“Above and Beyond,” the documentary about the birth of the Israeli Air Force, started with an obituary. This according to the film’s executive producer, Nancy Spielberg.
Yes, for the record, she is one of those Spielbergs. Yet, despite her impressive credentials — she served as a consultant on the Oscar-winning documentary, “Chernobyl Heart,” and executive produced “Elusive Justice: The Search for Nazi War Criminals” — she is probably not even the second or third most famous member of the clan.
There is, of course, older brother Steven. Sister Anne was nominated for an Academy Award for co-writing the screenplay of “Big.” And then there is Nancy’s daughter, Jessica Katz, a contestant on the Israeli version of “The Voice.”
“Above and Beyond” is about a small group of mostly American, mostly secular Jews who risked everything to sneak aircraft around worldwide embargoes into the newly founded State of Israel — and then fly those planes on missions against the massed armies of five Arab nations.
Czechoslovakia, in desperate need of U.S. dollars, sold Israel Messerschmitts from a German-built factory there — as well as German parachutes and uniforms. Other aircraft and parts were smuggled out of the U.S. and other countries.
Interestingly, one of the pilots was Milton Rubenfeld, the father of entertainer Paul Reubens, better known as Pee Wee Herman, who talks about his dad in the film.
Spielberg spoke to the Forward about being from a “heymish” family, why the director she hired refused her calls, and what it was like growing up as a prop person for her older brother.
Curt Schleier: How did the film come about?
In October and November 1973, during and shortly after the Yom Kippur War, Susan Sontag travelled to Israel to make a documentary film entitled “Promised Lands.” The movie constituted a mere coda in the recent HBO documentary about her life and work, “Regarding Susan Sontag”, which as Gabe Friedman noted in his review “leaves out a detailed discussion of her work.” Since “Promised Lands” is the principle testament by which Sontag’s view of Israel can be judged, it warrants re-watching.
Upon its initial release in 1974, “Promised Lands” was panned by The New York Times. Israel’s “situation is just too factually complex to be treated as a tone poem,” Nora Sayre wrote, arguing that “the viewer almost has to function as an editor, since the selection of the footage is so haphazard.” The movie “won’t increase your understanding of Israel. Perhaps the latter should have been a book instead of a film,” the review concludes rather sniffily.
This judgment is fair in some senses. It is certainly true that “Promised Lands” won’t increase anyone’s factual understanding either of Israel itself or the wider conflict with its Arab neighbors. But it is not Sontag’s ambition to provide context and explanation for the Yom Kippur War. Rather, as Leon Wieseltier observed, “there are endless shots of desert (read: Nature) and corpses (read: History), and a host of cute juxtapositions of the old and the new which look like El Al’s TV commercials and which add nothing to our understanding of the situation.”
When filmmaker Yael Reuveny sought backing in Israel and in Germany to make “Farewell, Herr Schwarz,” film people would ask her, why make another Holocaust film after so many have been made?
“The answer,” Reuveny told the Forward, “is that the movie is not about them [Holocaust survivors], it’s about now. It’s about who we are and how the Holocaust influenced who we are and what we want to be.”
“Farewell, Herr Schwarz” — which won the Best Documentary prize at last year’s Haifa International Film Festival, and premieres in New York January 9 — is an unusual Holocaust documentary. The film avoids the sweeping group characterizations seen in Hollywood Holocaust dramas like “Schindler’s List” and “The Pianist.” Instead, it captures the real complexities and difficult choices made by two individuals caught in turbulent times, and the impact of those choices on their descendants. Directed by Reuveny, a graduate of Jerusalem’s Sam Spiegel Film and Television School, “Farewell, Herr Schwarz” casts a spotlight on the families of two deceased Holocaust survivors, brother and sister Feivke and Michla Schwarz, who reacted to the horrors of the war in very different ways.
Feivke and Michla, Reuveny’s great-uncle and maternal grandmother, were the only members of their family to survive the Holocaust, and were supposed to reunite at the train station in Lodz after the war. For reasons that are never entirely clear, they never met again. But when Feivke’s son Uwe sought to reconnect with Michla, for some reason she rebuffed him.
In a career that has spanned over 40 years, veteran Israeli filmmaker Ram Loevy has produced some of Israel’s most prominent and challenging television documentaries and features. Renowned for raising social and political issues, Loevy has addressed subjects such as class conflict, torture, the prison system and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His 1986 award winning drama, “Lehem,” (“Bread”) exposed the problems of unemployed, working-class Mizrahi Jews living on the country’s periphery. In 1993, Loevy received the prestigious Israel Prize in Communication, Radio and TV in recognition of his achievements. He is also Professor Emeritus at Tel Aviv University.
Yet Loevy’s latest documentary, “Let’s Assume, For a Moment, That God Exists,” is somewhat of a departure for him. Here, he has turned his camera’s attention to Ramat Gan in an attempt to provide “a collage of the place.” It is an affectionate, if slightly unconventional portrait of everyday life in the neighborhood in which he lives and it is, by his own admission, “a strange film… which has a strange name, which jumps from one item to another.”
Loevy — in London last month for the film’s screening at the UK Jewish Film Festival — explains that he made “Let’s Assume” because he had “come to an age [Loevy is 74] where you are questioning all your principles.” For him, this meant his artistic, filmic principles. This is no issue driven documentary, more a fly-on-the-wall observation where not much happens.
Courtesy David Broza
David Broza is likely Israel’s most famous singer-songwriter. With a throaty Leonard Cohen sound and earthy Bruce Springsteen lyrics, Broza has recorded platinum albums and toured the world to great acclaim.
He is also among the nation’s most recognized peace advocates, a fact that fueled his most recent activities — an album, “East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem” (S-Curve Records), and an accompanying documentary of the same name.
The film recently aired at the Other Israel Film Festival in New York, and at the ABC Foundation Conference in Miami. It is essentially a making-of-the-album film, but also focuses on Broza’s efforts to use music to bridge the gap between Israelis and Arabs.
The concept was simple. Broza rented time at the Sabreen studio in East Jerusalem, a center of the Palestinian music scene. He gave himself eight days and eight nights to record 13 tracks heavy on a peace motif. On each he is complemented by a number of Israeli and Palestinian musicians and singers, including Mira Awad. To add a bit of American flavor he brought in Steve Greenberg and Steve Earle to produce.
“The Rise of ISIS,” the latest documentary from the award-winning Frontline PBS investigative series, is likely to leave you with one major takeaway.
Despite the best of intentions, pretty much everything the U.S. has done in the Middle East has contributed to the chaos. We are Westerners lost in a strange land with absolutely no idea what we are doing or the consequences of our actions.
The film starts in late 2011, when American troops withdrew from Iraq. Presumably, we left behind a stable government with a functioning military. Both assumptions were incorrect.
The nation’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, promised an inclusive government, but soon began a campaign of terror against Sunnis, including Sunni officials in his own cabinet. Shia militia were particularly violent and Sunni bodies piled up on the streets.
The then-U.S.ambassador, James Jeffrey, warned President Obama that Maliki needed to be constrained, but he adopted a hands-off approach, claiming it was an Iraqi internal problem. Leon Panetta said U.S. the response was to keep “their fingers crossed [hoping] that Maliki would step down.”
The President’s position seems defensible. We just got out of that country and he didn’t want to be the man who put us right back in. And at the time Al Qaeda was a small broken force unable to mount a serious insurgency.
Courtesy of Elemental Productions
Filmmaker Robert Lemelson’s “Bitter Honey” is a documentary about polygamy and violence towards women in Bali, Indonesia. Lemelson filmed three families — three husbands, 17 wives and 20 children — over a seven-year period. Many were tricked into being co-wives and are psychologically manipulated and physically abused by their unfaithful and often cruel husbands once they are married. Feeling trapped for economic and cultural reasons, they remain with their husbands despite their grim conditions. It is fascinating and heartbreaking to watch them open up to Lemelson about their ongoing plight: their fear and sadness.
Lemelson, 53, has been making documentary films in Indonesia for two decades. The New Jersey native is also a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, with a specialty in Southeast Asian studies, psychological anthropology and transcultural psychiatry. He was a Fulbright scholar in Indonesia and holds a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Chicago and a doctorate in anthropology from University of Califaronia, Los Angeles.
The Forward’s Dorri Olds caught up with him in New York City, at the Clinton Global Initiative, with which he has been involved for the last 5 years.
Dorri Olds: How did a nice Jewish boy from New Jersey end up in Indonesia?
A sense of irony is helpful, perhaps even necessary, to truly appreciate “The Decent One,” the new documentary about Heinrich Himmler. The paradox begins with the title character.
He was the architect of the Final Solution, commander of the SS, and a man who in civilian clothes looked like a Jewish accountant.
What Vanessa Lapa, the Belgian-born, Israeli filmmaker, has attempted to do is juxtapose the man who considers himself the height of German morality, a man who loved his wife and his mistress equally (see what I mean about irony?) with the human being responsible for millions upon millions of deaths.
The idea originated with the recent discovery of a treasure trove of Himmler papers including diaries, documents and photos. These were originally uncovered at the end of the war in Himmler’s residence by American soldiers who, hoping to cash in on the cache, kept what they found instead of turning it in.
A portion of the find wound up at Stanford University and the remainder disappeared, hidden in the home of an Israeli. How he came to own it is unclear, but he sold the material to Lapa’s father. Fascinated, she used it as the basis for her film.
That Neil Barsky selected Ed Koch as the subject of his first film was far from an accident. Barsky spent his formative years in New York during Koch’s mayoralty (1978-1989), both as a high school student and later as a journalist.
The city was in the midst of desperate times. Crime was rampant and the Big Apple was running out of cash and time. Koch ran as a “liberal with sanity” on a law and order platform shortly after the 1977 blackout and ensuing riots; he easily defeated a passel of more liberal Democrats (Bella Abzug and Mario Cuomo, among them) for his party’s nomination and then won the election handily.
Koch was brash and combative in a New York City kind of way — at least in the way New Yorkers like to think of themselves. Barsky is a former journalist — he wrote for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Daily News — and he comes to filmmaking by a circuitous route. He ran a hedge fund, Alson Partners, named for his children, Alexandra and Davidson, but “retired from the hedge fund world” in 2009 when the market collapsed. After a brief stint teaching college-level economics, he self financed “Koch,” his first foray into the world of documentaries. The movie opened to near unanimous praise last year and will be broadcast September as part of POV’s 27th season on PBS.
Barsky spoke to the Forward about his life journey, why there was a time when Koch refused to speak to him and the Yiddishkeit in his life.
Curt Schleier: How did you go from hedge fund entrepreneur to filmmaker?
Art forger Mark Landis is the subject of the documentary “Art and Craft,” directed by Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker. The film focuses on Landis’s history of art forgeries and the process he went through to create and donate them. The film also features Matthew Leininger, a museum registrar from Cincinnati who discovered the fakes and made it his mission to track down and stop Landis.
At the age of 17, Landis took the death of his father very hard. He was sent to a mental hospital for treatment and diagnosed with schizophrenia. Later he took art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago and worked on repairing damaged paintings. He bought an art gallery but it went bust. At 30, he went back to live with his mother.
In an attempt to honor his father and please his mother, Landis donated a Maynard Dixon painting he’d copied to a California museum. After that went well, he continued to paint dupes and donated them to 60 museums over a 20-year period. Most times he approached the museums impersonating a priest.
Landis said, “I liked being a priest and being kind to people. I remember once I was at a bus station and saw a family who had everything they owned tied up in boxes so I watched all their things for them when they wanted to go off and do something. Then, when they came back I gave them a blessing and sent them on their way. I’ve also comforted people at airports, with marital problems.”
In 2007, Landis offered a few paintings to the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. The museum’s registrar, Matthew Leininger, investigated the pieces and discovered that one of the paintings had already been donated to the SCAD Museum of Art. Leininger dug deeper and found out that Landis had tricked more than 60 museums in 20 different states. It became Leininger’s mission to stop Landis from deceiving museums. Landis did not sell any of the paintings, so he has never faced legal charges for the fakes.
We talked to directors Cullman and Grausman about meeting Mark Landis, authenticity in art, and what will be in the DVD extras.
Dorri Olds: How did this project begin?
Filmmaker Liz Garbus is responsible for numerous powerful and award-winning documentaries: “The Farm: Angola USA,” about Louisiana’s infamous maximum security prison; “The Nazi Officer’s Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust”; and “Killing in the Name,” an Academy Award-nominated documentary about Islamic terrorism.
Therefore, the emotional intensity of her latest, “A Good Job: Stories of the FDNY,” doesn’t come as a surprise. The title has nothing to do with salary or benefits. In fact, “a good job,” according to one of the fire fighters interviewed, is “a really tough fire.” And “good jobs” are a recurring theme in the film: a 1966 conflagration in which a dozen fire fighters died; the Happy Land Social Club fire (87 victims), and of course 9/11.
A number of fire fighters — including early women and African American members of what until recently was an almost exclusively male and white fraternity — are interviewed. What’s surprising is how little swagger or arrogance they display. Despite the constant peril of the job, they don’t look at their work much differently than an office worker whose greatest risk is a paper cut. Their answers to interesting questions posed by the filmmakers are thoughtful, intelligent and moving.
Garbus partnered on the project with actor Steve Buscemi, who worked as a New York City fire fighter for five years before pursuing a career as an actor. Garbus, 44, spoke to the Forward about how the two met, Buscemi’s contribution, and how making her first documentary got her kicked out of her high school physics class.
Curt Schleier: How did you get involved in the film?
“Dressing America,” which debuts September 2 on WNET, is a nostalgic look back at the largely Jewish history of the New York City garment business, replete with interviews of mostly old Jews fondly recalling a bygone era.
Some of those interviewed head well-known fashion brands including Perry Ellis, Nicole Miller and Leslie Fay. (Notably, though they are mentioned, there’s no Donna Karen or Ralph Lauren.) We meet present and former executives of smaller firms, as well as the button, bias and trimming manufacturers that used to dominate the area.
It’s a documentary likely to evoke sentimental reminiscence from viewers old enough to have worked in the garment center, or perhaps their children.
One anecdote from the film is told by a salesman for a start-up. Early on at his company he got a sizable commitment a prominent retailer. The store’s owner insisted on giving the salesman a check immediately — not 30 days after delivery. “He knew how desperately I needed the money,” the salesman recalls.
Can you imagine such a thing happening today? That level of generosity has vanished, as has much of the garment industry in New York. By concentrating on the headquarters — the sales rooms and design centers — the filmmakers leave the false impression that the garment industry still exists. While there is still a segment of the business in Manhattan, it’s not the same industry the filmmakers memorialize.
“Shadows From My Past” is a strange amalgam of a documentary. Though it is often amateurish (it has the feel of a home movie) and dated (it includes interviews of people long dead), it is powered by its subject matter and evokes strong emotion.
Gita Weinrauch Kaufman escaped Vienna with her parents and two brothers in 1940. Luckily, the family received U.S. visas on the day they were scheduled to be deported to Dachau. Most of the rest of her relatives, including numerous uncles, aunts and cousins, did not survive. She knew them only as the titular shadows who came alive in a treasure trove of correspondence discovered among her parents’ belongings.
These letters were from desperate people describing their tenuous situations, often begging their kin for help securing visas and money for transit to anywhere but Wien. The missives were sufficiently moving that Gita and her late husband, Curt Kaufman, secured a grant from the Bruno Kreisky Foundation to create an audio-visual presentation about them, leading to an invitation to speak about the correspondence at the University of Vienna.
Gita was at first undecided about returning to the city of her birth, but ultimately did, hoping to discover if Austria had come to grips with its past, so she could come to grips with hers.
According to the production notes Gita and Curt subsequently made multiple trips to Europe.
“Kabbalah Me” is a fascinating and inspiring story about a man’s spiritual journey into the complex world of Jewish mysticism. But on another level, it is also a sad and revelatory documentary about how faith and religious observance are marginalized in our society.
Steven Bram is a successful filmmaker and chief operating officer of a New York City-based company that produces sports films. His brother was on the 102nd floor of the World Trade Center on 9/11 and, though he doesn’t say it, presumably died, leaving behind a wife and children.
This is what started Bram’s soul-searching pilgrimage, his hunger for what he calls “a deeper kind of spirituality.” Both Steven and his wife, Miriam, were raised in secular households. His father came from — and rejected — what Steven calls an Orthodox background, but is apparently Hasidic.
As part of his quest, Bram travels to Brooklyn to meet his Hasidic cousins for the first time. He spends Sukkot with them. Initially, he feels like a visitor from another planet. Soon, however, he feels another emotion: “Part of me is a little jealous that they have this intense spirituality,” he says.
Bram begins regular meetings with a rabbi about Kabbalah and begins, Madonna-like, to immerse himself in it — at least superficially. Because of the pop star’s interest, Kabbalah has become something of a rage, attracting far more dilettantes than serious students.
Bram seems to fall somewhere in between. He seeks guidance from numerous rabbis, attends large religious gatherings in Madison Square Garden and Met Life Stadium in New Jersey, and even travels to Safed, Israel, in his odyssey.
“I was going through a quote-unquote midlife crisis to some extent,” says documentary filmmaker Steven Bram, whose spiritual journey is the focus of new documentary “Kabbalah Me,” which he co-directed. A series of traumatic events, among them losing his brother-in-law on 9/11 and the financial crisis of 2008-2009, caused Bram, a born-and-bred New Yorker who runs a sports film production company, to have some seemingly unanswerable existential questions. “I kept asking, is there more to life than just going through the motions?”
One day, a friend who took him to a New York Rangers game suggested seeking out a rabbi for help. “I never really thought of a rabbi as a therapist like that,” says Bram, who had lived a secular life to that point. One rabbi followed another, and today, he is actively spiritual and has a documentary to show for it. Elyssa Goodman spoke with Bram about documenting his quest for spiritual enlightenment in “Kabbalah Me,” and the role Judaism and Kabbalah now play in his life.
Elyssa Goodman: Why did you decide to make a documentary out of this experience?
“Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart” is a documentary about the 1990 media spectacle of the first televised murder trial. Reality TV was in its infancy. Pamela Smart, 21, was accused of plotting the murder of her husband. The young men who carried out the murder got reduced sentences for serving her up as a black widow. The film explores the impact of TV on the case and on public opinion. The jury was not sequestered and it seems Smart was tried and convicted in the media.
Filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar investigated Pamela Smart’s trial and questions arose about the nature of justice, fame and storytelling. Was this trial fair? We talked to Zagar about the role the media played in the outcome of the trial.
Dorri Olds: What was it like visiting Pamela Smart in prison?
Jeremiah Zagar: Meeting her convinced me to make the film. She was different in person than any of the archival footage I’d seen. She’s incredibly smart, funny and warm, not that wooden, cold person on TV. I thought I’d make a film about this person you’ve never met before. The film became about how the camera changes people and changed her trial.
Do you mean she had stage fright?
At its best, art is about connection. A new Israeli-Palestinian documentary short film exploits the natural three-way relationship between artist, audience and subject to reveal an unexpected source of real-life intimacy: that between occupier and occupied.
Produced by B’Tselem and directed by Ehab Tarabieh, Yoav Gross, and the al-Haddad family, “Smile, and the World Will Smile Back,” which screened July 16 at the Jerusalem Film Festival, is a study in understatement. As the opening sequence explains, under the terms of occupation, Palestinians in the West Bank are subject to arbitrary IDF searches without a warrant, though the IDF legal advisor has ruled that residents may film such operations.
Over twenty minutes, with a hand-held camera passed from one family member to another, the viewer experiences the nighttime search of a Palestinian family’s home in Hebron by IDF soldiers. The result is a little gem of a film that tells a much larger story about power, adolescence, masculinity and nationhood.
Image courtesy of HBO
When is a terrorist not a terrorist?
That’s the question asked and answered in the important HBO documentary, “The Newburgh Sting,” which debuts July 21 at 9 p.m.
It’s been over five years. Still, many people are likely to remember how a joint terrorism task force arrested four men before they could bomb a Bronx synagogue and JCC, and fire a missile at military aircraft at Stewart Airport in upstate New York.
The government gratuitously went through the process of a trial, but the men, who became known as the Newburgh Four, had already been convicted in the media.
However, an investigation by filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner suggests that the four men were not terrorists, but dupes in an elaborate plot set up by an FBI informant.
Following 9/11 (which the FBI missed), the Bureau set up a network of informants to root out home grown terrorists. Most (if not all) of these informants were set loose on mosques. This certainly isn’t politically correct, and no U.S. mosque has yet ben implicated in any kind of terrorist plot. But the FBI seems to have adopted a “We screwed up and now we have to catch up” attitude that made its agents willing to overlook such niceties.“The rules are off,” was a common refrain in FBI offices.
Important, too, these undercover informants were financially rewarded. Previous criminal activity was overlooked. So, if they couldn’t find genuine terrorists, they were potentially motivated to create them, or else lose their jobs. And that seemed to be the case here.
Newburgh, 60 miles north of New York City, is an impoverished community. Shahed Hussain, an informant and shady character, visited the local mosque and asked the Imam if he knew anyone interested in Jihad.
The Imam suggested congregants stay away from him, but Hussain kept showing up in fancy suits, fancy cars (plural) and flashing wads of cash.
Photo courtesy of BOND/360
Carly Simon recently told The New York Times that one of her goals this summer was to see “Alive Inside” again. She calls the documentary, which won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, “an extremely moving depiction of the power that music has.”
She’s right. And so were the Sundance folks who selected the film as a favorite. It’ss a tear-jerker of a magnitude to raise the stock price of Kleenex Corp.
The movie chronicles Dan Cohen’s efforts to bring music to dementia patients in nursing homes and the extraordinary impact his project has had. It’s not just any music, but an iPod full of songs the patients grew up with.
Cohen, 62, posses a master’s degree in social work, but spent most of his professional life working for a tech company. In 2006 he read an article about how ubiquitous iPods had become, and wondered if he’d have access to his iPod if he were ever confined in a nursing home.
Cohen spoke to the Forward about his project, how the documentary came about, and forming the charity Music & Memory.
Curt Schleier: What happened after you read that article?
With the two-state solution increasingly invoked as either tragically out of reach or altogether unjust, a new film seeks to examine another possibility for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the one-state solution.
More in the tradition of didactic documentary films than storytelling ones, Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon’s “A People Without a Land,” which recently premiered at the Manhattan Film Festival, winning a “Film Heals” award, features the most prominent voices of the one-state movement. There’s Ali Abunimah, founder of The Electronic Intifada, Omar Barghouti, an organizer of the BDS movement, and anti-Zionist activist Jeff Halper. There’s also Neta Golan, a trilingual Israeli-Jewish Ramallah-based activist for Palestinian solidarity, and Eitan Bronstein, director of Zochrot, an Israeli NGO that seeks to raise awareness of the Nakba. Rabbi Asher Lopatin, a U.S.-based Orthodox rabbi, provides a slightly different twist on the one-state idea, and Saeb Erakat and Hanan Ashrawi make brief appearances.
Perhaps most importantly, the film admits modesty in its aims, something that is both its strength and its weakness. Through the words of the interviewees, the film stresses the desirability — rather than practicability — of the one-state option. “First tell me whether it’s a good idea,” one of the interviewees suggests, “then we’ll talk about what is possible.” A more ambitious project might have attempted to tackle the equally pressing question of whether and how the one-state option could be brought to fruition given the historical propensity for the two-state option on each side. And despite recent polling revealing that the two-state solution is losing adherents, the one-state solution is even less appealing (with only 10% of Palestinians favoring it).