Jeff L. Lieberman – director, writer and producer of Bella! – with his mother, Carole Lieberman, at the documentary’s July screening in San Francisco. (photo by Pat Mazzera)
“I could feel defeated now / I could be broken-hearted / I could be finished long before I’d even started / But that would be too easy and I never take the easy way.”
In his production notes, Jeff L. Lieberman – director, writer and producer of the award-winning documentary Bella! – rightfully highlights these lyrics from the original song Mark W. Hornburg and Doug Jervey composed specifically for this film about Bella Abzug (1920-1998). Abzug never shied away from a fight and would always come back after a loss.
Lieberman, who has lived in New York City since 2007, returned to his hometown of Vancouver for the Canadian première of Bella! Oct. 15 at the Park Theatre. The film was presented by the Vancouver Jewish Film Centre and sponsored by Dexter Realty. Ahead of the event, Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim issued an official proclamation of the opening night of the film in Canada. The proclamation recognizes that the documentary “explores the remarkable life and accomplishments of the late Bella Abzug, the trailblazing activist, feminist, congress member, and global advocate for equality.” The proclamation acknowledges that Lieberman grew up in Vancouver and that the idea for the film originated here. It was a suggestion from Carole Lieberman, who had gotten the idea from a neighbour, but more on that later.
For those unfamiliar with Abzug, she was one of only 12 women (of 435 members) to enter Congress in 1971. There, she was instrumental in getting women the right to have credit cards in their own name; she introduced curb cuts that allowed people with disabilities or other mobility issues more freedom of movement; and she brought in the Equality Act, the first federal LGBTQ+ rights legislation in the United States. Other issues about which she was vocal included ending the Vietnam War and supporting the impeachment of Richard Nixon.
Abzug was the first woman to run for the Senate from New York and the first woman to run for mayor of New York City. After she lost both races – in heartbreaking fashion – she took on other challenges, including being one of the leaders of the feminist movement and a co-founder of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization.
“Raised in a community filled with strong Jewish women, Bella Abzug was not a totally unfamiliar name,” writes Lieberman in his director’s notes. “Her orbit filled my 1980s home: the books of Letty Cottin Pogrebin (featured in Bella!) and Anita Diamant lined our bookshelves; we sang the songs of Debbie Friedman; and were proud to see Gloria Steinem (also featured in Bella!) appear on the evening news. However, Bella’s name did not quite push through like it had in other homes throughout the 1970s, when she appeared on magazine covers and became one of the most recognizable faces in Congress – due in part to her trademark branding – her iconic hats.”
Lieberman includes many audio clips of Abzug talking about various things, including her first jobs as a lawyer – she enrolled in law school at Columbia University in 1944, where she was one of six women in a class of 120, and graduated in 1947. She said she would go out to clients on behalf of a firm and be told to sit and wait until “the lawyer” arrived.
“So, I had an identity crisis and, in those days, professional women wore hats,” she says. “So, I put on a pair of gloves and a hat and whenever I appeared anywhere, they then knew I was there for business. I’ve since taken off the gloves, but I grew to like wearing hats and that was merely my way of being me.”
Bella! captures Abzug’s big personality and her passion for politics and social change. She made an impact on abortion rights, gay rights, equality for women and minorities, climate issues and more. Not understanding how a person who accomplished so much had basically disappeared from public knowledge was one of the reasons Lieberman made the film.
“In 2016, after completing my previous film, The Amazing Nina Simone, I began brainstorming ideas for my next project,” he writes. “My mom came up with a list of documentary ideas that like any well-meaning parent included suggestions that ignored many boundaries of reality. After politely rejecting most of the ideas, I paused when she mentioned Bella Abzug. I liked the idea but was pretty confident that her story had been told many times before. My mom said the idea had come from a neighbour who had met Bella when she visited Vancouver for a climate conference. I didn’t know George Febiger, but spoke to him on the phone and he told me about his very memorable day spent touring the city with Bella, and the many stories and insights that she had shared. He thought Bella’s story was long overdue. After doing some research, I quickly realized a comprehensive documentary film about Bella Abzug had never been done before, and George was not alone in his belief – it was Bella’s time.”
And Lieberman gives Abzug her due. He had access to never-before-shared audio and video footage, of which he and the production team of Re-emerging Films – Jamila C. Fairley, Tamar Kaissar and Amy Wilensky – made brilliant use. The film includes interviews with Abzug’s children and we meet her supportive husband, Martin, who died in 1986, through archival recordings, as well as other Abzug supporters and rivals. The film features interviews with a host of political activist celebrities who worked with and were inspired by Abzug, including Hillary Clinton, David Dinkins, Phil Donahue, Marlo Thomas, Barbra Streisand, Maxine Waters and many others.
Returning to the original song that ends the film, Lieberman writes, “It is easy for any one of us to retreat and be discouraged by the onslaught of overwhelming, bad news. It takes more work to stand up and fight – but less work if we all do it collectively. With the perils of climate change, dismantling of civil rights, and our democracy being challenged by both inside and outside threats, we hope that Bella! inspires a future generation of leaders who will pick up the bullhorn and lead us toward sustainable solutions. And we hope this film inspires everyone to find those small things they can do improve the world and never take the easy way.”
Bella! had its world première this summer in the United States. While there currently are no other screenings planned for Vancouver, the film will be aired on PBS, and will also stream more widely in the coming months. It can be rented to stream at vimeo.com/ondemand/445444. For more information, visit bella1970.com.