A Conversation with the Women of WJFF
Hank Greenberg, the subject of Aviva Kempner's documentary The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg. Photo cropped from a posed picture of 1937 Major League Baseball All-Stars in Washington, DC. Image used courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Every year, the Washington Jewish Film Festival (WJFF) exposes the nation's capital to the history, culture, and traditions of Judaism. The 22nd annual festival, held from December 1-11, was no different. With a special focus this year on women in film, the event screened nearly 50 films throughout the DC area, 19 of which were the work of 16 female filmmakers. Three of these women took part in an informal conversation about the role of Jewish women behind the camera. Panelists included Aviva Kempner, winner of the 2011 WJFF Visionary Award, whose documentaries include Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, and The Rosenwald Schools; Nina Shapiro-Perl, a current filmmaker-in-residence at American University who produced and directed Through the Eye of the Needle; and Anna Kempner, known for her films Remembrance and Me and Max Minsky. We followed up with the three women via e-mail to hear more about their views on film, culture, and family influence.
NEA: During the panel, Aviva mentioned that she makes the films she does because "I want the world to be a better place." How can art, and film in particular, improve our world?
NINA SHAPIRO-PERL: Social justice around the world and in our own backyard has been important to me since I was a teenager growing up in the 60s. I've always felt that the heart and the mind have to be engaged to reach people in memorable ways. Film, in particular, has the capacity to move us in wildly different, unexpected, and lasting ways. As a documentary filmmaker, the stories of people who have been dismissed---the unseen and unheard---are the most interesting to me.
AVIVA KEMPNER: I feel I have explored how heroes rose to the challenges of fighting "cruel-isms" in the 20th century in my films. In Partisans of Vilna, [it was] the Jewish resistance against Nazism; in The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, the Jewish baseball player combated anti-Semitism; in Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, Gertrude Berg confronted sexism and McCarthyism. In my new film, [The Rosenwald Schools], Julius Rosenwald tried to counter racism, especially as manifested in education. All these stories show role models of under-known heroes who wanted to make the world a better place. Their historical accomplishments hopefully will influence audiences to improve our world.
ANNA JUSTICE: Film can take you places that you may never see or may never be able to go to. It can make you become aware of people and places you've never heard of before. It can make you feel empathy with strangers. In that way, it can make you understand the world a bit better; it can encourage you to do something you wouldn't have thought to do otherwise. It can make you change your mind. It can make you become aware of issues that you didn't know of. It can give comfort. It can make you laugh. It can make you happy.
NEA: What draws each of you to Jewish themes? Is this a conscious decision, or do the stories you find intriguing simply happen to have Jewish themes?
SHAPIRO-PERL: Through the Eye of the Needle is my first Jewish film. I think my choices come out of my sensibility---shaped by being female, Jewish, the child of a beautiful and heroic father disabled as an infant by polio, my politics as a child of the 60s, civil rights, Vietnam, feminism, the left, and coming from a family of social workers. It's hard to tease out the influences. Rather than seeking out Jewish themes, I think I approached my subjects Jewishly.
KEMPNER: I want to make movies that counter the negative stereotypes of Jews---that Jews did not fight the Nazis or the image of Holocaust survivors as suicidal; that all Jewish men are nerds; that Jewish mothers are overbearing and obnoxious, as they are often portrayed in popular culture. The latest movie shows how far back the Jewish-black alliance goes. [It's about how] early in the last century, a Jewish philanthropist and leader supported programs that countered insidious Jim Crow practices.
JUSTICE: In my case, the stories found me. The women who suggested me as director for Remembrance and Max Minsky and Me knew my films and thought I was the right one.
NEA: As a Jewish woman, do you think you bring any distinctive attributes to filmmaking?
SHAPIRO-PERL: This is what I mean by approaching things Jewishly. It means that I have understood what it means to be "the other." As the child of a disabled father, who walked with a cane and a brace all his life, to being a Jew in a largely Gentile culture, I've felt sensitivity to those who have been dismissed, or made invisible because of their looks or beliefs, etc. I worked in the labor movement for 20 years as a filmmaker, documenting the stories of janitors and homecare workers who were often invisible to those around them. I've always been interested in the small stories inside the big stories, whether it's the "ordinary" worker in the midst of transformation inside the labor movement, or Esther Krinitz as an eyewitness inside the Holocaust. Now, in my teaching at American University, I'm training my students how to document the stories of unseen and unheard Washington.
KEMPNER: I think female characteristics like patience and nurturing help in what it takes to make my films---especially in the tenacity to raise the funds. I think that as Jews, we are brought up with a sense of Jewish history and repairing the world. My films are my way of repairing the world.
NEA: What do you hope your films will impress upon contemporary audiences? Is this different from what you hope future generations will take away from the films?
SHAPIRO-PERL: I hope that my films capture a time and place where we hear people tell of their lived experience, in their own words.
KEMPNER: The 20th century was full of evil philosophies that inspired people to fight against them. We have our modern day issues that have to be countered, and both individual leadership and collective action can lead the way to countering evil.
JUSTICE: I usually want people to be able to feel empathy for characters, and [I want to] enable them to reflect about their own life and their decisions in a new or different way perhaps. Or to just find comfort, as I often find in films. That's what I want for audiences to be able to take away in any generation.
NEA: Each of you mentioned the influence your fathers had in choosing certain projects. Do you think familial influences are stronger amongst female filmmakers, or perhaps Jewish filmmakers?
SHAPIRO-PERL: My family's influence has shaped my sensibility and perspective in innumerable ways that I've begun to discuss here.
KEMPNER: I say I made my films to honor my parents, who taught me to be proud of being Jewish and to reach out to other communities. I was also inspired to see the world through artistic terms by my mother, Helen Ciesla Covensky, who survived as a Polish Catholic in Germany during WWII and became a great abstract expressionist painter. My stepfather, Dr. Milton Covensky, gave me an appreciation for history and for the importance of ideas. And my father, Chaim Kempner, instilled in me a political consciousness and strong Jewish identity.
JUSTICE: I believe familial influences are strong for every person, regardless of cultural or religious background. They certainly are for every musician, filmmaker, writer, artist. We draw from our lives.
NEA: What would you like to see more of in the world of documentary filmmaking?
SHAPIRO-PERL: I have tremendous respect for my fellow documentary filmmakers, who take us into worlds we might otherwise never know or care about. My fear is that the world is becoming desensitized to good, deep storytelling by all the quick and slick video choices around them. This is a challenge before us.
KEMPNER: Easier access to funding and increased funding, so we can spend less energy on raising funds and more time on writing and directing films. I would have made five more films if the fundraising was not so difficult. And I continue to believe in bringing documentaries to movie theater screens.