Roberta Grossman (director), left, and Nancy Spielberg (producer) on the Duxford set of Above and Beyond. (photo from playmountproductions.com)
On Nov. 6, the 26th annual Vancouver Jewish Film Festival begins with the Canadian première of Above and Beyond, about a mainly American group of pilots, veterans of the Second World War, who fought for Israel in 1948. As part of Machal (foreign volunteers), “this ragtag band of brothers not only turned the tide of the war, preventing the possible annihilation of Israel at the very moment of its birth, they also laid the groundwork for the Israeli Air Force.”
Directed by Roberta Grossman, the 96-minute documentary was produced by Nancy Spielberg, who will be in Vancouver for the screening. Spielberg took the time to speak with the Independent via email in anticipation of her visit.
JI: What was it about the Machalniks’ experiences, in particular those of the air force pilots, that you found so compelling that you not only wanted to make a documentary but are following up Above and Beyond with a feature film version?
NS: First of all, we focused on pilots because, frankly, pilots are a lot sexier than infantry! There’s a romantic, tough, swagger, daring, live-on-the-edge, sweep-you-off-your-feet personality that felt bigger than life. I was so curious why these WWII pilots survived their tour of duty for the good ol’ US of A and then turned around and risked their lives for another country, and I was surprised that most of them were not at all Zionistic.
What drives a person to risk everything to save another person in need? Would I do that? Would you? Do we still do that as Americans? Is it part of that generation? Is it part of the American psyche? I was intrigued by their motivation and then I was swept off my feet by their charm and their chutzpah! The “adventures” that took place along the way and during their time in Israel make for great storytelling.
JI: What will a feature film be able to communicate that the documentary could not, or did not?
NS: I do hope that a feature film (dramatization) will communicate the same messages that we hope the doc does – how far does one go to help a brother in need? With a dramatization, we have more freedom to embellish the pilots’ stories and capers that we may have had to reduce in the doc or discard altogether. There are so many details and wild antics that could not be included in the doc but we’d love to explore in the dramatization.
JI: Near the end of Above and Beyond, you ask Coleman Goldstein whether he thought Israel would survive in tough times. What prompted the question and what was your reaction to his response, that, yes, it would survive, as “Israel’s an article of faith”? What is your answer to the question, and is it different now than it would have been when you asked it, given the most recent Israel-Hamas conflict (and the antisemitism it exposed) and as the U.S.-led fight against IS continues?
NS: We asked every pilot we interviewed whether he thought Israel had a fighting chance, or whether he thought he might not make it out alive. George Lichter said, “I thought we would lose….” We were surprised at Coleman’s answer because he was a very pragmatic, matter-of-fact gentleman, and he responded from his heart, as many of the pilots we interviewed did. Maybe they’ve become “softies” in their golden years, but there was a lot of emotion in our interviews.
My personal answer is that I am a spiritual person, and I agree with Coleman and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion who, in 1956, said, “In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.” I need to hold on to that thought and belief in spite of the latest Israel-Hamas war and the antisemitism that has, once again, reared its ugly head.
JI: How does Israel and Judaism or Jewish culture fit into your life, and what would you tell North American Jewish youth today who, if polling is any indication, aren’t as connected to the Jewish state or Jewish practice as previous generations?
NS: I grew up in Phoenix, Ariz., where our family was the only Jewish family in the neighborhood (who didn’t always take too kindly to us). We were three-times-a-year Jews – Pesach, Yom Kippur and Chanukah. Outside of that, we were gastronomical Jews with a love for Yiddish and Russian melodies.
When I was in fifth grade, I started to go to a Jewish day school, which prompted me to come home and tell my mom that we needed to start keeping kosher so that I could have school friends over for play dates. Slowly, we evolved into kosher and Sabbath observance. When I was 19, I decided to leave UCLA and spend time on a kibbutz in Israel with my sister. That was it! I fell head over heels. I found a home that I didn’t know I was even missing. From that time on, I’ve been involved in Israel, Judaism and Jewish culture. My children went to Jewish schools and Jewish camps. In fact, my 26-year-old, Jessy Katz, has been living in Israel for two years. When I say to her, “I miss you, come home!” She says, “I am home.”
One of my main motivations in making this film is to reach out to the North American Jewish youth who feel very disconnected in the hopes that this film will be a much-needed shot in the arm of Jewish pride. I’m hoping that they will find a connection and take a fresh look at Israel and how it plays an integral part in being a Jew.
Above and Beyond screens at Fifth Avenue Cinemas on Nov. 6, 7 p.m. For more information about the film, visit playmountproductions.com. For the full schedule and tickets for this year’s Vancouver Jewish Film Festival, which runs Nov. 6-13, visit vjff.org.