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The Freedom to Marry – Interview with Director Eddie Rosenstein

Eddie Rosenstein Director

Edward Rosenstein believes documentary film can inspire audiences as well as inform them. Based in Brooklyn, he has directed films about a senior center in Florida, a drug rehabilitation center in Harlem, and the boats that rescued thousands of New Yorkers on September 11, 2001. His film The Greatest Tunnel Ever Built, about the laborers who dug the third water tunnel beneath Manhattan, became the basis for an eleven episode series on HISTORY, with Rosenstein as Executive Producer. He recently spoke with the BJFF’s Ken Shulman.

Ken Shulman: Every story needs a strong protagonist. In The Freedom To Marry, you had Evan Wolfson.

Eddie Rosenstein: Evan is an extraordinary person, and one of the brightest people you’ll ever met. He speaks as if he’s reading from a teleprompter. He builds arguments and strategies that are completely watertight. And he is indescribably prescient—able to provide the wisdom and vision to stay the course when the battle seems lost and everyone around him is freaking out. It’s incredible to be in his presence.

KS: You knew him growing up in Pittsburgh. Was it clear he was destined to do great things?

ER: Evan was sort of a legend when we were growing up. He was everyone’s “most likely to succeed.” So it’s not a surprise that he became one of our nation’s foremost civil rights leaders. He’s seven years older than I am; so we weren’t really friends as kids. But our families are very much intertwined. I literally wore his hand-me-downs as a kid. Later on, my Mom would call me up to tell me when Evan was on Face The Nation or Meet The Press, so I’ve been following his work for decades.

KS: Did your family connection help or hinder you during the making of The Freedom To Marry.

ER: It was a joy to work with Evan, to understand who he had become and what he’d accomplished. But there were challenges. Evan had been approached by dozens of filmmakers who wanted to tell his story. He turned them down, because he wasn’t willing to cede the type of narrative control a filmmaker needs. And to begin with, Evan and I sort of had different visions for the project. He challenged me constantly, trying to push me in the direction he wanted me to follow. Ultimately, this isn’t the film he would have made. He wanted to make a historical film. I was emotionally interested in documenting the run-up to the Supreme Court decision. But I think he knew instinctively that I wasn’t going to mess up his story too badly, because my mother wouldn’t let me back into the house if I did.

KS: It’s only been a few years since Massachusetts made same sex marriage legal. Yet until the middle of your film I’d all but forgotten how dogged and vicious the opposition had been.

ER: This is a story that people, especially in places like Massachusetts, think they know. The challenge in this project, and it was a delightful one, was to tell the story in a way that still kept the audience engaged and in suspense. During production, a lot of people warned me that by the time the film came out the Supreme Court decision would be yesterday’s news. They thought no one would care about the plot. But we know how most movies are going to end before we see them. The cop is going to catch the criminal. The boy is going to get the girl, or maybe the boy. The job of the filmmaker is to make that story and characters come so alive they take the audience on a ride with them. A ride that is more intense and emotional than they’d ever suspected.

KS: Can you do that when everyone now knows same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states?

ER: You and I live in bubbles—you’re in Cambridge, I’m in Brooklyn. It’s easy to forget that most of the world is quite different from those places. I just got back from a trip to Wisconsin where a reporter asked me how long I thought it would take before same sex marriage was legal in the U.S. And even though marriage is now the law of the land, laws protecting LGBT people from discrimination are still insufficient in a majority of U. S. states. There are still too many places where gay people can get married over the weekend, and then get fired on Monday for being gay.

KS: Along with being a compelling portrait of Evan—and also of attorney Mary Bonauto—The Freedom To Marry unrolls like how-to manual for social activists. The viewer truly understands the type of commitment, vision, and patience any successful campaign requires.

ER: That was always our intention. Before you make a film, you need to do a big gut check. There’s a financial risk, you are going to put your family under pressure, and you’re only going to get to make a certain number of films in your lifetime. You have to ask yourself why you want to make this specific film. There are too many films that simply point out problems, or deliver information. I want to make films that touch the heart, as well as the head. In a very real sense, it’s tikkun olam. It’s not enough that I had unique access to a compelling character and a huge story with Evan. It’s more about my teenage sons, and the world and problems we are leaving them. I want them to feel empowered. I want to remind them that regular people can change the world for the better. It’s never going to be easy. It will always take a lot of work. But it can be done.

ken3Ken Shulman has covered soccer World Cups, alpine ski races, sumo wrestling, bloodless bullfighting, and wild boar hunting for NPR’s “Only A Game,” Newsweek, The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, and the BBC. He is a two time RTNDA “Edward R Murrow” broadcast award winner and was selected as Champion of Justice by the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys. He is also a reading and writing tutor at Cambridge Ringe and Latin High School.

The Muses of Isaac Bashevis Singer – Interview with Director Asaf Galay

Asaf Galay Image“Mainstream Israel already had its superheroes.”

Asaf Galay explores Jewish and Israeli cultural history in a variety of visual media. He has curated museum exhibits on Jewish fashion designers, the Dreyfus Affair, and the late singer Amy Winehouse. In film, he has traced the history of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, analyzed Israeli humor, and examined the life and legacy of Zionist hero Joseph Trumpeldor. A self-described Yiddish activist, Galay is screening two films at the Boston Jewish Film Festival. “The Search for an Israeli Superhero,” plots the cultural history of modern Israel through its comic books. “The Muses of Bashevis Singer,” sketches a portrait of author I.B. Singer through the eyes of the women who translated his stories from the Yiddish. He recently spoke with BJFF board member Ken Shulman.

Ken Shulman: Both of the films screening at the BJFF deal with the idea of myth. In “The Search for an Israeli Superhero,” we see the birth of Israel’s national myth.

Asaf Galay: Israel is still a very young country. Yet it was born with a distinct culture which needed to be defined and celebrated. One of the best places to do that was in comic books. It was clear those comic books couldn’t be like American comic books, with superheroes who always triumph over evil. Mainstream Israel already had its superheroes in its pioneers and politicians and generals. To celebrate its popular culture, Israel needed something more realistic—stories of ordinary people who dealt with the problems of ordinary life. And who were clever and funny in the process.

KS: Is this how the new country wanted to see itself? Clever and funny?

AG: One of the first comic book characters, and one of the most successful, is Uri Muri. It’s the first place the word “sabra” was used to define an Israeli. Uri Muri is a kid. He’s a little bit naughty. He likes to make mischief. But in his innocence and goodness he understands the problems of his new country. And he helps to solve them. He finds a way to bring more milk to a kibbutz. He helps build more housing for Israel’s new immigrants. He’s intuitive, clever, and very funny. In many ways he embodies the spirit of the start-up culture that dominates the Israeli tech scene today.

KS: Sabraman was a typical comic book hero. And he was popular.

AG: Sabraman was basically an American-style superhero, transposed into an Israeli context. He enjoyed some success early on. But that kind of hero, the army soldier who fights and defeats Nazis and terrorists, works better in mainstream Hebrew literature. In Israeli comic books, the most successful characters are ones who seem to have come out of a Sholom Aleichem story. They’re shlemazels. Take the comic book character Falafel man. He’s fat and slow and harmless, a superhero who tries to destroy his enemies by throwing falafel at them and always needs help from his mother. He’s nice, and funny, and lucky, and somehow he manages to win in the end. And he’s the most popular comic book hero in Israel.

KS: Israeli comics aren’t always about ordinary life. They were one of the few places people could read about the country’s nuclear program.

AG: There was one comic series that had a storyline about a nuclear plant in the desert that developed a dangerous leak, and that transformed a professor who was working there into a green giant with superpowers. From the descriptions, it was very clear that they were talking about Israel’s facility in Dimona. Israeli censors were very strict about keeping Dimona out of the news. But they didn’t pay any attention to the comic books. As a result, the kids in Israel knew more about their country’s nuclear program than the adults.

KS: Israeli comic books artists helped shape the identity of a newborn nation. Isaac Bashevis Singer helped shape the memory of a vanished world.

AG: It’s true that Singer wanted to preserve the memory of Jews in Eastern Europe. But he’s not Sholom Aleichem or I.L. Peretz. And he doesn’t subscribe to an idealized vision of socialism either. Singer was trying to reach an American audience. Yes, he sometimes writes about great scholars and tzaddikim. And yes, he always writes in Yiddish. But those Yiddish stories are mostly about real people, about street life, about thieves and prostitutes and pimps. It’s not an idealized world. It’s a real world. Or one that feels real.

KS: How did he make that world relevant to American readers?

AG: He developed the Singer system. This was a group of young women I’ve called his muses. These were all young Jewish women, very bright, who would keep him current about their generation, its hopes and its interests and its problems. They became his translators. But they were more than translators. They told him how his stories might be perceived by their peers. They told him what he needed to explain, and what he needed to leave out. Even though he didn’t write in English, Singer is a very American writer.

KS: Is there a place where the myths of Singer and the myths of Uri Muri and Falafelman come together? Asaf Galay: Singer used to say, and not entirely joking, that one day the dead would come back to life and want to read his books in Yiddish. I would like to see future Israeli generations write comic books in Yiddish. It would make the language so much richer. The idea is not entirely a fantasy. Right now the biggest market in Israel for comic books are the Haredi—the ultra-orthodox. They are developing their own heroes, and their own graphic style, and stories about life in their communities. They may be socially conservative. But in this art form, they’re the avant-garde.

Ken ShulmanKen Shulman has covered soccer World Cups, alpine ski races, sumo wrestling, bloodless bullfighting, and wild boar hunting for NPR’s “Only A Game,” Newsweek, The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, and the BBC. He is a two time RTNDA “Edward R Murrow” broadcast award winner and was selected as Champion of Justice by the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys. He is also a reading and writing tutor at Cambridge Ringe and Latin High School.

Natasha – Interview with Director David Bezmozgis

David Bezmozgis Image“It’s a matter of fact that large parts of a story or book have to be jettisoned when they’re transposed into film.”

David Bezmozgis plumbs the surreal dimensions of the post Soviet diaspora in short stories, novels, and film—from coming of age tales set in a Russian-Jewish enclave of Toronto to a fast-paced face-off between a former Soviet dissident and the KGB agent who betrayed him set in Crimea. Born in Riga, Latvia, Bezmozgis came to Canada with his family at the age of six in 1980. In 2004, he published his first book, “Natasha and Other Stories.” This year, Bezmozgis released his second feature film, “Natasha,” which he adapted from his own title story. He recently spoke with BJFF board member Ken Shulman.

Ken Shulman: There aren’t many writers who have transposed their fiction into screenplays, let alone directed the film version. Weren’t you a bit daunted doing that with “Natasha”?

David Bezmozgis: I’d been approached by several filmmakers who wanted to turn “Natasha” into a feature film. But none of the projects I saw quite captured the essence of the story. This is predominantly a Russian language movie. The title character is a young woman who comes to Toronto from Russia in the summer and consequently she can only speak Russian. I’m a writer, but I’m also a filmmaker. And in the end, I didn’t know anyone else who would be able to render the story the way I saw it.

KS: Fiction and film are both ways of telling a story. But they do it in different ways. How were you able to make that transition in your own work?

DB: In fiction, in writing, you can summarize—you can write “they continued to see each other for the next six months” without structuring a scene around it. You can use a character’s interior monologue to show how he or she feels. You can’t do any of that in film. In film a story moves forward from scene to scene. You have to dramatize the narrative, to show everything that happens. That’s the challenge and the opportunity in screenwriting.

KS: Were you concerned that you might be too close to the original—after all, you wrote it—to make the painful changes necessary to adapt it for the screen?

DB: I chose it for the film because it was a good story and I thought it could work well on screen. I was ready to let things go. It’s a matter of fact that large parts of a story or book have to be jettisoned when they’re transposed into film. I also came to the film with a much broader view than I’d had when I wrote the story. I was 10 years older. As a result, I think the film is richer; the characters live the scenes in the film much more fully than they do in the story.

KS: When we read a novel or short story, we often stage and cast it as a movie in our own minds. Did you have a particular cast or look in mind when you wrote the short story “Natasha?”

DB: Of course I visualized the characters when I wrote the story. But when casting the movie, we sought out the best actors for each of the roles. For some of the roles, the actors had to look more or less as they are described in the story. For Natasha, we needed a Russian speaking blond actress of adult age who looked quite young and didn’t look ethnically Jewish. That’s a key element in the story. And we found an actress who fit that bill. But for Zina, Natasha’s mother, we went in a different direction. In the story, Zina is described as being very thin. Aya Stolnits, who plays Zina in the film, has a very different appearance. But in her audition she just inhabited that character. Whatever preconceived notion I’d had about what Zina should look like didn’t matter anymore.

KS: You also changed the time period. The short story is set in the 1990s, before the advent of iPads, facebook, and the Internet.

DB: That was done primarily for practical reasons. My previous feature film was a period piece set in the 1980s. It’s a lot more complicated to make a period piece, even a moderate one, than to set it in the present. I believed this story could work set in the present. Moving it to the present also gave me possibilities I couldn’t explore had I kept it in the 1990s. A big part of who Natasha is comes from her past—her displacement, her getting involved in pornography in Russia. In the story, she says she can’t show us pictures of herself because she doesn’t have any. That’s plausible in the 1990s. Setting her story in 2015 allows me to create a scene where she can show us photos of herself on the Internet. That adds an element of seduction in the film that I couldn’t have included if I’d kept it in its original time setting.

KS: “Natasha” is also about Russia, and the lives Russian Jewish immigrants in their new homeland. Hasn’t that story changed as well in the past 20 years?

DB: That was the main question we had to ask ourselves. Could the same story work 20 years hence? I think we still have people coming to Canada and the United States from all over the world, including the former Soviet Union. And I think their struggles are pretty much the same. The character of Mark, the teenage boy living in the suburbs of Toronto who keeps secrets from his parents and tries to rebel, that character hasn’t changed. But is life in Russia the same for a girl like that? Does a girl like Natasha still exist in 2015? It’s true that the country is developing. But there are still large pockets where people struggle, where there is widespread corruption and very little opportunity. In these parts of Russia, I think Natasha still exists.

Ken ShulmanKen Shulman has covered soccer World Cups, alpine ski races, sumo wrestling, bloodless bullfighting, and wild boar hunting for NPR’s “Only A Game,” Newsweek, The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, and the BBC. He is a two time RTNDA “Edward R Murrow” broadcast award winner and was selected as Champion of Justice by the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys. He is also a reading and writing tutor at Cambridge Ringe and Latin High School.

Projections of America – Interview with Director Peter Miller

Peter Miller Image“It’s important to think about how the world perceives us.” For Lexington Massachusetts native Peter Miller, history is a mirror that tells us not only who we are, but how we came to be. In documentary films including “Sacco and Vanzetti,” “A Class Apart,” and “Jews and Baseball,” Miller illustrates how events and ideas intertwine to shape the world we inhabit. Miller’s latest film, “Projections of America,” examines a series of propaganda films produced by the U.S. Office of War Information towards the end of World War II. Miller’s documentary illustrates not only how America saw itself, but how it hoped to be seen by others as it prepared to lead the Western alliance. Miller recently spoke with BJFF board member Ken Shulman.

Ken Shulman: These Office of War Information films were of course distributed in Germany and Italy, our former enemies. But they were also distributed in France and Holland and Great Britain. Why did the U.S. need to send propaganda to its wartime allies?

Peter Miller: Until World War II the U.S. was not a major player on the world stage. A lot of people abroad knew nothing about America or Americans. Many who did know about them got their impressions from Nazi propaganda films, or from Hollywood movies about cowboys or gangsters. Now they see America entering the conflict in Europe and capturing territory. How do we communicate to the people there that we’re fighting to liberate them, that we’re not just another occupying army?

KS: Weren’t the audiences in Europe already skeptical? They’d been occupied by Nazi Germany, and seen their propaganda films?

PM: The type of propaganda put out by the OWI doesn’t look like any propaganda I’ve ever seen. It’s subtle and gentle. It draws a nuanced—if optimistic— picture of our country. It’s not meant to intimidate viewers. It’s meant to introduce ourselves to the local population who have no idea who we are.

KS: What values did these films attempt to project?

PM: Robert Riskin, who wrote the screenplays for some of Frank Capra’s most beloved films, was the head of the OWI’s overseas division. He assembled a team of filmmakers who shared his liberal, optimistic view of American democracy. Their films were a vision of what America could be, not necessarily what it was. They show scenes of racial harmony, even though the country was still brutally segregated. They extol the virtues of democracy and small town American life, at the same time the country was trying to win a terrible global war.

KS: Why was a fanciful film like “The Autobiography of a Jeep” so popular with Europeans?

PM: All of these films were made by top-notch professionals who knew how to tell a story. “Autobiography of a Jeep” is an adorable ugly duckling tale, the story of a humble military vehicle with self-esteem problems. It embodies America’s “can-do” attitude, and speaks in a uniquely American voice that is charming and funny and surprising. It got to the point that every time the film was screened in Normandy, France, the audience would erupt in cheers of “Vive la Jeep!”

KS: The OWI films don’t hide all of America’s warts.

PM: They can be subtly critical. Perhaps my favorite film in the bunch is “The Cummington Story.” It’s about a group of war refugees who show up in a small New England town. At first the townspeople reject the refugees. They look different. And they speak a foreign language. But over the film’s 20 minutes, the townspeople learn to embrace them. They do carpentry projects together. They play music. And when the refugees return to Europe at war’s end, the people of Cummington are sad. The film was made for foreign audiences. But it also had a message for Americans. To encourage them to open their hearts to people who are different. To be the society that we were meant to be.

KS: America is involved in at least two conflicts today. Would optimistic, idealized films about the country help improve our image abroad?

PM: One of the reasons I chose to make this film was to better understand how the world perceives America. Are we a belligerent military power, a place that turns its back on immigrants and refugees, or are we a place of inclusive democracy striving to achieve something special in the world? Looking at how these filmmakers sought to present America in the worst years of global war is very enlightening. It’s utterly amazing that in the midst of mass slaughter these people chose to step back to ask what our culture was and how it should be presented.

KS: The current explosion of technology would make it much harder for a single series of films to shape perception of anything.

PM: Without a doubt. During and after World War II, you had to go to a movie theater to see any kind of motion picture. Today we’re saturated with visual media, with screens and tablets and phones. That said, it’s very important that we as film and media makers think about how the world perceives us. Right now I’m afraid that’s often as a bully, and as a place of intolerance. It would be helpful if we could present ourselves in a more complex light, to show the world the many things we do so well here.

KS: What would your propaganda film for America look like?

PM: I’m a documentary filmmaker. Not a propagandist for the State Department. But the things I love about America are its incredible diversity, that we are a country of people from all over the earth who can coexist peacefully. And that out of this extraordinarily rich mix comes some of the greatest creative expressions the world has ever known: jazz; the blues; rock & roll; contemporary art; independent film. What America does well is a result of our diversity and creativity, not as a result of our weapons and power.

Ken ShulmanKen Shulman has covered soccer World Cups, alpine ski races, sumo wrestling, bloodless bullfighting, and wild boar hunting for NPR’s “Only A Game,” Newsweek, The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, and the BBC. He is a two time RTNDA “Edward R Murrow” broadcast award winner and was selected as Champion of Justice by the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys. He is also a reading and writing tutor at Cambridge Ringe and Latin High School.

Gitel – Interview with Director Robert Mullan

Robert Mullen“They’re just not interested in that part of their history.”

A polymath with interests ranging from spirituality to psychology to pop culture, Robert Mullan has directed more than 40 feature and documentary films and written over 20 non-fiction books.

In “Gitel,” a feature film from 2014, Mullan tells the story of a young girl who miraculously survives the holocaust in Lithuania and lives, consumed with guilt, as a musician in the Soviet Union. Shot entirely in Lithuania, “Gitel” also wrestles with that country’s inconvenient truth—a complicity with the Nazi genocide that is still largely unacknowledged. He recently spoke with the BJFF’s Ken Shulman:

Ken Shulman: The story of “Gitel”—the story of a survivor and her guilt—could be set almost anywhere in Eastern Europe. Why Lithuania?

Robert Mullan: I knew very little about Lithuania until I came to teach a month long course in psychology at the University of Kaunas in 1999. It was a fascinating time, with the country transitioning from communism to capitalism. I stayed on to write a book called “Voices of Pain.” I interviewed homeless people, inmates in psychiatric hospitals, inmates in prison, ordinary people, asking them whether their lives were truly better, or whether they’d remained the same.

KS: Were they better?

RM: A lot of people were profoundly disappointed. For many of them, it felt as if they were square buttons who had been declared round buttons overnight. They remember the Soviet Union as a place with good schools and free health care. The basic fact is if you’re poor, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re living in a command economy or a free market economy.

KS: Are Lithuanians eager to tell their story today?

RM: There are two big stories about Lithuania in recent history: the Nazi invasion of 1941, and the country’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. They’re eager to talk about 1991. When we shot “We Will Sing,” a film about the 1991 independence movement, the people in Lithuania couldn’t help us enough. In contrast, filming “Gitel” was extremely difficult. The first scene we shot in “Gitel” was set in the synagogue in Kaunas. Reporters and photographers were waiting for us there, even though we’d kept the shoot quiet. When articles appeared in the papers about someone who’d come to make a film about 1941, there were comments from readers like “they should have killed them all” and “even if there were two left, there should be none left.” I was astonished.

KS: What’s so volatile in 2015 about the story of a Lithuanian holocaust survivor?

RM: Lithuania lost a higher percentage of its Jews during the holocaust than any other country in Europe. There are over 250 mass graves there today. But it’s not so much the statistics that make the subject of the Shoah taboo. It’s that the Lithuanians were killing their Jews even before the Nazis arrived in 1941. What makes the tragedy even more stunning is that for 600 years, Lithuania treated its Jews better than any other country. Vilnius, the capital, was a great center of Jewish culture and learning that Napoleon once called “the Jerusalem of the North.”

KS: How do we go from six centuries of tolerance to a frenzy where people are herding their neighbors into ditches and shooting them?

RM: That’s a question better fielded by a historian than by a filmmaker. The standard explanation is that many Lithuanians saw the Jews as communist sympathizers who had to be eliminated. And there were historic tensions between the communities. Even today, you’ll find schoolbooks there that depict Jews as Christ killers.

KS: Still, you were able to shoot the film, and at prime locations like the synagogue and Kaunas’ Ninth Fort, site of a mass killing.

RM: Lithuania is the land of the free market. It’s also the land of corruption. When we went for our permits, we told them we wanted to shoot a scene at the Ninth Fort. They quoted us a price. Then we told them we were going to recreate the mass killing there. They asked for a little more.

KS: Your cast was almost entirely Lithuanian. So was your crew. How did they react?

RM: A couple of crew members said they couldn’t work on the film after a couple of days. And a lot of the younger actors felt they were betraying their fathers and their grandfathers by being in the film. What truly struck me and my colleagues was watching the extras when we filmed the mass killing at the Ninth Fort. They were extras playing Jews, Nazis, and the Lithuanian Activist Front—the group responsible for the killings. The extras seemed to really enjoy putting on their white armbands and playing LAF men.

KS: Not all Lithuanians participated in the genocide.

RM: True. Even some of the LAF thugs pretended they couldn’t find their neighbors during roundups, or refused to kill them. I’d always imagined that the noble people who rescued Jews would be professionals—doctors and teachers and lawyers. But in Kaunas most of the rescuers were poorly educated peasants, people who instinctively knew that what was happening wasn’t right. And a lot of the killers were doctors, dentists, teachers, and priests. It proves that education doesn’t immunize you from immorality.

KS: Can education immunize us from intolerance?

RM: It depends on the education. If you look at the books on sale at the Center for the Study of Genocide in Vilnius, you’ll find that almost all of them deal with partisans or deportations to the Soviet Union. There are very few titles about Lithuania’s Jews. The underlying assumption, and one that is supported by many European academics, is that Stalin’s crimes were just as bad as Hitler’s crimes. This “Double Genocide” theory is very popular among certain Lithuanians. And it’s a very convenient excuse for Lithuania not to face the crimes it committed against the Jews. They’re just not particularly interested in that part of their history.

Ken ShulmanKen Shulman has covered soccer World Cups, alpine ski races, sumo wrestling, bloodless bullfighting, and wild boar hunting for NPR’s “Only A Game,” Newsweek, The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, and the BBC. He is a two time RTNDA “Edward R Murrow” broadcast award winner and was selected as Champion of Justice by the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys. He is also a reading and writing tutor at Cambridge Ringe and Latin High School.

Rock in the Red Zone – Interview with Director Laura Bialis

Who’s Gonna Love Me Now? – Interview with Barak Heymann


Brothers Barak and Tomer Heymann have collaborated on nearly 20 documentary projects since Barak joined the company in 2003. Drawn to stories of people “living on the fringe,” they have produced feature length documentaries about a joint Jewish and Arab school, about legendary Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin, and an intimate portrait about their extended family in Israel and the United States. Barak Heymann recently spoke with the BJFF’s Ken Shulman.

Ken Shulman: Where did the idea for Who’s Gonna Love Me Now originate?

Barak Heymann: My brother Tomer met Saar, the main character of the film, some 20 years ago in a gay bar in London. They had a one night stand, and in the morning he saw Saar put on a yarmulke, and listened as Sar began to tell Tomer his family story. This is the story we tell in the film. At the time when they met, and for several years afterwards, Saar didn’t want his story published or made into a film. But in 2011 he decided it was time and said let’s go for it.

KSWho’s Gonna Love Me Now reminds me of the beginning of Anna Karenina, about how all happy families are alike, and each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. The family relationships you depict in your film are very intimate, conflicted, and in some cases even compromising. How were you able to convince his family to appear as themselves and speak openly about their emotions and expectations and disappointments?

BH: I think they agreed to appear in the film because they knew how much we respected and liked Saar. It was clear to us from the start that even though their relationship with Saar for many years was quite difficult, they never stopped caring for him, or considering him one of them. I think they saw the same dedication in us.

KS: So much of the family dynamic is worked out in the film: resentment; jealousy; hurt; acceptance. It’s almost as if you and your brother are therapists.

BH: I don’t know if I care to think of ourselves as therapists, but it’s true in a way. Many people, including myself, need an intervention or suggestion from a helpful friend before they find the courage to do things they know they need to do. None of the conversations in this film are staged. Everything is realistic. Yet I don’t think those conversations would have happened without our encouragement, without us asking them to take a chance and talk about their issues.

KS: So in some ways you and your brother were a catalyst. Yet you’re still there in the emotional trenches, but there with a camera, observing and recording incredibly intimate family stuff. How does that work?

BH: That is our job, to get people to like and trust us. And you do that by spending time with your subjects. Not just while you’re filming them, but at other times as well. As they get used to you, they are more able to be themselves. Both you and your camera become less obtrusive.

KS: Did it help that you and Tomer had essentially done the same thing with your own family in The Queen Has No Crown?

BHThe Queen Has No Crown is about Tomer’s personal life, his different boyfriends, and how our family deals with having three members who left Israel for the United States. The process was interesting, surprising, and sometimes embarrassing for all of us in the family. But along the way we learned how to ask the right questions, and how to deal with being uncomfortable. In many ways, that project gave us the direction and inspiration to make “Who’s Gonna Love Me Now.

KS: Tomer was also an inspiration for you in your career choice.

BH: I followed my brother into documentary filmmaking after I saw an audience react to his first film. I was amazed that a film could change peoples’ attitudes about so many things—and in this case about homosexuality. So when he invited me to make a film with him about an Arab and Israeli school, I jumped right int. I like the idea that film has power to drive change. It may not be change on a galactic scale, or even on a national scale. But it’s possible for you as a filmmaker to get people to have another look at their convictions. If there is one parent who because of this film is better able to accept his gay son or daughter, I’ll consider it a great success.

KS: Film, at least films like this one, can also change the people who are in it.

BH: Absolutely. This film was supposed to be about a guy who substitutes the love of a surrogate family—in this case the London Gay Men’s choir—for the love he doesn’t feel he’s getting from his real family in Israel. At the outset of this project, no one ever dreamed that Saar would ever consider returning to Israel and reconciling with his family. But something amazing happened during the filming. And I admire every member of his family for their courage and willingness to be open and honest. I even admire them for saying things I don’t agree with, because at the end of the day all of them were able to do something that few people in this world ever do: to change.

Ken ShulmanKen Shulman has covered soccer World Cups, alpine ski races, sumo wrestling, bloodless bullfighting, and wild boar hunting for NPR’s “Only A Game,” Newsweek, The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, and the BBC. He is a two time RTNDA “Edward R Murrow” broadcast award winner and was selected as Champion of Justice by the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys. He is also a reading and writing tutor at Cambridge Ringe and Latin High School.

On the Map – Interview with Director Dani Menkin


Born in Tel Aviv in 1970, Dani Menkin began his career as a reporter for Sport5—the Israeli Sport Channel. As a journalist, he directed features for the investigative program “Uvda” and also worked on a series for the National Geographic Society. His films have won a slew of prestigious awards, including Best Indie Film of 2014, Best Film at the Haifa International Film Festival, and an Israeli Academy Award. On The Map, the story of Maccabi Tel Aviv’s stunning triumph in the 1977 European Basketball Championships, is his first full length film on sport.

Menkin, who now lives in Los Angeles, recently spoke with the BJFF’s Ken Shulman.

Ken Shulman: Dani, you were seven years old when Maccabi Tel Aviv beat CSKA Moscow, the Soviet team. Do you remember it at all?

Dani Menkin: Remember it? It’s one of my most potent childhood memories. It was an unbelievable moment. The entire city of Tel Aviv was watching. There wasn’t a car on the streets. I watched the game with my father in our house, on a black and white tv, which is all anyone had in those days. I’d never seen my father so excited.

KS: What was it about that tournament that so captured everyone’s imagination?

DM: Israel was not even 30 years old at that time. We had so many difficulties, politics, security, the economy, only some of which we show in the film. We needed something to unite us. Maccabi Tel Aviv was a ray of light. Especially when we played the CSKA Moscow. They were the Soviets, the country that was supplying arms to all the surrounding countries that wanted to wipe us off the map. Because of that, we felt that Maccabi was representing our country, against all the countries who didn’t want us there. It was something much larger than just a basketball game.

KS: Was the victory against the Soviet Union the most important game in the tournament?

DM: I think it was. So much so that many people think we beat the Soviet Union in the tournament final—when in fact we beat Italy’s Varese team in the final to win the championship. The game against CSKA was that important. It was a way for us to get into battle with the Soviet Union, the ones who didn’t want to recognize Israel, but without risking any casualties. Just the fact that the game was played is a wonderful achievement. And to beat them, and show the world that Israel is on the map, not just in basketball but in everything. That’s why people love the movie. Think about what it meant to someone like Nathan Sharansky, the Soviet Jewish dissident, when he was arrested, to be able to say to his KGB captors “hey, I heard Maccabi beat CSKA.”

KS: You made the first version of On The Map for Israel television. The current version, the one you’re screening at Boston, is different.

DM: This version, the one for export, is filmed more through the American point of view. We tell the story of the American players who came to Israel to play for Maccabi. Tal Brody. Miki Berkowitz. These players understood that they’d done something that was far greater than winning a basketball championship. To this day, Tal Brody cannot walk down the street in Tel Aviv without someone stopping him to say “we’re on the map.”

KS:Where did your love of sport come from?

DM: One of my other vivid childhood memories is the dream of becoming a professional athlete. I wanted to be a soccer player, or a basketball player. When I realized at last that this wasn’t going to happen, I joined the Israeli Sport Channel. That’s how I became a filmmaker.

KS: Does Israel still need to be put on the map today?

DM: Israel still faces some of the same challenges. But we’re not in the same place that we were in the 1970’s. First, we’re twice as old as a country. We’re also more established, and we’re on the map in so many ways: hi tech, movies, and also in sports. There are still entities and actors who say they don’t want us on the map. But I think even they realize now that our existence is no longer in question.

KS: Sympathy for Israel has waned in much of the world, particularly in Europe. Have some of your audiences reacted negatively to “On The Map?”

DM: Not a one. People always like stories about underdogs. This movie could be about any country facing a stronger team in sport. It happens to be about Israel, and shows the country in a positive light. My movies are screened all over the world and I’ve never experienced one episode of hostility. When you show a good movie with a universal plot and theme, people tend to like it. Besides, my movies aren’t political. Not even this one. It’s just great drama, and people respond to that.

KS: To this day, Israel still can’t compete against its neighbors in international sport. Israeli teams play their tournaments in Europe.

DM: I would love for Israeli teams to compete against teams from Palestine, Egypt, or Morocco. I would like to see Israeli teams play against teams from countries that don’t recognize us. Even if we’re rebuffed. We should compete in sports. Enough with the weapons. There was an Israeli judoka who competed against an Egyptian athlete in last summer’s Olympics in Rio. He reached out to shake the Egyptian’s hand. The Egyptian refused. But the whole world saw the Israeli reaching out. As a country, we’re established now. We don’t need to chase after recognition. But we should continue to do what our judoka did. We should reach out.

ken3Ken Shulman has covered soccer World Cups, alpine ski races, sumo wrestling, bloodless bullfighting, and wild boar hunting for NPR’s “Only A Game,” Newsweek, The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, and the BBC. He is a two time RTNDA “Edward R Murrow” broadcast award winner and was selected as Champion of Justice by the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys. He is also a reading and writing tutor at Cambridge Ringe and Latin High School.