Life Through A Lens

Faye Lederman found the heroes of her films at the Western Wall, in a bra store on the Lower East Side and at a matzoh-ball-eating contest. Aviva Kempner grew up watching the heroes she has brought to the screen: Detroit Tigers first baseman Hank Greenberg and sitcom pioneer Gertrude Berg, both of whom broke negative stereotypes as far back as the 1930s. And Jennifer Fox crisscrossed 17 countries and spoke with 100 women to answer the question that tugs at the heart of her film, Flying: Confessions
of a Free Woman
: What does it mean to be a woman today?

As American Jewish women find, film and portray icons ordinary and extraordinary in documentary movies, they are shaping distinctive perspectives on contemporary life, reviving history through a personal lens, and commenting on intersections of gender, ethnicity, religion, politics, class, health and sexuality. Their subjects range from breast cancer to Tupperware, but whether their films are inspirational, entertaining, edgy or provocative, whether they make viewers laugh or cry or both, their works are often steeped in Jewish values, infused with a social consciousness that asks honest, lingering questions and urges activism.

“My priority is to get to something essential about human nature,” says Fox. “I’m interested in stripping off the layers that cloak life.” California filmmaker Roberta Grossman says, “I love history and I want to make films about subjects that make me mad, that tell a story that might not otherwise get told, stories I don’t want to be forgotten.” Her new film, Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh, focuses on the 22-year-old resistance fighter who parachuted into Nazi-occupied Europe to save Hungary’s Jews, only to be imprisoned alongside the person she most wanted to rescue – her mother, Catherine. Grossman’s previous film, Homeland: Four Portraits of Native Action, examined the exploitation of Native American land and culture.

Jewish women making documentaries seem to be everywhere. Watch The Tribe on YouTube (it’s the most downloaded short film on iTunes) courtesy of director Tiffany Shlain, who refracts Barbie as the ultimate assimilated American Jew. At international festivals like Sundance and at scores of Jewish film forums, documentaries by women include Praying with Lior, Ilana Trachtman’s intimate, tender, humorous and heartbreaking rendering of Lior Leibling, a teenager with Down syndrome who prays with unfettered joy; Refusenik, Laura Bialis’ retrospective of the Soviet Jewry movement, told through first-person accounts; and Lederman’s A Good Uplift, about Magda Bergstein, the grandmotherly Orchard Street lingerie store owner. Balancing the stories of bravery and idealism are films like Judith Helfand’s Everything’s Cool, a warning against the dangers of global warming, and numerous films by Israelis on Israeli life.

“The immediacy of film gives it power: It’s a fast and visual way to communicate,” says Jessica Alpert, 27, co-producer of the 2008 Jewish Women’s Documentary Film Festival at Indiana University. “It can provide an education, open a window on the world a viewer wouldn’t otherwise get, and motivate discussion and thought.” Many film festivals are run by women; their choices influence what audiences see. “We are looking for films that speak to us,” says Alpert, “films that get to nitty-gritty issues that are not so comfortable to talk about.”

Women have breached the “celluloid ceiling,” but filmmaking remains a competitive, male-dominated profession, says Debra Zimmerman, executive director of Women Make Movies, a 30-year-old organization that addresses the under-representation and misrepresentation of women in media. Today, it distributes films by and about women and assists with fundraising. “The percentages of films by women are actually declining,” says Zimmerman. “Women’s stories are still considered ‘special interest.’ Men’s stories are considered universal. In some ways, film is like the military and sports. It’s one of the last bastions of real sexism.”

According to Martha Lauzen, founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in TV and Film at San Diego State University, in 2007 women made up only 15 percent of all directors, executive producers and editors working in the 250 top-domestic-grossing films (a decline of four points from 2001). Only 6 percent were directors, a decline from 11 percent in 2000. Women are most likely to work in documentaries, where the percentage climbs to 22 percent (ranging from 0 directors to 47 percent of producers). The numbers of women enrolled in film school has remained relatively steady over the past 10 years, she notes, ranging from a low of 35 percent to a high of 70 percent at the top 10 film schools.

The paths women have taken to documentary-making range from art (film school) to justice (law school) to history. Though no statistics exist, conventional wisdom suggests that women make up about half of documentary filmmakers in the Jewish world. Documentaries involve a more hands-on approach than feature films, with smaller crews and budgets, says Fox. “There are no power games.” But, she cautions, “Everyone wants to make film. Everyone thinks they can. What hasn’t changed is how hard it is.” Kempner adds succinctly: “It takes a lot of tenacity and sacrifice and curiosity, all characteristics we’re good at.”

Kempner has been devoted to creating life-affirming images since she produced Partisans of Vilna (1986), a documentary of resistance against the Nazis that debunks Jewish victimhood (it is now on DVD). Born in Berlin, the child of a survivor and a U.S. Army officer, a “personal roots search” ignited in her a “burning desire” to explore her family’s past and to find positive role models. She turned to film instead of pursuing any of her three degrees – in psychology, urban planning and law.

The day Partisans of Vilna opened, she heard that Hank Greenberg had died – and she knew that the Jewish slugger who fought anti-Semitism would be the subject of her next film, the perfect counterpoint to the stereotype of the nerdy Jewish male. She spent 13 years raising funds for The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg and, with the education she received working with director Josh Waletzky on Partisans, decided to write, direct and produce it herself. It received a Peabody award and was even nominated for an Emmy.

Kempner has raised more than $500,000 for Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, about Gertrude Berg, writer, producer and star of her own radio show and, later, the television sitcom The Goldbergs. “She was the Oprah of her day,” says Kempner, “as well as a courageous woman who overcame her own mother’s institutionalization and stood up to the blacklisting of her TV ‘husband,’ Philip Loeb.” She hopes the 90-minute film can be released this winter, after more fundraising for costs ranging from music to rights for archival material. “I usually defer payment to myself,” says Kempner, 61, who is not married and travels the lecture circuit to supplement her income. “I would have made a better living as an immigration lawyer, but this is my calling.”

In fact, financial obstacles loom so large that to persevere, says Trachtman, 37, “you have to be completely obsessed with and compelled by your subject.” Trachtman wasn’t even thinking about a film subject before she met Lior. Nor was she particularly interested in disability. At a Rosh Hashanah retreat, she was trying to pray when she heard “an unabashed, off-key, ecstatic voice” and found herself “envious of this ‘disabled’ child who could pray better than I could.” When she heard that Lior was preparing for his bar mitzvah in May, she pictured the movie version – and realized she could be the one to make it. “I had no idea how I was going to pay for it. But I just knew it wasn’t an option to say, ‘Oh, we can’t shoot today because we have no money.'”

The funding eventually came from 30 foundations, large individual donations and hundreds of $18 checks. But her first independent film took her on a steep, chaotic and grueling learning curve, especially in overcoming her discomfort with asking for money – “We are conditioned to think nice Jewish girls don’t do that” – and in negotiating the challenges of self-distribution. The 15 years she spent producing and directing documentaries and children’s television for major networks hardly prepared her. She attributes the film’s commercial success to her tireless promotional work.

Trachtman always viewed the world through an “extra prism,” she says, because her mother is an Argentine Jew. She was raised in a typical middle-class Jewish family in Rockville, Md., by artistic and progressive parents, but it was really Lior who inspired her own activism. She now leads inclusion workshops to raise awareness of “who’s missing from our communities.” The quest for social change that is at the heart of documentary filmmaking, she says, connects directly to Jewish values. “Many of us were brought up to make a better world and tell the truth,” says Trachtman.

“The concept of investigation and debate, the love of arts and culture have a lot to do with my becoming a filmmaker,” says Fox, 48, who is from an “intensely Jewish” Reform home. Her mother, a professional musician, took her to the theater and to movies “from the time I was born…Making this film made me appreciate her,” says Fox. She adds that Jews have been hunted throughout history, and that taught her to seek justice and feel compassion for others. “Being a documentary filmmaker is…about giving back and doing something positive.”

With the guidance of her father, a successful entrepreneur, Fox felt comfortable in the business world early and has used that ease to secure international funding for her work. She started her career on the global stage, dropping out of film school at New York University at 21 to follow a classmate to her Beirut home, which had been hit by 17 shells. “It was either make the film right then or not,” says Fox. Her parents, whom she calls her mentors, “didn’t blink an eye.” By the time the film was completed six years later, Fox decided not to return to school. Beirut: The Last Home Movie investigates war and the seduction of violence.

Each of Fox’s films delves into conflict, asking what lies beyond differences. An American Love Story, a 10-hour series, chronicles two years in the life of an interracial Queens, N.Y., family. Her current project, Learning to Swim, is about a Tibetan Buddhist master and his battle to save his culture – also a Jewish issue, she says. “Even when the audience never sees me, my films are always autobiographical and intensely intimate,” she says. Flying, a six-part series, prominently features her own crises and relationships.

Lacey Schwartz
Lacey Schwartz, 31, also places personal conflict front and center. Outside the Box, still in production, documents her attempt to confront her dual black and Jewish identities and that of 400,000 black Jews in America. It opens with a series of stark statements: “Lacey Schwartz’s high school friends never asked why her parents were white. Neither did she. On her college application she had to state her race by checking a box. Unable to answer the question, she attached a picture instead.” Georgetown University enrolled her as a black student, which eventually blew the lid off the family secret: Her biological father was black. The revelation changed her life.

She continued on to Harvard Law School, where she made some short films instead of writing papers, took a year off after graduation to freelance for a documentary production company – and was hooked. Schwartz began researching black Jews in America; the process led her back to herself. Strong topics are important, she says, but a good story is just as crucial. For Schwartz, the challenges go far beyond fundraising to the boundaries between herself and her film: “I’m putting my entire life story out there,” she says.

Even for films with a more objective, third-person lens, the filmmaker’s values spill over into every artistic decision, according to filmmaker Deborah Kaufman, 53. “Independent films are much more risky than a formal PBS documentary. You don’t have a prescribed format. No one tells you the length, or how to shoot and edit. It’s like a blank page. You’re making something out of nothing. It’s a personal vision.” A lawyer by training, Kaufman founded the San Francisco Film Festival, the first and largest Jewish film showcase, directing it for 14 years. Of late, she has devoted herself to making (with Alan Snitow, her personal and professional partner) her own films such as Thirst, a character-driven film about global corporations buying up local water supplies; Secrets of Silicon Valley, which reveals the downside of the Internet revolution; Blacks and Jews, and Ezekiel’s Wheels, based on her mother’s poetry. In her newest project – on power and Jewish identity – she critiques the American Jewish establishment.

Film has become a potent way to look at struggles within the Orthodox community, from “Ortho-Dykes” to divorce. Faye Lederman, 34, of Fort Lee, N.J., grew up modern Orthodox (she now defines herself closer to egalitarian Conservative) and prayed for a year with Women of the Wall, a feminist multidenominational Jerusalem group that continues to fight for access to
the Kotel. Upset with media inaccuracies, she filmed Women of the Wall, simultaneously an expression of Lederman’s own feelings of disconnectedness from Jewish customs and rituals growing up. But the film does not disclose that personal stake. Only after completing graduate work in film and a second M.A. in Jewish studies did she learn about the idea of being a “participant observer.”

Film remains an important tool for change. Judith Helfand’s A Healthy Baby Girl, a video diary of her battle against DES-related cancer (1997), and Blue Vinyl, the film she co-directed about the toxicity of PVC plastic, have led to increased awareness of environmental threats. Helfand has also co-founded Chicken and Egg Pictures, a fund that provides financial, producing and creative support to emerging and veteran women filmmakers who are “committed to making socially conscious, entertaining, cinematically and personally challenging films.”

Lederman, who has worked for Helfand, kept that consciousness in mind when she edited A Good Uplift, planting “intentional seeds” in the film’s narrative that could lead to discussion. Her outreach workshops on body image for women and girls ask questions like, “Would you change your body if you could?” The lighthearted documentary that she directed on a matzoh-ball-eating contest raises issues of food and ethnicity. “The winner was an African American man,” says Lederman. “His grandmother worked in an old-age home with Jewish clients and she used to bring home knishes and matzoh balls.” 30 in 6: Eat, Eat, My Children is now the working title for the film; she plans an online contest to elicit suggestions for another title.

What is considered gutsy today may not have been risky 20 years ago. Blessed Is the Match presents Senesh’s unwavering Zionist ideals without any contemporary commentary. “People around me had a lot of trepidation about that,” says Roberta Grossman, 49. “I’m proud of it. It’s important for Jews and non-Jews to see where the seeds were, and to give Israel the good press it rarely gets anymore.”

Captivated by Senesh’s diary in junior high school, Grossman even joined the leftist Zionist youth movement, Hashomer Hatzair, spent a year in Israel and studied the Holocaust as a history major at the University of California-Berkeley before she turned to film, partly to continue her love affair with history. “I made one critical error,” Grossman says, only half-jokingly. “I didn’t realize I had to have a trust fund!”

In the past 20 years, she tried repeatedly to raise money for a Senesh documentary, but not until she framed it as personal mother-daughter story did she succeed in raising $1.5 million – much of that through a campaign in which donations could be made in honor of one’s mother or daughter. “Heroism can be one-dimensional, but people can relate to a mother who watched her daughter make decisions that ultimately took her life,” says Grossman.

The film’s only narration is from Catherine Senesh’s memoir and Hannah’s diary and letters. The Senesh family granted access to 1,300 photographs – half taken by Hannah herself – that had been stored in shoeboxes in Catherine’s home in Israel. Grossman hopes to schedule 200 synagogue screenings for Yom Hashoah, and New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage is mounting an exhibition in Fall 2009. “My whole heart is in the film,” says Grossman. “It’s a daunting task to make a movie about the life of such an icon.”

The brutal demands of a film career make it difficult to balance the needs of a spouse and children. Lederman, who married a year ago and wants a family, is grappling with the realities of a career that doesn’t generate much income. Trachtman, who is unmarried, agrees that the filmmaker’s life is not conducive to family. For now, she continues to be driven by her films and the energy they generate. “I’m touched by the earnestness with which audiences respond,” she says. “I’ve been conditioned to think people are apathetic, and they are not.” Exploring Lior’s spirituality, she says, has unlocked her own. “People have said to me, ‘Your movie is a prayer.'”


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