abraham Zapruder was filming John F. Kennedy’s motorcade when he captured something America was not prepared to see: the up close and painfully abrupt assassination of a US President.

Fifty-three years later, Alexandra Zapruder gives the story of the Kennedy Assassination a unique perspective in her book Twenty-Six Seconds: a Personal History of the Zapruder Film. The granddaughter of Abraham Zapruder, the “Zapruder film” is an unfortunately integral part of her life, despite her family’s efforts to distance themselves from it. A close friend of Mrs. Tambuscio, Alexandra Zapruder visited Mr. Wilson’s AP US History class to further discuss her book and its potential impact.

The first time, Zapruder says, that her father ever acknowledged that the assassination film was a “big deal” was when he became sick with brain cancer at the age of sixty-five. Before passing away, he suggested that someone should interview him about the film itself. Although Alexandra did not interview her father due to his medical condition, it did pique her interest in the history of the film and its place in her family.

A very public legal battle ensued between the Zapruder family and the federal government over who had legal ownership of the film, but Zapruder had paid little attention to the conflict, until after beginning what would become a four year research process in 2011. In fact, Zapruder was only about 15 or 16 years old when she first saw the film in her history class. She began her research by first interviewing someone she knew had been on the ¨other side of the table¨ from her father in negotiations with the government, stating she wanted the “courage” to hear from people who would be critical or have opposing views. She wanted to understand the other side, as there were many gaps and mistakes in her family’s own record, and behavior that her family falsely interpreted. If nothing else, she needed to find the truth, feeling a duty to preserve historical records.

The film’s impact on American history and society is obvious; many even believe it contributed to our undeniable culture of sensationalism. Zapruder and the students discussed what was so shocking about the film, and the author actually found it surprising that students were “genuinely shocked” upon watching the film for the first time, citing the surplus of available videos showing police brutality or terrorist violence. But the Zapruder film was iconic in its own right. Where videos of violence are readily available online, only moments after they occur in real time, the Zapruder film was not available right away. 

But what we forget to consider when measuring the impact of the film is the personal effect it had on the Zapruder family, specifically the man who took the video. Abraham Zapruder was an immigrant from Russia who came to the US at only 15 years old with his two sisters and mother, very poor and unable to speak English. Zapruder, who didn’t know her grandfather, learned to admire him through her research, learning about his journey from living through WWI and the Bolshevik Revolution to going to college, climbing to the middle class, and starting his own family. She described him as a funny and eccentric musician who loved taking home movies. But the film had ¨spoiled¨ this hobby for him. Abraham had struggled with the moral dilemma of the film, as it was potentially worth a great sum of money; he would have given anything to not have been the person to capture the historical moment. Abraham had been traumatized. Since there was no way for the public to find out right away as opposed to today, Abraham had to sit with the knowledge that the president was dead before anyone else knew.

The night of the assassination, Zapruder says, her grandfather had a nightmare that he had been walking down the street in Times Square and saw a large marquee with flashing lights and ticket signs reading ¨Come see the president murdered on the big screen!¨ This was one of his biggest fears: the film would be trivialized and exploited in a way that made it lose its meaning.

A student asked if Zapruder feels it was her grandfather’s purpose to be there ¨at the right place, at the the right time.¨ She responded, ¨I don’t. I don’t exactly think of fate that way. I think that he was there because he loved the president, his office was right nearby, and he was there with his camera because he loved filming.¨ But she states that if there were to be a ¨right¨ person, Abraham would have been the one, as he had made a series of ¨good decisions in a row among chaos and pressure.¨

You can listen to the interview here.